Fear, Faith, and Charleston

This is a sermon I preached on June 21st, 2015 on Mark 4:35-41.


Imagine for a moment that you are one of Jesus’ disciples. You’ve followed him for a while now, and you know that he’s capable of some pretty unbelievable things. You aren’t exactly sure how he does what he does, but you totally trust him. Crowds constantly surround him, so he decides to hop in a boat and you all sail away. While you’re in the middle of the lake, a storm hits. You used to be a fisherman, so you’ve seen your fair share of storms. You know how to handle bad weather. But this time, you’ve exhausted all your usual options for staying afloat. Nothing is working. The waves are crashing into the boat and sinking looks inevitable. While you are busting your tail to keep the boat from sinking, Jesus, the guy you’ve been following around for months, the guy you’ve seen casting out demons, healing the paralyzed, and preaching about the kingdom of God… he’s sleeping on a pillow in the back of the boat.

Imagine your response. What do you do? What possible reactions can you imagine? How would you feel? Would you let him continue sleeping or would you wake him up? If you do wake him up, how would you do it? Would you ask him for help? Maybe you’d say something like, “uh, do you mind pulling your weight?” or since he’s in the back of the boat, you could ask if he wouldn’t mind steering instead of sleeping. But the disciples don’t ask for his help. They don’t ask for wisdom or guidance. Instead, they say, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying?” Their cry is one of doubt and abandonment, fearful that God no longer loves, protects, or cares about them.

    The disciples are filled with fear, which is absolutely natural considering their boat is about to sink. Fear is one of our most basic, primal emotions and is meant to protect us. Because the disciples’ lives are physically threatened, it makes sense that they’re afraid in the storm. We’re biologically wired for this kind of fear. However, when the disciples accuse Jesus of not caring whether they die, their cry reveals an experience of a different kind of fear: a fear that God abandoned them, a fear of isolation and rejection, and a fear of being unloved. These are chronic, life-consuming fears, unlike the acute fear of a sinking boat. It’s the difference between feeling fear and living in fear. In my own experience, I’ve found that if I ever feel unloved, unworthy, rejected, or abandoned, it’s because of a perceived separation from God. The source of my chronic fear is my forgetfulness that Jesus is with me in the boat.

In the Gospels, Jesus usually has something sassy to say to the disciples for their incompetence before he proves them wrong. Jesus breaks that pattern here; as soon as he wakes up, he saves them. He doesn’t berate them for having poor theology or for their frankly insulting fear-induced accusation. Whatever the quality of the disciples’ interaction with Jesus, he still calms the sea. Though they’re paralyzed by fear and assume the worst about God, they still receive God’s grace. Jesus makes their accusation seem all the more ridiculous and his love for them all the more obvious.

After Jesus makes it clear that he cares about and loves disciples, he asks them two questions: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” I’ve often heard it said that faith and fear cannot coexist, and Jesus’ questions seem to support that claim. But I just don’t buy that faith and fear are mutually exclusive. I think their relationship is more complex than that. Faith is not the absence of fear, because fear is part of what makes us human. Neuroscience and the new Pixar movie tell us that fear is one of our primary emotions. It’s a basic component of the human experience. So if I’m a human and I have faith, then they can’t be mutually exclusive. Perhaps Jesus is specifically referring to the disciples’ fear that God doesn’t care about them, which he finds ridiculous. Maybe the question Jesus is actually asking the disciples is: “how have you still not figured out how much I love you?”

As difficult as it might be for some of us to wrap our heads around, it’s really not even a question that God loves us, hasn’t abandoned us, and is present with us in the storm. Jesus does all he can to make us deeply know this love, yet fear of isolation and separation from God still paralyzes us. This is especially dangerous when disconnection from God disconnects us from our neighbors. We become so wrapped up in our own fear that we’re prevented from asking the right questions. Maybe we need to stop accusing God of not caring about  us, and focus our attention on another question. Do we care? Jesus could flip the disciples’ question right back on us.  Do we care that our brothers and sisters are dying? Do we care that pregnant women are abused at the hands of police? Do we care that black men and women are imprisoned at disproportionately high rates? Do we care that in Charleston, South Carolina, nine people were murdered this week in a church? Do we care?

Maybe our instinct is to deflect, and say, “well, doesn’t God care? Why would God allow this to happen?  Where is God in the midst of suffering and injustice?” In the film Selma, Dr. King says to a man whose son was shot and killed by a state trooper, “God was the first to cry for your son.” God was the first to cry. God is in the boat, in the epicenter of suffering and oppression. God was the first to cry for Mother Emanuel AME. If we’re to be in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, we must cry too. We must see that a disproportionate number of these lives stolen and lost are black lives. We must care. We must see that God weeps when our brothers and sisters are oppressed by systems of our creation. We must not be afraid to identify the ways that our silence and inaction make us complicit in perpetuating these systems.

I fear this world we live in. I fear a world where a five-year-old survives a massacre by playing dead while everyone around her is killed. I fear a world where a white man can be in relationship with people at a Bible study where he’d been welcomed in as the stranger and then still not see his neighbors’ dignity. I fear a world where such an atrocious, senseless act of violence can occur in a community so near where I grew up. I fear the ways I’m unconsciously complicit in racist social structures. But there is also fear that as a white woman, I’ll never know. I’ll never know what it’s like to sit in a church and not believe I’m safe. I’ll never fear that I’ll be a victim of police brutality. These fears are real. This is why I need to believe that fear and faith can coexist. I can’t handle this fear without faith. When I fear that God doesn’t hear the cry of the suffering, I need faith. When I fear God’s absence in the middle of the storm, I need faith. One commentator says, “faith is a way of walking through fear without succumbing to its grip. Fear draws us into rage, helplessness, desperation, or despair. Faith draws us to rise to the occasion in which we find ourselves as steadfast voices for Peace, as creators of calm.”

When so much feels out of our control, when we’re trapped in a raging storm, this is when we awaken to our faith and trust in Jesus to calm those storms. But we don’t wait for Jesus to raise his hand and bring peace. We’re co-creators of justice. We each have a role to play in dismantling racist social structures, and each of us is called to discern what that role looks like in our particular contexts. Some might be organizers, educators, or policy-makers. Wherever it is we’re called, Jesus speaks peace into the epicenter of the storm, into our old habits, our old hatreds, and our old fears. Our faith that Jesus is speaking this peace is what allows us to enter into the chaotic space of the storm. We have faith, trusting the steadfast presence of the Christ to meet us there. It’s this faith that disrupts our fear and carries us forward. Faith leads us into unchartered territory, into windstorms, knowing that we’ll be sustained throughout the journey in spite of our fear.


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