I thought I would upload my sermon from last week. Since I preached without a text, I’m not sure what I said. Here’s what I meant to say:
This is the first summer in many years that we’ve had so many thunderstorms. It seems like every day there are more warnings and more violent storms in the area. I know many people tend to be a little afraid of storms—there is always the possibility of tornadoes, after all. But for me, the greatest fear is that we will lose our power at home. I hate being stuck in hot weather without air conditioning.
Truth be told, I’ve always loved thunderstorms. Growing up on the flat land of the Midwest, we could watch the storms building and approaching for a long time, or we could watch as the storms went to our north or south and passed us by. Watching thunderclouds build in the distance is an awe-inspiring thing. Summer thunderstorms usually meant that we could run for cover and take a break from work while waiting for the rain to stop. There was that time, though, when we were caught unawares by a storm, as we were putting a metal roof on a barn. Not a wise place to be during a lightning storm.
The gospel story we heard today is one of the most familiar of all, Jesus calming the storm. It is familiar, and for many of us who have a more scientific cast of mind, it is deeply problematic. At the same time, it tugs at our deepest emotional level. Most of us can relate tales of being caught in a storm so strong and dangerous we were concerned for our safety. It may have been in a boat, or on an airplane, or perhaps like mine, on a wet, metal roof, in the middle of a lightning storm. The fears of the disciples are fears that we all have shared. And Jesus’ calming words, “Peace, be still” are the words of a savior who delivers his companions, and us, from great danger.
But there’s more to the story than that, much more. As Shelly Matthews reminded us in her sermon last week, Mark is the least wordy of the gospels, so it’s important to pay close attention when he does provide detail, and pay close attention to how he tells the story. The little things matter a great deal. One of the things that strikes me in Mark’s version of this story is how he depicts Jesus—sleeping on a cushion in the midst of a mighty storm. Mark presents us with an image of Jesus at ease, comfortable, resting, while all around him is struggle, noise, and tumult.
Also of interest is the little point that Mark doesn’t bring up the disciples’ fear until after Jesus calms the storm. Jesus asks the disciples after the coming of dead calm, “Why are you still afraid?” Mark’s telling of the story lets us ask the question: Was it the storm that caused their fear, or was it that Jesus brought the storm to an end? Which power is more frightening, more awesome, the power of a storm or the power of the one who can calm the storm?
There is something of a storm raging in today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, as well. It is a storm raging in King Saul. In the lectionary this summer, many of our old testament readings will come from the story of King David. Today’s lesson comes immediately after David killed Goliath and it includes several interesting elements. First is the relationship between David and Jonathan, who is Saul’s son and heir to the throne. The second is the beginning of the rivalry between Saul and David.
Now, it’s important to note that much of the story of the rise of David seems to derive from the court of David, or soon thereafter. As such, it seems to be concerned with legitimating David’s kingship. The details are too complex to go into here, but this episode plays a role in that story. David is shown to be a successful commander and popular with the people. Saul seems to become jealous, is beset by an evil spirit (from God) and raved within his house. He tried to kill David, but was unsuccessful, and as leaders often do with their closest rivals, he sent him away. There is much worthy of comment, but what I find fascinating is the connection with Jesus’ stilling the storm.
As I said, the story of David and Saul is complex on many levels. While everyone knows the story of David and Goliath, most people aren’t familiar with the earlier relationship between Saul and David. David was brought to court as a musician. Saul had already lost God’s favor, he was tormented by that evil spirit sent by God. As a remedy, the musician David was sent for, his playing would soothe Saul and force the spirit to leave. We imagine Saul stark, raving mad, whether from jealousy or from some mental illness. The Hebrew suggests an alternative explanation. The word translated here as “raved” is the same word that is translated as “prophesy” elsewhere, the difference being only that in this case, it is because of an evil spirit, not the spirit of God. But remember, this was written by supporters of the Davidic monarchy.
During the summer, the lectionary gives us options for the Old Testament readings. We can read the story of David, as we are doing this summer, or we could read another set of Old Testament texts, that are more prophetic in nature. The alternative today also has to do with a storm. This time it comes from Job, the famous passage where God replies to Job out of the whirlwind, asking him “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”
There are storms and there are storms. There are devastating weather events that cost lives and destroy homes and livelihoods, as we saw this week in the upstate. There are storms like those that troubled Saul, and there are even storms like the whirlwind that spoke to Job. Storms are significant religiously because they bring us up against our finitude—the limits of our power, knowledge and humanity in the face of uncontrollable nature.
The gospel story reminds us of that. Whatever Mark intended with the story, it’s pretty clear that it is meant to demonstrate Jesus’ power to his disciples. It is one of the few of the miracles in Mark’s gospel that is done in front of the disciples alone. They are the beneficiaries of Jesus’ intervention, and they alone are witnesses to his power. And that’s the conundrum for us. What is their response to that show of force? From Jesus’ question to them, it would seem they were full of fear. From Jesus’ question to them, it would seem they still lacked faith. And from their question, which Mark leaves hanging, leaving us to answer, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” it is clear that they still do not know who Jesus is.
The setting of the story is important, too. It comes at the end of the day on which Jesus taught the people using parables. Indeed, for Mark, it is the only significant occasion on which Jesus told parables. The enigmas he presented his listeners then, the kingdom of God he was preaching by using the parables, are presented here in the story of the calming of the storm, in another way.
The disciples asked him to explain the parables, now they ask who he is. Mark doesn’t provide answers to them now, those answers will come much later in the gospel, in the cross and resurrection. But already we see elements of the answer. It isn’t so much that Jesus has power. That’s not particularly important for Mark. Rather, what is important is that his readers understand who Jesus is and what it means that he is the Messiah. Storms rage around us, and in us, but do we see Jesus Christ in their midst?
In the midst of their storm, the disciples came to Jesus, in a way rebuking him. Why are you sleeping as we are about to perish? They didn’t ask him for help. They didn’t ask him to save them; they asked him only to be aware that all of them, including him, were going down with the boat. Just as they didn’t understand the parables, they don’t understand their true plight. Neither do we.
In the midst of storms, whether they be weather events, or the troubles of contemporary existence, it can be difficult to recognize God, to see Jesus Christ at work in the world and in our lives. Like Saul, we may be overcome by emotion when things don’t go our way. Like the disciples, we may be looking for a way out of a difficult situation. And very often, the answers we receive to our requests and questions don’t seem adequate to the situation. It may be that we want Jesus to calm the troubled waters by saying, “Peace, be still.” But instead, we may hear God speaking to us out of the whirlwind as he spoke to Job.
Whatever the case, let us be mindful that God is there, with us, in the midst of it all. Let us be mindful, too, that like the disciples, we may not see or recognize God. But let us be open to God’s presence, open to God’s speech, and open to the possibility that God will still those storms all around us.