Saturday, June 29, 2024

Are You Afraid

 Are You Afraid

A Sermon Preached at Vashon United Methodist Church

Mark Fredericksen, ND, MDiv

June 23, 2024

Job 38:1-11

Mark 4:35-41


When I was a wee lad, my sister and I would be left at my aunt and uncle’s in Soap Lake for a week or two in summer, and then my three female cousins would come to stay with us in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, for the same amount of time—giving both sets of parents a break from our hell-raising ways. I, being the boy amongst the rest, was never the troublemaker.  But I digress.  One of these summers in Soap Lake, I was around 8 years old; it was getting on toward evening, and a thunderstorm was moving in.  My uncle always felt sorry for my lone maleness amidst all the females and would try to do something with me when he got home from work.  On this particular evening, he said, “Let’s take my rubber raft to the north end of the lake and row back down to their house, a distance of probably a mile or two. My aunt, being a mom, raised questions about the sanity of this venture – “have you seen the weather?”  But my uncle – pshawed her – and handed her the car keys so she could chauffer us to the north end of the lake.  They argued on the way, my aunt memorably saying, “If you drown him, I and my sister are going to kill you.”


Fast forward to setting off in the rubber raft.  We got in the boat; you may be slightly relieved to know that he had brought a life jacket that he put on me.  You should also know that I am from another planet because, for my entire life, I’ve known that I cannot swim a lick – I have a denser mass than most humans, and I sink in water. Innumerable people have tried to teach me to drown, I mean float, and I just go straight to the bottom, so now I just avoid water over my head.   We started rowing.  We are making decent progress, and we’re about halfway; I’m having a ball. We’re cracking jokes.  The waves are getting a little higher; occasionally, one sloshes over the side of the boat, but it’s like a riotous fun roller coaster ride to me.  But the sky is getting darker.  Some lightning flashes are visible behind the cliffs around the lake. And a wind out of the south is blowing pretty large waves at us by now and even pushing us. More concerning, my uncle's demeanor changed from jovial to serious as he said, “We need to row harder and watch for large waves to turn the boat into them. The change on his face from smiling to grimly focused scared me.


So, when I read this gospel lesson, I am right on board with those disciples, knowing all about the fear of waves and storms. Jesus is not rowing.  He is asleep on a cushion.  So, while it was only on his orders that they had to “go to the other side,” putting them in this pickle, he isn’t helping at all.  And like me, they thought they were going to die.  We could take a simplistic surface view of this story and chalk it up simply as a miracle story of Jesus having authority over the wind and waves and move on with a “Trust and Obey” kind of hymn. And there would be nothing wrong with that.


But Jesus' question to them, “Why are you afraid?” (Other translations say, “Why are you cowardly?”) piques my curiosity.  Doesn’t it yours too?  To look a bit deeper, it’s helpful to explore the context of looking for the author’s placement and possible purpose in telling this story here in this way, as well as knowing a bit about the culture and geographical/demographic layout of the area.


So far in Mark, Jesus has been teaching and healing among the predominantly Jewish population on the right side of the lake to the point he’s exhausted.  Suddenly, with no warning, he is throwing a huge monkey wrench in his Jewish disciples’ wheelhouse stating flatly – “Let’s go to the other side.”  The other side of the dividing line – the Sea of Galilee – where on the other side meant going to the Gentile side, the side where no good Jews go.  The side where the riff-raff, weirdos, and unclean live.   So, the weather disturbance taking place on the water also perhaps reflects the disciples’ internal emotional state and discomfort being pushed out of their comfort zone.  He is pushing them beyond their safe boundaries.  And maybe I’m alone, but I always feel a little edgy or a crabby pants when I’m pushed out there.  In the disciples’ minds, a taboo is being broken, and meanwhile, Jesus is sleeping on a cushion.


The other note I can add is the gospel’s structural setup.  This story is happening as Jesus’ venue of ministry takes a marked shift.  What immediately follows this passage is that they land at Gennesaret, where they come upon the crazy man with a legion of demons in the cemetery; then, on those heels, they have Jairus’ dead daughter to deal with and the woman who had been bleeding for years.  So Jesus is widening faith’s boundaries – he’s reaching out to a far wider circle of hurting people where wealth, nationality, gender, and religion do not matter.  Along with this inclusiveness, is also woven Jesus’ sense of justice.  For Jesus, there is no partiality.  Oppression is oppression – in death, in mental state, in health, in spirit and it is incumbent on the faithful, if you’re going to be hanging out with Jesus, to be laboring for the sake of justice.


So, knowing what we know now, we return to Jesus’ words and his question: Are we afraid or cowardly?   Is our faith boundary set to avoid challenge and change?  If we stay in our safe harbors, letting Jesus snooze in the back seat, is anything won for the Realm of God?  Most of us may not feel like we’re in a storm-tossed boat. But was Jesus aiming his criticism at their fear of the storm or was it aimed at their inner grumblings of having to open their safe zone to mingle with Gentiles?  And to bring the question home, perhaps uncomfortably so, of whom are we afraid, or where is our cowardliness holding us back?  You can hear me starting to make the shift here  – where I’m posing the questions not just for you personally but also for the group/community setting.  All of Jesus’ disciples in this day.


If we can answer the who we’re afraid of question, then we can ask what is the faithful response?  In short, the answer is simple.  “Get in the boat.”  There is an old Christian symbol of a cross in a boat. We’re living in the boat. The waves around us can be or are substantial – personal and the church and the country writ large.  There are storms underway.  But without faith to steer the boat - informed by Jesus’ own acts -- WE are libel to drift either into purposeless anxiety or a stagnant backwater where change is not even possible. These same cowering disciples went out not just across the lake to the other side – but across out of their known world in order to bring Jesus faith and justice to a planet – the size of which they could not begin to imagine.  So I leave you with this to ponder and perhaps discuss among yourselves in the coming weeks or months.  What’s steering the Vashon United Methodist Church boat?  Is it Jesus-faith & justice?  Or is it fear?  Where are you being called?  Across to the other side?  Or closer amongst your own?   Amen.  

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