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Jesus is the Question: Have you still no faith?

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 22, 2019)

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

It is interesting how the disciples are portrayed. At the north entrance Westminster Abbey in London there is this grand stone carvings of Christ sitting upon his throne: crowned, holding the royal orb in his left hand, extending his right hand in blessing, and attended by angels on both sides. Below Christ and his throne are the twelve apostles, seated, stoic, and with a certain Greco-Roman appearance, looking upon those who enter the Abbey with due gravitas. 

And then you have them in this story from Mark, gripped with utter panic on a boat in the middle of Lake Gennesaret! What a contrast! Much more human, much more relatable. In reading this story this week I’ve had to channel my (at most two) experiences of being on a boat in the ocean when the waves are crashing all around me. I’ve been in the middle of fifteen-foot-tall drifts. I’ve been on a little Boston whaler when the motor failed and we started drifting out into the open Atlantic in the middle of a sudden rain storm. One detail Mark leaves out is the nausea! He gets the other details right–the waves pummeling the hull, the windstorm coming out of nowhere, the under-emphasized detail of it being evening–dark, in other words–but he leaves out the nausea. 

Which is one of many reasons that Jesus’ questions, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” seem rather harsh. It’s rough out there! 

“Why are you afraid?” Well, let’s see. I’m afraid of drowning. I’m afraid because we’re out here on the lake (Mark calls it the “Sea” which is significant, but the point is that it is scary, overwhelming place to be) in the middle of the night. And when the squall surges and “the boat was already being swamped,” it’s a little irritating that he’s already out for the night. Did you notice, by the way, the playful little detail that “he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion”? Mark feels the need to point out that Jesus’ has laid his head upon a pillow, emphasizing the soundness of his sleep (“the sleep of the innocent maybe?”). It’s understandable that Jesus is tired since the crowds had been pressing in on them. 

But the disciples question right back to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” seems legitimate, doesn’t it? “Don’t you care,” you can almost hear them pleading, “Don’t you care that this storm is about to drown us and you have the nerve to be sleeping? Wake up!” 

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” seems unfair at best and unkind at worst. 

“Have you still no faith?” makes it seem like faith is a binary: something we have or we don’t. The English language reinforces that binary because we have a noun for faith but not a verb. Yes, we have similar verbs for faith “I believe” but not an exact verb; we never say, “I faith…” “Do you believe?” seems like a yes or no proposition. “Do you have faith?” can make it seem like faith is something we possess or don’t possess. 

What’s the difference between belief and faith? I love what William Sloane Coffin said:

“Faith isn’t believing without proof– it’s trusting without reservation.” 

In that vein faith is more of a capacity and less of a thing– an active, ongoing (or fluctuating), way of being. 

Martin Copenhaver, whose book Jesus is the Question is the inspiration for this sermon series, writes about the distinction between belief and faith by asking the reader to engage in this little exercise:

Imagine you are at a circus. A skilled high-wire artists has accomplished so many marvelous feats that the audience has come to believe that he can do almost anything. The ringmaster addresses the crowd:  “Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe that this daring man can ride safely over the high wire on his bicycle while carrying someone on his shoulders? If you believe he can do it, please raise your hand!” 

If you were in the audience you might raise your hand along with all the others, a great silent chorus of belief. “Very well, then,” says the ringmaster, seeing an almost unanimous vote of confidence, “now who will be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders?” 

The difference between belief and faith is the difference between staying in your seat and volunteering to climb on the shoulders of the highwire artist. Ultimately, faith is not about believing certain things; it’s about putting our trust in someone. 

It’s about trust. It’s relational. It’s a willingness to go with. When Jesus says to his disciples in other translations, “Why are you cowardly? Do you still not have faith?”, he comes across as angry, like his scolding them. But if faith is about trust, if faith is relational, maybe it’s the case that Jesus is actually–dare I say it–hurt. After everything he had already shown them, after all the healings and the exorcisms and the parables and all that, the disciples still didn’t trust him. If you’ve ever had to say to someone, “You still don’t trust me,” you know how much that feeling stings.

So what does it mean to truly trust God? What does it mean to nurture that capacity for trust? 

One thing we learn from people of deep faith (and maybe we all have somebody in our life who models that for us) is that to trust God takes a lifetime of practice. It takes going through storms, probably many storms. It takes having the “waves” of hardship, challenges, struggles, and pain surge around us and crash down on us… while somehow having peace in the midst of it all.  

Elsewhere in Westminster Abbey, near the west entrance, there are other stone carvings. There are saints from almost two thousand years of Christian tradition. There are more modern saints, too, martyrs even. There’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of his life was the spiritual life of this person who changed the course of history. I’ve spoken about it before, but I think of his “kitchen table experience” often. The story goes that he was in Montgomery Alabama in 1956 and had gotten yet another threatening phone call. This one had him truly afraid. 

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

King could tell us about what it means to trust God in the midst of storms.

Some sermons I’ve heard on this story end up going in the direction of “God is in command of the wind and the water and if you have enough faith it’s all going to work out.” That is not where this is going. I can’t stand hearing that, to be honest with you. “You’ve just gotta have faith” is one of those things to not say to me in the midst of a crisis!” That’s like telling someone to calm down or not get upset; it has the opposite effect. 

There’s a difference between faith as reassurance that everything will be OK–that nothing will harm us, that storms will cease and that this one will be the last storm–and reassurance that God will be with us in the midst of it all. That we’ll never be alone, that’s the promise.

Trusting God does not mean that God will protect us, let alone from the consequences of our own actions. There’s a very toxic theology out there, especially in American circles, that tells people not to worry about climate change because God will fix it. Actual storms–storms that wreak havoc on islands and coastal communities, weather patterns adversely affected by human waste and exploitation of the earth’s resources, climates that disrupt agriculture and create droughts and propel refugees to other places for the sake of survival–God will not save us from those. We want God to wake from slumber and rescue us, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” but we have to act. We have to change. We have to listen to the voices of young leaders telling us how high the stakes are. 

Yet… and yet, the one who is with us in the storm saying, “Peace! Be still!” is the same one who gives us the grace to change, to chart a new course, to live differently. 

Frederich Buechner sums up this understanding of faith well:

“Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.”  

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC

May God cultivate within us trust for the journey.