Sermon preached by Sam Lochead, ordinand at Westcott House
At first Mark’s version of the ‘stilling of the storm’ seems quite straightforward.The disciples find themselves in a perilous situation, and so they cry out to Jesus to rescue them. Jesus answers their cries, as unflappable as one might expect the Son of God to be, and commands the wind and the waves to be calm. He then chastises the disciples for their lack of faith, implying that they – and we – shouldn’t have been worried in the first place.
So far, so simple.
The moral for us is that we should trust in God through the storms of life, the moments when things seem beyond our control because, ultimately, they are under God’s control.
But then we hear that the disciples get the last word – ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ This could just be a moment of dramatic irony – the disciples at this point don’t know who Jesus truly is, but we, the listeners, do. It could also be more than just irony… it could be an invitation to reflect on what such a miraculous act tells us about Jesus, and thus, about God.
The stilling of the storm suggests a God that holds us in his care, that wishes to protect us from harm, and who is present in our lives, stilling the storms we come across.
I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise, but I’m sure a cursory glance at our own lives proves that the picture is more complicated than this.
We can all think of times when our ship has come up against a storm.A moment when we’ve cried out to God – ‘Don’t you care that I’m perishing?’ – and felt like there was no response.Where rather than leaping up to rebuke the wind and command the waves, instead God seems resolutely asleep on the cushion.These are moments when we feel left to our own devices – to cling to the mast and hope the storm will pass on its own.
These experiences may seem to render today’s Gospel passage rather trite – it was all well and good for the disciples, who had Jesus physically present with them, but what about us? Luckily, I think the calming of the storm still has something to say in the face of such a question.
Whilst it might seem like it’s just a story about the importance of faith in God, or even a story about how we can know God through his actions in our lives, it’s also – crucially – a story about our relationship with God.
A brief look at the story might suggest our relationship with God is primarily one of ‘petition and response’.We find ourselves in trouble, and we cry out to God – or faithfully endure – and then God rewards us, or at least alleviates our suffering. But when you look a little deeper, the relationship portrayed by Mark becomes more nuanced.
To start with, the disciples don’t just petition Jesus for help – they accuse him of being negligent. ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ It’s an honest question, blunt in a way that illustrates the disciples’ fear and the severity of the situation. In this question we can see that the disciples’ relationship with Jesus isn’t one of blind reverence, instead it’s one that allows for incredulity when they find him asleep in the midst of their peril.
Jesus wakes up and responds by calming the storm, but then turns to the disciples and questions their lack of faith. Here again, we see that Jesus’ relationship with his disciples is not simply one of ‘ask and receive’ – it’s a dialogue between them. Jesus hears their cries and meets their needs, but also challenges them.
And so it is in our relationship with God – it is not a relationship of ‘petition and response’, or even a relationship based on ‘trust in God and everything will be fine’ – our relationship with him is more than this.
Our relationship with God is an invitation to come to know who he is, through his acts and through his words.We come to learn who God is through Word and Sacrament, but also through our lived experiences, the storms and calm waters of our lives. Our lives are an opportunity to learn who God is, through the times when our needs are met, and the times when we’re challenged by him.
Often, as today’s Gospel shows, those times are one and the same.
After this, the disciples are left amazed and wondering who Jesus is – their relationship with Jesus is ongoing, and they are allowed to question. Jesus does not respond to their wondering by providing an explanation of who he is – he allows the disciples the time and the space to begin to work it out for themselves.
Perhaps it’s the teacher in me creeping back in – but I can’t help but remember that the best teachers don’t provide a textbook with the answers in that they expect students to learn – instead they invite students to look at the information in front of them and think, not worrying that they need to find the answer quickly.
The process of learning is as significant as what is learned.
I think this is the sort of teacher-student relationship we see Mark portraying.
So the stilling of the storm isn’t just about the importance of trusting in God during difficult times, or about how Jesus’ miraculous acts reveal him to be the Son of God. It is those things, but it’s also a story about how the disciples related to Jesus, and so it teaches us about how we relate to God.
But what about the times when God doesn’t seem to still the storm? What about the times when God seems absent, or unknowable? This is where the Book of Job steps in.
At the end of the book, having endured intense suffering and countless miseries, Job cries out to God, demanding an explanation (31:35). God’s reply – which we’ve heard a small section of – is not to provide a justification for what has happened to Job, but instead to fire a barrage of questions at him, to emphasise that Job’s all-too-human perspective is totally removed from the perspective of the one who ‘laid the foundation of the earth’.
As with the stilling of the storm, we’re invited to dwell on the complexities of what it means for us to relate to God – a being who is in many ways totally, wonderfully beyond what we can comprehend.
But even here, when God seems to be emphasising how fundamentally different his perspective is from ours, we find him in conversation with Job, and with us. Job’s whole life – and it has largely been a life of hardship by this point – has led him to wonder where God is, and who God is. It is not that God does not respond – but that his response is an invitation into mystery, into dialogue.
The end of Job tells us that we won’t get all of the answers here – we can’t – but we can look at the positive and negative in our lives as an invitation into relationship with God.
St Paul, too, says something of this in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul speaks of his life as a ‘servant of God’, someone who ‘works with Christ’. It is a life that has known many storms – such as imprisonments and sleepless nights. But it is also a life that has known many joys – including ‘genuine love’ and ‘the power of God’.
It’s through this mixture of experiences that Paul points to his relationship to God, and he goes on to summarise life as a servant of God in a series of contradictions.
Paul describes his life – and the lives of his fellow Christians – as, ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’,‘poor, yet making many rich’,‘having nothing, yet possessing everything’. It’s a life of being ‘unknown’,‘yet… well known’.
It is through such ambiguities and contradictions that Paul has begun to understand his relationship to Christ, has begun to understand himself and others as ‘working with Christ’.
It is the same way that we are invited into relationship with Christ.The invitation is made through all of our experiences.The times when we feel sure God is calming the waves, and the times when – from our perspective – God is asleep on the cushion.
Both are opportunities to come to know the mystery of God.
Like the disciples in the boat, we are invited into a relationship where we can be totally honest – where in moments of hardship or times when God feels distant, we can hurl our accusations at God.
We can have faith in the fact that the mystery of God is greater than our disappointment, or even our anger towards him.
It is also a relationship where we can expect to be challenged.
Where we can be left to ask,‘who then is this?’ It’s a good question to ask when reading Scripture, when receiving the Sacraments, during prayer and contemplation, and during life’s everyday experiences. Who then is this God that I am coming to know?
Because it is in asking this question that we are drawn deeper into the mystery of God, deeper into an understanding of who God is, and therefore deeper into the love we have for him, and that he has for us.
It is this sort of relationship – one that is open to complexity and mystery – that allows us to be confident in God’s power and care for us, even in the moments when God feels absent, or beyond our understanding. It is a relationship that believes Jesus is no less God when he’s asleep on the cushion, than he is when he’s rebuking the wind and commanding the waves. It is an ongoing relationship, where the answers are not always forthcoming or easy.
It is a relationship that draws in our whole lives – the positive and the negative – so that we might come to know God more fully.
This is the comfort I think we can draw from today’s readings – that our relationship to God has always been complex, has always involved looking at both the stormy waves and calm waters of our lives.
Because it is by looking at our whole lives – including God’s presence and his apparent absences – that we learn to see how he is calling us into relationship with him, that we come to learn who he truly is.
By exploring our complex relationship with God, we learn to see a God who is mysterious, and in many ways beyond our fathoming.
And yet, at the same time, we come to see a God who wants to be known, whowants to be in relationship with us, who wants us to learn what it means to love him, and, ultimately, what it means that he loves us.