Date: Sermon preached at James Bay United Church, June 24, 2012
"Having Faith … It’s not about living in denial"
If we’ve got the story right, the disciples are out in the boat, making their way across the lake, when a storm kicks up. These aren’t novices at the helm. These are seasoned boat handlers … spent their life on the water. They’re no strangers to nasty turns in the weather … how suddenly, from out of nowhere, the wind whips up and the water becomes fierce.
If we’ve got the story right, not only have the wind and water become fierce. What’s coming at them is beyond even their capacity to cope. Way beyond. Water’s flooding over the gunnels, there’s men hollering at each other in a panic. And Jesus -- Jesus is asleep, in the stern. Seeming to be utterly unaware. Completely uninvolved.
If we’ve got the story right, he’s not tucked in for the night in some guest house in Bethsaida, but right there with them, in the boat that’s going down.
“Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” What’s sleep at a time like this if not an act of obliviousness …harsh indifference? “Don’t you care?” Hard to know if it’s help they’re looking for -- yet what could he do? Or if it’s just beyond bearing to have someone so untroubled when the world is flying apart. “If you cared you’d be panicking too! Come on! Wake up!”
Whatever their motive, Jesus wakes up, stands up, and commands the storm to cease. The wind drops and a great calm comes over the water. If the storm itself was terrifying, this rocked their world every bit as much. “Who is this? - right here in the boat with us - that even the wind and sea obey him.”
If we’ve got the story right, chances are that’s where the story is intending we go … to that question -- who is this Jesus? and what does it mean that he can cause the storm to cease?
That might be where the story’s bound on taking us but I’m guessing there’s something we’ll want to ask of the story first, before we’re ready to go where it may want to take us.
Do you remember just after he stills the storm, Jesus turns to his disciples and he says to them, “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” Sounds like he’s disappointed in them. Like he expected better of them. Like if they had faith there’d be no fear.
Water’s pouring in over the gunnels, the boat’s filling up … and you’re asking what’s with the fear? The lab results are in - the news is bad. And you’re asking “what’s with the fear?” My son’s not home and the sirens are howling. And you’re asking “what’s with the fear?” The rent went up and the cheque just got cut. Water’s pouring in over the gunnels and the boat’s filling fast … and you’re asking “what’s with the fear?”
Surely to be afraid is to be alive! It’s to be awake to what’s happening. Surely to be afraid means our God-given sensitivities to threat and danger are working. Surely living by faith isn’t the same as living in denial, is it? So what are we to make of Jesus asking, “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” Where’s he coming from?
3 stories came to my mind this week that maybe offer us a glimpse.
A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing Desmond Tutu preaching in Atlanta, Georgia. Of course I’d heard of him over the years … known something of his galvanizing role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. If you’ve heard him, you’ll know he speaks with this high pitch … he practically squeaks out his words in such a way that you find yourself leaning in. And what you hear is a man who is deadly serious and full of mischief all at the same time.
It was the late 1980’s when things were coming to such a head in South Africa. It was so obvious the whole thing was hurtling toward a catastrophic blood bath. A call went out for people from around the world to come … “if you can get yourself here, please, now is the time to come.” Jim Wallis was one of those people who got himself there. Some years later he describes this one particular event.
The plan was for a march through the streets of Capetown, of some 30,000 people. Getting wind of the plan, the government declared there would be no political rallies that day. It was Desmond Tutu who then announced “okay, so we’ll have church.” So people crowded into St George’s Cathedral, massive structure, in the centre of Capetown … and not just demonstrators. For lining the perimeter of the sanctuary all around the inside, were uniformed police, watching, taking note. It was all about intimidation.
There was singing. There were prayers. There was scripture read. And then Desmond Tutu steps up into the pulpit and he begins to speak. “As Christians,” he said to the congregation, “we are prisoners of HOPE! We serve a God who hears the cry of the suffering … who doesn’t just hear but cares and delivers. Delivers them into a good land.” And then looking straight at the police, he says, “you are powerful -- but you are not Gods. And I worship a God who will not be mocked. So since you have already lost, I invite you today to come on over and join the winning side!” And with that, the congregation rose to its feet, and the people danced their way out of the sanctuary, shocking the police who were completely unprepared for dancing!
Having faith … it’s not about living in denial.
On a much smaller scale, but with no less at stake, Frederick Douglas was speaking to a group of abolitionists in the North Eastern States. After a time, hecklers started shouting him down. Harriett Tubman was in the crowd that night. She could see Frederick beginning to wilt … his voice was losing strength. And it seemed to her not only was he beginning to feel smaller; he appeared smaller. From where she stood at the back she called out to him, “Frederick, is God dead?” And with that, Frederick stood up, re-claiming his full stature, his voice full of conviction. And he went on, undeterred by the hecklers, with a message of radical equality and a call for freedom.
Having faith … it’s not about living in denial.
Closer here to home, I’ve been thinking about a woman who’s dying of cancer. The cancer has spread through her body. These days she is barely able to get out of bed -- no position is comfortable. Her body is a constant reminder of her impending death. But she has this practice of setting her alarm to waken herself early in the morning so she can hear the birds.
Another friend suffers with chronic pain. She’s also claustrophobic. Some months ago she was scheduled for a full body MRI … which meant she would enter head-first into this enclosure. Needless to say, the prospect was terrifying. We had some conversation the day before she went … mainly it was about her gathering the courage. After the fact, I asked her, so really, when it came down to it, how did you do it? “I found myself,” she said, “in my mind’s eye gathering around me all the people I know who love me.” That’s what she did. I think it’s what we call drawing on the strength and the companionship of the communion of saints.
Can you hear it? … having faith has nothing to do with denial. Having faith is about facing head-on what is … and calling on what is even greater. Faith doesn’t mean fearlessness … it just means that fear doesn’t run our show -- which is no small mercy. Faith asks where are you turning your attention? where’s your focus? What are you allowing to define your reality? When the storm is all there is, we’re done.
Maybe that’s what Jesus is doing when he asks them “have you still no faith?” Maybe he’s not telling them off but reminding them there’s more … there’s another way to be, there’s a whole other dimension to their reality in this frightful time. Like Harriet Tubman asking “Frederick! is God dead?” She’s reminding him … re-calling him … re-turning him to the deepest reality of all … to the Source and Strength of his life.
Sometimes we might set our alarms early. Or sometimes someone sings to us, “Come on up to the house!”
What if instead of experiencing fear and anxiety as bullies that render us powerless, how might it be to receive them as messengers, prompting us, reminding us to refocus our vision? To turn our hearts and minds toward the One who speaks peace … who breathes peace … who is peace … through whom all shall be well … and all manner of things shall be well.
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