First sermon in a while
Gather round, children. I’m going to post what will most likely be my sermon for Sunday, the first time I’ve preached in a while.
The text is Mark 4:35-41, where Jesus calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Let’s get the story straight first: Jesus has been teaching to great crowds on the western side of the sea. That is, Jews, his own people.
The congregation has been so large in fact that Jesus teaches from a boat (a large one, presumably from the raised portion at the back so everyone can see and hear him).
When he’s done, for whatever reason, he decides it’s time to go across the sea, to Gentile territory. So he tells the disciples, “C’mon, let’s go” and they take him “just as he was.” Probably that means they just pack up the boat he’s in and push off.
So when the storm comes up and Jesus is still out cold in the back of the boat, the disciples are understandably peeved with him. This was his idea! And yet, he doesn’t seem to care that the boat is going down.
But remember, this is the boat Jesus has been teaching in, and the teaching continues even in the storm.
He stands up and says to the wind and the sea “Shut up! Chill out!” And they do.
Then he turns around to the disciples and says, “Dudes, seriously? What are you so worried about? Don’t you trust me yet?” And then he goes back to bed. A savior needs his rest.
There’s some symbolism here that modern folks might not see, but would have been obvious to the original readers. Storms at sea were symbols of the primordial chaos that God overcomes in creation.
Again and again in scripture, we hear about God’s power to calm storms, and it’s always that same image at work: God is stronger than any chaos that threatens to overwhelm us.
That’s why Jesus “rebukes” the storm. We don’t typically scold storms–they’re forces of nature, right? But we do when they’re filled with evil forces threatening the children of God.
Understand: “rebuke” is the same word used when Jesus casts out demons–and when he tells Peter “Get behind me, Satan!”
And the word for “storm” used here is the same one for the whirlwind that confronts Job. These are powerful, primal forces at work, and Jesus is more powerful than any of them.
(Let’s take a minute here to appreciate Thomas Dorsey’s powerful gospel hymn “Precious Lord”:
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home)
(Dorsey wrote that in the midst of grieving the loss of his wife and son in childbirth, and it shows exactly the kind of trust in God Jesus commends to the disciples.)
Jesus asks the disciples “Have you still no faith?” but this is not faith as agreement with an abstract idea. It’s personal trust. He wants to know why they don’t think he can take care of them.
His words apparently bounce right off, because now they’re “in fear” of him.
Disciples do not come off well in Mark.
What does this text have to say to us? We could take it as Thomas Dorsey did: a profound reassurance that God will lead us through our sorrows and suffering. Nothing wrong with that.
There is, however, a broader dimension here worth paying attention to. First, understand that the Sea of Galilee is all of 13 miles long and 8 miles across.
Ancient people were skittish about open water–there’s a lot that go wrong out there–but honestly. If you can’t see a storm coming in a pond that size, if you can’t outrun it, you’re an absolute dingbat.
So this storm must be symbolic again. It tells us that those forces of chaos are always and everywhere nearby, threatening to swamp our boats. I hardly need point you to the headlines as evidence.
In the face of that ongoing threat, Jesus calls his disciples to deeper engagement with the “mystery and paradox of death.” Jesus can calm storms, and he can overcome death–but only by surrendering to its power.
We are called, in other words, to accept the death within ourselves, and the deathliness at the heart of the world. Jesus almost suggests that we embrace that death as Whitman does in grieving his beloved Lincoln:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Death is the last comfort for Whitman, a benediction on all those who have died in a society torn in half. For Christians, it is the final power to be overcome by God in solidarity with humankind.
That last bit is not just rhetoric. What finally overcomes death’s strength for Christians is Jesus’ willingness to walk with us through its gates.
Death’s only real power is to isolate. Jesus undoes that power not through confrontation or strength, but through compassionate presence.
This is the part the disciples don’t get: Jesus is the presence of God with them, and he will never leave their side, no matter how bad things get. What’s the worst that could happen? You could die? God will still be there.
The part we don’t get–modern disciples or non-believers–is that God’s radical solidarity with humanity isn’t supernatural.
Jesus’ power to calm the storm may be over-nature, but the power to be present to his disciples through the storm, through the night, comes from God’s radical love–a love that we can share.
To come full circle, we share that love with God and with one another not by looking away from death, or trying to overcome it. That only isolates us. We must enter its power.
Jesus leads us directly into death, because death is where we find love, and love is where we find life. This is what Whitman sees: that death and love are one in ways beyond our knowing.
You are called, then, to wrap your arms around “lovely and soothing death” by standing with all and each who are dying, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
So be with the cancer patients and those in hospice. Be with the young black men shot by police and all those who die from gun violence. Be with the migrants who die crossing the border. Christ is with them and with you.
Be with the parents and children torn apart by insane cruelty. Stand in solidarity with those pushed to the margins by hatred and bigotry set loose in our society. Talk to people. Comfort and heal them as you have the power. Christ is with them and with you.
Accompany those who lose hope, those who give in to the temptation to hate. Yes, even pray for your enemies. Don’t lose sight of their humanity, even when they lose sight of yours. Christ is with them and with you.
Oh? But don’t be afraid to rebuke the powers of evil. Never fear: Christ is with you. Just don’t get the idea that you can do it all on your own. Christ is with you and with all of us. Our job is to trust him and summon the courage to do likewise.