Readings: 2 Sm 12:1-7a, 10-17; Ps 51; Mk 4:35-41
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Have you ever been afraid for your life? Given the age of most of us here today, I suspect we’ve all had one or two life-threatening experiences. For some it may have been the diagnosis of a serious illness. For others it may have been a dangerous situation that you survived, one of those sudden near misses. During my many years as a Navy pilot I certainly had my share of the latter, and I have vivid memories of them all. I’ll share one with you this morning.
I was flying a helicopter on a very dark night in the northern Pacific, up near the Aleutian Islands. We had left Adak, an island in the Aleutians that attracted no tourists, and were returning to the ship. The seas were especially rough, with high winds and a water temperature near freezing.
We were about 15 miles from the ship when we heard a loud bang from the main transmission – that’s the huge gearbox that connects the two jet engines to the rotor system. We then started getting other, serious indications of a rapidly worsening problem. Believe me, if the main transmission freezes, the main rotor system will do the same, and that’s never a good thing. And if we ended up in the water, our chances of survival in that dark, stormy, ice-cold environment were very slim.
So we followed all the proper emergency procedures and made our way to the ship, hoping we could land before everything failed. I asked my copilot and two crewmen to pray, and the three of them – a Mormon, a Southern Baptist, and an agnostic – agreed that this was good idea.
Surprisingly, as they prayed and I tried to keep us in the air, I found myself thinking of today’s Gospel passage from Mark. It’s strange how such thoughts just pop into your mind when you least expect them..
You see, like the apostles the first thing we experienced was fear, fear in a storm over which we had no control. Wondering whether Jesus were awake or asleep, I uttered my first prayer: “Wake up, Jesus. It’s scary out here, and you’ve got some quieting words to say.”
But then, remarkably, as I prayed this most imperfect of prayers, I was overcome by a sense of complete peace – and peace always brings change. What had been a frantic plea, uttered in fear, was transformed into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving; for somehow I knew that all would be well.
As you can see by my presence here today, we made it back safely. But right after we landed on that aircraft carrier’s deck, as I began to shut down the engines, the main transmission froze. The subsequent engineering investigation couldn’t explain why it hadn’t failed instantly, why it kept working for those miraculous 10 or 15 minutes we needed to return to the ship.
After landing, the four of us – even the agnostic – joined hands and offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving. For we four had learned something that dark night. We had learned that the absence of faith is not doubt, but fear.
"Be not afraid,” Jesus tells us again and again. Recall how he rebuked the apostles in today’s passage from Mark: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” [Mk 4:40] With this He confirms the connection between fear and lack of faith.
But once we began to pray, once we turned to God in faith, weak as it was, our fears began to melt away. Each member of my crew later told me that God had simply pulled all the fear from their hearts. It was a time when God revealed Himself and His saving power to each one of us.
Brothers and sisters, the antidote to fear is faith, a gift freely given, but one that you and I must freely accept. Let God fill your hearts with His love; accept His gift of faith so there’s no room for any fear. Let Him calm your soul as He calms the wind and the sea. Just remember, Jesus won’t calm your soul without your consent, without your faith in His power to do so.
In the Gospel the disciples marvel at Jesus as one “whom even wind and sea obey”. But even more marvelous is a disciple who, in the midst of life's crises, turns to God in faith and obedience.