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Stillness in the Storm

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Jun 24

Text: Mark 4:31-38

             Allow me to begin by diving right into the stormy waters of today’s readings, especially the so-called Stilling of the Storm story, from Mark. The Oxford commentary on this text begins: “The story is somewhat artificial; fishermen used to the lake and its ways are terrified by a sudden storm, a storm so severe that they panic, and yet through which Jesus sleeps.” It’s true, and to be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to that aspect of this fairly familiar passage. They aren’t in the middle of the ocean. The lake, the Sea of Galilee, is large -- some 13 miles long; I’ve seen it. But it’s fresh water; I’ve swum in it! And these are supposedly career fishermen? Rather than take the story and its supernatural storm-stilling at face value, it’s clear there’s a deeper message and deeper water under the waves. Of what, or of whom, are the disciples really afraid? And what, or who, is Jesus really speaking to when he says to the storms: “Peace. Be Still”?

Water represents many things in the Bible, but one of the most common connotations appears from Day 1— even before day one, in Genesis 1. “In the beginning...the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” In Everett Fox’s translation, it’s “when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.” These primordial waters symbolize chaos that exists before God begins to order creation. In other stories -- the Red Sea and the story of Jonah, say, and throughout the Psalms— the sea is a symbol of disorder, a space of void that doesn’t play by the rules. It’s sometimes depicted as a hulking leviathan, an imposing and persistent counterpart that plays the foil to the God of just and righteous order. In almost all of these stories, God rebukes chaos, God controls the mighty winds and waters and God always sees the people through. And so our text is not merely about Jesus’ stilling a storm, nor even about his authority over nature! Mark is invoking a strain of our salvation history, God’s triumph over lesser but nevertheless frightening forces. The divine rebuke of the seas and storms of chaos is intended to rescue us from our all too human disorder and fear. God’s love, justice and beauty sets in order all things, and declares providence over and protection from the forces of alienation, terror and evil.

Another textual note. One of reasons I enjoy preaching from a 3 year lectionary cycle, and why I’m glad we don’t all speak Greek, is that there is an opportunity to hear different translations. The common translation of what Jesus says is “Peace. Be Still”. The last time I preached on this, I doubled down on an alternative translation, from J.B. Phillips’ 1952 version of the Gospels. Not “peace,” but “hush now, be still.” Take a moment and let that sink in. Imagine Jesus saying those words to you, no matter what the weather’s like in your life. “Hush now. Be still!” And imagine him saying them to a gale force wind, like singing a lullaby to a hurricane. “Hush now.” And the wind ceased. And there was a dead calm. But evidently, there’s an even more accurate translation of the Greek. Not merely “be still,” but “be muzzled!” That’s one I’d like for us to keep in mind today.

But first, a final textual note is sounded in the margin of one of my study bibles [Harper Collins]. We know that Jesus was asleep in the boat, right, sleeping through all those stormy seas and disturbed disciples. Given other biblical references to sleep, it turns out the word here for “asleep” is suggestive of a typical posture for trust in God, and here I quote that margin: “even in its stridency!” A prone, even strident, posture of trust. Imagine that. The stridency of sleep! The stridency of a good trust-filled, Christ-like nap. I mean how’s that for some good news and gospel truth to our world-weary tossing and turning? I wonder if this kind stridency of sleep is a corollary to what it takes to “stay woke?”  Even so, easier said than done! 

So, here’s a question for you--anybody been having trouble sleeping lately because of what’s going on in your own life, or in our world, or because of a combination of both?! I know the storms of chaos and terror in our headlines has been keeping many of us awake lately. This past week, audio and images of children suffering at our border have been repeatedly crashing in. Maybe that more forceful “be muzzled” rebuke is just what we need. But let’s not lose the “hush now” just yet! Perhaps some of us need to linger on that softness. For, like the disciples, no matter how artificial the story appears, their panic in the moment— the fear about being cast away from their boats miles from shore— was surely real. There is an adage in bereavement counseling that “grief touches grief.” So too does fear touch fear. When we are grieving, despairing, or afraid, the waves and the waters can be more imposing because our memory of past storms can thunder back to us, keeping those waves coming all the more! The disciples, Jews like Jesus, may well have been reminded of the terror of Roman occupation, of running away from religious and political persecution! You can’t run on a boat!  Well, perhaps those audio and visual images of children stripped from their parents and made to feel lost and abandoned are similarly touching a profound nerve in our human psyches. After years of offering pastoral care, I’m convinced that we all have so-called “abandonment issues,” at some level. Stories of love lost and of being left alone by parents, by others, even by God, are the most human stories we have, which is why I think the response to our government—the raw outrage—is cutting our usual divisions. Before we rebuke, we may first need to let a hush penetrate through our own fears, if not those of the children. Can we hear through our crying the divine Shhhh, it’s going to be ok?

As for the storms of terror being unleashed by our own government, we want to join Jesus, and in our most demanding voices, say to those fearsome and even personified powers of chaos and, yes, evil: “Be muzzled!” Just stop it. Right now!  But here’s my question: What does Jesus have that the disciples didn’t and we don’t? How does he do it? How does he stay calm even before he commands calm and effects peace amidst the storm?  

Dah...Dah...Daaaah. Tune in next week!

Just kidding. Had to try to get some comic relief up in here!

I can’t help but wonder if it has something to do not only with that posture of trust, but also with a profound, spiritual and theological acceptance of the reality and persistence of chaos and evil. As Peter Gomes has written: “The Bible never speaks of “curing” evil and nowhere does it speak of conquering evil. If the Bible is about anything at all, it is about the subtle, ruthless, remorseless persistence of evil.” Bet you weren’t expecting that from a preacher man! But it’s true! Consider the persistence of those voices that Jesus heard in his 40 days in the wilderness that preceded his public ministry, until their return. In Luke’s version: “After Jesus had finished every test, the devil departed from him until an opportune time!” As in the devil would come back. Evil exists and persists and Jesus knew it better than anyone.

Gomes also writes in his 1996 best seller The Good Book, following a theological interrogation of early 20th century American lynch mobs, especially the pictures of smiling bystanders: “Every faceless mob is composed of the faces of individual people, many of whom have much good in them. They do not see themselves or their neighbors as evil, they do not contemplate evil acts. In fact, under certain circumstances they are driven to their actions by a sense of offended righteousness. They would argue that it was a sense of justice that motivated them to join with their neighbors in dispensing rough justice.” Is this sounding familiar? Gomes continues: “Where others see what they are doing as evil...they themselves literally see no evil, and would deny its power.” And here’s the punchline: “If you do not recognize the reality of evil, and your own capacity for evil and its artful designs, then you are ripe to be overtaken by that which you deny exists. The first thing the good need to recognize is that they are at one with evil.” 

I think Jesus knew this, far better than his disciples and better than us. After all, he said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone!” Then, at the heart of his message in Mark and elsewhere: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” As in, repent of the sin and evil that lurks within and be strident in your trust that God’s love is stronger! How could he sleep, and how could wake up and dust off his pillow like it was any other day? The text said he was asleep on a cushion- I love that detail. How could he have the fortitude to stand in the face of any raging storm?  For starters, he wasn’t surprised by it. He had already accepted the reality of chaos and evil, internalized his own struggle with- and so made himself one with- something that the disciples and we would rather deny. He knew that it’s only with God that we can we stand up to it, recognize it, name it, and stare it down with all its attendant ripples of fear and anxiety. He stridently trusted in the everlasting power of God’s love that can and eventually will muzzle the hell out of it, time and time again.

Progressive theologians have long bemoaned the fact that the Christians like us have ceded the language of sin and evil, and with it the so-called moral high ground, to the religious right. Embarrassed by their seeming hypocrisy and self-righteous tone, some of us have taken cover under our umbrellas of “social justice” causes, choosing instead the language of rights, strategy and policy. Guilty as charged! In so doing, we’ve deprived ourselves of deep spiritual resources needed for a kind of spiritual warfare that has been persisting in vast oceans, in underground streams, in looming storms that have been there since before day one. Evidently, now is an opportune time for these forces to be fiercely revealing themselves to us and we need something like 40 day spiritual bootcamp to equip our internal troops with that radical love, strident trust and utter dependence on God to see us through. We need to remember before we open our inbox to the next wave, that chaos and evil are real and that they persist. We need to remember they aren’t just crashing at the border or in DC but are in the very systems and lifestyle choices that we inhabit every day. As Richard Rohr wrote in one of his daily meditations this week: “Today, many of us try to find personal and individual freedom even as we remain inside a system of consumption that we are unable or unwilling to critique. We cannot remove the plank on which we are standing. Evil tends to hide even more in systems and institutions than in individuals.” And, if we, the “good guys” are only beginning to see it and call out evil in its individualized and personified forms - you know who I’m talking about - then we too are especially ripe to be overtaken by that which we would otherwise deny. In order to differentiate ourselves from chaos and evil, we first have to identify that it’s there, in us and all around us.

Thomas Dorsey channels some of that good old time religion in a spiritual we sometimes sing at our jazz services. The first verse: “Like a ship that tossed and driven, battered by an angry sea, When the storms of life are raging, and their fury falls on me, I wonder what I have done that makes this race so hard to run, then I say to my soul, take courage, the Lord will make a way somehow.” And the next verse: “Try to do the best in service, try to do the best you can; when I choose to do the right thing evil’s present on every hand!” There it is, on every hand! 

Beyond whatever we may say to our souls when those storms are raging, the good news of this passage is that Jesus says to the rising storms of evil around us, to the fierce winds of anxiety within us, all we need to hear. Peace, be still, Hush now! Or even Be Muzzled. Hearing these words and speaking them into a watery reality that we know exists and persists can diminish its hold on us and others, and it can prevent us from cycling yet more fear, anxiety and chaos into its whirling pools. And, by all means, if what you need is some deep rest of that strident sleep, and I know many of you do, take it! When there is no place to run from evil, and no place to hide— which can seem especially true now for immigrants at our border and so many others, yet is also increasingly true for each of us— perhaps then and only then can we find our true home in God, and learn that God is our only shelter, our only security, our only richness, our only rest. Peace, be still indeed!

I know we are all holding a lot today, perhaps especially today because of those wrenching images and sounds of children traumatized by the actions of our government. As we turn now to the gorgeous words of another hymn, written by my predecessor Mary Luti, as we prepare for time of prayer where you will be invited to call out whatever you may be carrying, please be thinking of where you need to connect with that storm-calming faith of Jesus. Where in your soul and where in our world do we need to hear and share those precious words of rescue? Peace. Be Still. Together, may we find solace and grace, the courage and confidence we need for the facing of this and every stormy hour.  Amen.

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