Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 24, 2018, 10:30 AM, Proper 7B
διδάσκαλε, οὐ μέλει σοι ὅτι ἀπολλύμεθα; καὶ διεγερθεὶς ἐπετίμησεν τῷ ἀνέμῳ καὶ εἶπεν τῇ θαλάσσῃ· σιώπα, πεφίμωσο. καὶ ἐκόπασεν ὁ ἄνεμος καὶ ἐγένετο γαλήνη μεγάλη. καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· τί δειλοί ἐστε; οὔπω ἔχετε πίστιν; καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν καὶ ἔλεγον πρὸς ἀλλήλους· τίς ἄρα οὗτός ἐστιν ὅτι καὶ ὁ ἄνεμος καὶ ἡ θάλασσα ὑπακούει αὐτῷ;
“Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying?” So, [Jesus] got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Quiet down! Stifle!” And the wind moderated and became quite calm. Then he said to them, “Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith left?” But they feared greatly and said to each other, “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:38b-41)
Ridiculous! The boat is sinking, and all of the qualified sailors on board are standing at the rear of the boat yelling at a sleeping landlubber to save them! I’m not sure that it would increase my confidence during an inflight storm to witness a airline crew gathering around a religion professor’s seat in coach class—coach class is where religion professors have to ride—yelling at the groggy academic to do something to save the airplane. I’ve always admired how Jesus showed his faith in his nautical disciples’ by sleeping through the storm, but it has always seemed ludicrous to me how those same experienced men dropped their lines and their oars in the middle of a storm wade through the rising water in the boat to berate Jesus for sleeping. What exactly did these terrified disciples expect Jesus to do about their situation, anyway? Maybe he was just supposed to wake up and be terrified with them. Or maybe, just maybe, they thought that Jesus could actually stop the storm.
My money’s on that last explanation. I can’t imagine experienced sailors leaving their posts even under the direst circumstances to wake up the sleeping rabbi unless they believed the dozing scholar could actually improve things. Otherwise, I see them shortening sail, rowing into the swells and continuting to use their lifelong knowledge and training to get the boat onto the basalt strewn shore of Lake Kinneret, Jesus had no nautical expertise that they needed, and there were other non-nautical disciples on board if they just needed additional muscle to save the boat. No, something told Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee that their best chance lay with the sleeping master who never showed any expert knowledge of sailing but whom they believed had the power of God to save them.
In other words, the disciples believed Jesus could save them. So why did he ask them why they had all become cowards and lost their faith?
Belief is a wonderful thing, of course—until it isn’t. I once had a student spend almost an hour explaining to me why he believed evolution was false and why he thought I should accept the literal six days of Genesis, chapter one, as the true picture of how biological life came into existence. He had done lots of homework to prepare his argument, and his mastery of biological terminology certainly trumped mine. If he was looking for me to defend biological science to him, he had come to the wrong office because I had taken my one botany course in college and realized that my high calling probably didn’t involve the biological sciences. Finally, impressed with the amount of data the young man had thrown at me, data I was incompetent to judge, I asked him what his major was.
He was pre-med.
I shudder to think that one of these days I may encounter this former student of mine in an emergency room under life-threatening circumstances, knowing that he doesn’t believe in the fundamental axiom of modern biological science: evolution. Now I don’t doubt that he believed with all his heart that Darwin was wrong and that the Priestly author of Genesis had a corner on scientific truth. I’m not sure, though, that my confidence in the sincerity of his beliefs would give me much comfort with my life on the line.
I used to play a little game with my students, usually on the cloudiest, rainiest day of the semester in order to talk with them about belief and faith. “How many of you,” I would ask, “believe that I have a pilot’s license with an instrument rating and could drive out to the airport, crank up an airplane and shoot instrument approaches in this weather?” On a good day, about half the class, sometimes a few more, would raise their hands. After all, it cost them nothing to raise their hands in agreement, and who wants to offend the professor? “Fine,” I would continue, “now which ones of you would be willing to ride out to the airport and go fly those approaches with me?” I did make the mistake of asking that once of a class that contained a student I had flown with once, and he kept his hand raised; but usually all of the hands would go down.
That, I told them, was the difference between belief and faith. The first show of hands demonstrated belief, but the second, non-showing of hands, demonstrated my students’ faith in my instrument flying abilities: zilch. They had no faith in my piloting skills. Belief is a wonderful thing, but faith consists of putting your life on the line, strapping yourself into the motorized tin can and trusting the Hebrew professor to be competent to fly you around on instruments.
The disciples believed. They believed Jesus could save them. They believed he was the Son of God. They believed that he sit at the right hand of God in the highest heaven. But evidently, they also believed that Jesus needed a little help staying on task. He needed some waking up and a little public shaming to do what they believed he could do. What the fearful sailors didn’t yet have was faith in Jesus, faith that awake or asleep, he was their savior. Belief could only get them so far; and when they were completely frightened by the extraordinary storm, they abandoned their posts so as to help the Son of God out a little bit by rousing him from his slumber lest they drown in the wind-swept waters and lest the kingdom of God sink to the bottom of the Sea of Galilee! Read the headlines: “God’s kingdom lost in a freak storm!” Fear doesn’t make us the most logical of creatures, does it?
Trinity’s Bible Study has been exploring Mark’s radical idea of faith this winter and spring, the faith that leads a woman to risk everything just to touch Jesus’s garment for healing, the radical faith that causes blind Bartimaeus to leap up from his begging spot at the gates of Jericho towards the sound of Jesus’s voice, risking his neck to beg Jesus for the gift of sight. We read about St. Peter’s absurdly wild and to some treasonous declaration before the citadel of paganism at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Messiah. Faith in Mark is always doing something, is always strapping yourself into the flying tin can, risking everything for the kingdom.
Over the past months, I have been reading Robert Merritt’s history of Trinity Church; and the thing that impresses me is that we have no business being here at all. The proportion of Episcopalians in Mt. Airy in the 19th century was even less than the proportion in 2018, and those who gathered to worship were by no means wealthy or influential people. And even when they did manage to get together to read morning prayer together, they had to depend on the chaity of the Methodists to lend them space in which to do so. Bishop Ives dropped by once to confirm two sisters, but the date and place are uncertain. The records tell us of the actions of people by the names of Fawcett, Graves, and Ausley in administering the affairs of a church that existed more in their hearts and hopes than in stone and mortar. Various clergy show themselves on the pages of our history, but they come and go. Most commuted from somewhere else. But the bedrock faith of the people of Trinity strapped themselves in the tin can and trusted that it would fly. God would take care of the saving work, and these hardy believers would take care of the tiny budget, the handcrafts of ministry, the prayers and the trust.
And Trinity finds itself called no less today to such a reckless faith than the reckless faith the Woodroffes, the Fawcetts, Mrs. Isabel Graves, C. W. Banner, D. A. Houston, and so many others exhibited in committing themselves to Trinity Church when Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States. How foolish of them to think that such a small group could witness to Christ and minister to this community with so few resources and so little prospect that hordes of Anglicans would suddenly appear in Surry County to take up the slack or that armies of priests would take up residence here to serve them. They simply followed Bartimaeus in jumping up and risking their livelihoods and good names to follow Jesus. And as we look to the months ahead, to the work of calling a new rector, to the continuation of our efforts to feed hungry people and provide the sick with equipment they need, of celebrating the sacraments and thereby sanctifying life in this place, we can only look foolish to some in our risky faith; but that shoestring of risky faith is our heritage and our hope.