A sermon preached on June 24th, 2012, on the occasion of the baptism of Christopher, the son of Dan and Sharon, and based upon Mark 4:35 – 41.
I want to start off with this quote from CS Lewis:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements…”
Sharon and Dan, what were you thinking? You had it good. Your life was manageable, relatively secure, with plenty of free time to pursue your interests. Your fears were relatively few.
But then you got it into your head that you wanted to give your love to a child, and the whole process of adoption put your through a whirlwind of heart-wrenching emotions. When you finally were given custody of Christopher you rejoiced. But in truth, children spell trouble with a capital T, and your troubles were only beginning.
He’ll take your money. He’ll take your time. He’ll take your energy. He’ll take your sleep.
What were you thinking?
But alas, you felt a great, irresistible desire to give your love to a child.
But you did know what you were doing. You knew that in the end, life is about love, and so you followed your heart’s desire.
Here is how CS Lewis’ quote continues:
“Lock it (that is, your heart) up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” (The Four Loves)
To love is to set yourself up for pain, but, as Lewis points out, to withhold your heart from love is to choose to live a life that isn’t really life at all. A loveless life is a life not worth living, an irredeemable life.
But here’s part of what is so difficult about love, and maybe about loving a child in particular.
It opens you up to so much fear.
It’s terrifying to think about all the things that could happen to Christopher – to any child. Starting off with the basics: disease, accidents, harm from dangerous people. Take a simple thing like getting into your car. Before it was no big deal. But now, the potential threats are unmistakable. All those signs you see in car windows – “baby on board” – you understand now the fear from which they arise.
Beyond the basics, there are more generalized fears: What if I lose my job? Before, it might have been a challenge, causing some anxiety, but still, easier to view as an opportunity – to find a better job, to do something new and different. But now losing a job would threaten your capacity to provide for your child, and the thought it brings terror.
It puts all those distressing statistics regarding the economy in a new perspective. This summer 115,000 people in the United States will cease contributing to the unemployment rate, not because they’ve found work but because their unemployment benefits will expire. How many of these people are supporting children who count on them to provide a roof over their head, and so much more?
Fear plays a big part in this morning’s Gospel story.
It’s the end of the day. Jesus has been teaching from a boat to crowds of people on the shore. He says to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” And the disciples set sail as the sun sets, and Jesus falls asleep. Now to this day, on this particular lake storms are known to blow up suddenly without warning. You start out with calm, and find yourself out in the middle of the lake with violent winds and waves. It happened all the time, and people died routinely on that lake.
And out there in the pitch black darkness, a storm suddenly blew up, and quite understandably, the disciples were terrified.
It’s not hard to imagine them thinking in the midst of their terror: why did we get in this boat? What were we thinking? It wasn’t necessary. There was plenty to keep us occupied on that side of the Lake. We should never have gotten in the boat in the first place.
But they loved Jesus, and so they got into the boat because that is what he had told them to do. And love, as Lewis reminds us, brings trouble into our lives. The waves start pouring over the side of the boat, and they just may sink, and they are full of fear – who wouldn’t be?
And when people become afraid, they often get angry on top of that fear. But the fear is the first emotion, but often gets lost in our conversations, our arguments. For instance, a teenager and a parent get into a heated argument over how late the teenager is loud to out with the car, and what’s behind the conversation is fear, the teenager’s fear of missing out, of being left behind by some peers who will definitely be out late, and a parent’s fear about all the things that could harm their beloved child.
If the parent and the child could speak honestly about their respective fears, the conversation might actually go somewhere constructive, but instead, they just lash out at each other. We often find it easier to express our anger rather than our fear, because we are loathe to admit just how vulnerable we feel.
So the disciples lash out at Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?!”
Jesus wakes up. He’s been sleeping like a baby, and probably he’s confused at first, startled. He gets up, commands the waves and wind to cool it. And suddenly the wind stops blowing, and the waves settle down nice and calm.
And then Jesus expresses a little anger of his own. “Why are you afraid? Are you still without faith?”
One way — a common way — of taking this story is that it is a call to have stronger faith, to not be so fearful in the face of the scary things in life. And that makes some sense, and has some value. It is helpful for me when I am aware of fear arising within me to try and remember this story, to remember Jesus saying, “Why are you afraid? Are you still lacking faith?” And maybe in doing so I’m encouraged to put my energy, as far as it is in my power, into trust rather than to fear.
But that works only to a point.
Fear has a life of its own, like the storms that arise so unexpectedly on the lake. Fear isn’t something I can just tell myself not to have. Oh, wouldn’t life be easy if that were the case.
One difficulty with this common interpretation of the story is that it can lead us to despair – to feeling bad about ourselves and hopeless regarding the fact that our faith doesn’t seem as strong as it is supposed to be.
But if you step back a bit and look at this story, you realize that the story is saying something more than simply “You ought to have more faith!”
First off, these are the disciples we’re talking about, the guys Jesus personally chose to follow him, to live in his company, and every single one of them are overcome with fear. With the exception of Jesus himself, there are no spiritual elites here that we are encouraged to model ourselves after. And in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly presented as being in altogether different category from the rest of us – I mean, “even the wind and the wave obey him.” They don’t obey us, that’s for sure.
So we ordinary, mortal human beings — we’re all in this boat together.
And secondly, it is easy to overlook the fact that the disciples are helped in spite of the fact that they apparently don’t have much faith. In other words, this isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus and how faithful HE is.
And when we recognize this, it takes some of the pressure off us, and allows us to experience the grace of the story. I may not have a clue, but still, Jesus loves me, and Jesus is on my side, and Jesus has the power I do not have to still the storms of my life.
The story can be seen as a sort of re-enactment of what the parables Jesus was teaching just before they got into the boat. The kingdom of God is like a seed planted in the ground, that grows into something large and life giving. How does this happen? It certainly isn’t the farmer’s doing. You and me — We don’t make the kingdom of God happen. The best we can hope to do is to recognize the signs of the kingdom’s presence. At the end of the story, the disciples are left awe-struck by the grace and power of the Lord which is beyond their understanding.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the disciples it is simply to be more up front about their fear and vulnerability. Their response to the danger is a fear-based accusation – anger masking terror: “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?” What if they could have simply come to Jesus and said honestly: “Teacher, we’re terrified and we need your help”?
But keep in mind, even though they come to Jesus leading with their anger rather than honestly admitting their fear, Jesus still cares for them.
Throughout the Bible, we hear these four little words, “Do not be afraid!” on the lips of prophets, apostles and angels. A big part of what Christian community is about is that we get to take turns saying these words to one another in the times when the winds blow, and the waves crash into our boats, and we are terrified.
And so we pledge to say these words to you, Sharon and Dan, when parenting gets scary. And sometimes we’ll need you to say it to us as well. And slowly, without fully noticing, through many stumblings we will move forward to a stronger trust that in fact, Jesus is always with us in our boats, no matter what, and we can follow where he leads us.