Cleveland Clinic / Louis Stokes VA Medical Center
21 June 2015 / 24 June 2015
Mark 4.35-41; Job 38.1-11; Psalm 107.1-3, 23-32
“It was a dark and stormy night.” So begins the novel Paul Clifford by nineteenth-century English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It’s perhaps the most well-known first line of any novel and has been called “the literary poster child for bad story starters.” It’s even given birth to a writing competition for the best worst first line.
Literary criticism aside, I have always been fascinated by storms. It’s a pastime I share with my mom, who got it from my grandfather—who, despite my grandmother’s warnings, insisted on storm-watching on the back patio, even under threat of tornadoes.
But storms can also be harrowing and life-shattering experiences, as the people of Texas know all too well these days. I imagine the threat of rising floodwaters our sisters and brothers in the South have experienced is not unlike the fear that seized the disciples in our gospel reading today. “On that day, when evening had come,” Mark begins, Jesus and his disciples go out for a boat ride. Then two verses later, “a great windstorm”—we might say hurricane—arises. The boat is taking on water. The disciples are afraid they’re going to drown. And remember that at least four of them were professional fishermen. Surely they had dealt with inclement weather before. But this—this was bad. So bad that they woke Jesus up: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” A dark and stormy night indeed.
But let’s back up a minute. They had to wake Jesus up? In the midst of possibly the worst storm the disciples had ever experienced, their teacher was asleep on the job. Now I don’t know about you, but there have certainly been times when I’ve thought Jesus has been asleep on the job—times when, despite everything I know and believe, God just doesn’t feel all that present. Maybe it’s when a loved one is taken from us too soon, or maybe it’s in the aftermath of a new and unsettling diagnosis.
For many of us this past week, it’s been the senseless and tragic shooting of nine beloved children of God in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Sanctuary lost,” as one biblical scholar calls it. Even in the places where we thought we were safe, where God is supposed to be with us, we find a storm of senseless, hate-filled violence that tears down any illusion of safety and security. Nowhere, it seems, is safe.
Like the disciples, we feel utterly abandoned and lost at sea. “Teacher, do you not care that your children are perishing?” When a young man with a gun opens fire in the middle of Bible study, it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care. When we feel helpless in the aftermath of tragedy, it’s easy to think that God is asleep on the job. It’s the age-old theodicy question all over again: How can a supposedly loving God allow such suffering and evil?
It’s an interesting paradox though. Back in our gospel text, it’s clear that the disciples are struggling with whether or not Jesus is actually with them. And yet he’s been in the boat with them the whole time. Sometimes when we go to God looking for answers, what we get is God’s presence. It’s easy to point the finger at God when bad things happen, but in so doing, we forget that, instead of being seemingly detached and above it all, God is actually in the midst of our suffering.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples’ cry is not unlike the psalmist’s “How long, O Lord?” Surely we’re no stranger to laments like these. But the interesting thing about lament is that, instead of denying God’s presence, it actually holds on to it, despite all evidence to the contrary. Psalm 22, the quintessential lament psalm, begins, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But only a few verses later, the psalmist praises God: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”
We cry out because sometimes it’s the only thing we can do. But we also cry out because in the end we know we’re not alone. Jesus is in the boat, with his disciples, in the midst of the storm. They cry out because they know what he can do. Just as God speaks to the long-suffering Job out of the whirlwind, the gospel story reminds us that God is found in the storm, in spite of all our doubt and uncertainty.
And what is Jesus’s response to the storm? He wakes up and rebukes it. He rebukes the storm like he rebuked the unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum just a few chapters before. He rebukes the storm and declares, “Peace! (Be silent!) Be still!” And he rebukes evil and suffering even from the vulnerability of the cross. God, who has conquered all evil, shows up in the midst of suffering and says to the crashing waters, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”
In the calm after the storm, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid?” One commentary paraphrases it this way: “Don’t let any terror take away your faith.” But Jesus never promised this faith thing would be easy. And he certainly never claimed to have all the answers. Quite the opposite. Jesus was adamant that discipleship would cost many of his followers their possessions, their families, their occupations, their lives. In other words, there will be storms. But Jesus was also adamant about giving us peace, not as the world gives, but as only God can give.
“Peace! Be still!” God’s peace doesn’t give us all the answers, but God’s peace is the overwhelming sense of the assurance of God’s presence. God’s peace breaks into those spaces wherewe thought we were safe but are no longer and reminds us that it is so. God’s peace is that peace which passes all understanding.
It’s impossible for us to know why bad things happen, but it’s not impossible for God to fill the cracks when they do. When bad things happen, when storms rage, when water overtakes the boat, God’s peace binds up the brokenhearted, brings good news to the oppressed, and comforts those who mourn.
What the disciples got on that dark and stormy night was not a meteorological explanation for why the storm happened in the first place. What they got was an assurance of God’s presence. So it is with us. Despite all our worry and doubt and uncertainty and distrust, God still meets us where we are. When we cry out to God in trouble, we can expect God to hear us and to be there, in the thick of it, with us. Peace, be still.