Our dog has been spending a lot of time in the bathroom this week. That’s where she goes when there’s a thunder and lightening storm, and we’ve had several this week. She goes into the bathroom, perhaps, because it’s got a relatively small window or is small enough to feel like a cave. Another one of our dogs used to climb into the bathtub during thunderstorms, which is actually probably not a great idea, but that’s where we would find her.
This Third Sunday in the Season of Creation this year is Storm Sunday. Lutheran preacher Stanley Saunders writes that “Humans are the only creatures on earth who have become weather-makers, to our own detriment and that of other living things around us. Over the last few decades, the storms we are creating have become more and more frequent, intense, and destructive. The consensus among scientists is that things are likely to get much, much wilder.” (In Working preacher.com, 8/15/13)
One of the key facts of the 21st century [writes Vermont author and environmental activist Bill McKibben] turns out to be that warm air holds more water vapor than cold; in arid areas this means increased evaporation and hence drought…Data shows dramatic increases–20% or more–in the most extreme weather events across the eastern United States, the kind of storms that drop many inches in a single day. [Writing in 2008, before Tropical Storm Irene, McKibben wrote,] Vermont saw three flood emergencies in the 1960’s, 2 in the 1970’s, 3 in the 1980’s, and 10 in the 1990’s and 10 so far in the first decade of the new century. (Eaarth, p. xii)
And, as we’ve seen already this summer, it’s not just here that we’re seeing changes and
it’s not just in floods–
Larger storms over land now create more lightening; every degree Celcius brings about 6% more lightening, according to the climate scientist Amanda Staudt. In just one day in June 2008, lightening sparked 1,700 different fires across California, burning a million acres and setting a new state record. These blazes burned on the new earth [Eaarth], not the old one. “We are in the mega-fire era,” said Ken Frederick, a spokesman from the federal government.
(Eaarth, p. 3 )
Colorado has gotten both flood and flame this summer.
“The voice of the Lord is over the waters,” sings the psalmist. “The God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty…The Lord sits enthroned over the flood….” Even to this day, earthquakes, trees being ripped up from their roots and spun, lightening strikes, tornadoes and hurricanes and floods are referred to as “acts of God.” Zeus, apparently, is alive and well on Mount Olympus and hasn’t lost his taste for hurling lightening bolts at hapless mortals. You can always count on some evangelical preacher to explain events like Superstorm Sandy as God’s punishment of the kinds of sin and perversion that are found in the big East Coast cities, “Sin Cities” one and all.
Beyond such public accusations, however, we also hear survivors of various natural disasters talking about God’s saving or sparing them, unlike their neighbors, which, of course, is an expression of gratitude, but the implication is that God chose not to save the neighbor. Is that what we are to make of the psalmist’s claims that “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood” and “the voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire”?
Psalm 29 is a warning against giving credit to idols. The psalmist was making a claim that it was indeed Yahweh God, not the Canaanites’ weather-god Baal, who was Lord of all creation. It took great courage to address such a god of overwhelming power. (Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Christian Century, 12/28/04) In the book of Job, we read, “And God said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28) This is not the fear of capricious punishment, but rather an acknowledgment, a respect and reverence for One whose power is beyond our power or even our imagination. And the case could be made that since we apparently think we can change the earth’s balance without consequence, we might ask ourselves, “How’s that ‘Playing God’ working for you?” Robert Colin Morris writes, “We would be closer to the mark, I believe, if we read most references to the ‘wrath’ of God as part of the automatic response of violated nature, or human nature, rather than as some personal Divine vindictiveness. We go against the grain of reality at our peril.” (Weavings, Sept./Oct 2008, p. 13)
The story in Luke of Jesus’ rebuking the wind and the waves is found in various versions in Matthew and Mark as well. On the surface, on the Sunday School level, it is a miracle story, another sign of Jesus’ divinity. But, like most other Biblical stories, this is not just simple, journalistic reporting of “what actually happened.” It comes layered with ancient images and echoes, of God’s voice singing out over the waters of chaos and creating order, of God’s saving one righteous man and his family from the waters that destroyed the rest of the earth, of God’s providing a passageway for the people of Israel through the Red Sea waters, freeing them from bondage.
This is the same God who is present in the midst of this storm, the story tells us, present in Jesus, who, stunningly, almost endearingly, has fallen asleep in the back of the boat. It was his idea in the first place to go across to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes, but once they were underway, “he fell asleep,” Luke tells us, without the detail that Mark adds, that he fell asleep on a pillow in the stern. Peter Woods suggests that “The ones who truly know their identity and their destiny can allow themselves to be at peace in the midst of danger.” (I am listening, 9/14/10) The psalmist confirms, “I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”
This story of the crossing of Lake Genessaret, or the Sea of Galilee, is the story of all our crossings from one place, or one state, to another. This was a crossing from the known and comfortable, from home harbor, over to Gentile territory, where, in fact, their first encounter would be with a demoniac. Storms, for the most part, are due to changes–changes from low pressure to high pressure systems, from tectonic plate shifts, from movements of air masses.
Storms in our own lives, which often threaten to overwhelm us, may come from changes, from threats to what we perceive is our safety or comfort, from changes in our health or physical condition that threaten our independence, our mobility, our sense of well-being; from changes in relationships, when outside threats of job loss or other interests make us fearful of losing our bearings, when children move away, physically or emotionally, and we are overwhelmed with feelings of loss or anger or hurt or fear. Busy-ness and increasing demands on our time and resources and attention may swamp us with feelings of inadequacy or fear of losing our job or our sanity or dignity. World events may overwhelm us with their enormity and complexity and peril, until, along with the disciples, we cry out, “Master, master, we are perishing!” Wake up, God, and save us…save us from all that threatens to overwhelm us…save us from ourselves.
“Where is Wisdom to be found?” the book of Job asks. “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,” comes the response. It is wise to recognize that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, part of a great web of creation, as we spoke about last week, connected to each and every other part, able to impart repair and healing, or destruction and harm throughout that web. But we are not the whole piece. We are not in charge. A sense of reverence, of respect, of humility is the beginning of wisdom. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska and threatened the pristine waters of the Denai Peninsula, Alaskan schoolchildren and elders went down to the shoreline and wrote notes of apology to the earth and sea in the sand. How many notes of apology do we need to write to the oceans and rivers, to the species now extinct, to the generations who will live after us? Where is wisdom to be found?
“Master, master, we are perishing!” “Where is the one who is wise?” the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?[he wrote]. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe…[and] we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, both to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor., 1: 20-25)
In this one sleeping in the back of the boat, in the middle of the storm, in this one headed for Gentile country and the man filled with the legion of demons, in this one who would empty himself so utterly on the cross that he would be filled with the glory of God, in this one is the wisdom and power of God. That’s what this favorite gospel story is about–that the God who is Lord over the winds and waves – we recognize that kind of dominating power, don’t we? – that God is also embodied in this one whose power does not come through overwhelming or dominating, but through emptying, through such deep trust that none of us are, ultimately, “perishing.”
It is through turning to that true refuge in the midst of the storm that we are saved. So, in this era of “mega-fires” and super-storms, humility and sacrifice are called for. We do not tamper with our earth’s design and balance without consequences for ourselves and every other creature and ecosystem. We must stop pumping carbon dioxide and heat into the atmosphere; we must advocate to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels; we must find new–or maybe old–ways of feeding and clothing ourselves; we must stop amassing things that distract us from the true value and worth of our lives–our relationships, our connection with the earth, our service to those in need. We can also prepare ourselves and others to weather these storms [there’s a list of things to have on hand that can help during a storm in the insert], and help one another when those storms occur. We saw that so powerfully during Irene. That is the way of the one sleeping in the boat who is able to rebuke the storm.
And in the storms of our lives, we can turn to those ways as well; through meditation and prayer, where we return to the stillness and wisdom at the heart of our true selves–”I wish I could show you,” wrote the poet Hafiz, “When you are lonely or in darkness, The astonishing light Of your own Being!” We can turn to the ways of the One sleeping in the back of the boat through participation in the community of others who like us, struggle with rocky crossings and yet can remind each other where our true refuge lies. With the psalmist, we too ask for the blessing and strength of God–”May the Lord give strength to God’s people, and may the Lord bless God’s people with peace!” Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark