Remembering that we are called to follow Jesus who, with his disciples, ventured out at night in a small boat in a great windstorm, we pause for a moment of prayer:
Eternal God, you call us to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with courage
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us,
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
(Voices United # 915)
Today’s reading, from the Gospel according to Mark, is a short but powerful story. Every piece of information in this story is important and there are many facets of the story that can be explored in order to more fully understand what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to share in his ministry.
To do this, it is helpful to know the context of this story: Jesus and his disciples were beside the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a large freshwater lake) where a huge crowd had gathered to listen to Jesus speak. So large was the crowd lining the shores that Jesus and his disciples got into a boat and moored it just offshore so that people could see and hear Jesus more easily. In this setting, Jesus shared with the gathered community many parables that illustrated his understanding of the Kingdom of God. When evening came Jesus suggested that he and the disciples sail to the other side of the lake. The lake is huge, thirteen miles long, seven miles across and 150 feet deep. Mountain ravines funnel cold air from the mountaintops and mix with the humid air at the water’s surface and twenty foot waves could arise unexpectedly on the lake especially at sundown.
We know that at least four of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John were seasoned fishermen. They knew the Sea of Galilee, their lives and their livelihood had depended on it. They knew the risks and they were accustomed to handling small boats in storms. And, as sometimes happens, suddenly a violent windstorm blew up and their boat was floundering and these experienced fishermen were having trouble navigating the boat in the storm and became fearful for their lives.
Fear, I think, is a natural response to the conditions on the water that day. Their experience had taught them many lessons about how to respond in crisis situations but they began to lose faith that they had the resources needed to ride out the storm.
At this point in the story theologians often focus on Jesus’ miraculous calming of the water and the importance of the words, “Peace, be still!” or they focus on Jesus’ question (which is usually interpreted as a rebuke), “Have you still no faith?”. But, what caught my attention this week as I read and thought about this story is Jesus’ other question, “Why are you afraid?”
I can think of many reasons why the disciples would have been afraid. It would have been natural for them to fear the: loss of their health and safety, loss of their control in the situation, loss of order and a clear course of action, to name a few.
We also have similar fears, in our time and place, that we deal with as individuals and as a community of faith. The future is unknown, we don’t know what dangers we may face to the physical or economic health of ourselves or those we love. Like the disciples we have life experiences that prepare us to handle situations we’ve dealt with before but we are not always certain that we will have the strength, the wisdom, and the skills needed to face future challenges and adversity.
It is easy to forget, as the disciples did, that Christ is in the boat with us. His presence does not mean we will never face difficult situations but rather that we have a source of strength to draw on to calm and assure us that we are not alone.
I am currently reading a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner called, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2009) The premise of Kushner’s book is that fear is a reality and that if we recognize our fears and trust in God’s presence we can face life with faith and courage. Kushner does not expect God to prevent the harsh realities of life but rather to be a source of comfort in the midst of the storms of life. Quoting, historical theologian, Margaret Miles, he notes that, “Human beings have always had much to fear…But humans have not always lived in societies in which fear was actively culminated…Anxiety is the number one health problem in the country, leading to epidemic depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and prescription drug addiction…American society is so violent because it is so fearful.” (pgs. 7-8)
Kushner adds that “One of the components of fear that makes it such a destructive emotion is the sense of helplessness it engenders.” (pg. 14)
He believes that, “Prayer is one of the most familiar ways of alleviating the sense of helplessness.” (pg. 16) “When I pray”, he says, “I don’t think of myself as asking God to intervene and change things. I pray because invoking God’s presence helps me to feel less alone. …We invite God into our lives, so that the actions we take will be guided by a sense of God’s presence.” (pg. 17) In the case of medical challenges, Kushner maintains that, “God’s job is not to make sick people healthy. That’s the doctor’s job. God’s job is to make sick people brave.” (pg. 18)
I wonder, in the case of the Christian communities who first read or heard Mark’s Gospel, if the story of the disciples caught in the wind tossed sea had much to say to them about responding to the whirlwind of challenges that faced their generation of followers of Christ. I believe it did. I also believe this story has much to teach us as twenty-first century Christians facing what is commonly known today as a “sea change” – a constantly shifting reality that we need to adapt to in order to survive and flourish.
For me, this story, is not about Jesus intervening and taking away the danger although it could be interpreted that way. For me, it is about being in the same boat, needing to pull together to face current challenges, always with the knowledge that Christ is with us calming our fears and encouraging us to move beyond our fears to faith-filled action.
It is no coincidence that early on in the formation of the Christian Church that the symbol of a small boat with a cross shaped mast was adopted as a symbol for the Church. This symbol, inspired by stories such as the one we heard today from Mark’s Gospel, reminded Christians that in all the storms of life that Christ is with us. Crucial to the church, then and now, is the conviction that Christ guides our way in good times and in challenging times.
The story of Jesus and his disciples on the storm-tossed sea, which reveals his calming and faith-filled presence, reminds me of the ways that God’s love is shown to us in ordinary yet extraordinary ways. We know that Christ is with us when: we feel the warm embrace of a loved one when bad news comes; we hear the uplifting laughter of a small child when the world seems grey and lonely; we sense a presence that comforts us that we cannot adequately explain but we know is real; we experience the strengthening support of our community of faith in all the joys and sorrows of our lives.
Even so, we often need to remind each other of Christ’s presence in difficult times. I experienced this blessing during a difficult time in my life when my father was dying. For six months, after his diagnosis of Stage 4 Cancer, my sisters and I helped care for my father and offered emotional and physical support to my mother. For most of the time, until his death, we were able to care for Dad at home but there were times when he needed to spend time in the hospital for specialized care. Those were the most difficult times because my father was afraid of being in the hospital and desperately wanted to be home. It was hard for me to enter his hospital room never knowing what I would find and how I would be received. A long-time family friend seeing my distress simply told me to remember that every time I enter the hospital room that Christ walks in before me so that I have nothing to fear because I am not alone. That simple reminder made all the difference to me and was a source of strength and comfort that sustained me in those difficult times.
The ability to find courage, in the midst of fear, by trusting the One whose love will always hold us close is illustrated in many ways. I’ll close with a brief story that I’ve turned to many times over the years for encouragement and blessing.
It is said that one night during the blitz in London in World War 2, that a mother, holding her small son by the hand, ran from a building which had been struck by a bomb. In the yard was a shell hole, and seeking shelter, the mother jumped in, then she held her arms up for her son to follow. But the small boy, hearing his mother urging him to jump, was afraid and replied, “I can’t see you.” The mother could see her son outlined against the night sky, standing anxious and hesitant, and she replied, “But I can see you…jump!”
Wherever we are, whatever our situation,
we are not alone, thanks be to God!