June 20, 2021
At our Midweek Boost on Wednesday we talked a bit about fear and faith and how the two are related. Rev. Rudy Rasmus, who has built some remarkable ministries in Houston, TX around feeding people – and has become something of a celebrity for it -, confessed how scared he is of snakes. He tells people that if he were to see even the smallest snake – say a green one the size of his Starbucks stirrer – by the time he came to talking to you about it it would be 6 feet long with diamonds down its back and probably poisonous. Fear, he says, messes with our perception. And, he’s right. It distorts our view of people. When we fear one another we lose our capacity to see kindly, or charitably. We don’t treat one another gently, and in the extreme we end up dehumanizing one another and doing horrible things.
Today’s gospel passage works along these lines. The disciples are out there in the boat with Jesus sleeping in the stern as a storm engulfs them and waves crash in on them. They are getting tossed and turned, fearing for their lives, while Jesus dreams away. So, they wake him up, and seeing the danger they are in Jesus rebukes the storm. Our passage has him saying, “Peace, be still!” to the sea, but really it’s like “Be gone!,” like he’s casting out a demon. Then he turns to the disciples and he says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
On the surface it seems like Jesus is chastising them for being afraid of the storm. Like, if they believed in him enough they wouldn’t be bothered by the fact that they are about to drown. But, if you think about it, if there were nothing to worry about Jesus likely wouldn’t have calmed the storm at all. The truth is: fear is not necessarily an unhealthy response. Fear, in response to danger, impresses upon us the need to do something about it. Fear, therefore, can be very useful for survival.
There’s been a bit of confusion lately I think about what it means to “live in fear.” [Mostly, when people say we shouldn’t let fear control us it has sounded to me like a kind of burying our heads in the sand: like let’s ignore the risks because we don’t want to be inconvenienced. But, we wouldn’t opt out of a parachute when skydiving because we don’t want to give into the fear of falling. We wouldn’t swim with the Great Whites because we just really want to take a dip. Fear, for sure, has its use.]
The question for our passage though is: what exactly were those disciples afraid of? Notice their response as the waves come crashing in. They don’t say, “Jesus, can’t you help us?” They say, “Jesus, don’t you care?” And, there’s a big difference there. They are afraid that his sleep is a sign of his distance, his apathy, a lack of presence, and a lack of love. They are less afraid of the storm than they are of his absence in the midst of the storm.
This, I believe, is a fear we can all relate to and a fear that causes a whole world of trouble. “Jesus/God, don’t you care?” “Aren’t you with us?” “Don’t you love us?”
My mother shared with our group the thoughts of her seminary professor, which are thoughts I happen to agree with too. She said, we all have as our most basic need the need to be loved, the need to be worthy and of value. Our problem, however, is that we tend to fear that we are not worthy and of value and so we spend great time and energy attempting to prove it, and we often do so by drawing false distinctions, looking down upon others. By subordinating others we lift ourselves up, but we do it at a cost because it’s a lot of work to live in constant competition; it makes true peace an impossibility, and deep down we know it’s a lie anyway.
The good news is that Jesus relieves us of all of this. Jesus shows us that God is with us. Jesus shows us that God’s love for us does not die. Jesus shows us the extent to which God would go to prove that love. And, in so doing, we are liberated from our greatest fear and we are freed to live without the burden of proving ourselves. We’re freed to live a better way.
At my Faith and Reason course last week we spent some time talking about some of the traditional proofs for God. My favorite was a proof best summarized by William Paley, an 18th century clergy person and philosopher. He said, imagine that you are walking in the woods and you trip over a rock. You might look down at that rock and wonder how it got to be there. And then you might conclude that maybe it’s just always been. However, imagine that you kept on walking and you looked down and saw a watch. With all its movement and intricate parts and obvious function it would be hard to draw the same conclusion that the watch had just always been there. Clearly, an intelligent force had taken the time to design and create the watch for a reason. Paley then tells us to think of all the life around us like that watch. Think just on the eyeball for a moment and you’ll discover the miracle of design that it is. Go on from there to consider all the beautiful intricacies of all the living things around us and how could you imagine that they might exist without an intelligent force to call them into being?
Of course, there are objections to Paley’s argument, which I won’t get into. The more relevant point for us is not so much to become the kind of people who can prove God’s existence, but rather to become the kind of people who can perceive God’s existence especially in the midst of the storm. That’s not always such an easy thing to do, which makes the following question important: where do you find evidence for God? What makes God a believable reality to you?
Here’s a thought offered by another Boost attendee. Think of Mary’s Magnificat – her soul magnifying the Lord in praise and hope – despite the impossibility of what is happening within her. Think of David dancing in the streets as God makes God’s home in the holy city despite all that’s unprovable and unknowable about God. It’s the praise and testimonies of others that makes God real for us. And, isn’t that true? Doesn’t God come alive when others whom we know and trust tell us about God in their lives?
Clayton shared the story of a friend of his who walks two miles a day, and on every walk he prays for 25 or so people. Daily prayer, and relationships with those for whom he is praying, and the stories of how those prayers are being answered by God color the very character of this friend’s life. And Clayton said, “How can I deny that God is with me when I have such a witness?”
Clayton saw the bishop the other day and after their chat the bishop hugged him and to his surprise said with ease and truth, “Clayton, I love you.” Clayton was overwhelmed by the grace of that moment and how such a simple gesture could so profoundly sacramentalize his life. I share it, with permission, because it’s a reminder that our own actions and testimonies are very often the answer to the fears of another. And this, my friends, is a really good reason to own our parts in the church – together we make the world a sacred place. Together we make God visible for one another.