Mark 4:35-41 — Courage


A sermon preached on June 20th, 2021 – Father’s Day — based upon Mark 4:35-41 entitled, “Courage.”

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he 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?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So, it’s Father’s Day, which invites reflection about parenting, and particular the parenting of Dads.

You can think of the task of parenting as having two parts.

The first revolves around the home, and ideally involves lots of unconditional love, creating an atmosphere of safety and security where a child can thrive and feel a profound sense of belonging.

The second task of parenting moves in a different direction.  It involves leading into an unknown world with all its opportunities but also potential threats, encouraging the child to move away from the safety and security of the home. The object is for the child to become less dependent upon their parents, and more independent. The love involved in this second task could be described as a harder sort of love than the one characterizing the first task.  Sometimes it involves pushing the child to go beyond their comfort zone and to find within themselves the courage to face their fears.

Both tasks are essential, and rely upon one another.  Without a strong foundation of unconditional love in the safety of home, it will be hard for the child to go out into the world.  On the other hand, a child who is never encouraged to engage the world outside the home will suffocate in the narrow confinement of the home. Such a child won’t be given the opportunity to become the person God created them to be.

Traditionally, mothers have played the dominant role in the first task, and fathers in the second, but in the rapidly changing world in which we live ideally both mothers and fathers will be engaged in both tasks: fathers in the nurture of home – mothers in the pushing of the child “out of the nest” to establish independence.

In the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as the spiritual parent of his disciples, his spiritual children.  Jesus surely nurtured his disciples like a traditional mother, but in the stories we hear in the Gospels he more commonly functions like the traditional father.

For one thing, throughout his ministry Jesus never had a home to retreat to – he had, as he said, “no place to lay his head.”  During his time with the disciples they were constantly on the move.

And one thing we see repeatedly in the Gospels is Jesus intentionally challenging the disciples to step out of their comfort zones in order to face their fears and learn to trust, and a prime example of this is the story we just heard.

The ancient Jews who ventured out onto the waters of the sea of Galilee were quite conscious that to do so could be very dangerous.  The Sea of Galilee was famous for the violent storms that would suddenly blow across the waters. People routinely lost their lives out in boats in such storms.

And so, it is a striking detail that in Mark’s short Gospel, on four different occasions – the first of which is our morning’s Gospel reading — Jesus takes his disciples out in a small boat on those deep waters, with at least two of these trips – including the one we just heard – occurring at night.  Sailing by boat was certainly a faster way to get to the land on the other side of the sea, but it wasn’t like they couldn’t have gotten there soon enough by simply walking around the lake.  The impression you get is that Jesus led them out on that little boat on the deep, dark waters in order to take them out of their comfort zone as a part of the process of their spiritual formation.

So, the sun was setting as they set out on the sea.  Jesus was tired, and soon was sleeping like a baby in the stern of the boat.

Before long though the winds picked up, and soon were blowing mightily and the waves were crashing into their boat, and terror filled the hearts of the disciples.  And for good reason.  Consider the fact that whatever little light there would have been to see by on a clear night would have disappeared in the midst of a storm, so they wouldn’t have been able to see a thing, intensifying the sense of terror.  They would have had to grope about in the darkness to locate Jesus, asleep so soundly in the boat.

The words they cry out in awakening him express a mixture of fear and anger, “Teacher, do you not care of we perish?”  They do not understand the mystery that is Jesus, but they know that God is at work in him.  As they feel their lives threatened, the trustworthiness of this God is starkly questioned. Does God really care for us, or not?

Jesus does not immediately respond to his disciples’ question. He rises and rebukes the wind, like he had rebuked the demonic spirits, and commands the waters: “Peace!  Be Still!” and the sea obeys him. A great calm descended upon the waters.

It was only then with the object of their fear removed that Jesus turned back to his disciples and asks, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

I think that often we hear these words and imagine them spoken with irritation in Jesus’ voice.  “Don’t be such wusses!  Come on, get it together!” 

And yet it was perfectly reasonable for the disciples to have been afraid.

Perhaps it is better to hear Jesus words – to use the image that Jesus himself had used earlier in the day as he was teaching the crowds in parables – as seeds for reflection he was taking this moment to plant in their hearts – this moment when the fear within them had risen so powerfully to the surface.

“Why are you afraid?  Where is your faith?”

These aren’t questions he expected them to immediately give an answer to right there on the spot. Rather, these were questions for the disciples to ponder – to return to again and again in the course of their lives moving forward.

I’ve been studying the life of John Wesley recently and sharing what I’ve learned with those of you who have been joining me on Zoom on Monday evenings. It is striking that Wesley had an experience quite similar to that of the disciples that night – one pivotal in his spiritual journey.

It occurred when he was 33.  At this point Wesley is an Anglican priest, and has been very serious — very intentional about his life as a Christian for about 12 years.  His father, an Anglican priest had put some pressure on John to come back home from Oxford to take over parish he served – a pretty safe and familiar route. It is striking that it was John’s mother Susanna rather than his father who seemed to have encouraged their son to explore broader horizons.

After John’s father’s death early in 1736 perhaps John felt free to follow the restless longings of his soul to pursue adventure.  He accepted an invitation from the Governor of the colony of Georgia to come and serve there.  He sets sail for the new world, his fellow passengers on the ship made of two separate groups of people.  Some were from England and at least nominally Christian, while others were devout Moravian Christians fleeing religious persecution in Germany, who impressed Wesley greatly with their humility and sense of calm.

At one point during the voyage a terrifying storm blew up. Wesley found himself deeply afraid of dying.  His equally terrified fellow English passengers turned to him for spiritual comfort.  Wesley did his best to put up a good front, leading them in prayer. He baptized a baby at a mother’s request when she feared for the soul of her child with death seemingly at hand.

At some point Wesley left the English to go and look in on the Moravians in a different cabin, finding them calmly in the midst of a prayer and hymn service.  At that moment a huge wave hit the ship, breaking the main sail.  Water poured down into the cabins.  Wesley was terrified, and he could hear his fellow English passengers screaming in horror, and yet through it all the Moravians remained calm, continuing on with their prayers and hymn singing.  Wesley was amazed.

After several hours the storm subsided. Wesley questioned one of the Moravians as to whether he had been afraid, and believed the man when he answered, “I thank God, no.”  The man had been ready to go to his God if he had died that night.

Wesley described all that happened that day in the journal he kept daily.  At the end of his account, he writes this peculiar summation:

“This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.”

What made such an experience so “glorious”?

It’s hard to say for sure, but what he had experienced that day would be one he would continually return to in his reflections on his spiritual journey.  The experience seems to have planted those same seeds – questions to live with – that Jesus had planted in the hearts of his disciples the night he stilled the waters:

Why are you afraid?

Where is your faith?

Two things had been revealed clearly to Wesley in his experience in the storm:

First, that he wasn’t the person he had wanted to see himself as – that fear lived inside him that could overwhelm what he had thought of as his “faith”.

And second, that he had witnessed living examples of people who had somehow entered more deeply into the grace of God in such a way that they had been delivered from their bondage to fear, and that therefore the possibility existed that he could as well.

His time in Georgia was brief, lasting less than two years.  It didn’t go well, and he experienced things that further revealed a brokenness within him he had not previously acknowledged.

Wesley returned to England, and began attending meetings of some of the Moravians in residence there, which is where he had his famous experience of having his “heart strangely warmed”, experiencing inwardly that his sins indeed had been forgiven.

About a year later Wesley would take another step out of his comfort zone, embracing an invitation to go and preach outside of church buildings, in the open fields to the masses of poor people who lived in England in those days — a class of people entirely different from those with whom he was accustomed to associating. In stepping out in faith in spite of fear, Wesley found the vocation that would hold his attention through the rest of his life.

John Wesley was an imperfect, flawed man to the end of his life, but he accomplished extraordinary good in fulfilling his vocation. As time passed the fear within him lessened.  There were numerous occasions in the course of his ministry when Wesley would face angry mobs that were threatening to kill him and who were quite capable of doing so, in the face of which Wesley would remain remarkably calm.  Some times that very quality of calm would disarm those who came to him intent on violence.

Finding deeper freedom from his bondage to fear was an ongoing process — one similar to that of the disciples with Jesus.  The disciples’ experience that night on the boat didn’t take away their fear – far from it.  They would show that oh-so-clearly the night they fled in terror when Jesus was arrested, their fear keeping them from doing what they wanted to do, which was to stand by Jesus in his hour of need.  But we also know that over time, as they followed in the way of Jesus and trusted his ongoing presence in their lives, their fear receded.

We, too would do well to receive those seeds Jesus planted in his disciples’ hearts – to live with intentionally with the questions he asked:

First:  What are you afraid of?

Ponder your fears, and explore their meaning. Are your fears realistic, or unrealistic?  Are your fears running your life, holding you back from living the life God is calling you to live?  Fear can be very powerful, but by refusing to explore them we give our fears even more power than they should rightfully possess.  Unexplored fears can swallow up our lives.

And second:  Where is your faith?

Faith is related to courage, and unfortunately courage is routinely misunderstood as being the absence of fear.

There are rare souls who, like the Moravians on that boat have — through the grace of God — reached a state of total freedom from fear.

But they are an extreme rarity.

Typically, people who present an image to the world of proud fearlessness are either 1) so careful to avoid stepping out of their comfort zone that they never give themelves the opportunity to confront the fear that lives within them, or 2) they are simply play acting.

Sometimes faking it till you make it can be helpful.  But oftentimes faking fearlessness can be very destructive.  Often such fakery occurs in men who are desperately trying to live out a stereotype that defines a “real man” as somebody who knows no fear.  It can lead them to commit acts of violence in order to try to prove to themselves that they are fearless tough guys.

So, the courage that is akin to faith isn’t the absence of fear but rather the willingness to do what needs to be done even when we are afraid.  It is the willingness to step out of our comfort zone when that’s what is required of us.

The more we practice courage and take baby steps towards facing down our fears, the less fear will hold us hostage.

So to return to that second task of parenting, traditionally associated with fathers but also a part of what mothers do, isn’t about telling the child when they are afraid, “Shut your crying and stop being such a weenie!” Rather, it’s more like saying, “I know this is scary, but I also believe that you have the capacity within you to do it anyway.  And if the waters get rough, I’ll be here for you.

Unfortunately, too often children grow up without men actively involved in raising them to adulthood. Both girls and boys suffer from this.  For boys the absence of father figures can mean they grow up without examples to look to as they try to figure out what it means for them to be a man.

Father figures are really important.

I read this moving article about a 56 year old man named Rob Kenney – a pretty ordinary guy who during the pandemic became a YouTube sensation with a channel he named, “Dad, How Do I?”  Rob was the youngest of six children of parents who divorced when he was ten.  Because of his mother’s alcoholism the children had no choice but to live with their father, but after only two years their father announced to his kids that he was done with parenting and took off.  At the age of twelve Rob went to live with his newly married 23-year-old brother.

In spite of the wounds he suffered from parental abandonment, with the support of his siblings and the Christian faith Rob embraced he grew up to be a happily married father who raised two children to adulthood.  Knowing the importance of having a dad to teach the little practical things of life, with the help of his internet savvy daughter Rob began posting short instructional videos on everything from how to tie a tie, fix a running toilet and manage money, all delivered with a style gentle and down to earth.  Rob imagined perhaps a few dozen subscribers might find what he had to offer helpful. He was stunned and rather overwhelmed when before long he had three million subscribers.  Unknowingly, Jim’s simple YouTube videos spoke to a great father hunger in a great many young people. Endless comments of sincere appreciation moved Jim to tears.

Most cultures throughout human history have had what are called “rites of passage” – established rituals through which boys are initiated into the life of the adult men of their tribe.  These rites of passage were often quite painful, forcing the boy to confront his fear and undergo a kind of symbolic death and resurrection experience.

Our culture lacks such clearly defined rituals, and we suffer for it with countless males plagued by self-doubt.

I once heard a story of a Native American rite of passage.  As a 12 year old boy is just drifting off to sleep in his mother’s teepee, suddenly raucous adult males from his tribe – one of which is the boy’s father – suddenly swoop in with loud shouts, hoisting the boy up out of his bed and carrying him off into the dark forest. He is taken deep into the forest where he is tied to a tree and then left alone to listen through a night of terror to the sounds of the forest – sounds the boy imagines might be a bear coming to devour him.

As the sun finally rises after the long night of terror, the boy begins to make out the figure of a seated man perhaps a hundred feet away. As the light increases, he recognizes the man – he is father who has been quietly sitting there through the night watching over his son.  He had, in fact always been safe through the long night.

The boy is now a man.

The spiritual journey that Jesus invites us to embrace is one that is leading to such a place.  That in spite of all that is truly frightening in this world, there is a place deep down where no matter what — whether we live or whether we die — God’s love prevails.