First Congregational Church
March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
“Freedom of Fear: Fear of Circumstances”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Anthony Burgess, English writer and composer, once said, ”Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.” In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey wrote, "Sleep when your baby sleeps. Everyone knows this classic tip, but I say why stop there? Scream when your baby screams. Take Benadryl when your baby takes Benadryl. And walk around pantless when your baby walks around pantless.” One can almost hear her voice, when Phyllis Diller said, ”Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.”
The gospel book of Mark starts out with John the Baptist’s baptisms and prophecy of Jesus’ coming. And quick as a wink, Jesus gathers the first disciples and gets on with his work: teaching, retreating, forgiving and eating with a tax collector of all things. The writer of Mark wastes no time in giving us a picture of a Jesus on the move, “harvesting” grain and healing on the Sabbath and other kinds of behavior that called for his own family and the teachers of the law to question his lucidity. Our passage this morning is preceded by Jesus telling parables about the sower, the growing seed and the mustard seed.
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 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?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Thank you, Luann. “Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was” - so much can be read into that. ‘Well, we might as well bring him along. Where else is he going to go?’ It also made me remember back to my high school days when I would do things like plan a kidnap breakfast for my friends. I always let the parents know I was coming, because I didn’t want to walk in on any a la natural sleepers - ‘just as they were’ - if you catch my drift.
“Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was.” So they didn’t trust him to be with the crowd? Was he too “depleated” to make his own decisions so they dragged him away for some shut-eye? As there were other boats, one might surmise that it was not going to be a quiet little float on the lake. Or was “just as he was” suggestive of a bad hair day or need of some personal care?
Our pew version says it was a “furious squall.” The New Living Translation called it a fierce storm. The New American Standard Bible said, “there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat.” For those who were here this week and went to the turn-around, you get a new appreciation of the wind from our passage - crashing over the break walls. And wouldn’t you just love to see what the Looney Tunes artists would have done with such a descriptions?
Perhaps it is a sign of the aging process, that in all the times I’ve read and heard this passage, the point of Jesus’ sleeping so deeply has never been “a thing.” Ask most anyone over the age of, say, 40, about how they slept last night, and I’d bet you’d get a lot of eye-rolling and groans. Granted, Jesus was not yet 35 when this event took place, but even if there wasn’t lightening and thunder, surely a “furious” squall would at least rouse him a little with a few droplets of water if not the rocking of the boat itself! When we have those hard-to-sleep nights, what wouldn’t we give to sleep like Jesus that day?
None of the fishing disciples would have read Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book or seen the movie “The Perfect Storm.” But experienced sailors of most any era know that on any body of water, there comes a point where physics takes over and sailors are helpless to do anything about it. If a boat heads into a wave that is higher than the boat is long, the boat will almost certainly “pitchpole,” which means go end over end to its doom. Or, if a wave hits a boat from the side and if that wave is higher than the boat is wide, the boat will capsize, flipping upside down. Without being physicists, the disciples had to have understood that there are situations in which one cannot keep a boat afloat in certain conditions, and this sounds like one of those situations.
I wondered if perhaps it was as a warning - as much as for fear - that the disciples roused Jesus. If the boat was going to capsize, at least he could get a good breath of air before it rolled. The disciples’ remark, however, doesn’t leave much room for doubt, tho. In fact, if nothing else, their words indicate that they understood Jesus had a power that was far beyond their expertise. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” implies that they understood that Jesus had the ability to stop the storm if he wanted to.
Even so, having this person in the boat, who could stop the storm if he wanted, still didn’t alleviate the disciples’ fears. I think most all of us, regardless of any training we might have, in a similar situation, might do exactly as the disciples did - because we’re human and life happens. We don’t necessarily become overwhelmed and intimidated looking at a mountain. But if we’re on the mountain, and we lose a foothold or drive too close to the edge or ignore the bear scat signs or any of the mirade of other danger signs, we can easily become overwhelmed, intimidated, and dare I say, scared.
Even if we try to be wise and practical and reasonable and all the other good ways mature adults are supposed to be or do, sometimes things happen, circumstances happen, and we find we’ve gotten ourselves in a fine mess - as Laurel Hardy was apt to say.
Speaking of, Woody Allen once said, "The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won't get much sleep.” And Ray Romano, from ‘Everyone Loves Raymond,” said, "Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You'll realize this as soon as they are born and they start using sleep deprivation to break you.”
Whether it’s a child’s illness or accident, our own or someone we love and care about, when circumstances get ugly, it is a natural reaction for fear to creep in. But is it just a simple case of fear? Is there a deeper fear under whatever circumstance comes on us? Is there more to simple fear?
When the disciples said “don’t you care if we drown,” I wonder if it was ultimately the cry of doubt and abandonment. Such cries are all over the Psalms. “Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” (Ps. 4)
After hundreds and hundreds of years, and despite example after example of “God with us” in the Bible, going back to before the creation of human beings, it is still a cry repeated in so many ways in the midst of the terrors and distresses of our world today. If you distill those fears down a little further, you get at an even bigger question - I think “the BIG question. “If God is so great and powerful a creator, if God really cares about this world, then why do events in the world and in my life go so badly.” The trite and ready response is either God has no power, or God does not care for us or the creation.
We might not label it as such, but “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown” is a form of prayer. Not the kind that starts off as Dear God, and ends with Love, Me, but it’s still prayer. And it was answered.
Like it or not, despite their similarities, there is a difference between fear and faith. In fear, there can be chaos and possibly the feeling of being orphaned; without the power of God. In faith, it may still seem like chaos, sadness or that which is raining down on us and whipping up the waves of distress around us. In faith, regardless of how we might feel or what we might be thinking, we are not alone, so we are not orphans, and the One who created us loves us too much to interfere with our free will.
Whether it’s the weight of the world, or the wart on our big toe, for whatever reason, too often we ride around in the boat of faith with our heads down, oblivious to one degree or another, of God’s presence. And even when we realize the fear and the simultaneous presence of God, do we ask what the disciples ask at the end of today’s passage. After Jesus stopped the storm, “They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” which is I think a different sort of fear than that of abandonment. Even after a miracle has been performed right in front of them, the disciples are still afraid.
David Lose, from davidlose.net, wondered about “how often we tend to domesticate miracles, using the word to describe all manner of things that merit our attention and appreciation but that are not, finally, truly miraculous. Citing Leif Enger’s book, Peace Like a River, Rev. Lose went on to press that distinction: Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave — now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time” because if that happened to Lazarus, what would happen to me and all the extrapolations of one miracle becoming usual?
If you have occasion to realize that you’ve been hanging around with God all along, then what else does that mean? If God’s been in your boat all along, then maybe God has been able to read your mind and know your thoughts, to see those things we’d rather God not see.
I wish we could have some indication of the way Jesus replied to the disciples: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Because it could be taken as Jesus being angry with the disciples. Or it could be taken compassionately or invitingly. And maybe, in the end, the way he said it doesn’t really matter, because what really does matter is how often we tap into the power of God, the Holy Spirit of God, that is not only in our boats, but in our immediate areas, in our storms and in our smooth sailing and in our breath.
When Jesus sent the Holy Spirit that day of Pentecost, it wasn’t just to the disciples, or to the house where they were meeting that day. The Spirit wasn’t just sent to those folks back then, but to all of us, throughout time, for tapping into and embracing. There is no moment in our lives when God’s presence is withheld from us. We may not always remember it so quickly, so completely, but it’s always there/here. Regardless of our human temptations and default settings, God never goes away or puts us off at arms length. God may, like any good parent, shake God’s head and perhaps shrug God’s shoulders, but God never stops loving us, regardless of our humanity, our struggles and our predispositions. For such a presence, let us take a moment to pray.
Loving and Honorable God, we thank you for loving us, regardless of our default settings. Thank you for calming our storms, even when it may not look like it, and for your presence, even when we may forget it is right next to us, in our very breath. Help all of us to walk more attentively this week, recognizing your presence and power that is always at the ready. Help each of us to be able to look at our lives, for what is real and not be afraid of our humanity. And help each of us honor that part of you that is each of those we meet. For all your love and mercy and presence and care, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.