Today we get the story of Jesus stilling the storm on the sea (and don't try to say that three times fast). Our story today occurs on the same “day” as the parables we heard last week which are all directed at explaining the kingdom of God. Could it be that this story is directed at the same topic, but perhaps about keeping the faith when our progress toward God’s kingdom encounters turmoil or difficulties?
In our story today, the storm rages all around Jesus, but he sleeps on peacefully in the back of the boat, until the terrified disciples awaken him. Jesus then demonstrates his mastery over even nature, and rebukes them for their lack of faith.
The verses we heard last week made it clear that while Jesus may seem to be teaching the crowds in riddles, he has been explaining them to the disciples who are close to him. They’ve been getting extra tutoring, as it were—and yet they STILL don’t get who exactly Jesus is as is clear when they ask at the end of our reading today, “Who then IS this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Now, in the Jewish imagination, the wind and sea were uncontrollable, signs of the chaos God conquered in the act of creation. It was one thing to the disciples that Jesus healed lepers and people suffering from possession by evil forces. But for Jesus to command obedience from the storm and the sea? THAT filled them with possibly as much fear as the storm itself had.
My friend Maria and I were discussing this gospel, and she reminded me that there are other boats around the disciples’ boat, out there on the sea, in the midst of the storm. I think this is a vital reminder for us today.
With so much going crazy all around us right now, it is important to remember that others are just as swept up in turmoil and strife. Wednesday was World Refugee Day. Some of us may have missed that, even while there’s been widespread turmoil regarding the effects of the zero-tolerance policy on our southern border here in the US. Thousands of children are being held apart from their parents, some of whom are infants and toddlers, and I’m not sure anyone knows how or when they will be reunited.
And as horrible as that situation is, when we consider that this is part of a larger refugee crisis, it seems worse. Hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan have been driven from their homes during the civil war that has raged there since independence, including many in our companion diocese of Lui. Earlier this month, Spain finally agreed to accept a boat filled with 600 refugees who had been denied entry in Italy despite maritime law.
Friends, we are all out at sea in boats that are being tossed about in the waves. Jesus has urged us to cross to the other side, no matter how much that going out across the water may scare us. There are always going to be times when our boat begins to take on water, and the first reaction we often have is “Where are you, God?” But God is always right there with us in the storm.
As Christians, we are called to cross barriers all the time, between “us” and “them”—to realize that there IS no “us” and “them.” For we are all, no matter where we come from or what we look like or what we have or have not done, children of God, bearing God’s image. And that means we are specifically called to embody God’s kingdom values of faith and community—community that acknowledges no borders or boundaries, but is one in the love of Christ.
The storm is a symbol for all that keeps us fearful, reactive, vengeful, and centered on the slights and wounds that have been inflicted on us. The storms prevent us from exercising perspective and reason, and instead call us to lash out from a sense of despair and fear: “Do you not care that we are perishing, Jesus?”
We live in a world beset by fear: fear of strangers and refugees, fear of guns, fear of being without a gun, fear of government power, fear that government is not powerful enough, and on and on it goes. We tell children about “stranger danger,” yet often the persons most abusive to children are friends or loved ones. Statistically and realistically speaking, a gun in the home “for protection” is often far more dangerous to the persons living there than useful against intruders. In other words, we often misunderstand the direction our fear and anxiety comes from, and although fear and anxiety are different conditions, they are related closely to a general sense of being reactive rather than rational and deliberate in our actions.
When any of us is anxious or fearful, our perspective often narrows to focus on ourselves, rather than be able to have perspective about the world around us. We can see this demonstrated in the disciples’ question: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” There are other boats out there on that sea—but the disciples are worried about themselves. And that’s how we are programmed to be by instinct. But those of us who claim the name of Jesus as part of who we are must NOT forget the other boats out there at sea.
We must not forget that Jesus’s words, “Peace! Be still!” are directed not just at the storm, but at us, because Jesus calls us to the embodiment of faithfulness and peacefulness, especially in the times of the storm. After the storm within and without has been calmed, Jesus doesn’t ask, “Why were you afraid?” Instead, Jesus asks, “Why did you have no faith?” Jesus was right there with them all along—but they, in their fear, forgot that, and lost their hold on the faith they had. All during this day, in the stories we heard last week and this week, Jesus has been talking about faith, about being faith-ful—and the lesson we are meant to learn is that faith is the antidote to fear.
The foundation of the kingdom of God is faith. That may sound obvious, but living in a time of anxiety and fear, I am convinced this cannot be repeated enough. Through faith and grace, the kingdom of God grows within us from a mustard seed into the fullest expression of who we are meant to be— open, loving, generous, members of an open, loving, generous community that provides abundant welcome and acceptance for all, just as the mustard tree provides homes for all the birds of the air. The kingdom of God grows through the power and grace of God, and we don’t know how. All of this happens through faith and trust—counter-cultural values in our world today.
When I was ten years old, a terrible set of tornados—four in all-- struck Tulsa, part of a massive super-storm. My mom, my sister, and my brother all laid under mattresses in the central hallway of our house, because they don’t have basements in Tulsa—yes, it’s crazy! We watched that storm moving closer and closer. My dad was sitting in our 1967 silver Lincoln Continental with the suicide doors out in the garage with the radio on, with our dog and some liquid courage of the Jack Daniels variety, chain smoking AND chewing tobacco at the same time, because if he was going to go, he was going to go on his OWN terms.
As I peered around the hallway wall, I saw—and heard-- two sparrows driven by the wind into the glass of our sliding doors. I can’t imagine they were flying in that mess—I can only guess that they’d gotten blown out of one of the trees bent double by the wind behind our house. I watched those sparrows thud against the window, slide to the ground, then shake themselves off and huddle in a corner of the back patio of our house. At that point, I remembered that we are assured in Matthew 10:29-31 that God loves us and cares for us as much as God cares for sparrows, sold in the marketplace at two for a penny. I remembered that if a penny’s-worth of sparrows could find shelter in that storm, so would my family and myself. As my mom led us in prayer, the first tornado passed overhead and landed the next block over, damaging and even leveling houses—but I knew, no matter what happened, God was there with us, in the midst of that storm, and I knew we rested in God’s arms, come what may.
The next morning, and in the days that followed, our neighborhood pulled together. We peered at sodden photographs we found scattered up against fence-lines and on the edge of ditches, and went around the neighborhood trying to return them to their rightful owners. We barbecued all the meat in our freezers before it went bad as we lived without power for two weeks, and spread out tables in the back of the elementary school and gave thanks for what we had. The storm made our community stronger, and our faith in God’s love stronger, even in the midst of chaos.
When storms and tempests rage around us, that is when we are most called to practice a life of faith, and ironically, that is when our faith gives us the most comfort. Religious faith is a great paradox: it is the times that test our faith in which our faith is the most use for us, as long as we understand that having faith does not protect us from trials, tragedies, illness, and even death. Faith is not a talisman. Faith fortifies us and comforts us, in good times as well as bad.
It is that same faith that was displayed in Charleston on three years ago this week, when Dylann Roof was arraigned for the murder of nine worshippers at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church, as mentioned above. Many times, people ask “Where was God?” when unspeakably evil things happen. As Christians, we are pointed to the answer in this gospel: God is right there with us in the storm-tossed boat. God was also most emphatically there when the some of the relatives of Dylann Roof’s victims voiced their forgiveness to him at his sentencing.
When Jesus says, “Peace! Be still!” he is speaking to us in our anxiety and fear as much as to the storm, because the storm is as much inside us (and inside our communities, which the boat can signify) as outside of ourselves. When storms inevitably rage on the outside, we, through faith which is the opposite of fear, can seek to be peaceful, still, and faithful on the inside. For we know that Jesus is with us in the midst of the storm, and we can rely on him to never abandon us or not to care.
God is with us in times of pain and loss and unspeakable tragedy. And in the end, may we find comfort in that, and open ourselves to the presence of divine love, even in the face of storms of terrible power.
We are all called to cross through the barriers that divide us, and to have courage to face the forces of chaos that seek to impede our way. Jesus leads us, through faith, to renounce the power of storms in our lives, to ultimately acknowledge our part sometimes in creating them, and to denounce the powers that benefit from the raging of these storms around us. May we ever remember the other boats around us, and work together for justice and real peace to flourish as a sign of our faith in Christ.
Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in the St. Louis Hills, St. Louis, MO, at 8 and 10 am on June 24, 2018.
Psalm 107: 1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
1. Rembrandt van Rijn, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,"
2. Photo from USAToday for World Refugee Day, June 20, 2018, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/06/20/world-refugee-day-record-number-people-displaced-2016/412566001/
3. South Sudanese refugee, from https://editorials.voa.gov/a/world-refugee-day-2018/4445724.html.
4. He Qi, Chinese, "Peace! Be Still!"
5. One of the June 8 tornados after it passed our house and headed west across Garnett Road.
6. The TG&Y just outside our subdivision underwent major damage. Photo from the Tulsa World.
7. Icon: Jesus stills the storm.