5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
June 24, 2018
|Painting by He Qi|
I have always enjoyed teaching today’s gospel story of Jesus calming the storm to kids. It’s a really dramatic story and an important one. We know this because all four of the gospels include some version of it. So what is the pressing message this story is supposed to teach both children and adults?
In Mark’s account Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God. Then they decide to head across the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile territory—an area that no self-respecting rabbi would want to go. But Jesus wants to go and he wants to go right now. It would have made more sense to wait until morning but they don’t. Obviously, crossing over to do ministry there is urgent for Jesus. So it ways they take him just as he was without any further preparation.
As they go a great storm materializes, which threatens to sink the boats. Now these disciples are mostly fishermen. It’s not like they don’t know storms. So if they think it’s a great one, it probably is. The original language says the disciples began to “fear with a great fear” or you could even translate it: “mega-fear”.
Have you ever been in a great storm? I have. When I was 19 I worked as a camp counselor at a Lutheran camp on the shores of Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota. We would take our campers out on the lake in big Northern Canoes. It was always a challenge, mostly to keep the campers motivated to keep paddling and to do so in cooperation with the others (you know, not whacking each other with the paddles). One day, as we were returning from an overnight trip, a huge storm blew in and immediately our canoe was threatened by giant waves. Our boat was taking on an alarming amount of water. I panicked and started strategizing how I could possibly get the all kids to swim to shore if the boat sank. I imagined how I could possibly explain to my boss how I’d lost the massive canoe at the bottom of the lake. No matter how I played out the scenarios in my head, it didn’t look good. Oh, I played it cool but I was totally freaking out like the disciples, overcome by mega-fear.
But as the leader, I was working like crazy trying to steer the canoe in the best possible way and motivate the adolescents to paddle harder. That’s not how Jesus behaved in his storm. It says that he was asleep. Asleep! Can you believe that? Mark adds the odd little detail that he was asleep on a cushion. I wasn’t even aware boats in biblical days had cushions. Crate and Barrel hadn’t yet been invented but there’s Jesus sleeping on a cushion. Isn’t this the perfect picture of his calm? He’s not seized by mega-fear. He’s not giving up hope. He’s comfortably catching some Z’s.
The disciples wake up Jesus. They don’t politely say: “Oh Jesus, we’re really sorry to rouse you from your cushion nap but there’s a mega-storm brewing and the guys and I were just wondering if you could, you know, kindly save us from certain death.”
No, that’s not how it goes. They immediately accuse him of negligence, saying: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” I think they actually shout it. That’s how I always have kids act it out when we are exploring this story in bible study. They shout it at the top of their lungs and it’s really fun: “Don’t you care that we are perishing!?” You know it’s fun for all ages to really enter the story. Let’s try it together right. Shout it with utmost commitment. Ready? “Don’t you care that we are perishing!?”
I don’t know about you but I say that to Jesus all the time. Don’t get me wrong. I have faith—I know he’s in the boat with me—but he seems too comfortable on the cushion. When storms hit, it seems like there is not enough divine support to get us through.
Right now our nation is in the midst of a great storm. Refugee children are being cruelly traumatized by being taken from their parents at the border and detained in unsafe circumstances. How has our country become such a heartless place? This is a moral crisis. As ELCA presiding Bishop said in her statement: “Even with the new executive order, there is no provision for reuniting children already separated from their families, nor for children whose parents have already been deported. The executive order also allows for the possibility of future family separations.”
How can we stop this human tragedy and the many other injustices in our country and around the world? Our boats are taking on water in the storm and we fear with a great fear. We feel powerless like the disciples, even angry with Jesus for not rescuing us.
Saint Augustine said life throws you some terrible storms—you are tossed about by the wind and waves, your heart takes a battering and you feel shipwrecked. “Why is this?” he wrote, “Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten his presence. Rouse him, then; remember him, let him keep watch within you, pay heed to him.”
When the disciples wake up Jesus, what does he do? He calms the storm. He overpowers it in he same way he casts out unclean spirits by commanding: “Peace, be still.” And it is. It’s not just calm, it’s a great calm, a mega-calm that takes over the tumultuous sea.
The fact that Jesus can do this just makes the disciples more afraid. They are wracked with mega-fear, perhaps even more fear than they had in the storm. That’s wwhy Jesus says to them: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
“Who is this guy?” the disciples wonder, “Even the wind and sea obey him!” Are they playing with fire to be hanging out with a person that has more power than nature itself?
And this is where the passage ends. It’s disturbing, isn’t it? If the disciples—who had all the advantages of hanging out with Jesus and had been given the power to cast out demons—can’t overcome their fear, how in the world can we? We live in a world gone mad with fear and we rightly have our own fear but Jesus says to us: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
These are important questions for us to consider. Why are we afraid? Well, we know why we are afraid in this violent and uncertain world, but we don’t we have faith? Faith is what gives us the power to face our fears, to speak truth to power, to stand up against injustice like little children being torn from their mother’s arms in the name of “zero tolerance” immigration policy in our own country. Faith makes the impossible possible, just like the tiny mustard seed that turns into a mighty bush in which birds of the air can find safety. Jesus wants us to understand that we can live in faith because he lives in us. We are never alone. Our boat may be battered but Christ is in here with us.
All scripture has the power to call us to repentance. Perhaps the thing this story reminds us is that we’ve allowed Christ to fall asleep within us. We’ve forgotten that his power is strong enough to tame the threatening waves, to cross borders and bring love and healing to all. The Spirit of God resides within each one of us. If we say we cannot do the work of the Kingdom of God, we’re deceiving ourselves. Christ is with us. We need to wake him up.
And once the sleeping Christ awakens, our eyes and our hearts open as well to the possibilities that might occur if the inclusive, border-crossing love of Christ is set free to touch the lives of people.
The preacher Frederick Buechner has said:
"Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we're done, so that even in their midst we may find peace...we may find Christ.”
This is what the world needs now. I pray that the presence of Christ will be so alive and awake in our hearts that we cannot hold it in, that we will have the strength to speak God’s truth and carry it out into the world so that love will be the thing that triumphs. Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
© Laura Gentry 2018