Small Boat, Big Sea
Mark 4:35-41 (NIV)
“That day when evening came, he said to his disciples,
"Let us go over to the other side."
Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat.
There were also other boats with him.
A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.
The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves,
"Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"
They were terrified and asked each other,
"Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"
Prayer of the Breton fishermen: “Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.”
When someone is not doing what we think they ought to be doing, there are some times when we collect ourselves and say very nicely, “Excuse me, but would you please start doing this for me? Thank you.” And there are other times when someone is not doing what we think they ought to be doing, and we say, “What’s wrong with you!? Why aren’t you doing this!? Don’t you care about me at all!?” Anyone who has felt that way can relate to the disciples in today’s gospel lesson. They are in the middle of a storm at sea, the waves are beating into their boat, and Jesus is sleeping peacefully, his head on a cushion. The disciples jerk him awake and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
I mentioned in a previous sermon a quote saying the two things human beings fight about are “How much do you love me?” and “Who’s in charge?” As the disciples begin to fight with Jesus, their brief question, in eight words, contains both: “Do you not care” asks “How much do you love me?” and “that we are perishing” expresses, “Aren’t you supposed to be in charge here?”
Why would the disciples begin to fight with Jesus rather than simply asking him for help? The answer appears in the two brief questions Jesus asks them after he has calmed the winds and stilled the waves: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” There are some people who say that the opposite of faith is doubt, and others who say that the opposite of faith is unbelief. When we look at the words of Jesus, we may find that the real opposite of faith is fear.
It is fear that triggers in us the “fight-or-flight” impulse. It is a perception of danger that makes us want to either fight to defend ourselves or to run away. This fight-or-flight impulse served our prehistoric ancestors well, saving them from saber-toothed tigers and other predators. There are still some situations in our lives today in which aggression or escape actually are the best solutions. But even for our prehistoric ancestors, fight-or-flight worked for short-term problems. Either you got away from the saber-toothed tiger pretty fast, or you killed it pretty fast, or you were literally dead meat pretty fast. In any case, the stressful situation didn’t last very long. Much of the stress of modern life results from antagonism or avoidance that lingers over the long-term.
Most of the stress in my life does not come from a sudden threat to my survival, and I am thankful for that. Most of the stress in my life comes from things that feel like a threat to something that is precious to me: the comment my friend made at lunch about the way I’m raising my kids may feel like a threat to my identity as a mother; inattention from my husband may feel like a threat to the relationship; a decision made by a politician may feel like a threat to my sense of security in society. The list goes on: things that feel like a threat to my competence, to my religious beliefs, to my authority, to the comforts of my familiar routine, to my cherished self-image. In all those cases, my impulse is to react in anger or to escape, to fight or to flee. And when I look back over my life, I see that the times when I was most mean to people, the times when I did the most damage to relationships I care about, the times when my actions were most counterproductive to the goals I wanted to achieve, are, about 100% of the time, when I was acting from my fight-or-flight impulse. And my fight-or-flight impulse, about 100% of the time, comes from fear of a perceived threat.
The disciples’ question, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” reveals that they are starting to fight with Jesus (by accusing him of not caring about them) because of their fear of perishing. And in their accusation we can hear their other fear: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” reveals their fear that Jesus does not care about them. And so they go into accusation mode, adding hostility to the very relationship from which they want an assurance they are cared for.
Jesus calms the storm and stills the waves. It is an action that tells the disciples: You are safe. It’s okay. You do not need to be afraid. You are cared for.
And then Jesus asks them simply, “Why are you afraid?” It is an excellent question for each of us to ask when we feel the fight-or-flight impulse well up in us, “Why am I afraid?” If we can answer Jesus’ question and identify what the fear is that has triggered our fight-or-flight response, we can determine whether, in reality, we are safe; we are okay; we do not need to be afraid; we are cared for. Many times we realize that we are much safer and more cared for than we thought at first. And once we identify what our fear is, we are no longer at the mercy of our fight-or-flight impulse; we have the capacity to choose what response is best. When we answer Jesus’ first question “Why are you afraid?” we begin to discover the two elements of faith: trust and courage.
Instead of being subject to fear, we discover a sense of trust that we are safe, we are okay, we do not need to be afraid, we are cared for. Instead of being subject to fear, we discover a sense of courage, that while there are things in life that are dangerous or painful, we can choose to deal with those things bravely and wisely, setting aside our fear and doing what is good and right and even noble. We might even deal with difficulty in ways that are creative. When we act from faith rather than fear, we no longer need to react with “fight-or-flight,” we may even discover the capacity to respond instead with “tend-and-befriend.”
Mark tells us that when Jesus calmed the storm the disciples “were filled with great awe.” I expect when Jesus asked them why they were afraid, it sounded like a completely ridiculous question. They were afraid because they were about to die! They were in a small boat in the middle of a storm, with waves crashing in! Of course they were afraid! It is the same with the storms in our lives. It all seems at the time so overwhelming, so threatening. The question we ask ourselves is “Will we survive?”
Fishermen are not naďve. They know very well how dangerous the sea can be. I expect everyone in these fishing villages and port cities knew people who had drowned at sea, had heard descriptions of men thrashing and flailing and gasping for breath in the merciless waters before they finally disappeared into the deep. No wonder they associated the waters with the forces of chaos and danger.
We can well imagine them saying to each other, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
This is the place in the sermon where it would make sense for me to talk about how Jesus can calm the storms in our lives today. I do believe that. I have had experiences in which I prayed about a storm in my own life and soon afterward found the storm had been calmed, and I thank God for those times.
But what about the other times, the times when the storm keeps raging, and the waves keep pouring into the boat? At those times we may ask, “Okay, that’s all very nice that Jesus calmed the storm for those disciples 2,000 years ago. But how does that help me? Jesus isn’t here with me now the way he was with the disciples in the boat.” There are times when our worst fears come true and our boat sinks.
People who are drowning feel an overwhelming sense of panic. I remember very clearly the lifeguard training I had in college which emphasized very strongly that when a person is drowning, even a person who is normally highly intelligent and deeply compassionate, the fear of drowning is so strong, that in that panic, the person will fight against his own rescuer, and will often drown the person who is trying to save him. When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, fear can kill.
But there are some people who survive storms at sea in which their boat capsizes. The ones who panic and flail and thrash are the ones who often drown. But there are others who are able to face their fear of drowning by doing the most simple thing in the world: they take a deep breath, and relax. And when they face their fears with trust and courage, they find that the water they were so terrified of is actually holding them up. They are floating. In the middle of the things that used to seem so dangerous, they are peaceful, they are still.
We read this gospel passage during the season after Pentecost, the season after the Holy Spirit begins to work in the disciples’ lives and makes them able to do unprecedented things that have changed the world ever since. Like the disciples after the first Pentecost, we do not have the bodily Jesus with us anymore. But like the disciples after the first Pentecost, we do have the words of Jesus which teach us to choose faith over fear, and we have the Holy Spirit which enables us to live with trust and courage. And with faith, even when we are immersed in difficult or scary situations, we do not drown. We float. The things that threatened to sink us are actually holding us up. We no longer have to fight to survive once we remember that we have been taught to swim, and we have been given the strength to swim. The things that we thought would sink us, enable us to glide.
2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV)
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"