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From Fear to Faith

Lessons: Mark 4:35-43; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

When I chose these passages we hadn’t yet planned to celebrate the ordination and installation of new officers today. This morning, I’m wondering whether Paul’s description of his experience as a leader in the early church might send our brand new elders and deacons running for the door: “[A]s servants of God,” he writes, “we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger …”[1] Yikes. Maybe it’s not just the new officers that are looking around for the exit right now.

In the 1st century church, Paul had to deal with persecution, whether you had to convert to Judaism in order to be a Christian, and here, with the Corinthian church, whether some Christians were just more spiritual than others and deserved special treatment. In the 21st century, we face other issues: How do we deal with entrenched racism and privilege? How do we respond to the climate crisis? What is our role when our own government authorizes cruel policies like putting small children into detention centers without their parents? Who do we become when the culture around us seems to prefer individualism and consumerism to community, a livable planet and the flourishing of the human spirit? I’m not saying any of that is worse than beatings or imprisonment, but it makes perfect sense to me that our church leaders might be afraid.

So – what moves people from fear to faith? That’s the question raised by the story in Mark. This is the kind of story that gives some people fits because they just don’t believe it really happened. But “Did it really happen?” isn’t the question. The question is, “What does it mean?” What does it mean to the 21st century church?

Both fear and faith make sense only in relation to something that’s unknown, challenging, difficult, or threatening. Those are the kinds of things that make us afraid, right? And when you stop to think about it, it’s those same things that summon us to have the faith to face them. I don’t think fear and faith are mutually exclusive. Faith doesn’t so much overcome fear as it does make it possible to cope with it. Maybe that’s the issue here: Not whether you’re afraid, but how you respond when you’re afraid. So what allows us, even if we are afraid of something that is unknown, challenging, difficult, or threatening, to act in faith rather than be paralyzed by fear?

What struck me about the Mark passage is that it isn’t the miracle Jesus performs that makes the difference. The disciples actually seem more afraid after the miracle. I’m not so sure they weren’t just complaining rather than panicking when they woke Jesus: “Hey, Jesus, don’t you even care? This trip was your idea, and you’re supposed to be steering this boat!”[2] We might think a miracle or two would help us find our faith when things are scary, but that’s not the case here, or throughout Mark, for that matter. The disciples have seen plenty of miracles so far, but they still don’t know what to expect from Jesus or even who he is. Miracles, it turns out, are ambiguous.

There is a poignant scene in the otherwise extremely violent film “Pulp Fiction,”[3] when two hit men, Jules and Vincent, are in a diner, trying to come to terms with a narrow escape from death. Jules thinks it was a miracle, but Vincent disagrees. After defining a miracle as “God making the impossible possible,” Vincent argues that their escape from death earlier that day doesn’t qualify. Jules answers, “Don’t you see, Vincent, that…doesn’t matter. You’re judging this thing the wrong way. …. You don’t judge [stuff] like this on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch. God got involved.”

“I felt God’s touch. God got involved.” Something like that, I think, is happening in Mark’s story. The shift in the disciples’ reaction, from “don’t you care” to “who is this,” is a shift from what (the miracle), to who (Jesus).