Psalm 107: 1-3, 23-32, Job 38: 1-11, 2 Corinthians 6: 1-13, Mark 4: 35-41
Today is Father’s Day and so we remember and give thanks for our fathers, whether living or departed. When we think of an ideal father, we think of someone who is loving and caring and protective. These are attributes of course also of God, and it is no wonder that Jesus commended his disciples to pray to God as “Abba”, meaning Father. Jesus wanted his followers to know that God cared for them as deeply as any human father cared for their child. This is sadly not everyone’s experience and there are some for whom today will be difficult. The fourteenth century recluse Julian of Norwich famously referred to God and even Jesus as our “Mother”. For some this will be more helpful, for others not. Many will find comfort in thinking of the first person of the Trinity simply as Creator. We all need to find images of God that are helpful for us, and not judge one another’s choices. God knows us intimately and will understand our preferences in terms of how we think of and feel about God. Love and mercy are in the heart of God, and when unloving things happen to us, we need to keep those central attributes of God in mind.
Our gospel today from Mark is about what happens when the disciples are together with Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and a storm or gale suddenly assails them. In these days in which we are learning more and more about the causes and consequences of what we call Climate Change, we become frequently accustomed to hearing reports of severe weather conditions around the globe, whether it be hurricanes, storms, flooding, forest fires or whatever. We even personalise storms nowadays by giving them a name, as if they come to us with some personal intent to do us harm. In today’s gospel reading form Mark we have the well-known story of the miracle of Jesus’ stilling of the storm. The story occurs in all three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is a story that is distinct from that of Jesus walking on the water, which John also records. The stilling of the storm is a dramatic setting and many artists have painted it, among them Rembrandt, Rubens and Delacroix, as well as others. The Jewish people of Israel and Judah were really a land rather than a sea-faring people, and they had real fears of the sea. In the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures there are many references to the sea as a place of chaos, filled with threatening sea creatures. The sea was often represented as symbolic of evil and death. At the end of the Bible in the final book of Revelation the vision of heaven famously states that there was “no more sea”. Yet at the same time the sea – the world’s many oceans – are all part of God’s good creation.
Nevertheless the sea can become unruly and threatening. The disciples find themselves following Jesus into a boat on the Sea of Galilee and then a storm develops. Jesus is asleep and as the winds increase the disciples experience fear and panic. I expect we are all familiar with the traditional religious system known as the seven deadly sins. The popular personality type system known as the Enneagram, with its roots in Sufi mysticism, prefers to use the word “passions” rather than “sins” and identifies not merely seven but nine such human passions, with fear and deceit in addition. Fear is indeed a real passion, and it can grip us suddenly and unexpectedly. Terrified, as the boat begins to be swamped with water, the disciples believe they are perishing. It is indeed a never-to- be forgotten moment when you find yourself in a situation where you think you are about to die. I remember this very vividly from many years ago when I was involved in a car accident. Happily it turned out all right, and no one was hurt. In the midst of the storm at sea, the disciples are faced with such a moment. They think that their death by drowning is immanent. In desperation they wake Jesus up, and rebuke him, as if he doesn’t care about them. When things are difficult, it may even seem like that to us, as if God has forgotten to care for us. But God does not forget, does not cease to care, even if it seems that way.
Once awake, Jesus first rebukes the wind and tempestuous sea, addressing them as if they are personal forces, demanding:
“Peace! Be still!”.
Mark records that when the wind ceased, there was “a dead calm”. Then in turn Jesus rebukes the disciples for their fear and lack of faith. The disciples’ fear and panic is transformed into great awe.
The disciples’ heart-felt cry in the midst of the storm, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” is a cry that goes up every day – from the starving, the homeless, the poverty-stricken, the abused, the helpless. There is no easy answer to the suffering of humanity. Human suffering is real and deep and universal. The episode of the storm at sea has a happy ending. Jesus wakes up and miraculously stills the storm. Sometimes this will have an echo in people’s experience but all too often it will not. It would be a mistake to give some kind of glib answer to the problem of suffering in this world. What as Christians we can say is that God is with those who suffer, sharing with them in all that they suffer: that God longs to alleviate suffering and to bring truth and justice to situations where such values are tragically lacking: that God works to transform evil in ways that can be life-giving and that brings hope. Most profoundly of all, in the gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus there is offered to humanity both an explanation ( mysterious though it is) and a way forward. This story shows us the depth of God’s love that refuses to be frustrated or thwarted by evil. Love will have the last word. That is our faith. And that faith and assurance is what we can offer to a world that cries out daily in its need. I would like to close with a poem by Sister Carol Bieleck, in which the sea represents whatever comes to us in life unbidden and threatens to overwhelm us. The poem is entitled: Breathing under Water.
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
- and I still don’t know how it happened -
the sea came.
Without welcome, even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning
and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being neighbours
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance, neighbours
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater. Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP