A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But [Jesus] 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?" (Mark 4:37-40, NRSV)
The early Christians adopted a simple drawing of a boat with a cross for a mast as the symbol of the church. In an age of persecutions from the outside and controversy and conflict on the inside, in their experience, the emerging church must have seemed like a boat on a storm-tossed sea. Recalling the story of Jesus' calming of the sea, like those first disciples in the boat, the early Christians must have joined in their desperate prayer, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
Little has changed in the intervening years. The winds of change and the waters of chaos continue to beat hard on the worldwide church and the people of faith. Christians are still being martyred in shocking numbers in tribal, ethnic, and religious wars around the world. At home, the church is fiercely divided around issues of authority, liturgy, sexuality, and cultural diversity, so that deputies to each successive General Convention arrive with feelings of foreboding as they look to the business before them with suspicious eyes, preparing to build alliances of power to bolster their respective sides. Today, the prayer of many in the church is: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
Our private lives are not spared stress and storm as our individual little boats are tossed about by the waves of economic uncertainty and change, war, divorce, sickness, and death. Hardly a week goes by that we do not face the fearsome realities of these events, either impacting us personally or our neighbors or our friends in the church, and nightly the troublesome images of television news intrude into our homes from the larger world. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
In today's Gospel, our Lord calms the wind and the waves and says to the tense disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" He surely intended the link between faith and fear. The opposite of faith is not doubt or unbelief; those tend to be doctrinal differences. No, the opposite of faith more often as not is fear. We fear the unknown. We fear the undiagnosed lump in the breast, or the persistent cough. We fear SARS or, in the region where I live, West Nile Virus. We fear losing control of our bodies and our health because of aging. We worry about how changes in politics, technology, or the economy will influence our jobs and the income from our savings and retirement funds. Fear is like waves ever seeking to knock us off our footing -- our faith footing.
The story that follows, one of faith in a potentially fearful situation, was told by a Presbyterian minister. He told of his days as a Navy submariner in the Pacific during World War II. "We would often come under depth charge attack by Japanese destroyers," he said. "The other sailors would be trembling with fear, while I just leaned back and read a comic book. One of them asked how I could be so calm. I explained to him that in my childhood I had very little supervision from my parents, so I spent many hours each day at the New Jersey beach. Sometimes a huge breaking wave would catch me by surprise and thrust me under the water, rolling me in the sand. But I learned when I would just relax thousands of air bubbles like the fingers of God would catch me up and lift me to the surface. Now, whenever I find myself in trouble, I just relax and wait for the fingers of God to reach under me and lift me up."
Faith is a stance toward life. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, it is a confidence that is typically acquired very early in life when a child learns to expect his or her environment and the people in it to be reliable and trustworthy. During the Cold War, when we were all living with the possibility of nuclear annihilation, some researchers interviewed children to see how worried they were of nuclear war. What they discovered was that the children with the least amount of fear were those whose parents were active in nuclear disarmament efforts, or who regularly attended church, or who were deeply involved in the social issues of their communities. These parents did not feel hopeless in the face of tremendous challenges. They invested themselves in actions to change the world around them and remained optimistic that what they could contribute would make a difference. As a result, the attitudes of the parents infected the emotional and intellectual stance of their children. These children did not feel helpless. Rather, they saw that their parents and their church and the other involved citizens of their community maintained faith and were doing something toward resolving problems.
I had a friend who, several years ago, within a period of six months, lost his last surviving parent and grandparent, as well as a favorite aunt and uncle. It dawned on him at the time that all of the people in his life who loved him unconditionally were dead, and that he was out in the front of the line. About the same time, his non-tenured college position was eliminated because of lack of funding. In those painful and challenging months, my friend wrote down his own definition of faith. I share it with you: Faith is the simple trust that life still can be good despite the fact that it is very painful and difficult. Out of the worst of experiences that my friend could have imagined, he found many little bubbles of love, joy, and hope in the form of friends, family, and church lifting him upward like the fingers of God. And the worst year of his life was followed by what he declares to have been one of the best years of his life.
"Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" In these rather impatient words directed to his disciples, our Lord brings into focus to the polarities of faith and fear. Faith is a stance and how we stand up to those things that would threaten us and how we manage our fears makes all the difference. In the midst of troubles, try reaching up your hand to God and saying, "Help!" And when you reach your hand out to others around you and say, "Help!" the fingers of God will never fail to reach down and lift you into new and reassuring experiences of God's grace. AMEN.