Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 21 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Andrea Budgey, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam 17:32-49; Ps 9:9-20; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mk 4:35-41

My parents spent a lot of time travelling before they settled down, usually by the cheapest means possible, and staying in pretty modest accommodations. My mother sometimes talks about one of the most terrifying moments of all the years of their wanderings: being taken, in a dugout canoe, across a large bay on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, at night, to meet a freighter. The wind blew, the canoe rocked on the waves, and water splashed over its low sides. One of their Mayan fellow passengers prayed loudly and frantically the whole way, while her little boy sang the Ave Maria, in a high, piping treble voice. They came through it, obviously, but my mother has never cared for the Ave Maria since then.

“Master, do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s the question that springs to mind at such times, or often, to be honest, “If you’re really there, do you not care…?” “Why don’t you wake up and do something?” This story appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels (with some variation), and over the centuries, interpretation of these passages has dwelt on the disciples’ lack of faith, and Jesus’ miraculous calming of the storm as a sign for them to put all their trust in him, in the power of God to ward off danger and destruction for those who believe. But…

“Do you not care that we are perishing?” “Do you not care that the young stranger we welcomed to our Bible study is killing us?” “Do you not care that the human smugglers who took all our savings are leaving us to drown… That our lands are being poisoned… That we tremble in our residential school beds because taking us from our families and communities was not enough?” “Why don’t you come among us in your power and save us?”

It’s an ages-old question, and I think we do a disservice to scripture as well as to human experience if we dismiss it, however piously, and we’ll return to it. In terms of our reading this morning, I think it’s important to recognise that Mark places the story of Jesus calming the storm, not simply in a random fishing trip, but in a journey “to the other side”, a journey toward transformation, toward the other, toward the unknown. The fear for which Jesus chides the disciples is not simply their fear of physical danger, which would be perfectly reasonable, but their apprehension about the whole enterprise, their secret distrust of his teachings, secret even from themselves, perhaps. On the one hand, moving toward the kingdom of God is exciting and compelling, but the in-between—which is where, as Christians, we are committed to spend most of our lives—can often feel like being tossed about in a very frail vessel, in the dark, on the primeval deep, making the shore we leave behind us look safe and attractive. It is in this context that Jesus demonstrates his power, making the crossing possible, and strengthening the disciples to continue. He’s giving them a sign they can understand from their traditions about how God works, from Middle Eastern mythology, and from the poetry of the psalms.

But this story also foreshadows, like an odd mirror-image, another Gospel episode, one where it is the disciples who sleep, although Jesus asks them to watch with him, where he faces loss and agony and the greatest “crossing over” of human experience, where he might have used his divine power to put himself out of danger—as the disciples must have hoped he would. And when it is clear that no such miracle is going to happen, that Jesus is giving himself willingly to arrest and torture and death, Peter attempts to intervene with violence—the only practical response he can think of in the moment—but Jesus stops him and heals the wound. This healing is his last visible exercise of power before the resurrection.

It is in this laying aside of power, this self-emptying, that the identity of Jesus is to be seen, but for the disciples it must have been terrifying, their fear for their own safety mingled with the horror that the person they had chosen to follow might not be what they thought, and that the movement to which they had given themselves might be doomed. I doubt whether they even remembered, in their panic, the miracle of the storm.

What is clear from the Easter appearances of Jesus is that he does not blame them, God does not condemn them, for their terror and their loss of faith. His first words to the women at the tomb are “Do not be afraid”, and to the disciples in the upper room, “Peace be with you.” He calms the storm that is in their hearts. He knows what it is like to be in the boat, to share the frail vessel of flesh in which we make our crossing from the now to the kingdom. He has cried out “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is not a million miles off from “Lord, do you not care that I am perishing?”, if you think about it.

And so, our answer to victims of violence, to refugees, to oppressed and exploited people, to residential school survivors, or to those whose lives are shattered by other kinds of fear and loss, can never be simply “Trust in God. Have faith. Jesus loves you”, because these words will ring hollow unless they can know that God is in the boat with them. In our own sorrow and frustration, our prayers may well echo their cry: “Master, do you not care…?” because, ultimately, our joy in the resurrection, and our faith in the coming of the kingdom, cannot be disentangled from compassion for the suffering and a thirst for justice. Our task is not to seek, let alone find, an answer to the question “How can God allow these things to happen?” (“Master, do you not care…?”) but to try, in our feeble and mostly inadequate ways, to become the presence of Christ for those who cry out for help, to get in the boat, or, at least, to come alongside.

There’s a saying I’ve seen a lot recently, which, so far as I can discover, originated with Abdu’l-Baha, the founder of the Baha’i faith: “Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it, but I’m afraid he might just ask me the same question.” It’s inspiring and daunting in roughly equal measure. We might be tempted to pray, as the General Intercession in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, that it may please God to comfort and relieve those in distress, “giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions”, as if it were no business of ours, really, but that’s more an elegant sidestep than a prayer. We might be tempted to respond with violence of our own, to find five smooth stones and go out to meet Goliath, to take up Peter’s sword, but that is never a final answer to the problem. We know that God does not simply shelter us from suffering, that we will all die, that the elements of matter and nature and human will have freedom, and that freedom will cause pain. God does not forbid us to lament that pain, but also promises us that the death and resurrection of Christ, his descent beneath the waters of the storm and rising again are what will bring us, too, to the other side. In our baptism we are made co-workers with God in this great movement of salvation, called to live his incarnate life in the midst of the world’s ills, to comfort, to show mercy, to forgive—like the extraordinary people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, or the Indigenous elders who offer us not only truth, but reconciliation—to repent, to heal, to feed, and to struggle for justice, to show forth the hope that is in us.

We will struggle, and we will often fall short of our calling. We will feel as if we’re trying to bail out the boat in a storm. We may cry out in frustration. But God is in the boat with us—always.