On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
Bring your Word near to us, O God. May it rest not only on our lips, but also in our hearts. By the power of your Spirit, help us to respond to your Word with our whole lives and our whole hearts. Amen.
What are you afraid of? Heights? Snakes? Airplanes? Spiders? What are you afraid of? Losing your job? Losing your home? A financial crisis? Identity theft?
Maybe your fear is that you will never be able to find that dream job, or that you are always going to be struggling paycheck to paycheck— one emergency away from eviction or going to bed hungry. Perhaps your fear, like so many others, is that you won’t ever find your place in the world, that you don’t know what it is you are meant to do, and you fear you’re missing out on something greater. Maybe you’re afraid of disease or loss. Maybe you’ve seen one too many people that you love struggle with cancer, and you fear the day that you find a lump. Or the day your mother finds it. Or your sister. Or your best friend.
Maybe you have trouble naming what it is you are afraid of. Maybe, like so many others, you are afraid of the unknown— the possibility of chaos entering our lives for any number of unforeseen reasons. As the All-State commercials like to remind us, mayhem could find it’s way into our lives at any moment.
So what is it that you are afraid of?
Well, whatever it is that you are afraid of— big or small, known or unknown— today’s Gospel passage is for you. Today’s passage is all about fear and faith, doubt and trust. It’s a passage meant to offer us fearful, finite humans some degree of comfort and assurance, that despite our tendency to be fearful at times, we are held in the care of an infinite and loving God and that we will never be left on our own.
All of that being said, before I go any further, I have a confession to make regarding this passage. Comforting as it may be for some people, this is one of several passages in the Bible where my first reaction is not to nod in agreement, but to want to argue with Jesus just a little bit. I have to admit that every time I read this passage, I find myself feeling a little defensive on behalf of the disciples. Jesus chastises them for being afraid—“have you no faith?” he asks them, while he was the one who was sound asleep in the midst of a raging storm at sea! Didn’t the disciples have every right to be afraid? This was, after all, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. They didn’t know him that well yet, so how were they to know that he could control even the weather? Is it really so bad that they had the very human reaction of being afraid that they might drown? Was Jesus being just a little too harsh with the disciples here?
Perhaps I get defensive on their behalf, because by extension, I also get a little defensive on our behalf. Do we not have every right to feel afraid when faced with hardship or disease, uncertainty or loss? I’ll go ahead and make another confession to you all this morning and tell you that one of my pet peeves as a minister is when I hear other ministers or religious authorities offer canned answers to people who are going through difficult situations. By far one of my least favorites is the ever popular “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I know this is comforting to a lot of people, and by no means do I want to take that comfort away from anyone. But I dislike this statement because it implies that God is somehow the one who gives us our struggles to begin with. And I don’t believe that God gives us cancer, or financial hardship, or the chaos of natural disasters. I believe these things happen as a part of life in a world where God has given us free will. I don’t see God up in heaven with some kind of master spreadsheet detailing who is going to be given disease, who is going to be given loss, who is going to be given disaster, all based on how much God thinks they can handle. I don’t believe that’s how it works. And so I get a little defensive on behalf of anyone who has ever been told to “just have faith” during a time of stress or uncertainty. To be afraid is to be human, and to tell someone who is struggling to “just have faith,” seems cliche and trite to me. For me, there has got to be a better answer.
The point of confessing all of this to you this morning is to say that I’m not so sure that the point of this passage is that we shouldn’t ever be afraid. It’s okay to be afraid sometimes. God knows, in this world, there is often good reason to be. The point is not that we can’t ever be afraid. The point, I suspect, has more to do with not letting our fear get the best of us. Because that’s the problem with fear— isn’t it? While it is a natural and healthy human emotion, when we allow ourselves to be overcome by it it becomes destructive, and it begins to displace all the good things that God actually has given us to help get us through difficult times. Things like love, or trust, or faith, or hope. Fear- when allowed to take over— paralyzes our ability to make decisions based in love, faith, or trust. The noise it makes in our heads and our hearts— and fear can be awfully noisy— drowns out the still small voice of God. It blinds us to the deeper truths of who we are as children of an eternal and infinite God.
I’ve already told you what I don’t believe about fear and faith. Let me tell you what I do believe. What I do believe is that while God may not be controlling every little thing that happens to us, God is with us throughout all the storms of life. After all, remember that Jesus didn't cause the storm at sea with his disciples, but he was in the boat with them when it happened. And just like the disciples in the boat, whenever we are in the midst of chaos, whenever we fear that all is lost, we can trust that God is still there, in the boat with us, ready to lead us through, or if necessary, to be by our side when we are forced to pick up the pieces after the storm.
I said before that fear, if allowed to take over, blinds us to the deeper truths of who we are as children of an eternal God. And I believe that the deepest truth about who we are as children of an eternal God, is expressed most beautifully and perfectly by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. He writes to the Christians in Rome— who we all know were facing tremendous persecution and had plenty of reasons to be fearful— that no matter what we are afraid of, and no matter what happens to us, even if our worst fears come to pass— that there is nothing that can separate us from God. Not hardship, distress, famine, or persecution, not nakedness, peril, or sword, neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, not height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation that can separate us from the love of God.
So there we are. We are children of an eternal and infinite God. Our fears, real though they may be, are finite, and therefore can never separate us from God’s eternal and infinite love. And so this morning, you are invited to lay down your fears. Maybe not forever, because fear is normal and a part of life. But for this moment. Let whatever fears that happen to be drowning out the still small voice of God in your life right now be dissolved in the waters of God’s eternal Spirit. Let your finite fears dissolve in the face of God’s infinite love. And let the eternal gifts of the Spirit— patience, hope, love, peace, and joy take residence in your heart instead.