A couple of weeks ago Emie Lou and I went to a Hillcats game. Shortly after we got there a man came and sat beside me. After a bit he left his seat, leaving behind a backpack which seemed rather full. It seemed like he was gone for a long time, and I began to wonder. I was sure that he had come in with two other people, who were sitting on the row in front of us. At least I thought I was sure. I was sure he didn’t look like any kind of a threat. At least I thought I was sure.
I started thinking, who brings a backpack to a baseball game? Weren’t people like the Oklahoma City federal building bomber and the Las Vegas shooter people you would least expect of doing something like that? But I also thought, this is nuts. Why would anyone pick a Lynchburg Hillcats game to do something bad? I know he came in with the people in front of us. He probably went to have a beer in the new bar room they’ve set up. But what’s in the backpack? Surely the folks at the gate checked it on his way in.
After a bit he returned. And pulled a bottle of water out of the backpack and gave it to one of the people in front of us. I noticed that he got out his phone and shot a video of one of the players on the other team every time that guy got up to bat. Turns out my suspect is the father of one of the players on the other team. So he knows that food and drink at ballparks is expensive, so he brings his own, including for his wife and daughter, who were sitting in front of him.
Isn’t it crazy that I had those thoughts about a guy leaving a backpack? Twenty years ago such thinking wouldn’t have crossed my mind. But now, every time we get on a plane, every time we’re at a public event or just in a public place, we might look around more carefully. It’s the world in which we live, I suppose.
I’m a big fan of the woods. When I was a kid growing up in Nashville I had a treehouse in a big tree in our backyard. When we moved to North Carolina one of the first things I did was scout a place for something similar. Before long my new friends and I had set up shop in a little patch of woods in our neighborhood. It came to a sad end when we were told that the guy who owned the area thought our little place was a detriment to his property. We had to go home and look up the word detriment.
But I don’t like to be in the woods alone at night. If I’m with somebody else, and have my trusty flashlight, I’m fine. But I’m not crazy about being alone in the woods at night. I understand that we don’t have grizzly bears or mountain lions around here, but still. There are various critters who come out at night, and I don’t want to run into them if I’m by myself.
We all have our list of fears, don’t we? Just ask Helen Beth and Emie Lou their opinion of spiders and snakes. And what about things like finances and relationship issues and illness? Anybody afraid of death?, either our own or those closest to us? Some people have phobias that are irrational, or at least have fears that are out of proportion to the real danger whatever it is poses to them.
But some dangers are real. We should be afraid of severe storms, and take shelter when they approach. We should be afraid of going to certain places at certain times – like maybe the woods at night if we’re alone. Unfortunately we should not travel to certain countries right now. Fear is built into us as part of our survival mechanisms. Our ancestors who lived in caves needed to be afraid of wild animals and falling off of cliffs and maybe being attacked by the folks in the neighboring cave.
Today’s story from Mark is about being afraid. Jesus and the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, we presume. A big storm comes up, such that waves are putting water in the boat. Evidently the bilge pumps are not working, because the disciples are afraid that the boat is going to sink. But Jesus is asleep! So they wake him up and say, by the way Jesus, we’re about to drown. Just so you’ll know.
They have reason to be afraid. They are in serious danger. They are out in the middle of a large body of water and some of that water is coming into their boat. And Jesus, the one they are following, the one who is their leader, the one who has performed amazing healings, is asleep!
You remember how the story goes. Jesus wakes up, calms the storm, and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Consistently in the gospels, the disciples do not come off looking good. Time and time again they are befuddled by what Jesus does and says. Time and time again they don’t understand who he is and what it is he’s doing. It can be easy for us to think, how could they have been so dense? Jesus is healing people and teaching about the reign of God and telling them he is to die and then be resurrected. How can they not understand?
But before we go after the speck in the disciples’ eye, we probably need to consider that we may have a log in our eye. Are we sure we’ve understood Jesus’ message? Do we have a good handle on what the reign of God looks like and what our part in bringing it to fruition might be? Have there been times in our lives when God has been at work and we’ve missed it? Maybe we shouldn’t be quick to throw the first stone.
This isn’t the only time fear crops up as an issue in the Bible. We are told, for example, that when the angel appears to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, they are terrified. So the angel begins by saying, “Do not be afraid.” The gospels generally agree that on Easter Sunday morning when the women go to the tomb and encounter an angel or angels they are afraid. And generally speaking the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” I suppose if I suddenly encountered an angel, fear would probably be one of the things I’d be feeling.
It may not be a bad idea to take stock of our fears every now and then. No doubt we usually just go on with our lives, and let our fears be our fears. But what if every so often we paused and asked ourselves, why am I afraid? Why am I afraid of – whatever it is that is on our list of fears. Is it something we’ve been carrying with us since childhood, some version of monsters under our beds? Has someone convinced us that we ought to be afraid? Have we watched too many shows about wild nature or too many sci-fi movies? There are things we need to fear. But there are also times when our fears get the better of us.
Years ago, in the days before everyone had a cell phone, there was an Americorps team living in Lynchburg working with Greater Lynchburg Habitat for Humanity. The house they lived in was on Franklin Street, which runs off of Grace Street in White Rock Hill. At the time the Habitat office was a few blocks away, on the other side of Grace Street. The team was here for the better part of a year, and since there was no phone in their house, the only way they had to call home, or boyfriend or girlfriend, was to walk to the Habitat office. And since the Habitat staff was using their phones in the daytime, the only time the Americorps folks had access to the phone was after office hours. That generally meant night time.
At some point I asked them, aren’t you afraid to walk in that neighborhood, sometimes alone, at night? I got something of a blank look in response, as if I had asked a strange question. No, not all, they said. My suspicion is that the people who lived there knew that these young people were their neighbors, and they knew why they were there. Sure enough, I never heard a single report of any problems with them walking to the Habitat office.
So is Jesus speaking to us when he says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Is he saying to us, sure, it’s ok to be afraid every now and then. There are things worth being afraid of. But is he saying, don’t be afraid because there are no storms in life, “but rather, because God is with us,” as Michael Lindvall reminds us.
On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address to the nation. The date is important because at that time the country was in the depths of the depression. There were long lines of people waiting every day to get something to eat. Unemployment was at historic levels. And there was no relief in sight. Roosevelt stepped into that gloomy scene and declared, “first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is – fear itself.”
Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible. He tells us that we need only ask and we will receive. The apostle Paul says suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The good news is we have received the gift of faith. The good news is because that is so, whatever comes our way in life, we do not need to be afraid. Amen.