Friday, June 19, 2015
June 21, Proper 7, This is the Life #7: Fearing For Your Life
1 Sam 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Cor 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41
I can vouch for Jesus sleeping in the boat. I worked on a boat for four summers on the Great South Bay of Long Island. It was an old fishing boat (a "pound boat"), with low decks and the cabin in the back and a big hold in the front. It took us an hour every morning to Fire Island and an hour back at night.
One morning we had a bad storm and it was so wet on deck that I climbed down into the hold and lay on the ropes and canvasses. The boat was rolling and pitching and the hull was getting pounded. Then all of a sudden I woke up. I had fallen asleep. In that storm. I guess that’s how much I trusted the skill of my boss, Joe MacMillan, and also how much I loved being out in the wind and the waves.
Don’t get the gospel story wrong. The disciples woke up Jesus not with a request but with a reprimand. What they expected was not a miracle but that he show some interest. And after the miracle they were even more afraid! They went from the ordinary fear of the dangerous chaos of nature to their terror at the power of Jesus’ word. In contrast is the calm—the sudden calming of the sea, and the calm of Jesus all throughout.
Jesus has done what only a god can do. Psalm 148: “Sea monsters and all deeps, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command.” The pagan gods and goddesses did such things, and also routinely took on human form, and if they were pagans the disciples would have been glad and grateful and offered up sacrifices. But they were Jews.
For them there was one God, and this One God never, ever took on human form, and so nothing here computes. They can’t make sense of it. That’s the great root of their fear, the vast disparity between what they’ve just witnessed and what they’d always believed. Jesus be calm, but he stands in their boat like a hole in their universe.
And yet he remains a human being. For all his impossible extra identity, he’s still a man who is living by his faith. So if God got Noah through the flood, Moses through the Red Sea, Jesus then could trust that the God who had given him a mission would protect him enough to see it through.
So does that mean that we are supposed to be fearless if we follow Jesus? Fearless like David against Goliath? Was St. Paul fearless in his endurance of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger? Are we supposed to be like that? If you get afraid, does that mean your faith is weak?
You might think that from what Jesus says to them, at least according to our translation: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” We hear that as a reprimand. But maybe Jesus is asking an honest question—he’s honestly curious why they’re afraid. No, I think that’s pushing it. And yet this is not a good translation. He doesn’t actually ask them why they’re afraid. He actually says this: “Why are you timid, do you not yet have faith?” You can make the Greek word even stronger: “Why are you cowardly, why are you craven, do you not yet have faith?” It’s not about fear but the effect of fear.
And it’s more a challenge than a reprimand, because the force of the Greek is “not yet have you faith?” This “not yet” carries through the Gospel of Mark: when the disciples see him walk on water they are terrified, when all three times that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection they are afraid of it, when he gets transfigured on the mountain they are terrified, and finally on Easter morning the women see the empty tomb and get the message from the angel and they depart in fear. Still not yet?
Well, right, isn’t that the journey of your life? Learning to manage your fear, so that your fear informs you but does not control you? That you not fear your fear, that you not cower?
How do you accomplish this? Well, as you grow up you develop those inner resources that help you control your fear, and you also control it by your loyalty to a greater cause. That’s where faith starts. If you’re a Christian, you factor in your faith in the promises of God, because of your faith in the character of God. You trust God because you believe that God is trustworthy. And so what God is like and what God promises has to affect the schedule and the ranking of your fears.
Fear is natural even though it does not exist in most of the universe. Stars feel no fear, rocks feel no fear, they have no need of it, because inorganic things exist always and exactly in unity with their conditions. But once a thing is alive, that thing maintains itself in creative tension with its conditions. The essence of life is the drive to survive, so that which resists its survival must be overcome, and that which opposes its survival is a threat. When creatures evolve enough complexity to have emotions, they develop fear against what might injure them or kill them. Our particular species fears more: we also fear what might constrain us or restrict us or ruin our purpose and meaning.
This Sunday again, in the Eucharistic Prayer, I will pray this: “You have given us life, and being, and you preserve us by your providence.” So we are grateful to God that we even exist, and that we have biological lives, and that God providentially preserves our lives to us, even if we know enough not to bind God to our life-plans as we see them.
But we mean more than our sheer biological lives, we also mean living, daily life, and all the activities of life. How do faith and fear relate to this? Because your ordinary life is most of your mission. To do your job and to raise your kids and love your people is most of your mission. We’re not in the boat now, we’re back on land. We’re out of the drama and into the daily round. It’s not Goliath we’re facing, it’s mortgages and traffic and unemployment and infections, where your fears are not so frantic but they fester.
Last Sunday morning I heard Krista Tippett interview Sister Simone Campbell, one of the “nuns on the bus.” She said that she finds it remarkable how Americans are fixated on security—in our national policies, in how we eat and travel, in how we raise our children. We build so many barriers against the world’s uncertainties. We keep telling ourselves we’re the free-est people who ever lived. But people from prior centuries would pity how confined and constrained we are. There is so much beyond our power to control that we keep tight control on what little we can.
It is a problem when your felt need for safety keeps you from following Jesus in obedience. It is a problem when your fear keeps you from the freedom to love. And then we are shocked when a child dies or a good work fails or a saint dies young whom we thought was indispensable. But God does not reveal to you the ends of your lives nor the outcomes of your missions, and it is not to certainty that God calls you to but to faith and trust and to let God be God and you be in a creature in God’s care.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is a teacher. And this teacher of his disciples is also the commander of the sea of Galilee. Who is also the commander of the deep, dark waters of creation in Genesis. Who is speaking to us now. I invite you to believe that whatever Jesus tells his disciples is in harmony with the deepest structures of the universe. Whatever Jesus calls you to today makes sense of the world the way it really is, despite the current public certainties.
I invite you to believe that this voice of this teacher is the voice of the creator, and therefore I invite you to cultivate calmness. Calmness as a spiritual discipline. Calmness as an exercise, calmness as an attitude. Calmness within, not from what you attain but from what you receive. The calmness you can have when you feel at home in the world, in even the wind and waves. The calmness you can have when someone else is in charge. The calmness when it does not depend on you. The calmness of a child being loved.
The most important obedience for Christians is not in what you do but what you trust God for. What drove St. Paul to go through hell and high water was his passion to share this truth of such a loving and gracious God. And this same truth is what allowed the Lord Jesus to sleep in the boat. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s love. So you know that deep fear in your life? You know what it’s for? It is to keep you climbing ever inward and down into God’s great love for you.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.