Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2009
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison
Antonio Machado once quipped: Mankind has four things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars—and the fear of going down. At first only that last one seems to make sense, but I bet if we could talk to the disciples about their experience crossing the sea they would agree completely with that description.
It makes sense to me too. I was not a natural swimmer and resisted learning for a long time. My mother had never learned to swim, but was insistent that I should. Thus, when summer came off I went to the local YMCA for swim lessons. While the other four-year olds were practicing kicking and having underwater tea parties, I simply charmed our swimming teacher into carrying me around on his hip the whole time. My mother was not exactly thrilled by this. Though charming, I had skillfully manipulated my way out of doing it. Not because I was a conniving child, but because my mother’s fear of the water had already infected me. I was truly convinced I would sink and not be able to swim no matter how much the instructor reassured me that a) I would float if I relaxed and, b) he would be right there if anything happened. In fact, I didn’t learn to swim until I was 8 and even then I never learned to breath right and never could make myself open my eyes under water. The chlorine bothered me too much. But I had the rudder (my eyes), my oars (my arms and legs) and my anchor (my rational understanding that I could float or touch bottom and be okay) and it was all rather useless to me really. To be in water knowing I was only partially equipped was fearful and being under water was akin to being in the midst of a tempest. For a long time swimming across a pool was a true act of guts. So when Jesus asks the disciples how is it that you have no faith, which is a more accurate translation of the original Greek than “have you no faith”, I find it very natural to say, extremely easy as a matter of fact!
I don’t think that is an uncommon reaction for most of us. When we are being blown about by storms, it is easy to lose courage, to lose faith, to think God is not paying attention, asleep on the job. The disciples certainly thought so. I mean, here is this man that can rebuke demons and perform miracles and play hardball with the spiritual forces and in the midst of a raging storm he’s taking a power nap. They want him to fix it and solve it. They want him take on that outer reality and redo it for them. And he does, but it comes with a piercing and searching set of questions: Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?
That’s the heart of the story. Why are you afraid? The setting and the story are fearful. The sea is not only a capricious and dangerous element as we all know, but in much mythology around the world it also seen as a symbol for chaos, the swirling power of evil spirits and destructive forces that can overwhelm us and drown us. We are pretty small, little pieces of flotsam out there on a wild sea, and it is easy to perish. Jesus rebukes the wind just as he does the demons that possess people he encounters and stills the sea. The destructive, raging, churning forces are overcome. Who is this is the only question that disciples can formulate fittingly enough. And then they are filled with great awe.
But we are dancing with words here. The Greek word that is translated awe is phobeo, from which we get phobia, and it means fear. So, after this calming of the elements the disciples fear Jesus. Understandable. I would have been fearful too. It’s also, though, the kind of fear, awe, that we have when we realize we are in the presence of the holy. The word used by Jesus when he asks why are you afraid is really better translated as pitiable, cowardly. Why are you so cowardly? Why are you afraid? That’s a different kind of fear.
And I think he asks this so we get our focus right. What are we looking at? What is defining our reality and response? Where are we searching for God? As Rumi said, what you perceive as real becomes real. See, the disciples are focused on the storm and the prospect of drowning. That is all they can see and thus their whole view of the world is defined by the idea of perishing. And in their fear, in cowering before this storm, they become paralyzed and the vision myopic. They can no longer see that God is right there beside them in the midst of the tempest. They can’t see because it doesn’t look as they expect or act as they might desire. But he is there nonetheless and staying with them in the raging storm.
I think we all can see ourselves in this story. I know how often I have been in a stormy part of my life, trying to cross over to the next thing, or cross through a difficult time, and I wonder where God is. I feel left alone to be tossed and twisted by the forces swirling around me. I know how it is to feel totally overwhelmed and incapable of going on. There have been times when I have certainly felt like I was perishing in one way or another and have found it so hard to be brave, to have courage, to trust I will get to the other side.
The earliest Christians were often afraid of perishing, quite literally. From time to time persecutions broke out. Some were very severe. And people died rather than recant their faith. In the midst of this storm, their faith was strong. We don’t hear of them asking for God to make the persecution stop (though I’m sure they did want that) in the chronicles that have come down. They did not ask Jesus where are you or why don’t you care. They did not ask Jesus to intervene and stop the lion’s jaws or deflect the sword, but rather believed that even through death Jesus was with them and would catch them. They were able to find courage and trust that Jesus was with them rather than to cower. He was the calm that stilled them inside so that they could safely arrive at their ultimate destination—life in God. Their role was as witness to something transformative in the world no matter how futile it may have looked. And perhaps this is why one of the earliest symbols for the Church was a simple boat. This story of Mark captured their reality and also their deepest belief in Jesus’ constant presence with them. It also was a way to let fellow Christians know of each other through a symbol—a boat, with the mast understood as the cross—in a world where often one had to be a believer in Jesus in secret.
They were on to something. How many of us in times of distress have sought the shelter of the church? We come into the sanctuary for its peace and centering, its ability to still us and find a foothold of peace in the midst of the fury. For many people who do not go to church or aren’t even religious, the church or a chapel is the place they go when bad news strikes, or life is in turmoil. Through the prayers, the telling of the story, the celebration of Communion, the coming together to seek the holy, churches are incarnated places, incarnated with the living presence of Christ, whether that is the language we use or not. They are shelters in the storm.
This experience of the church as something that keeps us afloat when the waves threaten to swamp us is so profound and deep-seated that we call the church a boat. How many of us have heard that word “nave”? And I don’t mean the Shakespearean kind, knave with a “k”. Nave as n-a-v-e. We use it to mean the sanctuary, the main gathering space? Nave is the Latin word for boat. So our sanctuary is very much our boat in which Jesus is with us as we are tossed about by the storms of life.
In this nave we can be stilled and find peace. We can find faith to go through the tempests. We can be reminded of where our gaze should be and what our vision to help us to see. Jesus is there. Jesus may come to us in the quiet whisper of a prayer. Jesus may be with us in the face and acts of others. Jesus may reveal himself as finding a hitherto unknown strength, resilience, or conviction. But present he is. And Jesus doesn’t necessarily stop the storm as he did in the Gospel today, but he can help us see how to use our oars and anchors and rudders to navigate through. The ultimate story we have to cling to is that of his cross and resurrection.
Jesus will give us that calm and stillness to shift our focus from whatever it is that threatens to swamp us, or whatever it is that seems to be causing us to perish. Instead we can see the storm and also look to find Jesus beside us and discover how is God with us through the tempest. When this perspective is allowed in we can often see new ways through, ways that are hopeful and fresh. What we now perceive becomes real, becomes our reality. Instead of seeing God as the storm out there we can experience God as with us, alongside us. Just as importantly Jesus is there with us as a captain is with his ship. He will not abandon us; he will even go down with us if that is what faces us. And more importantly than that he will do what the psalmist proclaims: Then were they glad because of the calm, and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for. That harbor is God and our faith is that sturdy boat that will not capsize because we have just enough belief, maybe only a mustard-seed sized amount, that in God at the end of all ends all will be restored, renewed and made well. So, what are we afraid of? Amen.