The church of Jesus Christ has gone through many storms. The ecumenical symbol for the church is of a boat – with the cross as its mast. And we all know that this little boat that we call the church has been through many a storm. Perhaps the biggest miracle of all is that we haven’t been smashed to pieces completely on the rocks of one controversy after another.
In the early days there were bitter disputes about whether or not Christians (well, male ones at any rate) should be circumcised and become Jewish or whether you could be a Christian and a Gentile.
Later, after a long period of serious persecution, there were fierce and angry debates amongst Christians about who had the right to lead the church – was it really only those who had risked or suffered persecution – or could those whom many regarded as cowards and collaborators – and who’d taken a different approach during the dark days – could they also now become bishops?
There were lots of storms in the early centuries too about how we should speak of Jesus and how we should describe the way that we find God through and in him. There were storms about the relationship to the Empire too, about whether you could be a Christian and live in the cities or whether the better thing was to go into the desert and leave the ‘world’ behind.
Our own roots in this church reach deep into a series of events and developments which we call the Reformation, but which others would think of as another great schism of the church – there was a time when a previous building of this congregation was stormed by our opponents, emptied of its furniture and it all burned in Market Square while the townspeople cheered.
And today, of course, there are still many storms raging around and within the church. The Roman Catholic church is facing, in many places, the impact of the scandals over the abuse of children, babies and their mothers. It is said that in some places in Ireland priests are afraid to wear their collars in the street. The Church of England is facing a storm about the abuse of teenagers in summer camps – as well facing up to the challenge of the links to slavery made evident in many of its monuments and statues. Indeed all our denominations are facing these kinds of storms. As well as perhaps the greater storms of growing secularism in which we might fear our little boat might be overwhelmed.
In such times the church has often told itself again the story of Jesus stilling the storm on the Galilean lake and has sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. English peasants, during the civil war at the time of Stephen and Matilda, cried out and complained that ‘Christ and his saints are asleep’ – and they longed for Christ to come and to still the storm which raged about them. So what shall we say today about this story of Jesus asleep in the storm-tossed boat in our stormy days?
If you read the Gospel up to this point – the first few chapters – you begin to understand exactly why Jesus was so exhausted – so tired that he could sleep through a storm. Because the story up to this point has been nothing but controversy and trouble. Jesus seems to have upset almost everybody who wasn’t poor or sick, and certainly everybody who had any sort of stake in religion. If anyone is ever tempted to think that Jesus was some sort of mild-mannered English cleric with a linen jacket and a calm, posh accent – they’d better think again. He was a popular preacher – the people liked his style in the synagogue, not because he was clever or well trained, but because he somehow spoke with real authority. And he could really make people better, somehow help them let go of their demons and find something like freedom and life again. But there were those who thought he went too far and was way out of line. It started when Jesus told a poor, wretched man crippled with guilt that God forgave him – and some miserable, mean-minded bystanders said, ‘You can’t do that! It’s not for just anyone to say who’s forgiven, you know!’. But the man got up and walked anyway – and more than that he discovered the love and grace of God. And then Jesus recruited a tax collector as a disciple, and the miserable, mean-minded watchers said, ‘You can’t do that! You can’t eat with tax gatherers and sinners!’ ‘You can’t have people with dodgy pasts among your followers!’ And then there was an argument about fasting or not – John the Baptist’s fan club did fast, Jesus’ supporters did not – they believed there was too much to celebrate just now – and fasting could wait till later.
Jesus was, as they say, something else. Jesus was like new wine, and some of them thought you just had to stick to the old wine and the old ways. Then, and we’re still only in chapter 2, some people took Jesus to task for letting his disciples pick corn on the sabbath, saying ‘You can’t do that – it’s forbidden’. And then when Jesus healed someone on the sabbath they complained about that too. And maybe they were right that it was forbidden in the letter of the law – but Jesus, not afraid to read the scriptures new, says, ‘well what should we use the sabbath for, to do good and to heal – or to do evil and to let people suffer?’
As far as Jesus was concerned, the love and mercy of God was not subject to sabbath closing – God didn’t bring down the shutters on the sabbath. And the Gospel writer says they had nothing to say in reply – they were just being obstinate and stupid. And worse than that, they started to work out how they were going to get rid of him.
But in the midst of all this Jesus went on preaching, appointing disciples (and some of them were called Sons of Thunder – so stormy types), and telling parables. He told them about the Kingdom of God, which comes and brings great things from apparently miserable beginnings, and which when it comes it comes with enormous generosity and overwhelming abundance. He told them about the Kingdom of God which is like a shining lamp, and not to be hidden away, but to shine for everyone to see. He urged them to live generously and to expect God to surprise them all with grace. And he told them about the Kingdom of God which is like a mustard seed, that grows from something so small you can hardly see it into something so big you couldn’t miss it! He told them again and again that God is doing and will do good things for all of us, that God is generous and that we could be too if only we’d let it happen.
But Mark gives us the distinct impression that they didn’t get it. And Jesus was exhausted – with all that preaching and healing, and then being shouted down by the petty and mean-minded ones. So, he decided to take a boat to the other side of the lake. He fell asleep on a cushion – and slept the Sunday night sleep of any preacher. Even a rising squall couldn’t wake him, even when the waves were crashing over the boat. So they woke him and rebuked him, ‘Master, we are sinking! Do you not care?’. He woke up and told the wind and the sea to ‘be still’, but it may be that Jesus would have longed for the greater miracle – of calming, not the sea, but these panicky disciples. After all they had heard about the promises of God, they were shaking with fear because of a little storm.
The first readers of this story would have understood that even the storm is a kind of parable. It’s a storm that means more than a storm. The raging sea was a kind of symbol of all the forces of evil and opposition and controversy and the Gospel writer is doing what all film makers seem to do – fit the weather to the scene. This is a story of storming controversy – so on with the rain and the thunder and a few streaks of lightning for dramatic affect. And the disciples, being just like us, panic – not because of a few rain spots, but because it’s a very human reaction in difficult times, when all that you hold precious looks to be under threat.
But Jesus does not panic. He sleeps through the storm. He trusts completely in God. He is unafraid of the winds of controversy and the storms of the bitter and the mean minded. He knows he has cooked up a storm, but he is unafraid.
It is very tempting to panic in any kind of storm and to lose sight of what it is that might, after all, anchor us securely. In the church today we are in the midst of our own kind of (quiet) panic about the storms of secularism and decline which seem to have struck our own particular small vessel particularly harshly. There are storms aplenty around us.
It is there in all and any of us, to be frightened of the new and different, to be scared of the open sea, to be reluctant to move from what we have always known. It is there in any of us to panic whenever things begin to look shaky or risky or to be falling apart. But Jesus urged the disciples, as he urged his critics, to be still, to have faith and to trust in the God who can make a great tree out of mustard seed and who can light a whole room with one tiny light.
Our church is a fragile vessel (whether you think of our own congregation, the URC or even the whole church across the world) – and the sea of faith these days is either a storm tossed channel or a receding tide. But isn’t it striking that Jesus is not panicking – he’s not even trying to stop the storm until they ask him too. He is resting through it, he is at peace within it. He does care. But he knows that they are not sinking. God is with us – and even when the winds blow and the seas roll – we need not fear.
I find myself – and perhaps you do too – all too easily overcome by the storms. Sometimes in my own prayers I want to wake God up. I want to be rescued. I wanted the church and the world, I want my church and my world, to be calm and safe and secure. This story says to me today that they won’t be – BUT – nonetheless I need not fear. I don’t have to wait to find peace until the storms stop. But I can find, I can be given, a way to sleep and rest and be… in the midst of the storms. Jesus is not panicking. And God with us.
All we can do is to trust God, trust the Gospel with which we have been entrusted, and seek to live by it, die by it, and hand it on. If any of the mysteries of the Kingdom have been given to us, then we are blessed and can find our peace, even as the storms rage. So let us have no panic in our little storm-tossed boat, but a stillness and trust before God, because there are things which no storm, however powerful, can take from us. God created us in love, God loves us in Christ, and God is with us by the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.