As our Gospel reading begins, Jesus has had a long day, teaching a large crowd and then explaining everything all over again to his boneheaded disciples. Jesus is worn out, so he decides to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is really a big lake. My guess is, Jesus was looking for a little downtime.
The disciples’ job seemed simple enough. They were supposed to get Jesus where he wanted to go while Jesus enjoyed a nap.
But the Sea of Galilee is big—seven or eight miles across and thirteen miles long. Storms come up quickly there.
I imagine the reactions of the different disciples as the wind picked up that night. Peter and Andrew and James and John were fishermen with plenty of experience on the lake. This wasn’t their first storm. They knew things would get rough, but they also knew what to do. They may have been scared, but I doubt they panicked.
But not all the disciples were fishermen. Some of the disciples didn’t know their way around a boat. For some, this may well have been their first time in open water in bad weather. My guess is, they were the ones who started yelling at Jesus.
The highlight of the passage is Jesus taking care of the storm. “Peace! Be still!” That’s impressive. The disciples wonder, who can do that? The answer is, God incarnate.
But the story keeps going, and it gets darker. Jesus was not happy. I get that. I am a napper, too, and I don’t like being woken up either. (For the record, and I hope Carrie is listening, I nap to be more like Jesus.)
So unhappy Jesus asks the disciples the most startling question in the passage. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Clearly their response to the situation was wrong. But what was wrong about it?
The danger the disciples faced that night was real. Luke tells us the boat was in the process of swamping. The disciples really could have died. Under those circumstances, fear is a natural response. But something was wrong.
A boat story of my own may help.
Something like twenty years ago, Carrie and I visited friends in California, and we went for a paddle on Mono Lake.
I assume storms happen over Mono Lake, but the day we were there was perfect: sunny and clear, with a light breeze creating pretty little ripples on the lake surface. We paddled out a bit, and all was well. Then we turned so the ripples in the water hit the side of our canoe, gently rocking us.
I had not done much paddling at that point, which I say as explanation for what I am about to confess. I was totally unnerved by those ripples. I was convinced the ripples could flip our canoe. If Carrie had been sleeping in the canoe, I definitely would have woken her up in great alarm.
Carrie was not napping, however, so she was in a good position to point out that the ripples were tiny, the lake was only about two feet deep where we were, the shore was close by, and I knew how to swim. There was ZERO cause for alarm.
I learned two lessons that day. One was that I needed to be less pitiful in a canoe.
The other is more relevant. Sometimes what we perceive as threatening storms are not, in fact, threatening. They are just little ripples.
Sometimes fear is not our response to a situation out there. Sometimes fear comes from inside. It’s like we carry fear around with us and add fear to scary situations. That is when things can get out of control. Fear can take over.
On Mono Lake, all my fear was coming from inside. That’s an extreme case. When we react with fear, there is usually at least some actual reason to be afraid.
But we live in a fearful society. And the odd thing about our fear is that we are among the safest human beings in history. Our life expectancy is literally double the life expectancy of people in Jesus’ day.
I don’t want to minimize the terrible things that happen around us or the genuine threats that we face. They are all too real, and they are scary.
But we also carry a lot of fear inside us, fear that we project out onto the world around us, fear that can start to spiral, fear that can take us over.
I heard this week about a man who was so taken over by anxiety that he was unable to function at all for seven months. Nothing helped, He spent his days lying on the couch in a fetal position. Thankfully his anxiety finally lifted enough that he could begin to function again. His anxiety was coming from inside, not outside.
In our reading, the disciples are not that far gone. They had good reason to be afraid, and even so, they were not entirely immobilized.
And their instincts were good. In their moment of fear, they turned to Jesus for help. That’s the right move.
But we can see that fear was controlling the disciples in how they approach Jesus. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That is the voice of panic. That is the voice of someone taken over by fear.
Jesus sees in that panic a lack of faith.
After my pitiful performance on Mono Lake, I am sympathetic with the disciples. I hate to think what I would have been like on the boat that day.
But we need to pay attention to the contrast Jesus draws here between fear and faith. Jesus is talking about our hearts, about what we bring to the situations we face.
One basic attitude towards the world is fear. We can certainly find plenty of evidence to justify our fears. But the result is that we bring our pre-existing fears to every situation we face, and we run the constant risk of letting our fears take over.
The alternative that Jesus models, the alternative that Jesus encourages in his disciples in our passage, the alternative that Jesus invites us to embrace, is a fundamental attitude of faith, of trust. Trust in God’s goodness and power. Trust that this is God’s creation. Trust that the people around us, difficult and threatening though they may truly be, are God’s beloved children. Trust that God is moving us all, however fitfully, in the direction of God’s kingdom.
Trusting God does NOT mean never being afraid. Jesus himself feared getting crucified. There are all kinds of things that we rightly and naturally fear.
But true faith, deep faith, can stop our fears from taking over. Faith means accepting that God is in control. Faith means turning to God with confidence and hope in difficult times, and relying on God’s strength when our strength fails.
Most of us are a mix of faith and fear, and probably always will be. But I hear this passage as an invitation to let go some of our fear, to turn to God in trust, to work at living as people of faith in a sometimes scary world.
When we succeed, we should pause to give thanks to God. And in those inevitable moments of failure, we should acknowledge our struggles and ask for God’s help.
If we work at it, and with God’s help, the seeds of faith in us will grow, they will push out fear at least a bit, and over time they may even produce great fruit. May God make it so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan