On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
This is a really well-known passage, so I imagine that most of you have heard at least ten sermons on it. It’s the well-known passages therefore that are the most difficult to preach on, partly because of that, but also because I, the preacher, can easily fall into the trap of thinking I already know the point of this story. The sermons I’ve heard on this passage inevitably point to the same conclusion: that with a simple phrase, “peace, be still,” Jesus puts whatever rages around the disciples (that is, us) to rest. So when the oceans rise and thunders roar, we can trust the captain of our boat to not only see us through the storm, but to also ensure smooth sailing thereafter. That’s the point of the story, right?
Except here’s the thing. The captain of the boat is asleep – in fact, according to Mark, he’s asleep on a cushion, which drives the knife in a bit further! Also, this captain accuses the disciples of having little faith when they wake him up. They seem to trust in his power enough to go to him when the storm rages… and that’s the definition of faith, right? To stand by Jesus when the storms of life rage? So then why does Jesus ask, “have you still no faith?”
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story, where Jesus says it’s time to go to the other side. In Mark’s gospel, the “other side” is almost always a scary or undesirable place, and that concept still rings true today. We still talk about people born on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of the political or theological aisle, living on the other side of the sea, and so on. There is always a boundary we are taught not to cross. We are taught that the boundary is there for a reason: for our protection, to keep our privileges and freedoms, to maintain our purity. This boundary could look like a wall – Mexican, German or otherwise, or a fence, or a law, or an attitude, or a demonic sea.
Again, in Mark’s gospel, the sea is always a metaphor for demonic and chaotic forces that stand against the Kingdom of God that is, according to Mark’s repeated refrain, even now at hand. The sea also always stands as a boundary, both literal and metaphorical, between Jew and Gentile. It is this sea that Jesus wants to cross, to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel to those on the other side.
In that context, the disciples obey, but in their attempt to cross to that other side to bring the Good News, the demonic forces lying within the sea stir the waters into a whirlwind of a storm… It’s never easy to bring the Good News to the other side, is it? Perhaps it is true that demons stir when God is on the move.
And yet, through the storm, Jesus chooses to sleep, and I wonder if it’s because, as he taught in the parable just before they set off in their boat, God’s power in the Kingdom is at work even while we sleep. God’s power is still alive and at work, even while we sleep. Indeed, in the previous chapter of Mark, Jesus blesses his disciples with just that power to cast out demons, like, say, the demons causing the storm in the water. They have the power of God in them. What is missing is not their power or capability, but their faith.
My mum was always a very hands-on mum; she would inevitably be the one in the house to do all the laundry, cleaning and cooking, and if we offered to help, she would likely kick us out of said room because it was just easier for her to do it herself. When I found out I had gotten into university in Sydney however, and would have to move out of my home in Canberra, my mum finally decided to teach me how to do various house tasks, like laundry. She showed me how to sort my clothes and how to use the machine, and then said I can now do my own laundry, through that summer before I moved.
My laundry began to pile up. “Ammah, I need my clothes washed.” “Ok, go and wash them.” My laundry continued to pile up. I figure I could last until Saturday, when my mum would be home all day. “Ammah I have no clean clothes for church tomorrow.” That will get her to do my laundry, right? I can’t wear dirty clothes to church! “Ok, well the laundry machine is free,” she said.
I really didn’t want to do my laundry. I wanted Ammah to do my laundry. Maybe I was scared I’d ruin my clothes. Maybe I didn’t trust I really knew what I was doing and would ruin the machine. Maybe I just didn’t want to have to do it myself when there was someone else perfectly capable of doing a good job of it.
“But you’re my mother. You’re supposed to do my laundry for me, aren’t you?”
“No Radhi, I’m your mother. I’m supposed to teach you how to do your laundry, because I won’t always be with you to do it for you.”
Back to the story: the disciples, commissioned by the Son of God to cast out demons, cannot or perhaps will not rebuke the wind and the waves of the demonic sea. And did you notice they don’t even try? They’re too busy calming themselves down to calm the storm. They’re too busy casting out the water in their own boat to cast out the demons around it. “Jesus is in the back of the boat. He’ll save us.”
It’s not the last time they fail in this way. When Jesus descends from the Mount of Transfiguration, he meets a distraught father whose son is possessed. The commissioned disciples cannot cast out the demon, so Jesus, again, laments their lack of faith and rebukes the demon. The disciples know Jesus can cast out demons. They have faith in him. They’ve seen it time and time again. They just don’t know they can, or maybe they aren’t willing to. They trust in his power; they just don’t trust in his power within them.
Yes, it’s not just that the disciples have faith in Jesus; Jesus has faith in his disciples too; he calls them to follow him, and he gives them power to proclaim the good news, to cast out demons, to heal every kind of disease; he tells them that not even the gates of hell can overcome them. He believes they have what it takes to be his hands and feet, but still they are afraid.
Again, in Matthew 14, when Jesus comes to the disciples over the water, striding across that demonic boundary of the sea, he tells them: do not be afraid. Peter, bless his heart, tries to trust in the power and promises of Christ to him and he walks out onto the water. He trusts that if Jesus says he can do it, then he can do it. He trusts the power and the promise that the gates of hell cannot overcome him. But then the demons of the sea begin to stir again. He begins to fear. Fear causes doubts, and he doubts the power in him that is strong enough to stand amidst and atop the forces of evil. So he begins to sink. “Ye of little faith,” says Jesus. “Why did you doubt?” Peter doesn’t doubt Jesus’ power to stand on the swirling sea. He doubts his own. Ye of little faith.
Sisters and brothers, we of little faith. Why do we doubt? We believe in Jesus enough to come together to worship him today. We trust him with our lives; we trust in his words and his power to bring life and love and to cast out sin and death, and yet we don’t trust his power in us. We too are given power to cast out demons, whatever they might look like, and yet we stand trembling in their midst instead of rebuking them in Christ’s name. We stand stuck on the seashore, fearing the storm that is sure to blow if we try to cross to the other side with the Good News, and then fearing “those” people that are “on that side”, for some reason. Will we weather the storm if we try to cross that boundary? Nah, maybe it’s best to stay on dry ground, to stay here, where it is safe and comfortable.
We of little faith, why are we afraid? Did you know that the commandment most often given in the Bible is not “love God” or “love one another” or anything about sex; it is “do not be afraid”. Isn’t that telling?
So very very often I read articles and have conversations about the decline and death of the church in the west. We are petrified the church is not going to survive this storm. We look around for Jesus, and we wonder if the church is going to drown while he is napping. Doesn’t Jesus know our membership is getting smaller, and our budget isn’t in the black, and we’re taking on water?
Well I think Jesus knows the toll of the storm we are in, but I wonder if we do. I wonder if we’re too busy trying to calm ourselves to calm the wind and the waves that batter people’s lives, not believing that we have the power to stand above the forces of prejudice, hatred, bigotry, violence, abuse, and terror. So we do not stand. We do not rebuke. Instead, we huddle down in the bottom of our boats and watch things get worse and worse in the storm. What else can we do?
And this is the worst thing we do, folks. We assure ourselves of this: “we’re just disciples in a boat. We follow Jesus; we worship and sing and pray and give some money. We are the Church, Jesus’ singing, praying and preaching church. If a storm arises that keeps us from going to the other side, that’s not our problem; Jesus will calm that storm if that’s where he wants us to go.”
The problem with that is this: Is that faith? Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to merely follow. He calls them to lead, to heal, to proclaim, and to cast out. He asks them to have faith in the power he promises and the work he commissions them to do for the Kingdom of God, whether that is spreading some seed and letting the power of God go to work while they sleep or rebuking demons and watching the power of God go to work while he sleeps. Faith is trusting the power of God is always at work, in Christ, in the church, and in you. Faith isn’t so much this (praying hands) as this (open hands).
Christ calls and commissions his disciples, the church, to be exorcists of demons and healers of sicknesses that plague people and communities. Racisim, sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination? Cast them out. Division based on theology or denomination or faith? Heal it. Painful bullying words arising out of fear? Rebuke them. Hearts broken by individuals or the church? Bind them. Storms that would keep us from proclaiming beyond these four walls that nothing can separate us from the love of God? Silence them.
A fair question then might be: “But isn’t that Jesus’ job? What’s he doing while all this hurt and pain and division is happening? If he wants us to go to the other side, he ought to make sure we can get there! Is he asleep at the right hand of the Father? Jesus should rebuke the demons. He should calm things down. Why is he silent in the midst of this storm? Why won’t he do anything?”
Consider the story of the feeding of five thousand: when the disciples told Jesus the crowd who had been following him was hungry and had nothing to eat, Jesus said, “You feed them.” They took what little there was available, five loaves and two fish, and began to pass baskets around to the crowd until everyone had had their fill. Did the disciples feed that crowd or did Jesus? The answer, of course, is yes.
Please join me in prayer. Almighty God, you are powerful, and you never sleep nor do you slumber. You are here with us, and you give us power to do great things. Help us to use the power that you give to work with you to bring hope and peace and joy and love to this broken world where demons still run amok. Help us to cast them out and proclaim the kingdom of God that is even now at hand. Help us not to be afraid. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen