"COWARDLY" - Psalm 107: 1 - 16; Mark 4: 35 - 41

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Texts: Psalm 107:1-16; Mark 4:35-41


Sunday, June 24, 2018

            Across the last two weeks, our second readings from Scripture have come from the 4th chapter of Mark. Last week we had a short and poignant story – a parable about the mustard seed and trusting God and what that looks like as we live our lives. This week, the action in the story picks up significantly. After lots of Jesus teaching in parables, listen to this from Mark 4:35-41:

35On that day, when evening had come, (Jesus) said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But 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?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And 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 the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            There are two stories in the gospel of Mark where Jesus shows his mastery of “the sea:” this story of Jesus stilling the storm, and another one in chapter 6 when Jesus walks on water. That the story is set on “the sea” is significant in many ways. “The sea,” here, is the Sea of Galilee. Jesus lived and taught, helped and healed people, mostly on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. So this is where they left the crowd and he said, “let’s go across the other side.”

“The Sea” here is more technically a lake – a big, fresh water lake, 12 miles long and seven miles wide. That is big, but not huge – not like Lake Michigan,  . . . or Lake Malawi or some other major lake of the world.

            The key point here is what “the sea” represents in these stories. Think back to the opening lines of the Bible. While the earth was still void and without form, Genesis 1 says, “darkness covered the face of the deep,” the sea. Then God’s Spirit “swept over the face of the waters.” The first act of creation follows. The deep, the dark, the waters, the sea, was the primordial force that God put in order – out of chaos, order.

            In various other stories that follow in the Old Testament, the sea, the waters, can become powerful and threatening. And God keeps acting and putting them in order. God parted the sea in Exodus for God’s people to find safety and freedom. In various psalms, including the one we heard today, God masters the deep, the waters, the sea. All through the Bible, the sea can be a genuine threat, a powerful and frightening force, even sometimes associated with evil and monsters.

But what remains consistent in the Scriptures? The seas are strong; the seas can threaten; the seas create fear and uncertainty; yet always God reigns over the seas, which is a message for our lives, our faith, our living. God prevails over the threats, the dangers, the seas, the storms (see M. Borg, Meeting Jesus in Mark, p. 43).

            This story in Mark is especially vivid and memorable in asserting this message. The scene is full of fear. It is night, and dark. The disciples are on the sea and a storm comes up. Most of us can envision this. Waves crash into the boat, threaten to swamp it. Again, this is vivid. Fearing that they are in mortal danger, they cry out to Jesus. And if it could get any worse, Jesus is asleep in the stern! “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Real threats. Vivid fear.

            There is a storm on the sea – and as it can easily happen – the sea storm creates another storm in the boat. One storm is enough. Now there are two storms - disciples yelling at their master. Driven by fear, we have this tendency to go off on each other – turn on each other.

            Awakened, Jesus deals with the real storm. Jesus rebukes the wind and silences the sea. Then he addresses the second storm - the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

            Fear and lack of faith go together. Also faith and courage go together. These are the main points of the story.

            Did it really happen? Can anyone really calm the waters and still a storm? Who knows?

But here is the TRUTH – nothing is too much for God. God rules and reigns - Jesus shows us this - over the storms and seas that threaten our lives. That is the TRUTH.

And the question is always before us – how then do we live?

            Interestingly and importantly, this language of rebuking and silencing the sea is the same language and same result found earlier in the gospel story in chapter 1 when Jesus rebuked and silenced a demon.

            The main message intends to show us something very important. God – not demons – remains in charge. That is a critical message! We all got demons. Demons do not reign. God reigns.

God – not storms – however and whenever they emerge in our lives – remains in charge. Storms come to all of us. Jesus stills the storms. God rebukes demons and storms!

Can you believe this? Jesus wants us to live by faith, not fear.

Our lives are secure in God, in God’s care, in God’s presence.

            Then, there is something even more interesting about this passage. After he stills the storm, when all is calm, when Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” he uses the Greek word, “deilos,” which gets translated here as “afraid” – “why are you afraid?”

But the more familiar Greek word for “afraid,” and “fear” is phobos, which gives us the English word, “phobia” also understood as “fear.” He did not use that word. He uses the word, deilos. Actually, “deilos” appears in the New Testament only a few times and the more appropriate translation is – not fear – but, get this,  “COWARDLY.” 

In other words, Jesus wakes up. Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace. Be still!” And there was a “dead calm.” After all that, Jesus turns to his mates and says, “why are you so cowardly?”

That question from Jesus stings a bit more, doesn’t it?

Fear is natural. Fear can be even helpful, saving our lives. Jesus does not call it fear. “Why are you COWARDLY?”

The other place where this word, “deilos,” gets used is in Revelation 21:8. The “cowardly” are at the head of the list of those who do not make it into God’s promised reign of love and light, the Kin-dom of God. Some people are too “cowardly” to proclaim the Kin-dom of God. Some people are too caught up in themselves to participate in the Kin-dom. Some people – “cowardly” – deilos - are too taken with their own plans and pursuits that they miss out on God’s presence and possibilities. “Deilos” – COWARDLY - is the worst trait for a disciple. “COWARDLY” – “why are you so cowardly?” (I remain so grateful to my friend, Brian Blount, and his keynote speeches at APCE in 2015, for these insights on this Mark 4 passage) “Why so COWARDLY?”

Or, . . . . Why are you letting the storms get the best of you?

Our faith is in God. God rules over the storms and the sea. That has been the message from the first verse of Scripture, and across so many pages. Jesus asks, “Why are you so cowardly?”

This question . . .  ALWAYS . . .  applies to our lives!

It certainly applies to us as we mark – in the church today – World Refugee Day. Could that topic be more pressing?

World Refugee Day has been on the church’s calendar for a very long time. This is because life is harsh and complicated. There are more than 22 million people around the world forced from their homes in fear for their lives due to war, natural catastrophe, persecution or fear of persecution. We pray for these displaced people – who have fled countries like Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. We pray for the 5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. We pray for our government, and for the governments of refugee host countries around the world, to not become discouraged, but to work together as one global family to meet the humanitarian needs of refugees on their doorsteps.

More recently, we all know – I assume - about the separation of children from parents at our southern border, and then the new Executive Order that tries to change things. Clearly, we are a long way from getting this right.

Here is maybe something you do NOT know. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a new mission statement in the last few months. The new mission statement – probably not a surprise - eliminated words that had celebrated “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.” And the word changes marked a major turn inward. Gone were the words of a generous welcome – as America is a place of “providing, granting, promoting, and understanding.” In their place came verbs of demarcation, fortification, like “safeguarding, protecting (Americans), and securing (the homeland).” The shift is clear – it is time to focus more on keeping immigrants out than allowing them in. (see Peter Marty, Christian Century, May 9, 2018, p. 3)

The recent weeks, the harsh cries of separation, the pain and anguish that arises in our hearts, flows from that changed mission statement and cruel practices. And we can all decide for ourselves where the blame lies.

But this all relates to our passage about Jesus in the boat, . . . and Jesus stilling the storm, . . . and Jesus asking those questions. Sometimes, see, it is FEAR, . . . and sometimes it is COWARDLY actions.

Jesus wants us to live with conviction and courage, compassion and care, not cowardly actions. That is the constant message of Holy Scripture.

And we should certainly remember this: only once in all of the Hebrew Bible do we find the command to love the neighbor (Lev. 19:18). More than 35 times, however, these same Scriptures command us “to love the stranger.” Why the emphasis on the stranger? Maybe it is because of our inclination toward “deilos” – COWARDLY. Maybe it is because it is so easy to love the neighbor – the neighbor is like ourselves. The neighbor looks like us, speaks like us, is familiar to us. The stranger is the one we are taught to love. We have to learn to love the stranger in order to make for a more wholesome world.

That stinging question of Jesus is out there for us to answer with our very lives– “why are you so cowardly?”

I have been reading lately a very thoughtful book by psychologist and speaker, Brene Brown. It is called Braving the Wilderness. The subtitle is “the quest for true belonging;” and Brown suggests that in our season of polarized politics and increasing viciousness, we are most desperate, all of us, for a sense of belonging.

She has a chapter in the book with this title: “People are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.” In the chapter, she writes about “dehumanization.” Dehumanization is such an easy inclination for all of us. Once we dehumanize people, we develop an “enemy image.” Once we see people on the other side of a conflict, or the other side of a wall, or the other side of an issue, we start to see them also as inferior, even dangerous. This has happened all through our history, fueling human rights atrocities, creating wars, causing genocides, and more. Dehumanization makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible.

Here is what Brene Brown says: “We must never tolerate dehumanization.  . . . When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce Muslim people to terrorists or Mexicans to “illegals” or police officers to pigs, it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and the degree to which we are operating in our integrity.” (B. Brown, Braving the Wilderness, pp. 72-76)

Our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our faith.

We can never let our fears lead us to COWARDLY acts.

Certainly you have heard that familiar and beautiful quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that says the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Here is what singer and song-writer Bruce Springsteen adds recently to that quote. Bruce says, “I've lived long enough to see that in action and to put some faith in it. But I've also lived long enough to know that arc doesn't bend on its own. It needs all of us leaning on it, nudging it in the right direction day after day. You gotta keep, keep leaning.” (from Springsteen on Broadway)

Jesus never allows the fears, or the storms, to prevail. God prevails. God is always present and at work. We live by faith, not fear. We live with courage and compassion, not cowardice.

Here is what the Apostle Paul says about living by faith, and leaning on that arc: “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor, . . . contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (Romans 12:9-13)

May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we seek the love and grace, generosity and welcome of Jesus Christ our Lord. Show us that way, today, tomorrow, forever. Amen.

Alexander W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on June 24, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.