Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who Then Is This?

Rembrandt, Jesus Stilling the Storm
On one level the story of the calming of the storm is about the uniqueness of the personhood of Jesus of Nazareth.  Ordinary people don’t do such things as speak to the winds and waves and instantly bring them under control. 

On another level the story raises the question of whether or not the God who is ostensibly present with us and is moreover all powerful does indeed care that we are perishing (some of the time or all of the time).

On still another level the story probes the curious intersection of fear and faith, as in Jesus’ question, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

I want to be honest with you and tell you that I really am not interested very much in what happened once upon a time to Jesus and his disciples in a boat in a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  It is not that I find it hard to believe—I really don’t find it hard to believe—or that I find it unimportant.  Instead, I find myself quite much interested in the storms that are going on right now in my world and in my soul.  I find myself wondering what is happening and what God or faith or Jesus has to do with any of it. 

You might wonder what storms I’m talking about.  I could rapidly come up with a list of a dozen including

  • ·      the firestorm about immigration at the southern US border
  • ·      the suppression of voting rights in this country
  • ·      the rise of authoritarian governments around the world
  • ·      the deep suspicion of immigrant populations here and abroad
  • ·      the corruption of the leadership of many churches who ignore or dismiss directives of Scripture and Tradition to care for the least powerful and most vulnerable
  • ·      the wanton devastation of the earth’s environment
  • ·      unbridled greed that infects economies the world over

But wait.  You don’t want to hear those things.  You’ve come to church precisely to get away from all that.  Indeed the church is a little barque that you’ve bought your ticket to board so you can get away to the other side of all that, a place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God, to coin a phrase.  Part of your disappointment and dismay is that this little church-boat that we are in to escape being tossed and blown about by the cross-currents of politics and economics is itself buffeted about by the squalls of change. 

And where, pray, is Jesus in all this?  In the middle of it, of course.  But to all intents and purposes, fast asleep, as if he were a little baby in a manger, sleeping on the hay.  Not quite the Lord and Master that we bargained for or that we need.  We seem to be left bailing water and trying to manage the sails.  Sometimes it seems that the Holy One is either totally absent or present but powerless to stop it all—to correct the course—to pilot the vessel. 

Don’t you ever want to cry out, or don’t you ever hear yourself exclaiming, “Lord do you not care?  We are perishing! Have you nothing to do but sleep on the job?”  If you ever get fed up, frightened, or worse—hopeless—in the straights you find yourself, then you and I are on the same page.  And that page is right here in the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel.  For this crossing of the sea is not an event that happened once upon a time, but one that keeps happening all the time.  That, you might say, is why it is in the Bible in the first place.  Somebody somewhere recognized it as more than an isolated incident in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but as a window of insight into the human condition that just doesn’t go away. 

Yet it is not disenchantment or disgust that is the enemy of faith, it would seem.  It is fear.  And when I say “enemy,” I really mean a countervailing force that is destructive.  Everybody is scared. We all are running scared much of the time.  Scared we won’t have enough money, or enough energy or health or beauty or education or whatever it is we think will secure our lives and guarantee them against unhappiness or loss or even death.  Faith and fear don’t do well together because faith always involves risk and trust and fear is primed to avoid risk and to distrust.  But there are some major exceptions. Courage is not fearlessness; it is acting bravely in spite of fear.  If fear is great enough, it eats away at courage until there is no courage. 

To put all that in the context of this story of us in the boat in danger of being swamped and ultimately lost in the storm, the issue is not whether Jesus or God is asleep while we are busy battling the winds and waves.  The issue is whether we can call upon our inner strength (another name for the indwelling Christ) to be courageous and not scared to death.  Why are we afraid—not just afraid a little bit, but afraid enough to overrule our own courage?  That’s a question we have to live with.

But let’s take this story in another direction.  What about the storms going on in our souls?  Sometimes they are and sometime they aren’t the same or even like the storms in our outward lives.  You have your own and you probably know what they are.  Perhaps they have to do with grief or sorrow over someone or some thing that you’ve lost.  Maybe they are tied up with addictive behavior, whether abusing substances or what feels like lifelong patterns and behavior that you honestly don’t think you’ll ever be able to break.  Or maybe the storm really has to do with relationships that trouble your life among family or friends or bosses or workmates.  You know your storms and your storms know you. 
What storms are going on in your own soul?

It doesn’t really matter what the internal torment is, the feeling is the same if God seems to be absent or uncaring or just sleeping through the whole mess.  But perhaps more on the personal scale than the global one, we tend to blame ourselves for the storm, imagining that there must have been something we could have done to prevent it.


  • ·      “I should have seen her one more time.” 
  • ·      “I shouldn’t have spoken those angry words.” 
  • ·      “If I had it to do all over again, I’d accede to his unreasonable demands and maybe I would forestall a split.” 
  • ·      “It’s all my fault.” 
We take that even further, imagining that the storm is not just one that God is sleeping through but that God has sent the storm in punishment for some flaw that we have—something that makes us particularly susceptible to divine anger. 

And guess what?  That kind of thinking is a thinly masked version of fear.  In fact it’s worse than fear, because it is fear cloaked by shame, a profound sense of inadequacy, even sometimes a sense of worthlessness to the point of paralyzing depression.  And it becomes even worse than all that when we are so far from any idea of God that we don’t even imagine that there’s a God whom we’ve made into an enemy.  We might have, in Nietzsche’s phrase, killed God, with no choice remaining but to be gods ourselves, thus having total responsibility for our own torment.

A pretty bleak place, this.

But there is in all the darkened sky, just enough light to see by.  And in that ray of light there rises a possibility.  It is possible that we might become exasperated enough to cry at some god, even though that god be our own paltry selves, “Do you now care that I am perishing?”  And just that much anger is enough to dispel depression or sadness or paralysis to the point that we’re perhaps able to hear from deep within us a bigger question:  why are you afraid?  Why?  What are you getting out of your fear?  What’s the pay-off? 

Now there is no guarantee.  I’d be a fool to say otherwise.  Nothing is guaranteed to still the storm, calm the elements, return everything to peace and quiet.  But there is a chance that out of the chaos, once we rise to the moment with even an ounce of courage, that courage is like a spark that catches the stubble around it.   Winds only fan the flame.  Take heart! 

The odd thing is that neither the outward nor the inner storms actually go away.  But in both, just that ounce of courage, of trust, is enough to build a nest for peace in the midst of chaos and calamity. 

I heard a man once tell a story about a fellow who was incarcerated in an enemy prison during the Viet Nam War.  In his cell, all alone, not knowing whether he would survive nor how, he had one lone cellmate:  a rat.  The rat turned out to be a female with the job of feeding her young with what crumbs she could scavenge on the floor of prison cells and whatever else comes in the way of rats.  The prisoner strangely took hope from the rat, making the dangerous trek out of the nest every day on the prowl for something to keep her young and herself alive.  The soldier said when finally released that it was the rat that helped him build a nest down in his own scared soul.  Imagine.  A cold trap with nothing but a rat for inspiration.  But that is all it took for one human being to get through years of a weird and mind-destroying storm.

And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still.”  Then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm.  And he said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this...?”

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 2018, Proper 7, Year B

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

No comments: