“Swamped” Colchester Federated Church, June 24, 2018, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 4:35-41)

In our Gospel story this morning from Mark Chapter 5 Jesus and his disciples seek to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, leaving the crowds behind as they safely board a boat.  Other boats follow along, though Jesus and the disciples have a moment to be by themselves that evening.  Before they seem to know what’s happening, a storm arises.  Gale-force winds kick up and the waves begin crashing against the boat so that the boat is swamped.  Meanwhile Jesus is in the rear of the boat sleeping on a pillow.  The disciples panic, waking Jesus up—fearing that they are going to drown.

Fear is tricky. Certain weather conditions still make people afraid.  In the Midwest, we fear tornadoes (and had to regularly perform tornado drills in school to be prepared.)  In New England, we fear nor’easters and hurricanes.  The fear is justified considering some of the damage that can be caused by natural disasters.

Certain bodies of water make people afraid.  Some of us may love swimming in the ocean and looking out to see the vastness.  Water that appears to be unending while surfing waves that come crashing to shore.  Others of us may prefer to swim in a lake, pond, or river—where perhaps we can see land on the other side and there might be no current at all.  Because there’s power in those ocean waves.  Yet who hasn’t shuddered seeing the destruction those powerful waves can cause in a storm?

The Sea of Galilee is known for strange weather patterns—sudden and violent storms kick up with damaging winds.  It’s not the ocean, though one can see and feel waves.  The storm that Jesus and his disciples were sailing through that evening must have been pretty bad considering that some of these disciples were professional fishermen.  Yet, they came running to Jesus out of pure fear in the midst of the storm and the boat getting swamped by waves.  It’s understandable.

So how do we even define fear?  It’s actually a chain reaction that happens in our brains that begins with an outside stimulus and ends with a release of chemicals that causes our bodies to react in particular ways.  Our hearts race.  Our muscles tighten which causes physical sensations like the hair on our arms or the back of our neck to stand up, or goosebumps to appear.  Our spines tingle.  Our palms sweat.  Our breathing quickens.  Our pupils even dilate to take in as much light as possible.  Basically our body begins a fight or flight response.

Now, that outside stimulus that makes us afraid could be a spider, someone asking you to get up and speak in front of others, getting lost, a horror film, heights, clowns—it’s not going to be the same for every person.  Though our brains are complex organs in our bodies.  Sometimes we have conscious thoughts.  Other times our brains have automatic responses.  It ends up that the fear response is one of those automatic responses—we can’t consciously trigger it.  Something happens and then our brains respond and we feel that fear response throughout our entire bodies.  At the end of the day, it becomes fight or flight for our survival.[1]

There’s something to be said for not being able to think straight when we’re afraid.  We become so focused on that stimulus that’s making us afraid that our bodies literally are taken over by the fight or flight response.  And we have almost zero say in the matter.  Though we like to say that people can conquer their fears.  How do we go about doing that?  Because fear is an automatic biological response.

For the disciples, they ran to get Jesus.  They wake him up from his nap and ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”  Their response to the fear works.  Jesus gets up and gives orders to the wind and says to the lake, “Silence!  Be still!”  The wind settles down and there’s a great calm according to the Gospel of Mark.  When Jesus turns to his scared friends he asks them, “Why are you frightened?  Don’t you have faith yet?”[2]  That question is meant to linger in the air that was just a second ago howling with that intimidating wind.  That question is meant to linger over the water that had just a second ago been swamping their boat.  That question is meant to linger for you and for me.

“Why are you frightened?  Don’t you have faith yet?”

Mark doesn’t always present the most flattering view of the disciples.  We come to understand them as deeply flawed human beings, just like us come to think of it!  Over and again we see a theme in Mark’s Gospel that fear is the opposite of faith.  Those disciples have a whole lot of fear in them, and it causes them to not understand some important lessons that Jesus was attempting to teach during his ministry among the people of Galilee and beyond.  Though we can give the disciples a little bit of credit.  When they were afraid on the Sea of Galilee (whether they should have been or not), they take their fear to Jesus.  There are a lot worse responses than basically saying to Jesus, “I’m afraid.  Help!”

When we feel swamped, it isn’t easy to ask for help or to even admit that we are afraid.  Maybe admitting our fear is the first step.  The more we can respond to adversity from a grounded and centered place, the better our lives will be.  In Family Systems Theory (the focus in the first year of my participation in the Next Generation Leadership Initiative of the UCC) we learned about the differentiation of self.  In a nutshell, it’s how we balance the two basic life forces of individuality and togetherness.  We can have a well-defined sense of self, being clear about our beliefs, values, and goals.  And yet we can have good and healthy relationships with one another.  This can happen when we ourselves are calm and reflective, clear in our beliefs and responsive to anxiety in others without getting caught up in it.  To be a differentiated person requires awareness of how we react and behave in certain situations that is a product of our families of origin.  And it’s important to take I positions meaning that we define ourselves while encouraging and challenging others to do their own thinking.

For instance, have we ever noticed that we’re not at our best when we emotionally react out of fear or anger?  We start pointing fingers and saying “you did this” and “you did that” too much?  As opposed to, “I feel stressed when we’re at home and the house is a mess.  Maybe if we set aside time to clean, it would make life a little easier.”  How does that sound instead of, “If you keep leaving dirty dishes in the sink one more time . . .” (and let the threat linger.)

Responding to small and large adversities we face from a place that is grounded in God and who God is calling us to be makes a huge difference.  The truth is that all of us can be afraid.  We all can feel absolutely swamped like the disciples battered around in that boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Our emotional response is what we can control, knowing that we can’t help how our bodies react.  There’s an interesting story about overcoming fear in one of the episodes of the late Anthony Bourdain’s food and travel series Parts Unknown.  In Hawaii, Tony encounters Nainoa Thompson who is a native Hawaiian and President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.  It was long theorized that the islands of Hawaii were originally colonized by the Polynesians.  Though the Polynesian Islands are a long way away and some folks said that it’s not really possible because those Polynesians didn’t have the technology, skills, and probably even the courage to venture that far out into the ocean away from the safety of their island homes.  Nainoa Thompson set out to prove that the theory of Polynesian colonization in Hawaii by his own ancestors was correct.

In 1980 he took a voyage across the Pacific by himself from Hawaii to Tahiti—5,500 miles.  And he took that voyage in a traditional double-hulled canoe without the aid of any Western navigational instruments.  Nainoa Thompson was the first Hawaiian to practice the Polynesian art of navigation since the 1300s.  He proved that his ancestors were proud, courageous, and skilled.  And you had better believe that those Polynesians could have come from their islands to the Hawaiian Islands.  This trip is credited with ushering in a newfound pride in Hawaiian culture which began to be taught in all the public schools in the 1980s (including teaching children the Hawaiian language.)  All of this newfound pride in Hawaiian culture began after that trip Nainoa Thompson took alone across the ocean in a double-hulled canoe.  And you know how he did it?  On Parts Unknown he shared that he had to “learn to make fear your best friend.”

Now hearing someone say that you need to make fear your best friend seems, well, scary!  Though we understand (from a biological perspective) that fear is a chain reaction that happens in our brains, beginning with an outside stimulus and ending with a release of chemicals that causes our bodies to react in particular ways.  It’s an automatic response that we don’t consciously choose to have.  It happens, and we are not our best selves when we are afraid.  So we will feel fear and our bodies will react.

Though if we can somehow get a grip on ourselves (even making fear our friend when appropriate), then we can better respond.  That’s where our power lies.  The disciples got scared when the boat was swamped in the middle of the storm.  And they responded by taking their fear to Jesus together.  My friends, these can be scary times in which we are living.  We can have scary moments within our families.  We can experience health scares.  We will get swamped.  Don’t forget that we’re never alone in our boats crossing stormy seas.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.  For even the disciples got scared and swamped and came running to a compassionate Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Julia Layton, “How Fear Works,” How Stuff Works, https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/fear.htm
[2] Mark 4:38, 39, and 40, Common English Bible.

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.