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When We Are In The Storm

A first-person narrative sermon based on Mark 4:35-41

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash.]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That is the way the letters from the Apostle Paul begin, when they are read aloud in the house church I am part of, in Rome, so it seemed an appropriate way to address you.

Whatever the differences in our context and time in history, we at least have that in common, right? The grace and peace we know though Jesus… the community created by belonging to the same family of God.

I am wondering whether we have something else in common as well, so if you will indulge me, I have a question for a show of hands:

How many of you, at a time when you were really upset or anxious, have had someone tell you to “calm down.”

OK. Now, keep your hand up if that actually helped you to calm down?

(I guess there are some things that are human universals, huh? You might even be able to guess why I asked.)

First some context: my community in Rome just received a copy of this new writing called a gospel.

It assembles many of the stories about Jesus, putting them together into one coherent narrative.

Some of the stories we had heard before, of course, but others were new, and one of those was the story that was included in your worship today: the story of Jesus and his disciples in a storm on the sea.

Maybe if you are already familiar with the story it wouldn’t have such an impact, but let me tell you, when I first heard it read aloud… I felt things.

I have never been on a boat, myself, and to be honest I don’t ever want to.

The sea sounds terrifying.

There is a reason why so many of the ancient mythologies (Jewish and Gentile alike) associate the sea with chaos – with the ultimate enemy of order and peace in creation.

The power for destruction is terrifying, and in the expanse of the water there is nowhere to hide… nothing solid to which to cling.

When the gospel told of the waves beating into the boat… the water swamping the shallow hull which was the disciples only source of safety as the wind howled… I felt my own stomach clench and my hands shook with terror, even in imagining the scene.

My fear of sailing is the reason I never made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I did not want to have to take a ship across the Sea.

As Jews in the Diaspora my parents have made the journey a few times, but I never joined them.

They did not pressure me… but now I almost wish they had.

Because there will be no more pilgrimages. There is no Holy Temple to visit any more.

After the recent, ill-conceived revolt by zealots in Judea, the Empire responded with devastating force.

The Holy Temple was desecrated and destroyed.

The heart of my people’s faith now lies in ruins.

There is no happy reason to visit Jerusalem now.

Perhaps you will think that this should not be a cause of deep grief and disorientation for me.

After all, I never saw the Temple.

I live more than a thousand miles from Jerusalem.

And, although I am a descendant of Abraham, I worship in a house church, not in the synagogue.

Why should I care so deeply?

But my family… my people are convulsed with shock and grief.

Even at a distance, the Jerusalem Temple was still the center of our world, and now it lies in ruins.

And here, in Rome, we are frightened too.

Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the devastating fire in the city a few years ago, and since then Christians have been targeted for persecution.

Our adopted home views us as enemies, and there is now no other home to which we might return, even if we dared the sea.

So, I guess when the elder read the story of the storm from the gospel… I could feel the fear of the disciples in my soul because… I know it.

It’s that disorienting feeling of being tossed by circumstances over which I have no control.

The terror of threats that make me feel weak, and helpless, and alone.

The knowledge that I do not possess the skill or power I need to ensure that I and those I care about are safe.  

I have never been in a boat on a storm-tossed sea, but I know that fear.

I know that if I was there, I would have been the one asking Jesus, “do you not care that we are perishing?” 

To be honest, I have prayed that same prayer many times.

And that’s why I asked you all that question about whether being told to “calm down” ever actually helps.

Because that feels a little bit like what Jesus says in the story in response to his friends’ terror.

“Why are you afraid”?! Really?!

They were afraid because there was something real to fear!

And Jesus was asleep!

And even after he rebuked the storm, it takes a minute to come down from an adrenaline rush like that…

And suggesting that they just need a little faith feels a lot like telling a panicking person to calm down… human emotions don’t work that way!

And I think that needs to be said before we say anything else about this story, or it is going to just start a shame spiral.

Because if it’s somehow “unfaithful” to feel fear in situations that are legitimately frightening… then I don’t think we have much hope.

Because fear happens.

When we are confronted by our own fragility…

Or when things we care about are threatened or lost…

Or when it seems like Jesus is oblivious to our distress…

We all get scared. And telling us NOT to be afraid… to just calm down… to have a little faith… is not going to make our fear go away.

That’s just true. And I don’t think we need to feel ashamed about that truth.

But, upon reflection, I don’t think that shame was ever Jesus’s goal.

And, as the story goes, it was not the result of his question either.

When Jesus asks his followers, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”… they do not become defensive or embarrassed as we might expect.

Instead, it is as though the scales fall from their eyes and they are suddenly able to take in what has just happened.

Jesus stilled a life-threatening storm with just three words:

“Peace! Be Still!”

And a howling windstorm is silenced in an instant.

And crashing waves drop to glassy calm like marionettes whose strings have been cut.

And the disciples realize what they have just witnessed: “Even the wind and the sea obey him.”

It’s not that they have never yet seen him perform a miracle.

He has cast out demons and healed diseases.

He has demonstrated his authority with teaching and with signs.

But all of these acts of power had been enacted on a more immediate scale. They had precedent, in the stories of their faith, if not in their direct experience.

But power to command the terrifying forces of nature?

That is qualitatively different. It is perspective-altering.

It reminds us that our individuals fears and even our lives are so small in the context of the massive scope of God’s power and work in the world.

It is the kind of perspective shift that I think we most need when we are caught in storms of fear and uncertainty.

I suspect the gospel writer knew this.

When he wrote down this account of Jesus’s ministry, he knew the dislocation and fear that my community is facing: with the catastrophe in Jerusalem on one side, and the Roman persecution of Christians on the other.

He knew how easy it would be for us to turn in on ourselves and our fragility… forgetting what we know about who Jesus really is… that he is the incarnation of God among us… truly master of all creation.

I think he knew that we need the perspective shift as much as the disciples in the storm-tossed boat needed it… not to shame us for our natural fears but to help look beyond our immediate circumstances to the assurance that God is active in the world.

And who knows. Maybe he somehow knew that you might need that reminder too.

So, unsettling as the image of the storm in this story is, and familiar as I am with the sense of instability and fear… I can now recognize that Jesus is not just telling us to, “Calm down” in the face of our reasonable anxieties.

Instead, he is saying, “Peace. Be still.” The one who commands the wind and waves is with you, and he is doing so much more than you can see.

Thanks be to God


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