June 24, The urgency of fear

The urgency of fear

Mark 4:35-41

 

When I came back from my family’s spring break trip to the Grand Canyon, I told you a bit about how beautiful and amazing it was – talking in a post-Easter sermon about that combination of joy, wonder and disbelief. What I didn’t tell you about was two fearful moments that I had while I was on that trip – both moments at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

One of those moments I understood immediately was really more about an instinctive fear-reaction, than it was about any real danger, but it was scary nevertheless.

I do not like heights and the second day we were at the Grand Canyon, we went to the west rim, where there is a glass-bottomed observation deck that goes out over the canyon. So, you pay your ridiculously high admission fee and then you get to walk out on a horseshoe shaped observation deck with a glass floor through which you can look directly down in the canyon below, down about 5000 feet.

Some people really like that experience, but for me, it’s terrifying. And what made it worse in that particular case, is that not only was I scared, but my daughter Leyna was truly terrified as well, and although neither of us anticipated just how scared we would be, as we walked out onto the observation deck, she started crying and pleading and insisting that she wanted immediately to go back inside the building.

Well, you can’t really do that. The line keeps moving forward, and so there I was, scared to death myself, trying to talk her in to moving forward, assuring her that it would be okay, “You’ll be fine. Nothing will happen.”

Meanwhile, it seemed like everyone else was perfectly fine – looking up, looking down, calling out to each other, leaning against the railings, and getting their pictures taken by the official photographers (because you aren’t allowed to take your own pictures). I don’t know how long I stayed out there – your sense of time loses its focus when you are fearful – but I think Loyce took Leyna inside as soon as possible, and I stayed out a little longer, feeling like I should get something for my money (!) even though I couldn’t bear it for very long.

Now there was nothing legitimately urgent about getting off that observation deck, but my internal fear-instinct made it feel urgent. I couldn’t help but imagine that something very bad was going to happen (even though I told my daughter the opposite). And I could not make myself stay out there for very long. My fear was too overwhelming, even though in all honesty, nothing bad was going to happen…and the rational part of me knew that.

So that was one of my fear moments, and I feel a little ridiculous about it now, but at the time – I tell you what – it was almost more than I could bear.

The other moment was at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the day before, the first day we were there. That’s a national park area, and although there are places where the edge of the canyon is protected by barriers and railings, there are plenty of places where it is not.

In one place in particular, my son Konrad and our exchange student Vico wanted to go out onto an area of rock that jutted out into canyon. It’s one of those places where when you climb out, it looks like you are standing out in the canyon, almost as if you are on a small island in a sea of nothingness.

Konrad went first – careful, surefooted, paying attention. Vico followed, and he hadn’t taken more than a few steps, at a half-jog, before he stumbled and almost fell because he was not being careful, was not paying attention, and he tended toward clumsiness more generally. “Slow down” I called out. “I’m fine,” he called back, no more careful as he continued on.

They stood out there, I took their picture, and then Vico wanted to go further, to climb down some rocks. I saw what he intended to do, and I called him back. “No further,” I said. “You need to come back.”

He did, but he was irritated with me and expressed his unhappiness. I responded: “It didn’t feel to me like it was a safe thing for you to do.” “Well I was fine” he replied, “and anyway, if I fell it would be my fault not yours.” “Yeah,” I said, “and who would have to call your father and explain what happened?”

He couldn’t seem to let it go: “You would just tell him it was my decision.” “That’s not the way it works,” I answered. His cavalier attitude bothered me. Didn’t he know anything about risk? About danger?

When we got home, I looked up how many people fall to their deaths at the Grand Canyon each year. It turns out it is a relatively low number, actually a very remarkably low number. There are about 12 deaths that happen per year at the Grand Canyon, but those deaths are caused by everything from natural causes to heat to drowning and on average, only 2 or 3 of those deaths are from falls from the rim of the canyon.

That’s against a visitor rate of 5 to 6 million people per year. So, in reality, there’s a one in  2,000,000 chance of falling off the rim of the Grand Canyon as a visitor. Certainly, your odds of dying in a car accident on the way to the Grand Canyon are higher than that.

But did I warn our exchange student with the same level of concern every time he got into the car during our spring break trip?  No, of course not. Because it wasn’t statistics or even facts that were driving my fears: it was emotion, anxiety, and imagining the worst.

My call to him to not go any further, to not climb down any further, wasn’t actually about the danger (as I thought it was) – it was about the urgency of my own uncertainty. I didn’t have confidence in him and in his judgment and in his safety. So, I made something urgent that actually didn’t need to be.

But fear works that way. When we are afraid, it is no longer about what’s rational. It’s about perceived risk, about fight or flight, about anxiety and defensiveness. Fear is the place where trust slips away.

In the scripture story for today, Jesus is in the boat with his disciples. He’s asleep as the storm comes up, yes, but he’s in the boat with them. The boat begins to take on water. And surely that is a frightening thing, but he is with them. And yet, once they get him awake, their first question is this: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s their question. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Now, are they actually dying? Has the boat gone down? Are they in the water? No, but they can imagine what is next.

I am sure it feels like an urgent situation, a situation that is loaded with danger and anxiety, but I find it an interesting, and in some ways, puzzling question: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Not, “What should we do now?” Not “How are you going to save us?” Not “Well, you’re a guy who does miracles: Can you make the storm stop?” but rather “Don’t you care that we are about to die?”

The disciples see death where there isn’t yet death. And that’s because the urgency of their anxiety, of their fear, comes not just from the circumstances, but from the way they frame their reality. And frame within which they operate is this: We are vulnerable; nobody is looking out for us; the world is a threatening place.

Is any of that true? Maybe – to some degree. Several of them are, after all, fisherman and so they have had experience with the threat of a storm out on the sea. And they were living in a time, in an era, when human lives ended abruptly, and even early, more often than not – where disease, and accident, and violence all conspired against long-living. But the part that they have wrong – and this is the surprising thing I think – is that they imagine that Jesus doesn’t care, that he isn’t looking out for them.

Where does that come from? Is it because he keeps “putting them in danger” as he challenges the authorities and gathers large, demanding crowds, and turns upside down people’s expectations, and takes on demonic forces? Is it his “risky” behavior in ministry that makes them certain that they will be at risk too?

The urgency of their fear is a combination of circumstance (a violent storm and a leaky boat) and conviction (their anxiety-driven mistrust; their belief that this rabbi who pushes the limits isn’t going to ever dial things back for them). Are they right? Are they right to be afraid? Or are they seeing death where there isn’t death; seeing imminent threat instead of imminent rescue?

Maybe it doesn’t matter if they’re “right” to be afraid or not, because the fact of the matter is that they are afraid. In the middle of a storm, with a leader who is asleep, their panic grows until it cannot be contained. And trust? It too blows away in the high winds.

Then, when Jesus wakes up and calms the storm with a few words, they are left to wonder: What has happened? Who is this man?

Jesus questions their fear and their faith, but what he is really asking is this: Do you really think that I wouldn’t try to save you? Do you really think that I care that little about you? Do you really think that when push comes to shove I’d let us all go down with the ship? Do you really think that the reason I’ve come here – into the world -- is more about upsetting things than it is about setting things right? More about taking foolish risks than saving the lost? Do you really think that I love the buzz of all of this more than I love you, my children?

You remember the Sunday school song, “Jesus loves me,” don’t you? Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus love me. The Bible tells me so.

Well, apparently the disciples hadn’t learned that song yet. But you know what? If I was going to teach them a little song to sing under their breath when the winds start whipping up, along with that familiar song, “Jesus loves me,” I’d teach them the John Bell song, “Don’t be afraid.”

Do you remember how it goes?

 

Don’t be afraid.

My love is stronger, my love is stronger than your fear.

Don’t be afraid.

My love is stronger and I have promised,

promised to be always near.

 

Look: If we are driven by fear, then we will have a hard time holding on to faith. It’s not that there isn’t danger out there – even threats to our lives – and it’s not that there aren’t times that call for us to take risks, to step into danger for the sake of justice, for the sake of someone else who needs rescue, who needs safety, who needs solidarity, but not everything is best measured within the frame:  We are vulnerable; nobody is looking out for us; the world is a threatening place.

Because you aren’t always as vulnerable as you think you are. And the world isn’t always out to get you. And not only is there someone looking out for you, but because there is someone looking out for you, you are empowered to be that kind of person as well, we are empowered to be that kind of community as well – the kind of people who look out for others, who bail water if needed, and sometimes who even calm the storm.

So, if we are in the boat and the storm comes up, and we start to take on water and we have to wake up Jesus, the question we have for Jesus isn’t, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” The question we have for Jesus is “How are we going to keep this boat afloat? How can you, Jesus, help us keep this boat afloat? Will you give us each a bucket? Will you help us brush up on our swim lessons? Will you still the storm? Because one way or another, we are going lean towards life. That’s your way, isn’t it, Jesus? You’re in this with us, so one way or another, we are going to act in faith. One way or another we are going to make our urgency not the urgency of fear but the urgency of faith, the urgency of witness, the urgency of advocacy, the urgency of justice, the urgency of compassion, the urgency of hope, the urgency of help.

There is plenty that’s urgent in this world – plenty that needs our urgent attention and our urgent care. But fear? That’s not our calling. That’s not our purpose. Building trust and building faith – that’s what we’re about. Building advocacy and building care – that’s what we’re about. Building justice and building hope – that’s what we’re about. And in all that, Jesus is with us.

Don’t be afraid. The boat’s not going down. Have faith.

 

Amen.

 

Benediction:

May God urge you forward this week –

in faith, in hope, in compassion.

And then when the storms come,

we won’t react, we will respond – in company with Christ.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

June 24, 2018