by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
June 25, 2006
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4: 35-41
“He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” –Mark 4:41
Our Gospel reading features a storm at sea, and so my thoughts turn to storms of which I have recently been aware. A few years ago Sebastian Junger published the book, “A Perfect Storm,” which somebody in Hollywood, probably from the special effects department, thought worthy of being made into a movie. I read the book and must confess that I found nothing in it of commanding human interest and so conclude that the movie makers wanted simply to show off their computer enhanced special effects abilities. As far as I can remember the story concerned the results of the alignment of two or three meteorological features that produced the preconditions for a perfect storm, and the dreadful effects this storm had on fishing boats at sea.
Another storm of recent note was named Katrina, a girl’s name that is now presumably on hold for a period, while the Brookes and Ashleys proliferate. Katrina revealed more than the simple meteorological marvels of the prefect storm; it revealed the depths of human corruption and the breadth of human stupidity. It revealed that the levees of New Orleans were never ever equal to the task they were intended to perform, but too low, too slight, too slapdash and too small to hold back a storm like Katrina, because the Army Corps of Engineers had saved money by cutting corners, with inferior materials and shoddy construction. We learned that behind this shameful hoax were generations of self-serving politicians who had been feeding at the public trough so heartily that there was no money left to do the public’s business efficiently. So the people’s representatives stole the people’s money that the government took to build levees to protect them, and the people’s business was attended to with the pitiful leavings in ways that were futile. There might as well not have been levees at all.
So storms do serve a revelatory purpose. To those who anguish over whether Katrina was the judgment of God against human sin – in the case of the Gulf Coast grievous sin has for some years now taken the form of gambling casinos I understand, racism having been taken care of – the answer is “Yes it was!” but not against the casinos, or New Orleans gays, or prostitutes, who are all venial sinners compared to the mortal sin of the Federal and State governments and the whole plague of politicians, whose staple food is pork and whose coat of arms is a wild boar rampant on a field of dollar bills; but I digress.
Our Gospel storm took place on the Sea of Galilee and by comparison with Katrina was probably a mere squall. In any case it caused the disciples much consternation, and in the midst of their panicky response – baling water out of the boat and dragging on the sails – they began to complain that Jesus is not doing his bit, but nonchalantly sleeping in the stern. This detail of Jesus sleeping tells us one of two things: either it was not much of a storm and so the disciples panicked unnecessarily (I daresay panic is unnecessary by definition), or Jesus was a prodigious sleeper.
Some years ago Susan Tevis gave me a print of Rembrandt’s painting entitled, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” which hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It is a wonderful picture and since it hangs in my study I enjoy it every day. The boat emerges from the characteristic Rembrandtian darkness into a great splash of white light that is the waves pouring over the stem of the boat. Jesus is in the semi-darkness of the stern and the disciples are tugging on him, shaking him awake with the question, “Teacher do you not care if we perish? (vs.38).
This question is, of course, blasphemous, because if Jesus means anything to us disciples it is that he cares for us as no one else cares; but the question is posed here as an essential part of the pedagogical function of the story. Mark wants us to learn a lesson; what might it be?
We are afraid when we are alone in what we perceive to be danger, and our reaction is usually like the disciples – and we should never forget that in Mark’s gospel we are to identify with the disciples, and not, as in our less sober moments, with the Lord – namely, to demand that Jesus show up in person and take care of the problem, thus proving that he really does care for us. We want him always to be taking care of our problems, and thus repeatedly showing his love for us. We are often like insecure children. On such occasions he says to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” and from this story we are to learn that when the ship of our life is in a storm and the waves are swamping us and we feel we are about to go down, the Lord himself is in the boat with us, and even in his sleep is taking care of things, and that he surely does not have to prove his love to us, because based on our experience of him, which is mediated in our faith, we simply know that Jesus is with us and always takes care of us.
His questions to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” show us first that fear is the opposite of faith and secondly, that faith is essentially confidence in Jesus. Faith is confidence in Jesus and fear is lack of confidence in him. Can you imagine anything more insulting than to tell someone that you do not trust him, do not have confidence in her. To be sure this confidence is tested when the ship of life is about to flounder and the one who can save me seems to be nonchalant, even asleep. Clearly our story is an extreme case designed to make the point as clear as possible, no matter how adverse the circumstances and no matter how terrified you are, trust Jesus and relax.
We can hardly resist the urge to say in prayer, “Where are you Lord, do you not care that I am suffering like this?” but the answer will be the same as in our story, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” We will all eventually come to the other side of life’s sea, and there Jesus will lead us on to new adventures, but in the mean time, the sea we must cross can be a stormy place and although he is in the boat with us we may from time to time doubt that he cares because he seems to leave so much to our own strength and resources. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid, have faith and relax.
There is a wonderful paradox in this pedagogical story that comes through more readily in the original Greek, and that is that the disciples are more afraid after they witness the miracle of the stilling of the storm than they were in the storm itself. There is no mention of their fear during the storm; it is Jesus who first accuses them of fear in his question, “Why are you afraid?” After the stilling of the storm, however, as the original text says, “…they were afraid with a great fear, and they were saying to one another, ‘Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (vs. 41).”
So the full understanding of our lesson involves two kinds of fear and one kind of faith. There is the bad fear of the terrified disciples tossed in the storm, who think that their maker does not care about them, and there is the deep and mind-stretching awe of the creature in the presence of the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth. The faith occurs when the first fear turns into the second, as we see who Jesus really is, and we entrust ourselves in awe to the one who brought us into being in our mother’s womb. He created me from nothing, because he wanted there to be this precise and unique creature for him to love and cherish, and he will help me across the sea, whether it entails a miracle of control, or just a sleep in my boat.
A final point to notice: He is in our boat, which means that he has confidence in our sailing skills, such confidence that he can go to sleep on our watch convinced that all will be well. I have known people onto whose boats I would not step or in whose cars I will not ride, but Jesus entrusts himself even to us, and so we can surely return his confidence in us by relaxing into him and trusting his assurance that “…all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” to quote the English saint, Julian of Norwich.