If you were in church this past Easter, you might recall that the Gospel of Mark gives fear the last word. The women come to the tomb and they find it empty. They meet a mysterious young man dressed in white. He tells them Jesus has been raised and they are to go and share that news with the other disciples. But instead, Mark recounts, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Fear is a prevailing emotion in today’s Gospel lesson as well.
As evening comes, Jesus tells the disciples it is time to leave the crowds and cross over to the other side of the lake. The story doesn’t record any comments from the disciples, but I wonder: Did it look like it might storm? Did they try to persuade him to wait? They were the experts, after all, when it came to the wind and waves and weather. As fishermen, who spent their lives out on the water, they knew what the sea could do and when it was right to be afraid.
The disciples’ fears about the violent weather intertwine with another kind of fear. “The other side” of the sea of Galilee was Gentile territory. It was a foreign place full of people whose cultures, languages and religions were strange, and whose attitudes might well be hostile to Jews. The tradition of the priests and the temple said “Gentiles are unclean; we don’t share food or any of the other intimacies of life with them.” It seems to me that the disciples’ terror about the storm is a metaphor for their deeper fears about this crossing into Gentile territory, specifically, and in general, their fears about life as followers of Jesus. Indeed, when they land on the other side of the lake, they encounter a figure who embodies and enacts all their terror: a man with an ‘unclean spirit’ who could not be restrained, who lived among the tombs, who howled and injured himself with stones.
Fear gets the last word in our story, just like it does at the empty tomb. After Jesus calms the storm, the disciples are in fact more afraid than they were before. Our translation says that they were filled with great awe, but the Greek says they “feared with a great fear.” In Genesis, God subdues and harnesses the chaotic, dangerous forces of the “great deep” so that the life-giving order of creation can emerge. Perhaps, amid the wind and the waves, the disciples imagine nature itself to be rebelling against Jesus’ practice of crossing boundaries and barriers that seem to them to be woven into the very fabric of creation, set up to preserve life and provide security. And maybe that’s really why they “feared with a great fear”, asking themselves, “who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks the disciples when they shake him awake, frantically seeking his help amid the storm. Why are you afraid? Why would we NOT be afraid when we consider all the storms life can hurl at us? As children, we are afraid… of owies and monsters and thunder and the dark. Each of us harbor, as little ones, our own unique fears, which seem irrational, even humorous, to the adults around us. When it comes to these fears, parents spend hours and days and nights trying to get to the bottom of them, trying to understand their pull and defuse their power. Yet when caregivers cuddle little children and assure them, “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” that’s not really true, is it?
This week, I spent a couple of days in Tennessee with my extended family, where we gathered for my aunt Janet’s memorial service. Janet died at age 62 after a long struggle with breast cancer. Following her first bout with the cancer, it seemed cured. A couple of years ago, it returned as a tumor in her brain. Janet’s story is one small reminder to me that we live in a world full to the brim with pain whose cause and purpose we do not understand. We all know and love people who have had to bear more bodily sickness or emotional agony than seems fair. At Janet’s memorial service, one of the scripture readings came from the book of Job, a book which grapples with this reality, asking “why?” and what part God plays in it. In his sermon, the priest acknowledged that no theologian has given a satisfactory answer to this question about suffering. Is God simply not powerful enough, or not loving enough, to bring an end to the pains of life in this world? We do not know. All we get to know of God’s ways is the courage with which some people respond to the fearful realities that are part of this life.
Mark makes a small comment about Jesus in today’s Gospel story that, to me, has big implications. He says: the disciples took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was. Just as he was. No equipment, no credentials, no super powers are mentioned. He wasn’t even paying attention when the storm arose; he was sleeping. The implication is that there was nothing Jesus had that the disciples lacked, except trust in God, the creator of the universe. His life was utterly grounded in faith rather than in fear. And this trust allowed Jesus be fully, authentically himself, despite the resistance from others around him. This trust propelled him across the boundaries that alienate people and communities from their own best selves that proclaime some clean and others unclean. This trust gave him the ability to sleep amid the turmoil of nature and the storms of his companion’s anxiety.
Pastor Michael Lindvall writes this: “Fear is confronted in this story, but not by a sudden burst of courage or resolve on the part of the disciples. In the course of the storm, they never pull themselves together. They do not, at least on their own, discover inner resources they didn’t know they had. Rather, it is Jesus who calms both them and the storm with the power of his presence.” When it comes to the interaction of a parent with a frightened child, or God’s dealings with us, Lindvall continues, “The easy part of the truth, which every child figures out sooner or later, is that some things that frighten us are real and some are not. But the rest of the truth, the deeper truth that only faith in the God who raised Jesus from the grave can teach is that even though there are real and fearsome things in this life, they need not paralyze us; they need not have dominion over us; they need not own us, because we are not alone in the boat.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, volume 3.)
On this Pride weekend, let us remember that we are not alone, that God is with us in the storm. We hear from the campaign to defeat the marriage amendment that the most important thing we can do is tell stories. I imagine this is also true when it comes to the voter suppression amendment. Whether we are gay or straight, single or married, ID’d or not, the most powerful tool we have is our capacity to begin a conversation. We can start by listening, authentically and compassionately. What fears do our neighbors, the people we meet everyday, carry about crossing over into more expansive understandings of love and community? What fears do they—and we– have about “coming out” more publicly for marriage equality? Or standing firmly with those who will lose their right to vote? Once we have listened, we can also speak, from our hearts, about why it is important to us to live in a society in which love is love and all voices matter.
Believe me, I know this work of storytelling isn’t easy. The other day I was sitting out on the steps with my daughter, Eliza. We were waving goodbye to my parents, who come to spend time with Eliza every week. Our neighbor, who moved in just a couple of months ago, was was also out on his stoop, watching his puppy run around. We got to talking, and he asked about Eliza’s time with her grandparents. Then he paused, and he said, “there’s a lot of love in your house.” I was surprised, and touched, by his words, and I knew he had given me a great opening for a bit of storytelling. But I couldn’t find those words. I just smiled and said “thanks”.
I hope you will join me in attending one of the storytelling trainings. These are not just for those who are gay or lesbian, or people who are partnered or married. They are for everyone who wishes to find the courage to begin a sacred conversation about what matters to you. Really, it is about knowing and sharing the story of our faith. Whether we we are trusting or afraid, we are not alone. We can take the hand of Jesus, who frees us to stand and be fully ourselves, as God created us to be. We can let Jesus lead us on through the storm and the night, to the other side of our fears, to the strange shores of a new world in which everyone is a child of God and everyone is kin. Amen.