“I want to explore the difference between faith and fear. I want to know how we, like the disciples, can listen to Jesus and make that choice to move from fear to faith. But first, in order to get there, I think we need to consider why faith and fear are so closely linked in the first place. And I think the reason is this: both faith and fear thrive in the same environment. Both faith and fear thrive in the face of the unknown.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, June 20, 2021 at Trinity Church on the Green
Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.
For as long as I can remember, I have been terrified of sharks. It’s hard to say when this fear started, having grown up in Southern California where beaches were never far away. I’m sure I watched the movie Jaws at a young age and carried that fear with me, dragging it like an ice chest on wheels through the sand that led up to the ocean. I never ventured far into the water. Once, when I was about ten years old, I could have sworn I saw something moving beneath the surface, whipping its fin horizontally through the waves. Petrified, I awkwardly scrambled to the shore to tell my younger sister, who was much more excited than me about the prospect that there were sharks among us. But she was also doubtful. A few minutes later, a stranger pointed towards the waves and shouted “Dolphins!” Sure enough, grey dolphins crested out of the waves, their spines arcing perpendicular to the way that sharks are built and move. All the way home I remember flicking my arm sideways like this by way of explanation, trying to convince my sister that what I saw was a shark and not a dolphin. This is an argument I rehash with my sister sometimes, even today.
Of course, on that particular day I believed I saw a shark in the ocean. But my fear of sharks went much deeper than that – or much shallower, you might say. There were times when I was afraid to swim in lakes because of sharks. Or rivers. Or swimming pools. There were even occasions when I, as a very young child, was afraid to get in the bathtub. On a rational level, I knew that there weren’t sharks in any of these places. But on an emotional level, fear held me. It was as if there was a part of me that believed that sharks could truly be anywhere that there was water. There was a part of me that believed that the plastic puppet used during the filming of the movie Jaws was, truly, a shark. And there was a part of me that believed that sharks could live in rivers, lakes, and swimming pools – and that if anything bad was going to happen, it would surely happen to me.
What is the difference between faith and fear?
What is the difference between a ten year old girl who believes sharks are everywhere, because she watched the movie Jaws, and a ten year old girl who believes that God is everywhere, because that’s what she was taught in Sunday school? I was that ten year old girl. Both of those ten year old girls. And there have been times when I have wondered if my faith in God is simply a variation on a theme. Am I just a very impressionable human being? Fearful? Ready to believe in things beyond my own experience at the drop of a hat? Or is there something more complicated going on here – something that can teach us, today, about the difference between faith and fear.
Our reading today from the Gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus calming the stormy waters, is all about that fine line between faith and fear. Of course the disciples are not so much afraid of what lies under the waves, as they are afraid of the waves themselves. Today’s passage begins at the end of a long day. Jesus has been teaching crowds of people, parable after parable. The crowds are so large that Jesus has to step onto a boat that is moored by the shore, so that people might see and hear him better. When evening falls, Jesus suggests that they cross over to the other side. Shortly after they begin their journey a great windstorm rises, and waves crash into the boat. While the disciples become overwhelmed by their fears, Jesus is sleeping – spent after a long, exhausting day. The disciples wake him up and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus gets up and says to the wind and the sea: “Peace! Be still!” And immediately the wind ceased, and the waves were calm. We have no way of knowing whether the impact on the disciples’ emotional state was just as quick, but we do know that Jesus noticed their anxiety, because he turns to them and says: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The disciples, filled with awe, wonder who this Jesus is who can even command the wind and the sea, and they obey him.
Faith and fear. That is the crux of this passage: faith and fear. In one moment the disciples are afraid, imagining the worst possible outcome from the storm. A few moments later, their fear transforms into something more powerful – something we might call faith.
I want to explore the difference between faith and fear. I want to know how we, like the disciples, can listen to Jesus and make that choice to move from fear to faith. But first, in order to get there, I think we need to consider why faith and fear are so closely linked in the first place. And I think the reason is this: both faith and fear thrive in the same environment. Both faith and fear thrive in the face of the unknown.
Consider this: faith helps us make sense of a world where there is so much much we simply do not know. Faith gives us a deep well to draw from – and we discover God through scripture, tradition, reason, and our own lived experience. While we might feel like the unknown becomes a little bit more known through our Christian practice, there is always an aspect of faith that involves believing in things that can neither be proven, nor disproven. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; a conviction of things not seen” (11:1). In other words, faith exists because of the unknown. If we were all-knowing, like God, we would not need faith.
Fear also exists because of the unknown. We fear those things that we don’t know, or don’t understand. We fear darkness. We fear the ocean. We fear snakes and spiders, and all manner of creeping things. Of course, many of these things are also dangerous! But it’s that aspect of the unknown, the unfamiliar, that turns these dangerous things into all-out fears. I think this is one of the reasons that sharks have become an emblem of fear in popular culture. Not only are sharks pretty intimidating in and of themselves – they also live beneath the surface of our everyday experience; beneath the waves. You might say that every fear simply boils down to fear of the unknown.
Consider the fears that you have had over the past year – fears related to the coronavirus pandemic, for example. Perhaps you feared sickness, or death, or the loss of a loved one. Perhaps you feared not knowing how the disease was being spread, back in those early days. Perhaps you feared a loss of work; a loss of stability; a loss of normalcy. Perhaps you have feared (or still fear) going to places where people might not wear a mask, or take your health concerns seriously. Perhaps you have feared that the disruption caused by all this fear might be worse than the disease itself.
We have come a long way since 2020. And yet I think that fear is still very much a part of our lives, weighing us down. Certainly the memory of fear stays with us – lives in our bones. We have each exercised different degrees of caution, as we move out of this pandemic. We have each made choices based on our own context. And so: when I talk about moving from fear to faith, I want you to know that I am not prescribing any particular action for how you should live in this moment. Stay at home if you need to stay at home. Go out if you want to go out. And at all times be mindful of the physical and emotional needs of others (follow guidelines, keep a mask nearby, and wear it in spaces that it is asked of you!). But whatever choices you make about how to move through the world right now, your attitude matters too. Each one of us can still be weighed down by fear, sometimes without even realizing it. We might notice that fear when we are reactive to the world around us, rather than making decisions out of a deep sense of centeredness in who we are and what we believe. And so, the question remains: how can we move from fear to faith? Even if that shift has no visible impact, and everything to do with our outlook, this is important: How can we move from fear to faith?
I believe that our Scriptures today show us two components of faith that can take us beyond fear. The first is wonder. And the second is community.
First, wonder. When the disciples are afraid in the midst of the storm, they lose touch with their sense of wonder. They get stuck in an attitude of fight or flight, and fail to see the bigger picture. It is Jesus who calls them back to wonder, when he calms the seas to stillness. The scripture says, “they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” Wonder is all about reconnecting to the bigger picture – it is about recognizing that we are small fish in the big pond of the universe. We are specks of dust in the midst of galaxies. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. This is something I felt profoundly towards the beginning of the pandemic, but is much easier to lose sight of these days. Wonder inspires us to look at the unknown with a sense of curiosity and gratitude that for every breath we take. Wonder moves us beyond fear.
This attitude of wonder shows up not only in the disciples’ response to Jesus calming the storm, but also in our passage today from Job 38. After chapters and chapters of suffering, grief, and argumentation, God answers Job out of a whirlwind saying “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” This is the beginning of what I think is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, in which the voice of God describes creation with sweeping, rugged imagery. If you ever feel like you are caught in a mindset of fear – whether it be fear of loss, or fear of failure, or fear of change – I invite you to turn to Job 38 and read through the end of the book. Wonder is a perfect antidote to fear. Wonder reminds us of what a blessing it is to be alive, even in an imperfect world. Wonder guides us from a place of fear to a place of faith.
The second aspect of faith that moves us beyond fear is community. Have you ever watched a scary movie and clung to someone else, so you wouldn’t be so scared? Have you ever heard a child crying out for their parent because they are afraid of something – and they know it will be better if someone else is there to face it with them? I’m thinking of you today, fathers! Community, like the community we experience in family, is another way we can move from fear to faith – because community is intrinsic to faith, and community casts out fear. Notice, in the story of Jesus calming the storm, that community seems to disappear when the storm hits. The disciples have left the crowd on the shore behind, Jesus is asleep, and suddenly the disciples behave as if they are completely on their own. It is only after the disciples reach out, and Jesus calls them back to their senses, that the disciples become aware of one another again. They look at one another again. Community is intrinsic to faith. The unknown is very scary if you go at it alone. But faith reminds us that we are not alone. We have a community of saints, past and present, who walk alongside us. And Jesus, also, walks alongside us.
Much of our human fear, these days, is not about sharks, or snakes, or spiders. It is about other people. We live in a broken world where we sometimes fear people who have a different lived experience than ourselves – perhaps because of their nationality, or their gender identity, or the color of their skin. Fear leads to isolation and hatred; but faith leads to community. And community casts out fear. When we get to know people who are different from ourselves in community, our irrational fears fade away. Then, we can spend a lot less energy being fearful about things that are not dangerous, and a lot more energy making this world a kinder, safer, more loving place for everyone.
There is a fine line between faith and fear.
But there are ways that we can move from fear to faith. We can gravitate towards wonder. And we can gravitate towards community.
At some point in my long, fearful relationship to sharks, I began to do just that. I began checking out books from the library about all kinds of sharp-toothed fishes. I began collecting shark stuffed animals, each one representing an endangered species of shark through an “adopt a shark” program. My younger sister and I began trading shark facts, and these days we follow multiple shark enthusiasts on social media – regularly sharing photos, conservation stories, and shark-related memes with each other. Through this community, I have found a way to relate to sharks differently. And while I’m still pretty terrified of swimming in the ocean, I also marvel about how wonderful it is that there are sharks out there in the great unknown, even as I stand up here and preach this sermon. What an amazing world God has created. And what an amazing gift it is to live in it.
It is easy to fall back into fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of change. Fear that things will never change. But whenever you feel yourself being weighed down by fear, turn again towards wonder – turn again towards community. These are the stepping stones that can take us from a state of fear to a state of faith – a state of grace, if you will.
Choose wonder over fear.
Choose community over fear.
Choose faith over fear.
Because that is the kind of life that Jesus called his disciples to – a life of wonder, and community, and peace in the midst of the storm. And that is the kind of life we are called to as well.
In the name of God who made us, loves us, and walks on this journey with us. Amen.
This sermon has been simmering in my subconscious for a long time (see my essay, Fear of the Unknown, for more proof of the matter!). However, if you are interested in some further reading, I highly recommend the following piece by Bonnie Tsui, which speaks so beautifully to how fear of sharks relates to our collective anxieties in 2020 (Covid-19 and beyond). In this piece, you will also learn the amazing story of Ron Elliot, who discovered his love of sharks in a corner of the ocean that I’ve been enamored with since college – the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco.
Tsui, Bonnie. The Uncertain Sea: Fear is everywhere. Embrace it. San Francisco: Scribd, 2021.