A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Have you ever found yourself in difficulty, caught between a rock and hard place, up the creek without a paddle? Then you have some sense of what Jesus’ disciples experienced on the lake that day. It all started innocently enough. They pushed off from the shore near their home base in Capernaum headed for the Gerasene shore. At least some of them were experienced sailors. They’d made their living fishing this shallow lake. They were also familiar with the brief, fierce storms that could arise on the lake when the wind off the Mediterranean came roaring through Pigeon Pass and hit the lake hard.
Jesus was asleep. I wonder if he wasn’t exhausted from the effort involved in preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcising. This is not the only time the gospels tell us Jesus took to the sea, hoping for a little relief from the press of the crowd, from their constant demands and insistent expectations. It seems he was sound asleep, sleeping so soundly that the storm did not wake him. If we take the tale at face value, the disciples were terrified by the storm. The boat was taking on water and the prospect of drowning rose before them. “Master, Master, we are perishing!” they cried. In Mark’s older version, from which Luke draws this story, the disciples are a little snarky, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:39b). Desperate, and a little whiney, they call on him to save them.
Do you ever feel like that – “Jesus, we’re dying here. Don’t you care?” When you get between a rock and hard place, when you find yourself up the creek without a paddle, “when the storms of life are raging, when the world is tossing [you] like a ship upon the sea?” Do you ever cry out, “Stand by me!” “Jesus, savior, pilot me,” “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to your bosom fly,” “Help of the helpless, O abide with me”? Song and scripture alike lift up our cries for help. At the same time, we hear the words of assurance: “God will take care of you,” “God, who holds the future, is the One who holds my hand,” “God walks the dark hills,“ “The voice of Love is heard in every storm…and in their hearts all cry, ‘Glory!’ The Beloved lives in our hearts; Love dwells with us forever.”
The disciples would have known this call and response – the cry to heaven for help and the assurance that God would be with them. It was so much a part of their ancient tradition. Yet here they were in the boat with Son of God, or, if you will, God incarnate, and still they are frightened by the storm. Jesus awakens, rubs his eyes, wonders why they have aroused him before he recognizes the storm and their fear. Luke says he rebukes “the wind and the raging waves.” Mark says he speaks directly to roiling sea, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). Whether it is Jesus’ instruction or that the storm has run its course, the wind ceases and the sea is calm.
Then Jesus turns to his fickle followers, “Where is your faith?” It seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? Real storms are scary. Earthquakes rattle us. Wars and rumors of war are terrifying. A terminal diagnosis is devastating. I remember flying in a small commuter plane from Oshkosh to Chicago on the edge of a thunderstorm. The plane hit an air pocket and dropped like a rock. Maybe it was only 50 or 100 feet, but it left my heart in my throat. Fear is real, a strong emotion, irrational – and real. Like the disciples in the throes of fear, we lose sight of our security in the embrace of the One who has the “whole wide world in her hands.” The Savior may be right there in the boat with us and we forget his power to calm the wind and the waves. “Peace! Be still!” doesn’t register through the static impinging all around us.
Well, there you go. There’s the rhythm of life. “Where is your faith?” We hear Jesus ask this of his first disciples frequently enough that we come to ask ourselves, “Where is our faith?” Faith is a tricky business. Actually, there is faith in just climbing into the boat with Jesus. Then there is faith when we turn to him for help when we find no other, but is it enough faith? Could there be more? We’re told that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain. What’s in your wallet?
It seems that this is what Jesus is looking for in his followers – more faith, a different quality of faith, faith that allows us to move through storms, that asks us to sustain love for ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies, that encourages us to practice compassion for creation and care for the least of these. Christ comes proclaiming God’s Beloved Community and inviting us to enter it fully. It’s clear that Jesus will not always be physically present; he cannot always do it for us. He comes to show us the way, but we have to walk it ourselves. He teaches his first disciples. He shows them what is possible. He expects them – and us – to step up and be the Body of Christ. Where is your faith?
How often do we let our fears undermine our faith and interfere with our calling to be Christ’s disciples? And speaking of practice, I wonder if faith is not a spiritual discipline that we could, indeed, strengthen through practice. Is it possible to grow in our faith, in our trust that God will take care of us, in our belief that Christ will show the way, in our hope that the Spirit will give us the power to get through? Where is your faith? Maybe it’s in process.
In commenting on this biblical tale, David Lose wonders if the disciples aren’t more afraid after the storm is stilled than they were before. If it is a miracle they have experienced, then it brings them deeply into the presence of the Holy One. This is an awesome and fearful place to be. He writes, “People fear miracles because they fear being changed…though ignoring them will change you also.” He continues, “…make no mistake, Jesus is asking the disciples to change. In this very moment he is drawing them from the familiar territory of Capernaum to the strange and foreign land of the Gerasenes. And he is moving them from being fishermen to disciples. And he is preparing them to welcome a kingdom so very different from the one they’d either expected or wanted” (David Lose, “On Miracles and Change, June 15, 2015,” davidlose.net). Indeed, their fear of the unknown may be greater than their fear of the storm. Is this not often true for us as well?
This is the challenge Jesus lays before his first disciples and us, everything is changing, the old is becoming new, possibilities unimagined are opening before us, the future holds so much more than what we thought possible. Can we handle it? Where is our faith? Can we muster enough to live into all that is being offered? Can we dream a world in which fear is left behind and God’s promises are fulfilled? Can we cultivate the faith of even half a mustard seed?
In the Seasons of the Spirit material for this week, the writers say, “Jesus’ question [“Where is your faith?] is actually a demand. You must have faith! What must be done, can be done. Take action. If we are all in the boat together, perishing as community, we must act.” There is a certain maturity of faith, then, that moves toward action.
These writers attempt to express this more mature faith in concrete way for our times: “We the people – Syrian, Iraqi, women, orphaned, old, war-broken and ravaged, on the move, seeking refuge at closed borders, vilified – turn to God. Our prayer is for strength, consolation, a safe haven. We, the subjugated of empire, shackled by debt, underemployed, and heavily burdened, turn to God. We pray for strength and courage as we attempt to break from the oak-hardened stations to which we have been cast, now rooted in soil that does not sustain. God speaks to us, shaking us loose from our desert of despair, guiding us through the fearsome wilderness where we have been abandoned.”
Is not this faith in and of itself miraculous? In the face of so much that is fearful to turn to God in hope and trust is a wonder in itself. Where, then, is our faith? Can it be expressed like these who struggle, both through our own difficulties and in compassion for our neighbors far and near? In the midst of our privilege, can we see the faith of those who hold hope, moving forward, even when the storm is fierce and they are most vulnerable? Can we take heart from faithful witness such as this?
From today’s Words of Preparation comes this affirmation of all our faith can be if we continue to cultivate it in community: “We, God’s people, can face the forces arrayed against us, withstand the full force of the oppressive, mighty waters. This becomes so as we vibrate with God’s force and energy, letting God’s voice penetrate our entire being, allowing God to speak in, and through, us. Most importantly, letting God’s voice take form in us as action in the world. We hear the shout, ’We are perishing!’ We do not stand idly by. We rebuke the storm and then give safe haven for those caught in its raging waves.”
Where is our faith? In the One who calls us to service at the same time whispering, “Peace! Be Still!”? In the One who challenges us to look after the least at the same time offering us amazing grace? In the One who asks us to care for creation while holding us in a tender, life-giving embrace? Do we have faith enough to climb in the boat with Jesus and head for some distant, unknown shore, trusting that he will go with us all the way? Do we have faith enough to weather the storms of life trusting that not even death can separate us from God’s love and care?
I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;
If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.
It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years….
Great Pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.