Sunday, June 23, 2024

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“Why Are You Afraid?”
Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Job 38:1-11, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 4:35-41, NRSVUE)

“Why were you afraid?” Jesus asks his disciples near the end of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. And, at least at some level, the answer might seem obvious. They were out there sailing on the Sea of Galilee in a tiny boat when a big storm suddenly kicked up. The wind was howling, the waves were crashing, and their boat was being swamped; it must have been a terrifying experience for them. Why wouldn’t they be afraid? I’d be afraid.

Honestly, they would have a hard time getting me in the boat in the first place. Before I moved here to Utah I’d never lived more than an hour’s drive from either the Atlantic Ocean or one of the Great Lakes, and I spent a lot of time around them — mostly onshore, which was just fine with me. You see, while I appreciate their beauty and power and majesty, I’m content to do so from a distance.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve got a little bit of thalassophobia, a fear of large or deep water. And, apparently, I’m not alone — some estimates say that up to nine percent of us have this fear, to some degree. Researchers posit several reasons for this: one is evolution (the idea being that humans are land-based creatures who are conditioned to avoid deep water because it’s inherently risky); another being that belief systems and popular culture often depict it as dangerous (consider the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible or the movie Jaws); and yet another is experiential (if one happens to have a personal connection to a traumatic event involving deep water). Thankfully, my own thalassophobia isn’t too bad: I mean, I’m totally fine being near the ocean and even swimming in it, but let’s just say I never seriously considered joining the Navy. 

The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a freshwater lake, isn’t terribly large in the grand scheme of things; it’s only about 64 square miles in area and 141 feet deep (to put it in perspective, the Great Salt Lake covers just under a thousand square miles and is 33 feet deep). But Sea of Galilee can be a scary place to set sail nonetheless. You see, it’s located in a microclimate where the weather can turn on a dime, making it’s otherwise placid conditions quite violent.

Jesus’s companions, some of whom worked the Sea of Galilee as fishermen would have known this, So while the storm in which they found themselves was pretty scary, it wasn’t either unexpected or unfamiliar. And I seriously doubt that any of them had a bad case of thalassophobia because, if they did, they probably would have chosen a different line of work.

But, in this dicey situation, Jesus’ reaction must have seemed pretty weird to his disciples. Look, I get it — he’s been working pretty hard as of late preaching and teaching and healing — but there they are, in the midst of this waterborne chaos, and while the disciples are panicking about what’s going to happen to them, Jesus is at the back of the boat sleeping. Given the circumstances, you can’t really blame them for waking Jesus and saying to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It’s easy for us to read this story today, knowing what we know about Jesus, and assume that the disciples actually expect him to get them out of this mess — but I’m not so sure that’s what’s going on here. Remember, we’re only four chapters into Mark’s Gospel and while Jesus has shared some parables and cured a few people at this point, he hasn’t done anything on the order of exercising dominion over sea and sky. Well, until now that is.

As Mark tells it, “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.” Now that had to be something to see.

“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks them next. And there’s way more to this question than we might think at first glance. We might read Jesus’s words and assume that he’s talking about the storm but, when you stop and think about it, this wouldn’t make much sense because the storm is over and done at this point.

If Jesus were, in fact, asking about the danger that’s now passed, he would have said, “Why were you afraid?” not “Why are you afraid?” The implication being that the disciples continue to be afraid of something — and, indeed, they are are afraid of something. Because while these disciples might not have thalassophobia, they definitely have a case of xenophobia — a fear of the foreign or unknown.

When Jesus invites them into the boat to head across the Sea of Galilee, they’re going to the city of Gerasa (which is in modern day Jordan). This was the land of the Gerasenes, who were, unlike Jesus’s disciples, mostly Gentiles. So when night fell and Jesus said to them, “Let’s go to the other side,” they were likely a little concerned. Just picture what they might have been saying to and among themselves:

“Wait, Gerasa? That’s where those people live.”

“The Gerasenes? They don’t even worship our God.”

“Look, I know that Jesus said, ‘whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,’ but he couldn’t possibly have meant them too.

Yeah, he meant them too.

And so when the storm had passed, this fear — one that had existed well before they’d even set sail — persisted.

“Why are you afraid?”

Jesus, of course, knows the answer; they’re afraid because they’re going to have to leave their comfort zone; they’re afraid because they’re going to have to cross well-established boundaries, they’re afraid because they’re going to have to engage with the other.

The Sea of Galilee was full of perils, but at least they understood them; they knew the risks they would be taking and they decided to take them anyway. The journey could be scary, but, in some ways, the destination was even scarier because they had no idea what awaited them on the other side — well, aside from what their own prejudices told them anyway. And little did they know that this was just the beginning.

Then again, maybe they did know — or at least sense — that there was going to be way more to this whole following Jesus thing than they previously thought; and that must have heightened their fear a little. As I said earlier, while Jesus had said some profound stuff and cured a bunch of people and cast out a few demons, teachers and faith healers weren’t super-rare in those days; and while many of them were charlatans, Jesus had already proven himself to be particularly good at doing these things for real.

But then they get into this boat and a storm arises and Jesus is sleeping there on a cushion in the stern, seemingly without a care in the world. And when they take him to task for this, he gets up and rebukes the wind and says to the sea “Peace! Be still!,” and suddenly everything is peaceful and still.

“Why are you afraid?” Yeah, I can’t imagine why they’d be afraid. Sure, the disciples have witnessed Jesus doing some interesting deeds, but this whole controlling the natural world thing was on a different level altogether. Just picture them there in that boat with their eyes wide open and their mouths agape, knowing that they’d seen what they’d just seen, even though they also knew that what they’d just seen defied all reason. “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’” 

In the absence of a clear answer to this question they’re left with their awe, and awe is the strangest of feelings — part fear and part wonder, part worried concern about what will happen next, and part hopeful expectation about what might happen next. And that awe — that fear mixed with wonder — proves to be stronger than fear on its own.

After the disciples’ experience out there on the Sea of Galilee, it would be perfectly understandable if they’d turned to Jesus and said, “We want to go home;” if they’d chosen to wallow in the awfulness of what’s just happened to them instead of pressing on; if they’d let their fear of the unknown get the best of them. But they don’t. That’s what happens when the wonder and the hope insinuate their way in alongside the fear and become something else, something greater, something bigger than the fear. 

To be clear: this not a promise of ease or comfort or, frankly, even success (well, on our terms, anyway). The journey for these disciples (and, of course, for Jesus) will be a tough one indeed, but they they choose take it anyway — despite the uncertainty about exactly what lies ahead — and they do so because they sense that they’re moving towards something else, something greater, something bigger than them even though they really don’t know what that is. Dr. King once likened it to taking the first step without seeing the whole staircase — this was his definition of faith.

This all makes me think about the plight of the post-pandemic church. We’ve all just gone through something horrible, something about which we were rightfully afraid (for a whole bunch of reasons). And now that things have calmed down a bit (well, at least with respect to the pandemic, anyway), it’s pretty clear that we’re left with a decision to make: turn around and head back to the safety and familiarity of whence we came, or press forward not knowing for sure where that path will lead us. But before we decide, we should probably consider how things might have turned out for the world if those disciples had just decided to head back to Galilee instead of going on to Gerasa?

Of course, there is much to be afraid of and much to lament; but are we open to the idea of balancing those things with wonder and hope as we work, with God’s help, towards something else, something greater, something bigger than us?

And how just how far might we go in order to do that? What are we willing to give up? What are we willing to take on? Who are we willing to reach out to? Who are we willing to be in relationship with? What kinds of risks are we willing to assume?

I guess the question I’m ultimately asking is this: What will prove to be stronger: our faith or our fear?