Hands up if you have ever been on a roller coaster ride? OK now hands up if you enjoyed going on a roller coaster ride? OK - now how about one of today's really big rides. Let's say Oblivion at Alton Towers . Let me whet your appetite on this one. Oblivion is the world's first vertical drop roller coaster. As well as speeding you along at up to 100 km per hour, it creates a force of up to 4.5G on your body (the space shuttle only creates 3G during take-off). But the best bit is that in one section of the ride, the car plummets vertically down a 60 metre drop - that's a free fall drop of 60 metres. Now hands up for volunteers for that one?
Still got some takers? OK then how about Nemesis at Alton Towers ? This one's a bit tamer because it only gets up to 80 km per hour and only exerts 4G on your body - however, there is a catch. With Nemesis you're not inside the security of a roller coaster car. You are actually suspended in a seat and harness underneath the ride with your legs dangling in thin air as you are whipped around impossibly tight bends at death defying speed. Any takers for that one?
Well we can clearly see who the thrill seekers are here this morning. We're obviously a bit low on them but I suppose you could argue that the true thrill seeker probably wouldn't be spending their Sunday morning in a quiet rural church service. They would be more likely to be throwing themselves off Helvellyn with a bedsheet for a parachute or canoeing the wrong way up the Severn in a bathtub.
I have to admit my own failing here. I hate roller coasters with a vengeance. I think it stems from the fact that my parents were equally timid on them so I never remember being exposed to them at an impressionable age and when I got to my teenage years when it became critical to grin and bear it to show that either you were 'one of the lads' or to impress a girlfriend I ended up trying to choose the least terrifying ones and riding them with a fixed grin of fear on my petrified face.
My brief experience with roller coasters drew to a close in my early twenties when I found myself in Blackpool on a Young Farmers Conference and was stupidly persuaded to go on to an innocuous looking ride called the Mousetrap. This ride had small cars which I think only sat 4 people and it was a traditional roller coaster in a wooden frame. As we picked up speed, all I could think about was the mind boggling number of nuts and bolts that were required to hold this ride together and the fact that it was maintained by some very dubious looking spotty youths who looked like they couldn't care less whether it fell apart or not.
My wildest fears were confirmed when the marginal security of the wooden framework that was flashing past me at what seemed like 100 miles per hour suddenly disappeared and I was sure that we had flown of the rails and were now in free fall and headed for Blackpool beach. A rapid 180 degree turn took us back into the framework and I realised that this was a clever feature designed to produce just the reaction that I had experienced as the track described a big loop outside the frame before heading back in.
I got off that ride without even the fixed grin of fear and with no shame whatsoever, told my companions that they could go on as many more rides as they wanted but without me. I then managed about 15 years of roller coaster abstinence - which was quite a challenge with three young children of my own until about 5 years ago.
I was persuaded by my wife to take my elder son on one at Euro Disney. This was on the basis that the only person I know who is worse on roller coasters than me is my wife! I have to admit, that I found that experience quite enjoyable, partly because the roller coaster was relatively tame but mainly because it had been built and was being maintained by the Disney Corporation and not by some spotty grease monkey in jeans and a leather jacket. My rational mind told me that Disney could not afford the law suit or the publicity that would ensue from killing me and my fellow tourists and so I was perfectly safe.
So I am no fan of roller coasters but there are people out there who are fanatical and make a point of trying out every new and crazy roller coaster in the world. These roller coaster junkies appear to have had their nerve endings cauterised and you sometimes see them on the TV, reading a book or eating an ice cream as they are thrown around at ungodly speeds. For these people, roller coasters hold no fear.
It must have been a bit like that for the disciples when they got into the boat with Jesus. They were far more like those roller coaster junkies than like me. Setting out in a boast across the Sea of Galilee was nothing to these men. They were fishermen. They did it every day. Rough weather and storms were their stock in trade and would have help absolutely no fear for them at all.
Yet, the gospel reading tells us that these men, these hardened sailors were terrified out of their wits by the ferocity of the storm that consumed them. They were in mortal fear that their lives were about to end. It must have been some storm to have done that. Jesus, as we know, is woken and stands up and calms the storm but then rebukes the disciples saying; "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" The disciples are amazed by Jesus power over the elements in calming the storm and it easy for us to assume that it is that aspect of this story that is important here.
There are two messages described in this short passage. The first is indeed Jesus' power over the natural world but the second and far and away the most important is about Faith. Jesus rebukes the disciples for lacking faith. Why were they afraid? Did they think Jesus would let them and himself perish? Why did they wake him? Where was their faith?
Now it's easy for us to look at this 2000 years later and be critical of the disciples. How would we have reacted in their place? Remember this was a storm so ferocious as to put fear into the hearts of experienced sailors. This is equivalent to the roller coaster junkie believing that his car has left the tracks. They had seen Jesus perform many miracles but they had not seen the ultimate miracle of Easter when Jesus overcame death itself.
Jesus berates the disciples for their lack of faith and could equally berate all of us. Faith that Jesus loves us and is working for an ultimate good even when waves beat around our boat and we are in danger of being swamped. Faith that God has created the world and is in charge of it even when chaos seems to reign and evil seems to triumph. Faith that the Holy Spirit is giving us strength and inner peace even when we're feeling exhausted and stressed. Faith keeps us going in spite of the depressing or demoralizing or disappointing circumstances around us and it enables us to face an uncertain future without fear.
We're all riding the roller coaster of life - with it's ups and downs and twists and turns. It may throw sudden unexpected drops at us and give us equally unexpected highs. This is a roller coaster that we can enjoy in the sure and certain knowledge that God is it's architect and that Christ rides with us.