Monday, June 25, 2012


Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Phalacrophobia: the irrational fear of becoming bald.
Gelotophobia: the irrational fear of being laughed at.
Ablutophobia: the irrational fear of bathing.

Perhaps you’ve seen lists of strange phobias like those. You might also be familiar with the more common phobias: arachnophobia (spiders), acrophobia (heights), claustrophobia (enclosed spaces). Fear – both rational and irrational – is a huge part of the human experience. We struggle with it, come up with silly names for it, even make film after film after film about it.
Fear is an overpowering emotion, an emotion that takes hold of us and makes it hard for us to think clearly, breathe deeply, and act rationally. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that in our scripture, angels so often greet humans with the words “Fear not!”

Fear plays a big role in our Gospel text for today. Although our story today is not a parable – it is a story about Jesus, not a story that Jesus told – it reminds me of my colleague’s words from last week about parables: they are multi-layered, multi-dimensional stories, with many possible meanings and layers of interpretation that can all be true at the same time. As I studied today’s text, I started to see several layers to this story of the storm at sea, layers focused around the fear of the disciples: what are they afraid of? I’d like to suggest to you three phobias, and with them three interpretations, all of which might be true, although the last is my favorite.

The first phobia I would like to suggest to you is thalassophobia: the fear of the sea. The beginning of our story finds Jesus and the disciples at the end of a long day of preaching and teaching. The crowd is so eager to be near Jesus that he has gotten into a boat, sitting there and teaching the crowd on land to prevent them from crushing him. The day is over, and Jesus calls on the disciples to go with him across the sea of Galilee (which is actually a large-ish lake in the northern part of Israel).

They set out in the boat, but a great windstorm arises – the words there actually mean “a great whirlwind of wind.” The waves batter the boat so that the boat “is already being filled up,” the Greek says. The story is mostly in the present tense, which isn’t unusual for Mark, but the narrator adds immediacy with the word “already.” And through all of this, Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, with his head on a pillow, until the disciples wake him up in a total panic, with these words: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

The direct cause of their fear is the storm, but that fear is heightened by the way the sea was perceived in their culture. For ancient Israelites, water was a place of swirling primordial chaos. Think of the image of the Leviathan, the mysterious beast lurking in the depths of the sea, that we hear of in the Psalms. Think of the formless void of waters that exists before God institutes order, creating light and darkness, sea and dry land, in the Genesis account of creation. Think of the parting of the Red Sea, and the parting of the Jordan River, God’s miraculous acts of pushing water back to make a path of safe dry land so the Israelites can cross over. A storm is bad; a storm at sea is terrifying.

The most straight-forward interpretation of the disciples’ fear, then, is that they fear the storm at sea, as we all fear storms in our lives, whether they are literal storms like the one that came raging through the city on Friday, or metaphorical storms of financial trouble, or family crises, or health issues. When we fear storms, perhaps this story can remind us that Christ has the power to still storms, commanding “Peace! Be still!” to the storms of anxiety and hopelessness and fear that rage in our hearts in times of trouble.

So that is one phobia, and one layer, but maybe you’ve noticed something: after the storm stops, the disciples remain afraid; so I’d like to suggest a second possible layer of interpretation.

Perhaps the disciples are suffering from exousiphobia: the fear of power or authority, specifically the authority that they come to realize Jesus has over the elements. Having been woken up in the midst of the storm, Jesus rebukes the wind and says two words to the sea – words that are translated in our Bible as “Peace! Be still!” but might be more aptly rendered as “Shut up! Shut up!” The storm stops.

I very much doubt that that is what the disciples were expecting; perhaps they wanted him to grab a bucket and start bailing, or to help with the oars. Maybe they were turning to him because it was his stupid idea to get in this boat in the first place. I doubt that they realized that they were in a boat with one who had the authority to control the weather. The Greek word used for storm in this passage is “lailaps,” which can mean whirlwind; the Greek translation of Job uses that same word when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, the passage we heard just a little while ago. It is a passage that evokes the overwhelming power of God, reminding us that the all of the vastness and mystery of the universe comes directly from God’s hand. It is one thing to be in a boat in a storm at sea; it is another thing to be in a boat with one who has power to control the storm. They think they’re in a boat with mild-mannered Bruce Banner, only to find themselves with the Hulk. They start to realize the scope of Christ’s power, and they are frightened by what they see.

Perhaps sometimes we, too, underestimate Christ’s power to redeem, transform, and save. Commentator Mike Baughman invites us to consider whether, like the disciples, we sometimes ask God only for things that seem realistic. Do we shy away from praying and hoping for real peace and justice for this world? Do we sometimes ask for just a little bit of healing, just a modicum of reconciliation? Do we hand Jesus a bucket instead of asking him to still the storm?

Perhaps we do, sometimes. But I think there is more going on here, and so I would like to suggest a third phobia, a third interpretation. Perhaps the disciples are suffering from epitychiphobia: the fear of success. You see, Jesus has actually proposed a pretty outrageous plan; they have gotten into a boat in the Galilee, and Jesus has declared that the boat is heading for the other side: the land of the Gerasenes. These are not particularly hated people, like the Samaritans; they are not people who are really on the radar. They are Gentiles, and they are Gentiles from way over there. Perhaps when the disciples see Jesus still the storm, they suddenly realize the scope of what God was about to do; this is not some oddball itinerant preacher heading off on a crazy quest. This is the Messiah, heading out to minister to Gentiles, and they are going with him. It is a fundamental change in everything they thought they knew about God and how God works in the world, and maybe that scares them.

They would not be the first; the text hints at another story of God reaching out to Gentiles, another story of a storm at sea: the book of Jonah. Like Jonah, this story involves a word from God, brought to non-Israelites by Israelites. Like Jonah, this story involves a man asleep in a boat. Like Jonah, this story involves a storm at sea.

There is a more subtle connection, as well: when our translation says that the disciples were “filled with great awe,” what the Greek actually says is that they “feared a great fear,” using both the verb and noun forms of “phobia.” First of all, “filled with great awe” is not a very good translation of that phrase. But second and more important, “fearing a fear” or “rejoicing a joy” or “lamenting a lament” is weird syntax in Greek; it’s not how people talked. But it’s not uncommon in Hebrew, and it is downright characteristic of the book of Jonah. If we know how to listen for it, the narrator is evoking a story of a man reluctant to participate in the vastness of God’s love. He references that story as he tells us this story of the boat bound for the land of the Gerasenes, carrying the love of God incarnate and a dozen men who are just starting to realize what they’ve signed up for.

So perhaps, when the disciples “fear a great fear,” their fear is the fear of success: they fear that they are really, actually, going to go and bring the Good News to the Gerasenes. They fear that the man they are following is truly the Christ, and the radical plan he has proposed is actually going to happen, and they don’t know what that means for them. They don’t know what it means for their lives or their families, they just know it will turn their worlds upside down -- and it will. They fear the unknown that lies on the other side of transformation. The text tells us they are frightened not when the storm comes, but when they find themselves in a boat riding over calmed waters toward a foreign land with Jesus Christ.

Sometimes perhaps we feel that way as well. I think there are times when we are afraid of the storms of life, but more afraid of the strange and uncomfortable places God might be asking us to go when the storms subside. Change, after all, can be disorienting and terrifying. It can be more frightening than the storms of rush and hurry, busy-ness and workaholism. More frightening than the storms of our familiar anxieties and habitual neuroses. More frightening than the dysfunctional way we’ve always done things, more frightening than the job that makes us exhausted and bored, more frightening than the relationship that brings out the worst in us. Change is certainly more frightening than the swirling storms of things that are urgent, but not important.

So let me suggest a question for us as individuals, and for us as a community: what would we be afraid of if the waves settled and the wind calmed? What land, what work, what mission is there on the other side of the sea, far away from the familiar, that would cause us to fear a great fear, a fear of transformation, a fear of God doing a new thing, a fear of success? Because perhaps, friends, that is where God is leading us.  

May we have the courage to follow. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. I needed this sermon and it speaks the good news to my heart. It is scary to be part of what God is doing in the world...yet fear not is our command. Thank you!