The Reverend George C. Wong, Pentecost 4, The twentieth of June 2021
In today’s gospel, we are dropped into the middle of an intense action scene. It is helpful to step back a bit because today’s action scene is part of a much larger unfolding story found in the first four chapters of the gospel of Mark
In a sense, these first four chapters are a two act play with an intermission. In the first act, Jesus comes onto the scene healing, curing and making those on the outside whole and part of the community. In rapid succession, Jesus:
Casts out demons
Healed Peter’s mother in law
Cured a leper and a paralytic
Healed a man with a withered hand
Through this litany of healings, Jesus displayed his power over sin and sickness and all the demonic forces which keep people bound up in misery and despair. Jesus heard the cries of his people and he responded with intimate, personal hands on healings.
Also, in the first act, as in any good play, we have conflict. (Cue the ominous music.) The dark forces of conflict come in the form of a building reaction to Jesus and emerging challenge to Jesus—do recall the saying, no good deed goes unpunished. For instance, after Jesus heals the paralytic, the scribes are already accusing Jesus of blasphemy. The harshly condemn Jesus for healing—who does this man think he is? They don’t hear the cries of the people. Instead, what they see and hear is a challenge to their own authority and their way of doing things.
Then we are offered what is a sort of intermission in the form of a series of parables. These parables are both a break from the intense action and also serve as a response to this rising tide of animosity and of building antagonism among the religious establishment.
You might recall that we heard about the parable of the Mustard seed last Sunday. The very smallest of the seeds can turn into the mightiest of shrubs. Faith can grow from modest beginnings, because God’s power and care for us is the source of the growth. Through this parable and others like the Parable of the Sower, we are given a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, that realm which is both so close and so far away which is glimpsed best through the lens of faith.
Then, in today’s text, we are thrust back into another fast and furious action scene.
In act two, Jesus and the disciples have set out on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The situation turns dire when in the middle of their journey, the waves and wind turn turbulent.
A tiny boat is doomed in these circumstances. In real life, there is no Gilligan’s island, an idyllic safe haven for floundering little boats. There is no gin and tonic waiting for us in a cabana.
How did the disciples react in the midst of crisis?
Did they recall the healing power of Jesus?
Did they remember his power to cast out demons?
Did they keep a picture of the kingdom of heaven conveyed by Jesus is the parables in mind?
It does not appear so because, their reaction is one of sheer panic, and fear. You can smell the fear on them. They are overcome immediately begin howling frantically to Jesus that he does not care.
It seems that it was one thing to see Jesus healing others. But when danger affected them personally, they lost their faith in Jesus and of Jesus’s pedigree and ability to save them. In many ways, their fearful, anxious reaction was understandable. Being on a boat on the middle of deep waters is and was inherently risky business. Knowing this, Jesus does not criticize them for being afraid.
Instead he asks them: “why are you afraid?” He did not suggest that there was nothing to be afraid of. The distinction may seem small at first, it is not. When you ask someone what they are afraid of, that is very different from telling them there is no reason to be afraid. And Jesus clearly understands that there was good reason for them to be afraid. But the more important reaction was the one after Jesus calmed the storms.
The unexpected twist is that the disciples did not set aside their fears after the storm is calmed—their fears shift from the storm to the power of Jesus. Upon seeing Jesus calm the storm, they ask about Jesus with a great deal of fear, described as awe in the text: “who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?
Despite the very human foibles of the disciples on the boat, there is very good news in today’s text. Jesus offers the disciples a simple antidote to their fear and still small faith. In the midst of the storm, Jesus remained asleep. He was calm. And he calms the storm by say to sea, “peace, be still.”
Jesus paints a very clear picture of the possibility of peace and stillness even in the midst of raging storms. Jesus is stillness and peace; Jesus begets stillness and peace in the roiling seas, bringing the order and tranquility characteristic of the kingdom to all of creation.
We all know what it is like to navigate the stormy seas.
This past year and going on four months has brought the intense storms of Covid-tide, of rising tides of violence and national discord, of economic turmoil, and for some storms more personal in nature, the loss of jobs, or the death of loved ones or the onset of deep depression or an encounter with serious illness.
It was an unprecedented time and was the backdrop for stirring up much collective and individual darkness in the form of fear, anxiety and greatly diminished hope.
At times, for me, it has felt like being in a boat that was almost certain to be swamped and bashed to pieces.
By early fall of last year, I was at my wits end and confided to my Spiritual Director that I was dead tired, increasingly anxious and that my sense of hope was waning under the weight of the waves crashing against my boat, my person, my being.
On top of all the things affecting everyone in the boat, I became fearful of even venturing out, to a small degree because of Covid but more so, in the face of thousands of incidents of violence, because of being targeted for the way I look with no way to know who might be a danger to me. It was all adding up and I was heavy laden.
I shared this with my Spiritual director who is a wise a compassionate person. She listened carefully. She did not criticize me or suggest that was wrong to feel the way I did. Instead, she asked about my prayer life.
My corporate worship life continued, of course, but even in the face of so many shifts, changes that often was the source of more stress and anxiety and not so much comfort or peace.
Through it all, I prayed during the course of the day, but my prayers had become challenged in the midst of all the trials, tribulations—navigating the great raging waters took my attention and left little energy for much else. I would get in prayers during the day as best I could. But in the end, the prayers had become rote, dry and were not a source of any meaningful sustenance.
Aware that we shared a deep interest in the contemplative prayer, in particular in Fr. Thomas Keating and his work at the Contemplative Outreach Center in Snowmass Co, she proposed that meet online for Centering prayer every morning. For two months, even though she is not a morning person, she called me at 7 am and we sat in silent prayer for 30 minutes and sometimes more.
Her invitation to “be still and know that I am God” was a lifeline.
Why did that time in silence sitting with her with God in our presence mean so much, and helped me turn back the tides, or at least see a more hopeful and fruitful future? Because it helped me to recover a mustard seed size grain of hope in the Kingdom of heaven. It helped me to remember who I was and in whose image I was made.
And that spark of hope the size a mustard lifted me towards a sense of calm and peace—enough to move forward. At times when it seems like our boat will be swamped, our gospel today offers us two crystal clear choices:
We can stand in the stern of the boat alone with our fears and trepidation. We can expect to be dumped into the sea and complain all all the while. We can push our prayer lives to the background.
Or, we can stand in the boat with Jesus and with each other. And we can pray earnestly from our souls whether silently, or aloud. If we choose to stand with Jesus, we will certainly find a great sense of peace and stillness, even amidst the worst of external circumstances. Only then can we truly hear what Jesus is saying and find our own peace AND bring peace to a world in so much pain and exhibiting so much fear, fear which can swamp us just as a series of waves hitting a small boat.
I think there is no better way to conclude this sermon than with a few words from the hymn, “It is well with my soul.”
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.