After a week like this, with the heat and a school year that seems never to end, many people’s thoughts turn to the seaside, to visions of a house by the water, where the breezes blow and where watching the waves roll in is meditative and calming. Moving up the beach as the tide rolls in is about as much work as anyone has inclination to do.
In contrast to that, of course, is this other image of the sea which we encounter in today’s gospel reading. Here, one of the common, sudden, violent storms comes up on the Sea of Galilee and threatens to swamp and even overturn the boat which the disciples are desperately trying to maneuver and in which Jesus is sleeping in the back.
It’s a story that’s found in some version in all four gospels, so there is obviously “something so vital” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, 6/24/12) in it that the early Christian community thought the gospel would be incomplete without it. Still, it’s problematic. Are we to take it literally? Are we to believe that Jesus was able to calm the wind and waves with a word? Or, if we can’t swallow that, must we simply dismiss it as unbelievable?
“A storm at sea,” writes one interpreter, “is the most expressive sense of chaos that sea-faring people know. There is literally nothing stable to grasp when one’s entire ship is engulfed in wind and waves. Anything that might offer stability–like a large stone cropping out of the sea–is a threat more than a help in this kind of trouble. Truly, everything is in flux.” (D. Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It, 6/18/12) The sea, in Biblical terms, represented the overwhelming forces of chaos, introduced in the very first verse of Genesis, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep [the te home], while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” That’s chaos.
“In Jewish tradition,” writes another, “only God can still the raging sea.” (Alyce McKenzie, Patheos, Edgy Exegesis, 6/14/12) So, the disciples’ question, “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” is really the central question and point of this story.
“Whenever I feel out of control,” one woman writes, “I clean out my car. I…vacuum…the floor mats of my car, my Dirt Devil making all the crumbs and miscellaneous debris disappear. I clear… out all the dry cleaner receipts and spare change out of the middle console and wipe…down the dash with a damp cloth. I have a full tank and a clean car. Within that little world, there is order…” (Alyce McKenzie, ibid.) I, personally, tend to clean the bathroom, but you may have your own personal go-to plan for dealing with chaos.
“Mayhem is Coming” is the All-State Insurance Company’s most recent ad campaign, featuring actor Dean Winter as “Mayhem,” crashing your car, distracting your dog while the thieves sack your house, all those unexpected and disastrous things that can happen in daily life. Aren’t you glad you’ve got All-State? the reassuring voice asks.
Mark’s community certainly knew what chaos felt like, with the Roman Empire upending any sense of security or predictability, with knocks on the door at night and arrests of Christians at the least sign of trouble. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” may have crossed their minds far beyond that night out on the Sea of Galilee, as even now, some 30 years later, they felt “storm-tossed, facing persecution, and feeling small against powerful and unfriendly forces.” (Huey, op cit.) There was no “all-state” or “all-empire” insurance then.
Maybe you’ve felt the same way–storm-tossed by bills that keep coming, overwhelmed by the loss of your usual moorings, the loss of loved ones or health or job or independence or abilities or home. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” “A storm at sea,” as one writer points out, “is perfectly illustrative of a situation when it seems that all our possible moorings are far away and we are helpless against the elements.” (Davis, op cit.)
Then, “[Jesus] woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” or, as my favorite translation says, “Avast, ye scurvy elements!” “Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” They didn’t know which they were more afraid of then–the wind and the waves or this man who could sleep through the storm and then wake up and still it. “Who the heck (or worse) is this?” they asked, invoking perhaps something of a curse for protection. “They were afraid [Alyce McKenzie writes] because Jesus is, as poet Mary Oliver has written,
tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was–
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.(Ibid.)
Who then is this?!
Courage is fear that has said its prayers, someone has said. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them. “Have you still no faith?” But can we not be afraid and faithful? There are certainly some things that should make us afraid–after all, we’re hard-wired to respond to fear, with adrenaline, to fight or flee, but Quaker author Parker Palmer “believes that fear is a contemporary cultural trait at work in every area of our common life” (Mitzi Minor, The Power of Mark’s Story, p. 68)– the politics of fear, the economy of fear, religions of fear. “Fear, says Palmer, has become the very air we breathe.” (Ibid.) “Full catastrophe living” is the way Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it, overloading our biological systems of dealing with fear and stress.
The disciples were “filled with great awe” (or greatly a-feared, as one translator puts it [Davis]) “and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” This is a different kind of fear, the fear of the Lord, as the Bible puts it, perhaps a fear that, as Kathleen Norris suggests, we have lost. “There is much fear of fear itself in the contemporary landscape,” she says. “We’ve lost the ancient sense of fear as reverence and wonder and so ‘are left with only the negative connotations of the word.’” (cited in Minor, p. 78) In the presence of the Divine our ragged edges are exposed. We become aware of how we might still need to change or grow, and change, like chaos, is a scary thing.
But we have choices with what we do with our fear, which we will all face. That is the real power of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he was “distressed and agitated,” that is, afraid of what was to come next. One choice was self-preservation, the other choice was self-transcendence. “One choice is surely safer and easier,” writes one commentator, “But it is limiting. The other choice is frightening, but involves being part of what God is doing in the world.” (Minor, p. 82)
“Who is this, then, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Who is this, indeed! Did you notice that little phrase toward the beginning of this story, when the disciples took Jesus with them in the boat, “just as he was“? What does that mean? Exhausted? Not dressed in the usual sea-faring clothes? “They took him just as he was.”
And then Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat, on a cushion, no less, oblivious apparently to the storm raging around them. Or maybe he was “just as he was,” at peace with the way things were, just as they were. There is an utter “ok-ness” about Jesus, a profound trust that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich wrote in the 12th c. “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” I know for myself that when I fell particularly grounded, when I’ve been on retreat, perhaps, is when I really notice it–I am so much less fearful. The usual traffic or travel or whatever typical worries do not set off all the alarms and buttons that they so often do. “They took him, just as he was,…and he fell asleep in the back of the boat, on a cushion.”
Crossing the sea that night was Jesus’ idea. “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” What those of us who don’t know our geography well miss in that suggestion is that on the other side of the lake or Sea of Galilee was Gentile territory. At the end of the journey, even if it had been a smooth passage, was otherness, people “not like us.” And that’s scary too.
Vermont author Frederick Buechner, as usual, responds to this fearful journey across to the Other with great insight and wisdom for us –
[he says]… Go for God’s sake, and for your own sake too, and for the world’s sake. Climb into your little tub of a boat and keep going. [Christ will be with us.] Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and…in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boar 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 fun wild, as they will for all of us before we’re done, so that even in their midst we may find peace, find him. (Secrets in the Dark, cited in Huey, op cit.)
Christ is present, maybe even asleep, in the deepest selves of all of us. Call on him. Embrace him. Travel with him.
May these words be hope and courage and even peace for us for the living of these days.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark