Faith Has Better Teeth — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 4:35-41

Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” What is Jesus asking? Maybe he’s just impatient with the disciples’ lack of nerve. Let me illustrate.

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, will you stay with me all night?” Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “I can’t dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.” A long silence followed. At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, “The big sissy!”

Is that it? Is Jesus just calling those terrified disciples a bunch of big sissies? I don’t think it’s quite so simple.

Our gospel reading reminds me of a favorite line of poetry. Gerhard Frost once wrote: “Doubt gnaws at faith but faith gnaws back, and faith has better teeth.”

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

That’s today’s main thought. Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

What is the connection between doubt and faith? Jesus doesn’t ask them why they are afraid. Fear would be natural in this situation. The word he uses is more akin to a desperate panic, a fear that has nearly given up all hope. “Why are you cowardly?” Jim Bailey translates it. “Do you not yet have faith?” That should be kept in mind as we read the second question. It is something like, “Have you given up hope already?”

Think about faith here as the willingness to depend on someone in life and in death. Let me illustrate.

When my boys were about six and eight, we went to Canada on a fishing trip. The winds were terrible for days. The waves were high. It was difficult to get out on the water. We sat in our camper while the hours ticked away

Then the wind died down a bit, or so I thought. It looked like the waves weren’t so bad. We set out in our sixteen foot open boat. After a couple of miles, I discovered my error. We were navigating up and down four and five foot rollers. I couldn’t turn around due to the wind and waves. And by that time our camper was just as far away as our destination.

The boys sat down in the bow of the boat. I was terrified. They, on the other hand, enjoyed the watery rollercoaster. More than that, they simply trusted me to get them through. I never forgot that lesson about the real nature of faith. As far as they could tell, I had never let them down before. And they had no reason to think that would change.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

The disciples allowed their fear to overtake them. They allowed their fear to blot out any memories of Jesus’ powerful love. They allowed doubt to chew on them until they panicked.

The disciples were like five-year old Johnny. He was in the kitchen as his mother made supper. She asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn’t want to go in alone. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” She asked again, and he persisted.

Finally she said, “It’s OK–Jesus will be in there with you.” Johnny walked hesitantly to the door and slowly opened it. He said: “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?”

We can laugh at little Johnny’s request. But he had it right. The problem in the boat wasn’t fear. The problem was that they forgot who to ask for help.

Too often and too loudly we’ve been told that the opposite of faith is doubt. In fact, authentic and clear-eyed doubt is, in my experience, one of the most reliable doorways to deeper, more nuanced, more grounded faith. So, perhaps we should take a minute or two to dispose of that limited and modernist notion of faith as intellectual assent to a set of pre-defined propositions.

Too often and too loudly we’ve been told that the opposite of faith is fear. That has made more sense to me at times, but in the end, I find that problematic as well. Desperation is another reliable doorway to faith. That is certainly the case as Mark tells the story. The difference for the disciples, perhaps, is that they have a relative wealth of information and experience at this point and don’t “yet” have faith.

That doesn’t mean the disciples will never have faith. That doesn’t mean the disciples will always have faith. That means that their resilient reliance on Jesus is a work in progress at this point. A failed experiment is not a failure. It is simply more data. Time for Jesus and the twelve to return to the test bench for some more work.

It’s the same for me – and you. I can pray for the Spirit to give me a more resilient reliance on Jesus in the face challenges. I can work on habits and practices that enhance my resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of challenges. And I can exercise that resilient reliance to some degree or another even when I struggle with doubt and fear. After all, Mark tells us the story of one who cries out, “Lord, I have faith! Help my lack of faith!”

I resemble that remark.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

That being said, they know enough to wake Jesus up and implore him to do something. That is, as Richard Swanson points out, a sort of faith or trust in Jesus in the face of hopelessness. The disciples, “like crowd after crowd in the story, look at Jesus and expect great things. They expect not only that Jesus ought to be awake, carrying out his responsibilities,” Swanson argues, “but that if he were, they were would not be dying.”

And then, Jesus stills the storm. Who the hell is this guy in the boat with us? If we can get to that combination of consternation, curiosity, and contemplation, we may approach what Mark is up to in this text.

Our gospel is good news for all who are sure we’re not up to the task. The disciples panicked. Jesus speaks to the storm. The result, in a literal translation is “a great calm.” That’s what happened to the wind and the waves. That’s what Jesus wanted for his disciples as well—a great calm. That calm did not arise from the disciples’ courage. That calm came because Jesus was in the boat with them.

Show Jesus the storm at the center of your life. Hear him say to you, “Peace…be still.” If you can receive the peace he comes to give, then you can join him in the boat in the middle of your storm. And though the storm continues, you will know that the power isn’t out there, the power is with you and in you and through you.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

The alternative to the dangerous, stormy crossing, is to stay tied up on the shore. That is the picture of many churches — a peaceful, restful club house on the shore rather than a boat following Jesus’ command to take the fearful risk to cross the lake.

There is only one safe place for a boat. That’s in the harbor, tied up to the dock. But that’s not what boats are for. Boats are for going, not staying. The same is true of the church. The safest place for a congregation is inside the walls of a building. The safest place for a congregation is among the people we already know and love. The safest place for a congregation is things that are familiar.

But the church isn’t meant to be safe. The church is meant to go out.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

This faith is always a formed and informed faith. Jesus had spent time teaching the disciples. They had witnessed his powerful love. He was training them for the risky journey ahead. Jesus was preparing the teeth of their faith.

That’s critical for us today. Our country wonders how a young man could shoot nine people in a church. I don’t know, and I won’t add to the pointless ponderings of those who think they do. What I do know is that we can and must form and inform the faith of the next generation. If there is not time for VBS or Sunday School, for confirmation or Bible Study, for teaching and mentoring the faith, for worship and serving, then how can we be sure the next generation will have faith? I can’t fix what has happened in Charleston, but I can be part of the solution where I am here and now.

Perhaps the antidote to Christian cowardice is, first of all, remembering that Jesus really is always in the boat with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And courageous Christianity is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than doing the next right thing as we have the opportunity and the vocation. Perhaps it is the discipline of dogged dependence on the One who commands wind and wave and also rests in our hearts in love.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth. How are the teeth of your faith?

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