Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, RCL Year B, Proper 7, June 24, 2012
at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Trussville, Alabama
Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.
In preparing for this week, some conversations were brought to mind about the nature of God. How sometimes we lean too exclusively toward the transcendence of God – God as mighty and distant and all powerful, and concerned only with judging us. Then at other times we tend to lean too much on the immanence of God. Believing that God is present in a personal way. You know, God as your buddy, your life coach, the one who hooks you up with that sweet parking space. A god more like the parody religious icon of “Buddy Christ” in the film Dogma.
In the midst of this, it might seem that if God walked into the room, the question may no longer be whether anyone would recognize God. The question instead might be whether anyone would stand up.
Maybe we, sometimes, make God so personal that we no longer touch the mystery of God’s holiness. Perhaps, instead, we create a God that is some kind of eccentric, benevolent, wealthy uncle. But if we think that God is so removed and unknowable and arbitrary and disengaged, we miss the reality of how God reveals God’s self in the absolute ordinary.
Today’s Gospel seems to point to the fact that God is immanent: God is actually in the boat and in the storm. But also points to the fact that God is transcendent. God commands the wind and the waves, and… they… stop.
So here we have a great windstorm arising, waves beating into the boat, boat being swamped.
As an aside, being fearful while in a storm at sea is not exactly an irrational fear, especially when compared to something like pogonophobia. In fact it would probably affect attendance here at Holy Cross if there was an outbreak of pogonophobia, (turning and smiling at our bearded rector) which is a fear of beards. So it’s easy to imagine what might have happened if the disciples had awakened Jesus from his exhausted slumber out of a mortal fear of their own beards, then we would be having quite a different conversation.
That being said, I have to admit, this “Jesus asleep in the boat” story has always seemed a bit unfair because they were on the Sea of Galilee which is known for its violent storms. This happens because of differences in temperatures between the seacoast and the mountains beyond; storms come up quickly and can be life-threatening to anyone on its waters. The fact of a storm is not all that unusual, but apparently the ferocity of this particular storm was.
Doesn’t take much imagination for me — if I were in some rickety first century boat in the middle of a terrifying storm, with water rising about my ankles, most everyone else on the boat panicking, and then there’s Jesus… in the back of the boat taking a nap on a pillow — to think that I’d be a little irritated. Though we know that the disciples can bring plenty of grief on themselves, I don’t think that we can blame them on this one. I don’t think that you can blame them for thinking, “Jesus, why don’t you care that we are, like, you know, dying here?!”
If they were freaking out it was not due to neuroses or an anxiety disorder: their boat was about to sink. As human beings we are wired for certain responses when we feel threatened. Adrenalin is released in our brains, our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, and we become hyperaware of what’s going on around us.
So, here we are with the disciples who have accompanied Jesus in this boat. Granted, some have fished for a living and will be accustomed to storms at sea, but of course we still can’t transcend our animal brain chemistry. Oh, and don’t want to neglect to mention, that they are also not accustomed to having a passenger who might have the power to protect them from harm.
Also, at this point in Mark, Jesus’ identity is still unclear and the disciple’s faith tenuous on a good day. This event, then, has the opportunity to become a moment of clarity in the midst of the chaos of the storm: clarity as to Jesus’ true identity and power, and clarity as to the desperate need of the disciples – and you and me – for the calming, healing power that only Jesus can provide.
So, in their fear and desperation, the disciples wake Jesus and raise what sounds to me, and I don’t know any way to describe it other than, an accusatory plea, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
This is not an unusual cry to hear, then or now, whether or not it’s from people of faith. The hard truth, as we know it, is that fearsome things are very real: isolation, pain, illness, meaninglessness, rejection, losing one’s job, money problems, failure, illness, and death. They often leave us crying out to God, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” As we grow in faith, as we do work together in community, we come to understand that even though such fearsome things are very real, they do not have the last word. And only when we have articulated those feelings – and the anger beneath them – can we be still and listen for a word from God.
Jesus speaks such a word when he rebukes the wind and the waves saying, “Peace! Be still!” After that, the scripture tells us, “the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm”.
Of course this is not the first or only instance of the power of God’s word, here embodied in Jesus, to do great things.
- God spoke and brought into being all creation out of formless void.
- God spoke again, and God’s word became flesh in Jesus Christ.
- In between, God’s word called a nation into being and inspired prophets who guided that nation.
It can also be easy to forget that God’s all powerful word is still being spoken amid the noise and chaos of our lives and world. And like Jesus’ word of peace spoken over the raging storm, God’s word still destroys the forces that threaten to do us harm and still calms our deepest fears. As Martin Luther wrote, “ ‘one little word’, the word, ‘above all earthy powers’, can ‘fell’ whatever darkness threatens to undo us.”
The word spoken by Jesus in this reading from the Gospel of Mark, is a word of peace and stillness. It is a word that I need to hear, perhaps each of us needs to hear, every day. There are always storms large and small, in our lives, in our work, wherever we find ourselves, that call for a word of peace. Like the disciples, we are challenged in the midst of those storms to rediscover our faith in the promise of God’s powerful word. The question that Jesus poses to the disciples, is the question he continues to pose to us in our moments of despair, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The disciples are rendered speechless in the face of Jesus’ work. They respond with awe and with the glimmer of understanding of the nature and power of Jesus.
Finally, I leave us with Paul, who expresses so eloquently not only the paradox of grace in vulnerability but also the disciple’s vocation:
“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet are well known;
as dying, and see—we are alive;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Thanks be to God!