In the news this past week, Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was in Britain this past week, addressing both houses of Parliament. She was there to ask Britain, and others, to help the movement of change in her country toward democracy and to be the “watchdogs” as these changes begin to take shape and form. After over 15 years of house arrest and harassment by the Burmese military leadership, Suu Kyi, now leads her country forward toward a parliamentary democracy, having just won a seat in the elections earlier this year. Watching her on the news, this past week, I heard her say these words: “the only real prison is fear.”
Real fear was certainly a reality of the disciples as they were in the boat that evening with Jesus. Jesus is with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee – really a medium sized lake. He has spent the day teaching beside the water – and many people came to hear him teach, so many people, that Jesus decides to gain a little distance and climbs into one of the boats. People surround him on the land, and more than a few are likely standing knee deep in the water as they listen to him speak.
From that boat, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, using stories and images that people could relate to – a sower and some seed, a plant growing, hiding a lamp under a bushel basket, a tiny mustard seed. Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus spoke to the people in parables, “but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” He explained everything to those he called his friends and his close circle, just in case there was misunderstanding, just in case things weren’t clear to them.
When evening has come, and the crowds are slowly dissipating, Jesus says to his disciples, let’s go across the lake – to the other side. So they set sail for the other side. As they are in the boat, as the darkness envelopes them, the wind begins to stir, eventually so much so that it whips up the waves into a froth and tosses their little boat around like a toy. Water rushes into the boat. Now is the time to panic. Naturally, the disciples are afraid and they cry out, “Don’t you care that we are dying here?!” Awakened by their cries, and their fear, Jesus who had been sleeping calmly at the back of the boat, gets up and says to the wind, “Peace! Be still!” And miraculously the wind obeys. The lake calms, the wind disappears, and the stars chart their course once again. But now the disciples are filled with a greater awe, a greater fear: Who is this? That even the wind and sea obey him?
As one commentary puts it, “Mark’s gospel likes to give us a picture of chaos with Jesus at the edge of it and in complete control over it.” If we read further on in Mark, that evening Jesus and his disciples are heading across the water toward another chaotic situation. When they arrive in Gesara, they will meet the demoniac there, a madman so filled with demons that he has the entire village in a state of fear. There too, Jesus will master the situation, create peace, and the crowd will be filled with fear.
The wind obeys Jesus, just as the demons recognize and obey him too. Wouldn’t it be great if we too could control things that way?
We, as humans, have always tried. From the moment in our history when we grouped together to ward off predators – learning that there was power and protection in numbers. Or when we discovered fire: we learned that with fire we could keep the darkness at bay, and all the fear that came with darkness. And we still try. In our modern quest for control, we diverted whole rivers and their ecosystems for hydroelectric power, we split atoms for induced nuclear fission in our nuclear power facilities, we make wind turbines to harness the energy of the wind for our own use. We have learned that we can control things, even nature.
But often that notion of control comes crashing in on us.
In March of 2011 nature had its own way with us. The earthquake and resulting tsunami off the coast of Japan sent the country, and others across the globe, into panic and chaos. Whole villages were swept away. We were witness to trucks being tossed around like toy cars, boats landing on top of buildings, houses washed away, people gone forever. And as horrendous as that was, Japan then faced a nuclear power meltdown. We learned that the Fukushima- Daiichi nuclear power plant was failing and releasing radioactive materials into the soil, water, and atmosphere. More chaos and more fear.
The notion of control comes crashing in on us, in our own personal tsunami’s as well – where life takes us or our loved ones on paths we didn’t want to take or were not ready to take. Where we have to face things over which we wish we had control and simply do not. So we fear and we lose faith. These are the moments when we learn, once again, that that we are not Creator, but only creature. We prefer roadmaps, instead of wandering in the wilderness.
It is tempting both as a preacher to veer off and go directly to the maps; to offer up a nice and tidy package at the end of a sermon – and to look like I have the answers, instead of staying in the ambiguity and in the questions. But that is not faith. It is fear. And I have fallen prey to that more often than not, I must confess.
John Shelby Spong writes this about Mark’s gospel: “The climax of Mark is the story of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. So impressive is this moment in understanding the meaning of Jesus that Mark devotes almost forty percent of his gospel to the last week in the life of Jesus.”
In whatever map that shows us the way, or in any storm that heads across our path, all we can really do is respond with faith to the One who came to show us God’s love and who went to the cross for us. The disciples in the boat that night had some inkling of it: they cried out to the one they trusted could save them.
But as creatures go, they lost sight of it again. The crucifixion of their teacher and saviour sent them into a tailspin. They became afraid, again. They thought they were next to face the cross. They thought they had been wrong about it all. There was no more control, there were no more answers. In that crisis, they forgot that to look with faith at Jesus – Jesus who could still the wind and the water, who could command the demons, and who faced death on a cross for love’s sake - to look at this Jesus was and is to look at God in their midst. “Have you still no faith?” Jesus asks.
In one of my favorite movies, “Under a Tuscan Sun”… the real estate agent, Signor Martini, who helps the main character, Frances, buy a house in Tuscany tells her a story when she is feeling quite despondent and wondering where her life is going. Frances has experienced a hurtful divorce and is still reeling from all that it means for her life. Signor Martini, who becomes her friend, tells her the story of the railway they built through the Alps in the 1800’s to connect Vienna to Venice. In the Alps there is a section called the Semmering, it is a very steep, very high part of the mountains. He tells her, “They built a train track over these alps. They built these tracks even before there was a train that could make the trip. They built it because they knew someday, the train would come.”
Have faith. This is what Jesus is asking of us. Do not be afraid… but believe.
Jesus says to us, “Have faith in who I am and what I have done. Have faith in what I have taught you. Believe that the kingdom is among you and within you. Don’t be afraid. Fear will keep you in prison, it will trap you. Instead be free in my love for you. And know always, that whatever the journey, whatever the chaos and fear, I am with you. I will still the storm and I will give you peace.”
Pr. Katherine Altenburg