Why are you terrified?
That’s the question Jesus asks his disciples in today’s gospel, and he asks each of us the same question.
But you know what? This is another case of a softened translation. Because the word attributed to Jesus in the original Greek is stronger. It’s more like “coward.”
Imagine Jesus asking you, “Why are you a coward?” Ouch!
Today’s story continues the exploration of faith. Because the opposite of faith is not doubt, as we may assume. In the gospel, the opposite of faith is fear. It’s not doubt that plagues us and challenges our faith. It’s fear of what may happen if we truly embrace the Gospel.
Last week Jesus used a parable to describe faith. He said it’s like a mustard seed that grows into a mighty tree. The parable of the mustard seed is not an analogy, because the mustard seed never grows into tree. In reality a mustard seed grows into an ugly little bush. The parable is hyperbole. It describes a mustard seed doing something that is contrary to the nature of a mustard seed. It’s like the little engine that could. The mustard seed exceeds even the greatest of expectations of what a mustard seed can be. And that’s what we’re supposed to do.
This week Jesus seems a little bit unreasonable. The disciples are terrified because it really seems like they’re about to die, yet Jesus seems annoyed at their fear. Because they should be brave? No, because they should have faith. He stops the storm to make a point; they should have trusted that no matter how terrifying the experience was, they could get through it with Jesus at their side. As the saying goes, Jesus does not offer a way out, but a way through.
Why am I such a coward? If faith can allow me to accomplish marvelous things, steady me through tragedy, heal me, then why am I so reluctant to give it the steering wheel?
I don’t have the answer for you. I only have the question: Why are you afraid? Not as an accusation or insult, but as an invitation to reflection. Ask this question of yourself: Why am I afraid?
This past week we saw some examples of faith being driven out by fear.
Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment. Fearful of what the encyclical might mean for their cause, some people began trashing it even before the text was released. They are so bound to their own ideology that they would not even listen to what Francis said. Some of them even said explicitly that faith has no bearing on how we treat the earth; the environment is only there to enrich some. They want the pope to concentrate on the bedroom, not the board room.
John Paul II used to like to challenger us to “set out into the deep.” That’s an invitation that is inherently fear-inducing. And the antidote is not bravery, but faith.
Maybe that’s hard for Americans to accept. It goes against our national narrative in some ways. How do you tell a superpower that victory is not found in strength, but in weakness?
And yet that’s what Jesus is telling us in today’s gospel reading. That’s what Francis is telling us about the environment; that dominiation and greed and taking what we want is not the way. In many ways, the way we treat the environment correlates to the way we treat each other.
As we treat people, so we treat the earth. And as we treat the earth, so we treat people. We are intricately intertwined with our common home.
As Pope Francis put it, “It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.”
Our first reading today was from the Book of Job. It’s important to realize that the story of Job is not an actual factual story of a real person. It’s literature. Otherwise you’d have to believe that God makes drinking bets with the devil.
But it is a profound work. Today’s passage is from a lengthy speech by an indignant God responding to Job’s observation that God does not seem to know what he’s doing. Job thinks he knows better.
Really? God replies. Stop whining and put on your big boy pants. You think you know best?
Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!
Have you commanded the morning since your days began?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare if you know all this.
Men like Job think they know what the world is about, but we don’t. Our arrogance is our doom.
As Pope Francis said, “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”
On Friday Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, joined Pope Francis in an urgent plea for common action to face global climate change. As Francis wrote, Bartholomew “asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which ‘entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion.’”
We have been given a wake-up call. It should cause us to re-evaluate how we live our lives.
If the vision of global ecological cataclysm terrifies us, we should recall the words written by an Anglican priest who once was a slave trader, someone who once believed that God sanctioned the buying and selling of human beings in the same way many today believe God sanctions the rape of the earth. That slave trader was John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace. And the second verse of that song goes like this:
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
We think we know what’s best for ourselves and the environment, but too often we don’t. We abuse the earth and ourselves because we are afraid of change, because we cannot let go of our pride and enter joyfully into the mystery of God’s plan for ourselves and our planet.
The destruction of the planet begins in my heart.
Put your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than the gospel of the market. He will set you free, fill you with awe of the world around us and make you a new creation.
Why are you afraid?