Saturday, June 20, 2009
The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B] - June 21, 2009 (Mark 4:35-41)
My parents always told me to respect a storm. Lightning does strike people, they’d tell me. Every year it does. Trees can be taken down by the wind. When we were little I distinctly remember we were never allowed to take showers or baths when there was a thunderstorm doing its thing outside. It was a useful bit of wisdom, I suppose.
Perhaps, then, they’d be mortified to learn that just a couple of years ago I went on a jog on an afternoon when the news reported that a storm might be brewing. Thinking I could outrun it, I started off when there were only a couple of small clouds in the sky. About a mile or so into my run, I noticed that it started to get really dark. I thought to myself, “No big deal. I’ve run in the rain before.” Before I knew it, a lightning bolt struck nearby that stopped me in my tracks. I was at the top of a high hill and figured I was like a human lightning rod, even though I knew the statistical chances of getting hit were very low. Within a few seconds, the bottom fell out of the clouds and lightning was flashing all around me. Not wanting to stand underneath the tall trees that were lining the street, and knowing I was too far from home to turn back, I made a mad dash for a covered porch on a house across the street. I did not know these people, so I rang the doorbell when I got there just to ask their permission to bide the storm’s passing. I didn’t want to be asked inside, but I wanted them to know I was there. To my dismay, no one answered. For fifteen whole minutes I waited on that stranger’s covered patio for the storm to pass. I felt safe and I kept dry, but I just kept hoping that some other neighbor wouldn’t see this strange sweaty man on a porch he didn’t belong and report him for trespassing. Well, you know what they say…any porch in a storm!
The disciples in this morning’s story have no such safety or place to watch the rain and lightning, but they do ring the doorbell and get no response. Jesus, their teacher and leader, the one who would know what to do in this frightening situation, sleeps soundly through the chaos. They begin to try to rouse him, but with what hope? What is it exactly that they think he’ll do for them? Chart the quickest path to some stranger’s front porch to wait it out? Devise some system for reducing the boat’s watery ballast mid-storm? Lead them in a psalm for safety? He had healed so many already…do they hope he can bring that power to bear on them now in some way? After all, they are perishing! Can’t he save their lives?
It’s difficult to say for sure, but it occurs to me—based on their final reactions—that the last thing they would ever expect him to do is make the storm stop. They look to him in this moment where everything is out of their control because they have come by this point to respect his leadership. He is their Rabbi, their Teacher. It is likely they want him to solve the issue of their boat, but Jesus will end up solving the issue of the storm.
Mark paints a very vivid picture of what happens next. Jesus does not consult anyone about emergency procedures or take stock of people’s feelings. Jesus gets up from his cushion and stops the storm. The word in the Greek for what Jesus does when he wakes up—diegeiro—suggests that he goes to the uppermost point in the boat, the bow. I imagine Jesus doesn’t look all that different from that scene in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character stands out on the point of the bow, wind blowing through his hair, and shouts out onto the open sea, “I am the king of the world!!”
Interestingly, the same Greek word for Jesus’ act of rising up is used to describe seas when they get rough and choppy. So here we have Jesus, the sleepy-headed rabbi, “growing rough and turbulent” in an answer to the seas that have grown rough and turbulent. He rebukes the wind—angrily scolding it for the tempest that it is—and the word of God commands the waters to be still. Standing up there in the bow, no doubt looking like some silly King of the World, Jesus tells the chaos to come under control.
And it happens! There is dead calm. The storm vanishes, and the boat of disciples continues to the other side of the lake.
What always catches me a little off-guard about this story is the disciples’ reaction at the end. Their prevailing sense of mind is not one of relief that their life has been spared or thankfulness for the calm seas, but rather awe, amazement, fear for who Jesus is, who he might be. Mark describes them as “fearing a great fear,” saying to one another, “who is this man, that even the wind and seas obey him?” Jesus has just essentially ridiculed them for a lack of faith, and they are still getting over the fact that their rabbi—the one who was just sleeping there on the cushion—has just demonstrated a power known to be possessed only by God the Almighty. They fear him. In fact, he is the only thing they really ever fear in this text.
So often this story of Jesus and the storm is used to draw a comparison to the various storms of our lives in order to bring relief, to assure us of God’s presence with us and power for us in the midst of calamity. And certainly we are reassured, on some level—through the cancer treatments, the loss of the job, the marriage that seems to founder—that Jesus can take our rocky boats and glide them safely through the storm. Yet in the stilling of the storm on Lake Galilee, Jesus is not simply a steady hand at the tiller. He is very God. By commanding the seas to be quiet and then invoking fear, rather than relief, in his disciples, Jesus is cast undeniably in the role of God—the God who commanded creation into existed with his word, the God who controlled the crashing waters at the first creation. Jesus is this same God who answers Job out of the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? [When I] shut the sea with its doors?” Jesus, our Teacher, speaks on behalf of and, in fact, embodies, this God who alone set the stars in their courses and set the measurements of the universe.
We have the temptation in the midst of crisis—whatever it is—to develop a myopia of misery, a nearsightedness that causes us to fixate purely on the storm and our place in it, to ask the question, “Why me?” or “Don’t you see that I’m perishing?” The challenge for faith is to remember God has the long view, the entire picture in mind. Just God was there at the beginning, God will be there at the end and into eternity. God knows how we got into the storm and how it fits into whatever comes after. God deserves our thankfulness and our devotion for our steps along that path, but God also deserves our fear.
Martin Luther begins every one of his explanations to the Ten Commandments with the words, “We should so fear and love God, that we should…” The First Commandment, for example, for Luther, means “We should so fear, love, and trust God above all things.” As we encounter our Lord in the Words of Scripture, in the sacraments, the point is not that our overwhelming reaction to God is to be afraid of him, but that we, through whatever happens, develop a profound respect for God’s ability to mould the universe and all the little events in it.. In this Galilee boat, like so many other times in the gospel story, Jesus is prodding his disciples to a deeper faith, a more profound respect, a deeper realization of how God engages and then declares authority over the winds and waves of life. Choppy and turbulent, chaotic and destructive, the waters rise up and threaten to do us in, but he rises up, too, and puts them in their place.
Yes, he rises up too. On the third day he rises, standing there, glorious, like the King of all Creation. In the storm that is Good Friday, even Jesus submits to the waves of abandonment and suffering for the sake of the God who alone can take the long view that sees through to Easter morning…and beyond. A deeper faith and trust in this God of Jesus makes us confident that no matter what, no matter what, God has the final word with the resurrection.
As Luther suggests, a faith based in fear and awe of God moves us not to question God’s whereabouts as we ring the doorbell frustratedly, wondering, “Are you there?” “Are you asleep??” Neither does such a faith lead us to consider God’s obliviousness to our plight, frantically asking, “Don’t you care that I’m dying?” Instead, it leads us to trust in the midst of the whirlwind that God is victorious over it, that there is no way, now that Jesus is in our boat, that we can be completely overcome. No way. Never. He rises up.
And, so, today our boat gains a new crewman. His name is River Jacob. A great watery name to remind him, perhaps, of the crashing river that birthed him, the waters that birth all of us in that new creation free from sin that Jesus brings. It is the water that washes up at the feet of the saints among whose great company we all will stand some day. Until then, River, pick up some wisdom along the way, from us, your rivermates, and, of course, your loving parents.
Like: respect a storm. They can be kind of dangerous.
But mostly: respect One who can still it.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.