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)
So, since I always listen to both the Archbishops of Canterbury and David Lose, I’d like to share just a few brief thoughts in reflection on the Trinity, and then do some thinking about the character we meet in our gospel passage this morning, Nicodemus.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses the conviction that while we experience God in three forms – namely, as our source and creator, in Jesus Christ who has redeemed us, and in the enlivening and guiding presence that fills and surrounds us – God is one God.
I think the important thing to take away about the Trinity that God is more than we are ever going to know or understand in this life.
The late Robert Capon, the Episcopal priest and writer whose work was much loved in the latter part of the last century, has a parable about the enterprise of theology, and it is pertinent to consider as we aspire to think about the Trinity. (The parable is too long to include here, but you can easily find it if you google it.)
In the parable, an oyster lying on the sea bottom next to a rock becomes boastful about its superiority to the rock. When reminded by the rock of its vulnerability to the starfish that lives in the neighborhood, the oyster becomes petulant and eventually cries out at life’s unfairness. To its surprise, the oyster’s cry is answered – you can perhaps detect a parallel to the story of Job – and the voice that answers tells him:
“It’s all true. There are things you never even dreamed of. All kinds of stuff. And with moves you couldn’t imagine if you tried. As a matter of fact, that’s your problem. There you sit with a rock on one side and a starfish on the other. My apologies.”
The voice goes on to describe to the oyster the glories and beauty of basketball, and of squirrels jumping from one tree to another, and then, the pinnacle of perfection – ballerinas.
The voice, in its response to the oyster, then concludes:
“Think very carefully. Remember that all this stuff really is, but it can’t possibly be the way you think. Or, to turn it around: The way you think about things will never be exactly the same as the way they are.”*
In considering the Trinity, despite the good intentions of Thomas Becket, we are oysters contemplating ballerinas.
So on to Nicodemus. He is a pretty interesting fellow. He appears only in the Gospel of John, not in the more plot-rich gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. And he appears three times in John, which is extremely unusual for a secondary character, someone who is not one of the disciples who travel with Jesus. Nicodemus was important to John.
Nicodemus has been called “the secret disciple”. We could also call him “a reluctant disciple”. He’s a Pharisee, the sect whom we know had grave reservations about the Rabbi Jesus, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the board of governing elders in the Jewish community.
What is fascinating is Nicodemus’ quiet pattern of reappearing over and over again in Jesus’ story. In today’s passage, Nicodemus’ first appearance, he arrives under cover of darkness to ask Jesus to explain himself and his teachings, which have been riling up the community. Nicodemus is unable to write Jesus off, apparently, as many of his Pharisaic peers have done, but neither is he able to quite wrap his head around the idea of spiritual rebirth that he and Jesus discuss.
We next hear from Nicodemus when Jesus’ opponents on the Sanhedrin, “the chief priests and Pharisees”, are discussing what to do about him after an incident in which Jesus’ teachings have upset the Temple security guards. Nicodemus speaks up – again quietly, and taking a position that falls short of affirming faith in Jesus – to remind his colleagues that Jewish Law prohibits judgement before an accused is given a fair hearing.
Nicodemus’ final appearance is quite poignant: it is he who accompanies Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and preparing Jesus body for burial after his crucifixion. John tells us that it was Nicodemus who brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for the anointing process. Again, not quite an open declaration of faith, but a significant choice of action, to associate himself in any way with an executed criminal.
I expect that all of us have ups and downs in the life of faith –
I think that the experience of pandemic that we have been through, and from which we’re just starting to peek our noses out the door, has thrown lots of things into question, and matters of faith may well be among them.
If you’ve drifted away from faith practice during the pandemic or found yourself surprised to discover that you don’t need to attend church in the way that you always assumed you did, don’t feel badly.
The Bishop’s office recently did a survey asking diocesan clergy about the state of our emotional and spiritual lives as a result of the pandemic, and plenty of clergy admitted that the changes and challenges of ministering through the pandemic have caused them to re-examine their sense of vocation.
Nicodemus is a good guy to sit with in moments when faith may feel uncertain. His faith was more about questions than answers. He never seemed ready to go “all in”. And yet it seems, as David Lose has observed, that “If God keeps working in and on and through Nicodemus across three years and sixteen chapters in John’s Gospel, God will keep working in and on and through us. No matter how long it takes.”
God was patient as Nicodemus questioned; God accepted and affirmed his curiosity. God was loving as Nicodemus needed, repeatedly, to take a step back. Maybe God knew that Nicodemus would be there, myrrh and aloes at the ready, when it was needed.
Surely God will be equally patient and loving with us.
There seems to have been a movement arising around gratitude in recent years, and certainly, there are lots of organizations, philosophies, and spiritual guides that promote gratitude as a life orientation. Much of the interest in gratitude seems to focus on gratitude as a self-help strategy: I’ve read a number of pieces about research on the effects of practicing gratitude.
Research has revealed, apparently, that people who regularly think about things they’re thankful for and express gratitude feel less pain and less stress, suffer less from insomnia and depression, have stronger immune systems and greater emotional resilience, experience healthier relationships and do better academically and professionally. Noticing and being thankful for the good things in life increases our sense of well-being and lowers our blood pressure.*
These effects of gratitude are obviously terrific – the more we can cultivate “attitude of gratitude”, the better off we are – BUT we should ‘grow gratefulness” in ourselves NOT primarily to benefit ourselves, but because we have so much to be grateful for!
The gospel we’ve heard this morning continues the sequence of teachings we have been following from Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” in the Gospel of John.
We began, several weeks ago, with Jesus reminding the disciples that he is “the Good Shepherd”, and then sharing the analogy of himself as the Vine and the community of his followers as the branches, and then last week last week we heard Jesus sharing the command that we love one another.
Today’s passage bring us to the climax of the “Discourses”, in which Jesus offers a prayer to God, known as “the High Priestly Prayer.”
Today’s gospel an excerpt from that prayer – Jesus asking God to protect the disciples from the dangers of the world, as Jesus prepares to depart from them.
Jesus’ words in the prayer are a means of teaching the listening disciples; they are a means of John teaching us.
There’s a theme in this rather grammatically challenging reading: did you notice it? In the thirteen verses of today’s Gospel, Jesus uses a form of the verb “to give” nine times.
Throughout his telling of the “Good News” John wants us to pay attention to what we are “given” by God in the life of Jesus: in fact he uses the term seventeen times in this chapter and seventy-five times in his gospel overall.
Two years ago this month I spent a week at CREDO, a conference that the Church’s Pension Fund provides for Episcopal Clergy. CREDO provides space away from the demands of active ministry to reflect holistically on our lives – as well as the physical and spiritual aspects of our lives, CREDO asks us to look at our vocational and financial lives – and it does so to promote renewal and, where appropriate, to invite change.
One of the exercises we took part in that was very powerful for me that week was an exercise relating to gratitude. Sitting at our individual desk spaces in a large classroom, we were given ten minutes and asked to write down at least one hundred things that we were thankful for.
Starting my list was totally easy – expressing thanks for my family, my health, this congregation that I work among, the beautiful place I live, and so on, is a regular part of my own prayer, and came quickly to mind.
What was fascinating was discovering the places that my mind went as I pressed myself to go beyond thankfulness for the things I think about all of the time. My mind went to places both small and large, listing not only individuals in my life who have cared for me, inspired me, and sometimes challenged me, but I also listed specific pieces of music that have brought me joy.
I realized that I am thankful for electricity, and science, and color, and otters.
Considering the incredible number of things I am thankful for and realizing how much they enrich my life and how much I appreciate them gave me a tremendous sense of joy.
If we had time for it this morning I would insist that we pause right now, and I would hand out (or ask you to go find for yourself) paper and pencil and have each of us to list one hundred things we’re thankful for, but I don’t think we do have the time. Instead, I’m going to invite and encourage you to really make some time this week and write your own list – I expect each one of you to get to AT LEAST one hundred items on the list. And I’d love to hear what YOU discover – send me an email after you’ve done it!
It is God’s incredible generosity given to us that provides us with all of the things that we write down on our lists. God’s generosity provides the boundless opportunities that lie before us every day, to say nothing of the gifts given to the ancestors who have gone before us over the generations. And as John’s gospel reminds us, God’s love gives us the life of Jesus, that shows us and opens up the way to fullness of life.
We should not just BE grateful, but to live a life of integrity, we must also LIVE our gratitude: just as Jesus saw the disciples as gifts, given him for safekeeping,
so too is the world today given into our safekeeping - the world itself and all of God’s children who inhabit it. The choices we make in the ways we use what we have been given express our deep gratitude, or not.
With God’s help, we can continue to grow into ways of living that express our gratitude, that make a positive difference to that world given into our care. We can make and be our own “Grateful Farm.”
We need to do it NOT just to maintain inner peace and a healthy blood pressure, but because it is the only reasonable response to the love with which we are surrounded.
On this 4th Sunday of Easter we always read Psalm 23 and depending on the year, we hear readings from John’s gospel in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.
Good Shepherd Sunday is about our relationship with God. Its theme is that of God’s unfailing and unending care for us.
Psalm 23 would probably be voted “Most Beloved” psalm in the Bible if there were such a survey. Although we also tend to associate it with funerals, where it is almost always read, most of us probably most associate it with its message of comfort: the Shepherd God is with me always, taking care of my every need.
The psalmist’s God who “restores my soul” is surely a close relation to the Jesus who promises
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)
The psalm is also particularly appropriate as we are celebrating Earth Week, reminding us that it is in and through the natural world – the green pastures and the still waters (may we learn how much we need to honor and protect them) – that we meet God and find restoration.
In today’s gospel, Jesus identifying himself as “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” is obvious in its connection.
This gospel passage includes one of seven “I AM” statements that the evangelist John reports Jesus having spoken. Each offers a metaphor for understanding Jesus as the spiritual leader and guide who commits to care for the Children of God:
I am the bread of life
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the light of the world
I am the door
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life
I am the true vine
In stating that “I am the good shepherd”, Jesus was not offering a NEW image through which his followers could understand who he was, but rather, connecting himself to an image that was deeply familiar to his listeners through their knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures.
So. Shepherds. Most of us don’t know and appreciate the nuances of sheep and shepherds as did most of Jesus’ listeners.
My best connection – apart from watching demonstrations of the herding skills of sheep dogs at the various wool festivals that I love to frequent – is that of a small flock of sheep that lived across the street from my aunt and uncle’s home in rural Connecticut where I frequently visited as a child.
When my Aunt Peggy married Roger, she moved into his home in the midst of what had been an extensive family farm, which was now broken into parcels for Roger and his six siblings. The land across road belonged to Roger’s brother Edwin, and he used it for used for raising sheep.
Near the road and visible from Peggy and Roger’s house was an open-faced shelter behind a gate that gave access, and behind that, acres of pasture. I loved to cross the road to visit the sheep as a child, especially in spring when there was a new crop of lambs. I even had good luck to see one born, one year. I remember two things about that – that the lamb was up and nursing in about five minutes, and that as soon as it’s mother had licked it clean, it went down in mud and was filthy again.
The emphasis in the Psalm is the psalmist’s reliance and dependence on God, as sheep depend on the shepherd. I distinctly remember clear relationship between Edwin and his sheep: while they came trotting from the pasture back to the shelter when he showed up with food, they wouldn’t let others get anywhere near. They were in fact capable of being somewhat aggressive when protecting the lambs, and it was a firm rule that this was not a petting zoo and I was not allowed to enter the gate. (Jesus echoed the familiarity and trust of shepherd and flock: “I know my own, and my own know me”.)
Psalm 23 is not, I think, a statement about God viewing us as sheep-like, but rather, an expression of the human need for a trustworthy shepherd. The psalmist gives voice to something that is in all of us – what we might imagine that it feels like to be a sheep:
The Psalmist trusts that God does provide for all that we need, and provides in abundance. Jesus offers himself as the expression of God’s love:
For all of these images of comfort and protection, Psalm 23 is full of words of movement, describing a journey, and it acknowledges that having a caring shepherd does not eliminate the difficulties of the journey.
Faith does not claim that God will eliminate the sorrows of life, but rather, will accompany us through them.
Finally, the Psalm promises that the Good Shepherd enfolds us in loving care not only now, but beyond the bounds of our living and of our imagination: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord FOREVER”.
We are accustomed to hearing Psalm 23 in times of trial and sorrow, as I observed earlier, but isn’t it also perfect for times such as these when we can celebrate and give thanks for the guidance and abundance that brings us safe to this day?
We have been reminded of our vulnerabilities in the last year and more; we have certainly been traveling “through the valley of shadow”; our having to sit six feet apart and not yet receive the sacraments doesn’t quite feel like “still waters” or “a cup running over”, but we will get there.
God reaches out – in the Word, in the Eucharist, in the fellowship of the Church, in giving us the joy and privilege of serving the Gospel – to offer us what we need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Meet our Preachers
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.