The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling St. Gabriel's, Marion, Massacusetts
I’m grateful to Geoffrey for his invitation to me to join you today here at St. Gabriel’s in Marion. Our daughter’s first mission trip was to West Virginia and so I’m delighted to support your rector, Deacon Cathy, and your youth on their trip there this week. I found your parish history fascinating - how your chapel was founded by Admiral Harwood who, when he was in a storm at sea, called upon the Angel Gabriel for deliverance. As he pleaded with God to save him, he promised to build a church in Marion - if he survived. And so, here I am reading today’s gospel about this very same issue.
How about those storms? While I was serving at St. Paul’s in Riverside, Connecticut, in 2001 we could see the plumes of smoke rising from the Twin Towers. Accustomed to hearing planes overhead, suddenly there was a dead calm after that storm. Before then, we lived in Newtown, Connecticut, where our children attended Sandy Hook School, fortunately long before the horrific shooting that occurred in 2012. And friends told me about the tornadoes that touched down there recently; one friend said that she was in her car on the interstate when everything suddenly turned black. All the cars around her came to a standstill, and things started flying through the air. She said that she didn’t know what to hold onto during that terrifying time.
Storms come in various sizes and shapes, don’t they? We weather political, socio-economic, religious, and personal storms. We experience natural and unnatural disasters. Whether these storms are physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual they are terrifying. We feel vulnerable, powerless, and at a loss. We want to feel safe, and so we look for ways to protect ourselves and others, especially those we love. As the winds of chaos swirl around us, and the waves of destruction batter our boats, we cry out for help. Or we go silent. For many people, sleep escapes them.
Clearly the disciples were awake that night. They have spent the last few days with Jesus, who has already been called Satan by the scribes, accused of being crazy by his family members, and publicly shamed by the leaders of his own faith community. During this same time, he has cast out demons, cured Simon’s mother-in-law, cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic, and a man with a withered hand. As new disciples, perhaps they too were wondering, “Who is this Jesus anyway?”
After teaching about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, “on that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” Now there is an expression used, sometimes in jest, and sometimes seriously, when we say, “They’ve gone to the dark side.” When Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side,” his disciples know that they are going “to the dark side.”
What does a “dark side” look like? The disciples have left their homes and their jobs to follow Jesus, and they have gotten into a boat at night to go to a foreign country. When they arrived, they are greeted by a demoniac, not exactly your typical newcomers’ welcoming committee. The dark side is any unknown territory, those times and places when we take risks, step onto unfamiliar ground, stick our necks out, and go to that side of human nature where we may encounter dark emotions, dangerous thoughts, spiritual warfare, and hostile acts.
It’s easy to find comparisons in today’s scripture lessons about the storms that are raging all around us about immigration. Although, migration is as old as our beginnings in Africa, and is woven throughout our Judeo-Christian stories, it is a topic that engenders great emotion, especially when it involves children. In most cases, there are good reasons for these migrations; and yet immigrants, whether they are legal or not, endure hardships much like the ones that St. Paul described in his letter to the Corinthians. In fact, St. Paul knew these experiences first hand as a new disciple of Jesus.
One of my favorite books is called the Life of Pi. In it, a God-loving boy named Pi, who practices not only his native Hinduism but also Christianity and Islam, emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship with his family and their zoo animals. On their way to the other side, the boat sinks during a storm, and only Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450 pound Bengal tiger survive. Driven by despair and self-preservation, they fight with one another, enduring the sun and the sea without protection, while they each struggle to stay alive in their own little ways.
“Do you not care that we are perishing?” cry the disciples to Jesus in the middle of their storm. Unlike Admiral Harwood, however, the disciples weren’t crying for help, or making promises to God; they just wanted to know if Jesus cared. Shouting at him, they woke him up! Woke him up! How could Jesus possibly be asleep in this raging storm?
There are many explanations for his sleep. Aside from the possibility of a temporary escape from reality, maybe Jesus hoped to slip away from the crowds unnoticed, and go to a place where no one knew him. Perhaps Jesus didn’t want to waste daylight time to travel, and so he used the nighttime instead. Given Jesus’ grueling schedule, he needed to rest, and catch a few “z’s”, before he was “on” again. Or maybe Jesus just knew that it was safer to slip into a foreign country under the cover of night. What I find most interesting, however, is that according to the Old Testament, the word ‘asleep’ is a typical posture of trust in God.
Another very curious phrase is that the disciples “took Jesus with them; just as he was.” Really? As if he couldn’t walk on his own? Was he really that exhausted? Or helpless, like baggage that needed to be picked up and thrown on board? Did they take him like a sleeping child, vulnerable and trusting in his caregivers, who would then fasten him into his seat, for a safe ride to the other side? So how was Jesus, really?
Where is God, in whom we trust, at times like these? Is God asleep, while we lie awake all night, trying to steer our boats into safe harbors. Who is in the boat with us, anyway? Are there Bengal tigers that want to kill and eat us, fighting for their own survival as well? What can we hold onto at times like these: of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger,” when turbulent waters threaten to sink us and windstorms hurl us into the dark?
Like Admiral Harwood, I often bargain with God. We make promises that we’ll clean up our lives, or create new laws, or repair our relationships with others, if God will just wake up and make the storms stop. We call each other by names, fight for our own survivals, and run on motors of fear, rather than with faith in God and in each other. We wonder, like the disciples, if Jesus really cares, or if He is just sleeping comfortably in the stern of God’s Big Boat in the sky?
Well, fortunately for the disciples, Jesus responded to the shouts of his followers and woke up. Using the same language he used with the demons, Jesus rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” In the vernacular, the Greek word for ‘Be still’ means, ‘Shut up.’ And so, the “wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”
“Dead calm?” I wondered. Is this another play on words by Mark? Was this the eye of the storm, like Trump’s recent executive order, or the temporary air restrictions over New York city, before the shouting and warfare started up again with similar fury? I wondered, would the disciples and Jesus make it safely to the other side, or would they face yet another terrifying storm before they arrived? “Shut up!” I say to the voices in my head and all around me during my storms. I want peace and quiet too, so that I can think and pray, so that I can discern the gospel truth. So that I can say and do the next right thing.
Jesus’ response to the disciples is also curious. Some think that Jesus rebuked them also, telling them to shut up, and be still. He asked them why they were afraid; and yet, their fear was real. As Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, “Being fearful in a storm at sea is not exactly irrational like pogonophobia, that is a fear of beards.”
So the fear of the disciples is real and rational; but what about that faith question. Up until this point, Jesus had shown them that the power of God can do anything. And now Jesus showed them once again. Perhaps, with mouths hanging open in disbelief, the disciples’ fear turned into yet another kind of fear, which is translated as “great awe.” This fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, when we also ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Your church was named after St. Gabriel, who is honored in many faith traditions. St. Gabriel is a messenger of God - who, like Jesus, communicated God’s will for God’s people. We remember St Gabriel for the time when he told Mary that she was with child. That child was Jesus: the One who revealed God’s strength and power in human flesh, and wants all people to be reconciled to God and each other, and live in peace. And so, St. Paul speaks to us as little children, inviting us to open wide our hearts and let this child come in.
Fear and awe demand that we be still and know that God is present at all times, in all places, and with all people. God is with us in the boat, above us in the skies, under us in the waters, and in the winds that blow all around us. God is with us in wounded Zebras and Bengal tigers, in the old man by the sea and the young child at home, in screaming hyenas and funny orangutans, in every country and all conditions. God is with us when Life is fruitful, and when Life is frightening. A UCC pastor in Canada named Justin Joplin wrote, “The disciples discovered that sticking close to Jesus was what really mattered.” (6/19/18, www.d365.org, Justin Joplin)
Jesus is with us, just as He was then, is now, and will be forevermore, no matter the lands that we leave, the oceans we cross, nor the shores upon which we arrive. Until then, I say, let’s be still and pray, be Christ’s messengers of reconciliation and peace, and trust in the power of God to heal and save us. Amen.
1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Let us pray: O God of peace, who has taught us
that in returning and rest we shall be saved,
in quietness and confidence shall be our strength,
by the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray,
that we may be still and know that You are God. Amen.