a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B/Lectionary 12]
There was a big storm that came through Richmond one night this week—I think it was Monday night around 3am—did you hear it? I remember hearing dramatic thunderclaps all of a sudden, the bright flashes of lightning against the bedroom walls, and thinking, as I tried to go back to sleep, that at least one child would be in our bed in a matter of minutes. It’s been a long time since a storm has woken me up, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. The next day almost everyone I spoke to mentioned how it had woken them up, too. It must have been a huge storm system because friends from all across Henrico County reported it, and even people down in Chesterfield were mentioning how loud it was…everyone I spoke to, that is, except the person who was in bed next to me. My wife, Melinda, slept soundly through the entire thing. She even slept through our five-year-old climbing into bed with us and putting his head on her pillow. A spider can practically skitter across the ceiling in a distant corner of the room and she will wake up and ask me to kill it, but the loudest storm of 2021 doesn’t rouse her.
So I guess all I’m saying is that it doesn’t surprise me at all that Jesus never wakes up during this storm on Lake Galilee. Some people are just deep sleepers. And these particular storms, after all, were relatively common. Lake Galilee was prone to sudden squalls that could whip up out of nowhere. On top of all that, Jesus is likely exhausted. That’s not explicitly mentioned in the text anywhere, but we can connect some dots. He has just finished teaching what could have been hundreds of people for several days. The disciples whisk him into a boat to leave just as he is. I’m not sure what that means, but I bet it means they gave him no time to freshen up or change clothes or anything like that. Also, they give him the only cushion in the boat. So he gets comfortable, and next think you know he’s out like a light. He’s going to sleep through anything.
The disciples, on the other hand, fear for their lives. This storm could wipe them off the face of the earth, the waves emptying them and everything else in the boat into the depths of the sea. The waves and wind must really be substantial because, after all, many of these guys are fishermen. They spend multiple hours each day in boats, reading the sea, watching the sky for signs of bad weather. They probably were not particularly prone to panic in situations like this unless it was really bad. Like frightened little kid in the middle of the night stumbling into his parents’ room, they find Jesus and their anxiety spills over.
It is not altogether clear whether they think Jesus can do anything about it. In fact, I think if you take the whole account together, especially set in the context of Mark’s whole story, it looks like they don’t think Jesus can actually do anything other than maybe help them scoop more water out of the boat. They call him, “Teacher,” for that is really how they’ve come to know him up to this point. They admire their teacher, they have been called into mission by him, but as far as they can probably tell, his ministry is rooted in explaining and healing. He explains important things about what he kingdom of God is like and what Scripture teaches and he heals people who are sick. They are not aware that he is much more than that. And those are important things, but they aren’t readily translatable to keeping a boat from sinking. When they wake him up they are probably just worried that he will die too and confused that he’s OK sleeping right through it.
As you might imagine, this event is the subject of quite a few famous paintings. Rembrandt has one, as does Delacroix and Brueghel the Elder. What is interesting about many of these well-known works of art is they almost always depict Jesus in the act of sleeping, not in the dramatic act of stilling the storm. Rembrandt’s painting is probably the most famous. Known for his creative use and placement of light, which is called chiaroscuro to all you art majors, Rembrandt shows the bow of the boat lifting far out of the water, the brightest focusing your eyes on the place where a wave is crashing over the side. Two men are barely holding onto the rigging, and a third is almost completely awash in the water and spray, as if he might be taken back into the water once the boat lists back to the front. Another man is depicted hanging over the side, vomiting into the water.
These are the things that catch your eye. You have to really hunt to find Jesus. He is in the shadows, at the back and near the bottom, seated, completely removed from the area that is illuminated. He does not look powerful or mighty. He does not stand out or look superhuman in any way. He looks kind of like a professor. Of course, we know that when they finally rouse him, Jesus does not display an ounce of anxiety, but rebukes the waves and wind and brings peace to the sea. And then they are amazed. He is not just a professor. He is someone with truly special powers, and suddenly their perception of him is going to change.
It’s like in that coronation scene from Disney’s Frozen when Queen Elsa gets upset with her sister and accidentally lets her ice powers, which had been secret, spill out in front of everyone. The floor turns to ice, the fountain freezes, and all of Arendell is subjected to a permanent winter. Just like that, everyone’s understanding of just who Elsa is changes. She’s not just a royal. She can control nature. They’re in awe, and very frightened of her too, calling her a monster and accusing her of sorcery.
In this moment on the boat, our understanding of just who Jesus is changes. He has powers that clearly place him above the realm of nature. Like God his Father, he alone can exert control over chaos, which is what the sea and the wind symbolized to ancient people. Several commentators note that this episode in the boat begins to put distance between Jesus and his disciples. He silences the storm, but he also immediately chides them for their lack of faith. That is, his first and only words to them are not ones of comfort or understanding. He doesn’t say, “You know, it’s OK to feel scared in a storm.” Or “What I hear you guys saying is that you’re afraid we’re going to die.” He rebukes the storm and then essentially rebukes them for putting all the light on the storm, not on God. It puts a distance there. While he is human, he is also not one of them. While he works and moves among them, his mission is bigger than they can understand. While he is vulnerable to forces around him, he is also able to bend them to peace and life. This is the Lord of our life, the One who sails with us and bids us to cross the sea with him, the One who gets exhausted for us, the One who lets the powers of darkness do their worst to him. The cross and its death do come, and Jesus is still there to ensure peace and life will emerge from them. We may never witness Jesus actually controlling nature, but we do know that his presence and words—even after we die—have the power to tame the chaos of our lives.
I feel like I shouldn’t even have to say it, mainly because I feel like it’s all I’ve said for weeks, but the whole last sixteen months has felt like a long storm. In fact, it’s been a combination of several storms, all whirling around and among us. There’s no need, really, to re-hash it all—the way school was, the way worship was, the way life was, the maelstrom of discouraging science news, the arguing among everyone, the distrust. People clinging to the rigging to keep things afloat, the waves of regret and grief, and all the vomiting over the side. Yes, it was rough, but I’m trying to direct my thoughts to that shore where Jesus is taking us, strange as it may be.
And yet there were so many times I was anxious, and so many times I listened to anxious people. Why did I have such little faith? Why was always cranking up the spotlight on the bad things? What I did notice was that each time things seemed lost it was a word of Christ that brought stillness at hand. Now that the seas are a bit calmer, I can look back and see that when someone shared themselves selflessly, in the manner of Jesus, things felt immediately less treacherous, like God would get us through this. For my family, virtual learning was no cruise ship ride, and based on my discussions with other parents and the teachers who had to make it work, we weren’t alone in that. In September I thought there was no way we’d manage a year on-line with a 7th grader and an 8th grader and a 4-year-old who was going to have to wear a mask all day, and yet here we are, in June, on the other side of the sea, beholding a miracle.
This past Tuesday our monthly lunch group for retired men was able to re-gather for the first time since February of 2020. Among these gentlemen were two who were hospitalized with COVID, and one who lost his wife to it. We shared stories from the past year— things we learned, like how fun it is to shop for shoes on-line—but mostly the men wanted to talk about what’s coming next. All in all it was more of a forward-looking lunch than a backward-looking one. One guy brought a chart of worship attendance statistics he had typed up that clearly indicate a positive trend. People are still joining us on line and returning to in-person worship. And one gentleman offered to help with the next church photo directory which, in his opinion, should happen soon. There are so many new faces to get to know!
Yes, Jesus goes with us—just as he is—in the storms. Sometimes it feels like he is asleep and we think he’s snoring through it, but he knows when to exert the force of his love and there is peace once again. And the rest of us are filled with awe and saying to one another, as I did that day once again, and I know I will in the days to come, “Who then is this, that even the wind, and sea—and pandemic chaos—obey him?”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.