Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sermon: Storm Stories

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 9, 2015, Ordinary 19B
Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52

Storm Stories

I suspect just about everybody has some story they could tell about some incident in their lives that has something to do with the weather, or that was affected in some way by the weather. This might be especially true for Floridians in particular, but I have the feeling it’s close to universal.
Myself, I have several such stories. The one that comes to mind dates from my time attending school in Louisville. For one solid week those of us still in the dorm over a semester break period spent some portion, late evening or overnight, of each night huddled up in the dorm’s basement laundry room as severe thunderstorms with tornadoes swarmed about the metropolitan area. Each night, inevitably when I had just fallen asleep or was at my groggiest, the knock on the door jolted me awake and set me on the journey down the stairs from the second floor to the basement, and then wandering through the labyrinthine corridors of that basement to the laundry room, where we few huddled around someone’s portable TV watching the latest weather warnings.
On the final and most severe night of the outbreak, the problem was compounded, because not only were the tornadoes most numerous and closest to our part of the city, but for the first time all week we received so much rain that it began to force its way through the one outside door to the basement. We couldn’t go up because of the tornado threat, but we couldn’t stay in the basement because it was starting to flood. Fortunately the warnings were lifted and we escaped to the dryness, if not quite safety, of our own rooms and beds. The Great Tornado Week was over at last.
The two readings from Mark offer different and more immediate peril for the disciples, who have no basement to which to flee. In both cases the disciples are on a boat out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, struggling against adverse weather that threatens their very safety.
The story from Mark 4 puts Jesus on the boat with the disciples, and also notes (in verse 36) that “other boats were with them,” so by no means are the disciples alone in their peril.  The Sea of Galilee, despite being actually only a moderate-sized lake by any normal measure, is subject to some ferocious windstorms that can be extremely hazardous to anybody out on the water.  One of these indeed sprang up, and the disciples were struggling to keep the boat right-side up (and remember, some of these guys were fishermen, so it isn’t as if they were novices at handling a boat).
Somehow, though, Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat. And this frustrates the disciples to no end. Finally they could stand it no longer and woke Jesus, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’s answer, as we all know, was to say to the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” To everybody’s amazement, the wind and sea did exactly that. Jesus then chewed out the disciples a bit, and that was that.
Though you might not get it from the rather matter-of-fact way Mark tells the story, this is a Big Deal. To understand why we need to remember something about the time and culture in which Jesus performed this miracle.
Up to now, Jesus’s miracles had consisted of healings and exorcisms. (Remember, we have dropped back a bit to consider this story; this is before the little girl is raised in chapter 5.) While these healings and exorcisms were sufficient to draw tremendous crowds around Jesus, they were not necessarily considered unique in first-century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean. It wouldn’t necessarily be correct to say that miracle healers were common in the region at the time, but they certainly weren’t unheard of, and weren’t even necessarily rare. It was not his healing power that set Jesus apart.
Remember, the issue here is not whether we modern twentieth-century types believe literally in these miracles actually happening in the gospels or not. This is frankly irrelevant to this particular question. What matters is that the people among whom Jesus was living and working and teaching were not unaccustomed to miracle healers, and were mostly concerned about, well, getting healed by them.
This miracle, however, was different. While healing may have been a fairly accepted practice and possibility in this time and culture, direct control over the forces of nature was not. This was a feat reserved for the Divine, no matter what religious culture of the era you examine, and certainly in the Hebrew tradition.
The most basic example of this belief can be traced back to the story of creation itself, in which God exerted control over the primordial chaos. Or one can recall God’s manipulation of nature in Exodus, parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River. Or think of the vivid display God put before Elijah, storm and earthquake and fire, before the “sheer silence” in which God’s voice was heard.
The Psalms in particular echo this language of God in control of nature. The excerpt we read from Psalm 107 earlier seems almost an early anticipation of Mark’s account, in which “they that go down to the sea in ships” are beset by storm and wind before God intervenes; “he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Sounds very much like the account from Mark, doesn’t it? A number of other Psalms also describe God’s powers over the forces and beasts of nature.
Thus the question the disciples ask after the storm, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Up to this point, to the crowds Jesus was primarily a healer; to the religious authorities, a troublemaker and a dangerous fellow; to the disciples, “Teacher.” But this event was something totally other, and even those closest to Jesus are suddenly overcome by the awe of being in the presence of someone with a power normally reserved only to God.
If this “storm story” set the disciples to wondering, the second “storm story” leaves them with their jaws scraping in the dirt. And if what Jesus did in that first story seemed to echo signs of divine action, what Jesus does in this second story was much more direct and explicit.
Now we have moved ahead to chapter six, following the original miracle feeding, the one in which five thousand were fed with a very Hebrew-friendly twelve baskets left over. Now it was time for that long-delayed rest at last, and Jesus sent the disciples away in the boat, without him, and sent the crowds home as well. Perhaps he was hoping they would be less besieged if he weren’t with them, and he could get away to a mountain for prayer and “alone time.”
As the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee, again the weather turns against them, as they face what Mark calls an “adverse wind.” From the shore Jesus sees their struggle, and acts out of compassion. In this case, the compassion comes in the form of walking on the water.
Here’s the telling part: Mark tells us that as he was walking on the lake, Jesus “intended to pass them by.” Huh? Why, with the disciples struggling against the wind and increasingly panicky, would Jesus walk out onto the Sea of Galilee just to pass them by?
Again, Mark is counting on his readers to be reminded of their scriptural tradition, two stories in particular. First we turn to Exodus, and Moses’s encounters with God. In chapters 33 and 34 Moses asks to see the glory of the Lord. God promises to fulfill this request, but only by passing by Moses so that Moses only saw the back of God. Later, in 2 Kings 19, Elijah has a similar experience of God “passing by,” not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in a “sound of sheer silence.” 
Note the language of “passing by.” Note how these stories are of nothing less than the very presence of God passing before God’s servants. And now note how the language of Mark 6 would have set up a parallel so nicely, if the disciples hadn’t panicked and thought Jesus was a ghost.
It’s slightly ironic that in the gospel in which Jesus is depicted repeatedly as ordering people to tell no one about him and his works, here Jesus is doing something that is flagrantly evocative of the appearance of God, or to use a fancy theology word, a “theophany.” As if the previous stilling of the sea and calming of the storm wasn’t enough, now Jesus shows divinity to the disciples in an even more direct and explicit way. Even the words Jesus says to the disciples in their panic – the Greek ego eimi that the NRSV translates “It is I” – are more simply and directly translated “I am,” echoing the words Moses receives from God at the burning bush, when he asks who to tell the Israelites who has sent him.
And yet, for all these clues, the disciples don’t get it. They don’t get the epiphanies, they don’t see the divine revelation – not just in the calming the sea or the walking on the water, they still don’t get what they witnessed in the feeding of five thousand, and they won’t get it when they see the feeding of four thousand.
To put it most bluntly, these storm stories show us nothing less than God breaking into the world in the person and life and teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. And the disciples are missing it.
To be honest, though, it’s not as if we have a lot to brag about. We live in the world where God has broken in, the post-Pentecost world where the Spirit is loose, and we don’t see it. We miss it no less than the disciples do. We do not see Christ in our neighbor. We do not perceive the moving of the Spirit in the church or the world around us, and sometimes if we do we react as if we’re seeing a ghost. We draw back in fear when Jesus shows himself to us in any form other than the lily-white piety portraits we grew up with, portraits and manifestations that make us feel good but do not challenge us to do good, or to do better.
In the end, if these storm stories are to be of any use to us, they must challenge our fear. They must demand that we reorient our misplaced faith, to lean not on our own efforts and understandings and to have actual, unalloyed faith in the Christ we claim to follow; to live into the church as it must be, not as we’ve always imagined it to be. If we are not jolted awake to the presence – the ongoing, dynamic presence of God, the unquenchable moving of the Spirit in us and among us, if we continue to succumb to the fear instead of recognizing the Lord, then these are just stories, interesting but ultimately pointless.
Wake up. Look beyond the storm and see the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Presbyterian Hymnal ’90)
#288                  I Sing the Mighty Power of God
#210                  Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
#379                  My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less
#---                  Jesus Calls Us (insert) (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal 720)

He, Qi. Peace Be Still, from Art in the Christian Tradition

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