Job 38: 1-11
Psalm 107: 1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6 :1-13
Mark 4: 35-41
The bus we were riding on boarded the ferry just as dark was descending over the English Channel. Michael and I had spent that April weekend in and around Paris with a group of Canadian and American exchange teachers during our year living in England, while I was on exchange there. A “weekend” in Paris may sound exotic, but when you live just a bus and boat ride away, it is more like standard issue – even for the likes of us North Americans. We’d had a lovely time in the City of Lights, had seen many of the sights, but were returning to England and our teaching posts for the next week of Education, British-style, on an evening voyage…and it was windy, but it was a very large ferry. What could go wrong?
(Full disclosure here: I am not a confident sailor. I appreciate calm seas and the ground staying even and steady, under my feet, so when there is even a bit of a rock, I need to see the horizon or touch the wall or something solid that rids me of the feeling of being tossed about and at the mercy of the sea.)
So, once the driver had pulled onto the vessel and parked, the busload of us went upstairs where food and drink were plentiful, and the ferry set sail for the 1.5-hour crossing from Calais to Dover. Not too far into the voyage, under a suddenly and completely black sky and sea, it became apparent (to me, at least. . .didn’t anyone else care?) that this was not just windy, but a full-on storm. I remember being in the light and warmth of the cafeteria
with Michael who was drinking a beer and socializing with everyone around him and thinking, “I have to get outside!” I excused myself and went out and to the deck railing where I heard the gale and felt waves splashing up and over the bow as the ferry went up and over and down each large wave. I could not see the horizon and my sense of chaos and fear was enormous. Not helping the situation was a group of British school children on their way home from their Parisian weekend, who regularly ran by in groups screaming, “We’re all going to die!” I was terrified. . . not because of the the children, but by the rocking, the wind, the water. When I think of the disciples in the boat with Jesus, I picture my night on that ferry. At night, tossed by wind and water, at the mercy of the weather and of the boat builder, it’s easy to feel terrified, and to forget that Jesus is in that boat.
But, I’ve admitted to my overall sailing wimpy-ness and these disciples were seasoned fishermen. Wouldn’t that have made it easier for them to cope? Apparently not. And. . . there, in the rocking upheaval of that small fishing boat, Jesus napped. The disciples had seen a few of the many wonders (this reading is just in chapter 4) that he had performed, but even at that, they were sure they were heading for destruction…I know the feeling. They woke him and asked, “Don’t you even care that we are perishing?” (v. 38) A bit overstated, even I can hear, but perhaps they lacked the confidence that Jesus could act, but it may also indicate their concern about whether he would act in the midst of their crisis. Their question belies their human nature – to fear when things go sideways, when chaos, real chaos hits. We’ve all been there. Instead of trusting Jesus, they feared. In their human frailty, they knew they had lost control, and that scared them…as it does us.
In the time of Jesus, the sea represented overwhelming forces and even spirits that
were chaotic and threatening to human beings, who, in its presence felt small, vulnerable, and weak. But Jesus, the man whose teachings (on land) instilled peace in some pretty chaotic times. . .Jesus dozed, in essence floated on chaos, which, I think, mirrored the implications of some of his teaching. (Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark) Then he yawned and stretched, and with a few words, calmed the sea, and the wind ceased. Peace! Be Still!
It would be easy, of course, to think of this gospel as an assurance that nothing bad will ever happen to us, or that, if a bad thing does occur, God will cause that bad thing to cease. But, we know that that is simply not true. One thinks of the people of Hawaii, experiencing the power of an erupting, sometimes lava-oozing, house-eating volcano; or the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who still struggle to recover from the devastating storms of a year ago; or of families broken by divorce or violence; or certainly this last week of the news of families being forced apart while innocent children, without language or any way to find comfort, are separated from their parents as they flee even worse conditions in their Central American homelands; or of other tragic accidents and purposeful deeds that bring heartache and loss. Alas for the most vulnerable in our midst, and those who struggle to find safety, to live in hope.
Job asked similar questions. Why is it that the innocent suffers? Job lived at a time when the belief was that you got what you deserved from God. If you trusted God, followed God’s commandments, and lived in that way, God would reward you with a good life they believed. If, however, you became ill, covered with boils, or very poor or lost family and friends, it was because you had done something that irritated God, and this was your
recompense from God. Sadly, today, some still hold to that belief.
Job was a decent man who lived a Godly life during those times, and yet he lost everything – his livestock, his servants, his children, his home…and folks were looking at him and asking him…what have you done? And Job, in desperation, challenged God to a court trial. Why do the innocent suffer?
The answer for Job, the disciples, and us in our fears is that bad things just happen – as a matter of nature, and that God is with us in all circumstances, good, bad, and in-between. We are to know God’s ultimate goodwill for us all in all times. However, that cannot be reduced to a warm, fuzzy comfort, either.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a sermon in which he “suggested that the tenderness of the Incarnation has left people unable to feel the shiver that God’s coming should arouse in us.” Feel the shiver that God’s coming should arouse in us. Bonhoeffer was suggesting that we have domesticated the reality of a God who “draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us.” (New Proclamation Year B, 2006) There’s something about awe here.
We’ve all heard the phrase “Fear of the Lord.” Perhaps we might ponder what “fear of the Lord” means – not fear as being scared, and not “Awe” as if Jesus’ actions were simply wonderful and impressive. . .but the fear, perhaps something closer to the respect that overtook the disciples once they realized that this man traveling with them had such power – so much power he could calm the seas. Who indeed could he be? And better yet…what might he require of them? What did he expect of them? Could they measure up, even survive being in his presence? For those disciples “fear” as respect, was as much a part of the experience after Jesus calmed the storm as before he did.
When chaos hits us, as it does, this experience of the mystery and otherness of God is much more a help than comfort and complacency. Professor Matthew Skinner writes, “When Christ quiets the forces that threaten chaos, makes the unclean clean, and restores the unacceptable to wholeness, these acts upend our cherished assumptions about order, security, autonomy, and fairness. When God comes so near, we cannot hide. Nor can we push God away.” In such a way, God, working in our lives can “rock our boat” too. (New Proclamation Year B 2006)
Last January, a sunny crisp day, 35 pilgrims stepped onto the deck of a rumbling diesel-engined boat on the Sea of Galilee and set out for the middle. It was a perfect day for a sail, and even I felt secure on that relatively small craft among friends and fellow pilgrims. As we motored out, we could see Tiberius, the hills of northern Israel where Nazareth is, the flat land leading to the Dead Sea, and the Golan Heights. The water was glass smooth, life teemed all around, and there, near the middle of what is really a very large lake, the skipper turned off the noisy, smelly engine, and we drifted, in silence on the water where Jesus did 2000 years ago. We drifted and collected our prayers for the concerns of the world and felt God’s presence. And there, in that silence, and on the water – my not-so-safe place - I experienced a deep sense of God, the mystery of God, the fear of the Lord.
Mystery resides not in what is exceptional, but in what is natural, regular, and known, like the sea, or the morning stars, or the womb, or the clouds. All that invited Job, and still invites us, to ponder the breadth and the depth of this God who yearns for relationship with us. In the world unfurled for us, in the words of poetry, we find that our questions lead not to answers, but to an extraordinary awareness of how deep, how fathomless are the mysteries of God which we encounter. Sometimes, the questions of why we (or the innocent) suffer cannot be answered, as much as we would like it to be. And so, we act on what is right and good and just, and we experience the mystery of God as we do.
We act out of faith, which is, by its very nature, not the product of right answers. We experience God in our lives in the moments of tranquility and mystery – even as we experience personal fear, near times of death or the enigma of un-deserved suffering visited on the lives of children who are removed from their parents. As people of faith, these are the moments of awe which we cherish, puzzle over, and pay attention to. These are the moments we experience God. God who is with us, and with all who suffer and all who fear. And from our experiences, we can share with others, especially with those who suffer.
God knows the hardness and gentleness of human hearts and calls us to faithful living. In the many storms of life, some that bring suffering or fear (or even joy and laughter) we turn to God for all that we need, and in so doing, we know God’s presence, and we act to respect the dignity of every human being, even in the midst of the trials that surround us. May this forever be so.