It was not my only opportunity to reflect on today’s gospel this week. At Vestry meeting we always give time to grounding ourselves in scripture, and this week we took a look at today’s passage. I’ll tell you that our Vestry raised a series of thought-provoking questions about Mark’s narrative of the storm at sea: they were longer on questions than on answers, but raising questions is exactly what the Gospel is supposed to do, so the discussion was lively.
In this morning’s reflection, then, I bring you the combined wisdom of both local clergy and our own leadership group as we take a look at this memorable passage.
It takes place at the end of a day after Jesus has been teaching a great crowd on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had offered a series of parables about sowers, seeds, planting, and harvesting – we listened to two of them last week.
For an unknown reason, even though evening had fallen and travel across the water would be more hazardous that if they had waited until morning, Jesus decided it was time to go to the other side of the lake, about eight miles away. Mark suggests that while it was Jesus who initiated the trip, it’s the disciples who took charge, which probably makes sense as several of them were experienced fishermen who had spent their lives navigating those waters. Mark says
…they took him with them in the boat, just as he was
presumably meaning that they didn’t do a lot of preparation, but rather, hopped into the boat and departed. They were accompanied by other boats, probably sailed by other folks who had been listening to Jesus and were interested in being able to continue doing so at his next stop.
At some point during the crossing things turned nasty, apparently very quickly; Mark tells us:
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.
Here’s where some of the questions from the Vestry begin:
The fact remains that didn’t, and in their panic, as they perceived the boat being swamped, they sought help from Jesus:
But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
More Vestry observations and questions:
Jesus woke, but not in a cheery mood; he issued chastisement all around. He rebuked the wind and commanded the sea to “be still!”. The forces of nature heard and obeyed. Mark tells us that there arose a “dead calm”.
Jesus was not patient or sympathetic with the frightened disciples, either. After he calmed the sea he turned his displeasure on the ones who had aroused him from his sleep: “Why are you still afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Having experienced the trauma of near swamping, I suspect that I would have found Jesus’ criticism frustrating. But rather than being either resentful or remorseful, Mark tells us that the disciples reacted with “great awe’, forgetting their fear and marveling at Jesus authority over the life-threatening storm:
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
So, then, to return to the question raised by my clergy colleagues – is it a miracle story, or a parable?
On the face of it, the purpose of the story seems to be to give witness to Jesus’ power. Listeners in Mark’s time would have noticed that the verbs with which Jesus “rebuked” the storm are the same verbs used when he exorcized demons from those who were possessed. Mark is giving evidence of Jesus’ ability to command and cast aside the forces that threaten life.
A secondary theme is that of the disciples’ foolishness in the whole situation. Beyond the fact that they did not anticipate the storm, we have to wonder why they waited until waves were filling the boat before alerting Jesus. Jesus wonders why they didn’t have faith, but I have to wonder why they allowed the situation to arise in the first place.
Though I don’t deny that this narrative qualifies as a miracle story, I find it most useful as a parable. As it so often does, the gospel in this case serves as a mirror that shows us who we are.
All of our lives are filled with stormy seas and moments when, whether it’s true or not, we feel like we are perishing. I think that most of the things that terrify us in the present world are things that we have brought on ourselves, if not as individuals, certainly as a human race who have been short-sighted and selfish.
The wind whips us, the waves crash and begin to fill the boat, and it is easy to feel, as did the disciples, that God doesn’t care.
To make another timely connection, we can easily enough feel like the young David, in that other dramatic story we heard this morning – small and powerless against forces that are far greater than we are.
And when things get scary, we tend to forget what we know about trusting God; we experience what psychologists call the “flight or fight response” and revert to some primal, childlike part of ourselves that seeks to escape from our fear and pain and re-establish comfort at any cost.
But here’s where the parable reminds us:
We are not alone; Jesus is in the boat with us.
Jesus is in the boat with us and we will get through it. Let’s see if we can’t remember that when the waves begin to crash.
Seventeen centuries ago Saint Augustine of Hippo preached a sermon on this passage that is pretty remarkable, suggesting what it might mean that Jesus is present, but asleep. Here’s what he said in a sermon in the fourth century:
When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind. When your anger is aroused, you are being tossed by the waves. So when the winds blow and the waves mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering… Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten his presence. Rouse him, then; remember him, let him keep watch within you, pay heed to him. (1)
And in our own time, one of our wisest theologians, Frederick Buechner, offered similar insight.
Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we, in whatever way we can, call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we're done, so that even in their midst we may find peace...we may find Christ. (2)
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