In December when I returned from sabbatical one of the things we all commented on was that in all of our planning and preparation for that four months, the one thing we never took into account was the weather; no one ever thought that extreme weather would be a feature of the sabbatical – but it was. And so you, the People of All Saints’, had to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene with the flooding and loss of power and creeping mold.
Then in October the freak snowstorm came, with all the fallen trees and branches that caused loss of power yet again, and road closures, and debris, and damage to property; and we are still attending to a few of the details of the clean-up and repair those storms set in motion.
And then on Friday afternoon, just in case we were getting a little too comfortable, we had quite a violent thunderstorm, with a deluge of rain and powerful winds; I was surprised that we didn’t have any trees or large branches come down. As it turns out, I was here in church for a wedding rehearsal just as the storm hit: the power threatened and then went out briefly, parts of the parking lot became a lake, and the area of the roof where the air-conditioning unit comes in began to leak, as it does when we have a hard, wind-driven rain. And in one of those wonderful ironies, the Gospel passage the bride and groom had chosen for their wedding was Jesus’ parable about the man who built his house on the rock, which was able to withstand rain and winds and storm!
So, we know a lot about storms, and what they can do, and they damage they can cause, and the power that they have. And we come to this morning’s Gospel with all of that knowledge and experience and feeling; we can understand the disciples’ fear when the sudden storm comes up and they are in a small fishing boat out on the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee (which is really a large, inland, fresh-water lake) is relatively shallow, and so when a sudden storm comes up, even today, the waves get out-of-control pretty quickly. Jesus and the disciples were in the boat because Jesus had been teaching at the lakeside; and the crowd had grown so large that he had gotten into a boat anchored close to shore so that he could be heard better. Jesus had been teaching them in parables about the Kingdom of God, about what the world and human life are like when God is in charge. After the end of that teaching session, Jesus decided that they should sail across the lake, to an area that was mixed – both Jews and Gentiles – where they encountered a man who the Gospel of Mark describes as being possessed by a demon; however you understand that, they were heading into wild territory. So clearly, this whole stretch of the story reflects turmoil and upset, as Jesus has been announcing God’s Kingdom; the sudden storm on the lake only serves to highlight and underscore the point.
So what was the disciples’ reaction to the storm? They were frightened – the waves came slapping up over the gunwales of the boat, and it was taking on water, and it seemed that the boat might actually sink; no wonder they were afraid!
And where was Jesus in all this? He was asleep in the stern, no doubt worn out from teaching the crowds and needing some down time. But in their fear and panic, the disciples’ turned to accusation and recrimination: they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" Jesus rebukes the storm, tells it to be silent, be muzzled – and the storm obeys; then the disciples’ fear turns to awe: what in the world has just happened? Who is this guy, really?
And yet Jesus chides the disciples: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Haven’t you been watching and listening to what I have been doing and saying since you’ve been with me? What were we just talking about, back there on the shore? I don’t think Jesus was scolding the disciples for being afraid of the storm; the consequences could have been very serious; it was sensible for them to be afraid of extreme weather.
We all know that – how many stories do we know about people who have gone to the beach to watch a hurricane come in, only to become injured, or lose their car to the water, or even lodes their life, because they did not have a healthy fear and respect for the potential power of a hurricane? No, I think it was sensible for the disciples to be concerned about the storm; but their fear became faith-less when they forgot to trust Jesus, when everything that they had been seeing and hearing in his presence went right out of their heads; it was then that their fear and lack of trust turned to acrimony and accusation: Don’t you care about us?! They needed Jesus to show them, once again, that they power of God is greater than anything they would ever meet in life.
And what about us? Do we trust God when we become afraid? There are many things in our lives that are reasonable to be fearful about on some level: the safety of people we love; our health; our ability to pay our bills and meet our financial and personal obligations in this painfully slow economy; the security of the world around us as we hear news from so many places about instability and unrest, and we know that an eruption of violence in one part of the world or the country can have an overflow or a ripple effect towards us. There is often good reason for concern due to all of these things, and more.
But Jesus calls us to go beyond our fear and to hold onto trust – to trust that the goodness of God is greater than whatever the storms of life are sending our way. Jesus calls us to put aside the temptation or inclination to accusation and acrimony – so easy when we are fearful – to take a deep breath and trust that in the midst of chaos and confusion, and even pain, that God is with us – holding us, loving us, caring for us still. And as we remember that we can then offer that hope to others; we can be the ones to say: Fear not! Do not be afraid! Or at least we can refrain from lashing out in our own anxiety and fear.
There is a story I read recently about a systematic theologian who was asked to be a speaker at a conference about the future. Systematic theologians are the people who are supposed to know all about God and theology in a very complete and organized and logical way. This conference took place in the late 1970s when Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock” was all the rage; the symposium was intended to peer into the future from a multiplicity of perspectives and try to forecast what the future would be like, and what the role of the church would be in it. The speakers were sociologists, and culture critics and all manner of other prognosticators. The systematic theologian spoke last; he was supposed to be the clean-up batter. When he came to the podium what he said, in essence, was: I am a theologian. I do not know what the future will hold. I do know it will be held in the hands of God. Years later this man was going through some papers and found the material that had been published after that conference, and he read through them again, and he said, “You know, I was the only one who was right!”
That is true – the future, our future, is held in hands of God. Ultimately, that is all we can know, and that is enough, because if we are held in the hands of God, we will be well – maybe not in the way we would like or hope; it doesn’t mean there won’t be storms and pain and sadness and great difficulty. But fundamentally we will be alright, because we are held in the hands of God, sheltered in the shadow of his wings, citizens of God’s Kingdom. As Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English mystic said: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 24, 2012