Ugh. As I write this I'm watching the PBS show, Manor House. The cook is preparing a pig's head. No processing at all. Just a pig's head on a platter, with vegetables around the edge and gravy poured over top. Pop it in the oven, cook till deep brown. Garnish and serve.
I preached today (sermon below) and was videotaping the liturgy. The tape will be for me to use, to create a customary for St. Bart's. (For non-churchy types, a customary is a manual of liturgical moves...who does what when and how.) Watching the tape later, I tried to observe and listen to myself during the sermon. I say tried, because the choir (in whose loft I'd mounted the camera) were chatting through the whole thing.
Parish Rule Number One: The choir should always be up front, if only to keep them honest during the sermon!
Oh, the bruised clerical ego!
The gospel is Mark 4:35-41. St. Bart's uses the King James Version.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.”
Today’s gospel presents an image of chaos, a storm so ferocious that it swamped the disciple’s ship. The storm was so strong that the disciples – many of whom were experienced fishermen and well accustomed to sailing, they knew what they were doing – even they were afraid for their lives. Their ship was out of control, taking on water, in danger of sinking. They were terrified.
I’m willing to bet that most of us know that feeling. We might never have been caught in a sea-storm, but we’ve all had times when our lives have felt out of control, when the world has tossed us helplessly, like a ship on rough waters. Our storms, our personal storms, come in many shapes – losing a job, losing a loved one. Maybe the storm is an addiction to drugs or alcohol or gambling that churns our life out of control. Serious illness often leaves both the patient and their family feeling helpless, like passengers on a sinking ship. And the storm gets larger when we look outside ourselves. Watching the evening news you might think that the entire world is caught in a ferocious hurricane – natural disasters, starvation, disease, endless wars and senseless violence on our streets. It can seem as if the world is at the mercy of a furious tempest, and that our ship is about to break up and sink.
In the midst of the storm, it can difficult to trust that Jesus really is with us, that he cares at all. Like the disciples, we find ourselves asking, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” Our language might have changed, but the question is essentially the same. When the tsunami devastated south-east Asia, many people wondered – “Where was God?” When loved ones suffer, we ask “Why is God letting this happen?” When our lives spin out of control we cry – “Are you listening? Are you even there?”
Of course, God is there. Of course, Our Lord is there. He is with us through every tempest, a calm captain in our battered ship. Part of the challenge of Christianity is to trust in that, even when it looks as if we’re completely alone in the center of the maelstrom. And if we do trust, and we do call on Christ, he will answer. It might not always be apparent, but he will. As today’s gospel tells us, Jesus can still the storm and bring us in safety to our destination. Whether or not we like that destination is another question.
And where is that destination? Where are Jesus and his disciples going? The easy answer, that they are crossing the Sea of Galilee, heading for the eastern shore, can be found by reading the passages before and after today’s gospel. But there’s a deeper answer, and the key to that answer lies in a peculiar detail from today’s reading. “And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow.” Asleep, in the middle of the raging storm. If you’re like me you wonder how Jesus could possibly sleep in that situation; I have trouble sleeping in the car, let alone on a storm-tossed ship. How could Our Lord have slept through all that, and why is such an odd detail in the story?
There’s another place in the Bible, outside the gospels, in which someone falls asleep in a ship that is about to sink. It’s in the old Sunday school favourite, Jonah. In case it’s been a while, let me refresh you on the story.
God commands Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, to warn them of God’s wrath. But Jonah doesn’t want to go. Why? Because Nineveh is a hated gentile city, and Jonah doesn’t want them to repent. He doesn’t want Nineveh to be forgiven. So he runs from God and boards a ship heading out to sea, in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Jonah thinks this is a great idea. He thinks that he’s free and clear, and once on board he goes to sleep below deck. But God isn’t so easily refused. He causes a storm that batters the ship, almost to the point of sinking. As the sailors struggle to control their vessel, the captain finds Jonah sleeping and wakes him, saying, “arise, call upon thy God!” The captain thinks that maybe, if Jonah prays hard enough, the Hebrew god will save the ship. Jonah knows that he’s the cause of the storm, and so offers himself as a sacrifice. “Cast me forth into the sea,” he says, “for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” So the sailors throw Jonah into the sea. Then comes the part we all know – a giant fish (sometimes called a whale) swallows Jonah alive. He spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, and on the third day he’s spat out on the shore. Knowing that he’s beaten, he heads to Nineveh where he begrudgingly succeeds in winning that city’s repentance.
Now what does that story have to do with today’s gospel? The connection is in the comparisons – sleeping in the ship, the raging storm, calming the storm – but the lesson is in the contrasts. Jonah was God’s prophet, but he didn’t want to do God’s will. Jesus came as the Son of God, here to carry out his Father’s will. Jonah ran from the power of God. Jesus possessed the power of God. Jonah knew that only God could still the storm, and so offered himself as sacrifice to save the crew. Jesus calmed this storm with a command, knowing that he would eventually sacrifice himself to save all of humanity. Jonah won Nineveh’s salvation against his will. Jesus won salvation for all of us, and he did so of his own will.
So again I ask, what is the destination? Where is Jesus taking us? This is most definitely a destination of Our Lord’s choosing – look to the beginning of today’s gospel. “Jesus saith unto them, ‘Let us pass over to the other side.’” It’s his idea to go out to sea to begin with; he wants them to carry him into the storm. And what’s on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee? During Our Lord’s earthly ministry, it was a gentile land. Jesus is taking this voyage, through stormy seas, in order to carry his healing ministry into the gentile world. It’s the first time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus leaves the Jewish community. He is, like Jonah, carrying God’s word outside the physical boundaries of the promise, outside the racial boundaries of the promise. He is bringing God’s healing mercy to the world and nothing, not the sea, not the wind and certainly not Jonah – nothing can stand in the way of that healing power.
We’re still sailing that sea today. Like the disciples, we’re in a ship, trying to carry Jesus into the stormy world. You probably know that you’re sitting in the nave of the church – the main body of the building is called the nave. The word nave comes from the Latin word for ship – hence our modern word naval, as in naval officer. The church building represents the ship of souls that is the church, the people of God. And just like in today’s story, we also have Jesus with us in our ship. He’s not asleep in back (no matter how long the sermon lasts) but rather present within each of us, and present to us when we take communion. When we gather to receive the sacrament of the body and blood of Our Lord, we are confirming that Christ is with us, and that he does care about us in the raging storm.
When you come to take communion today, remember that you are taking Christ himself into you – in a sense, you are bringing him on board your own ship. If there’s a storm in your life, carry Christ into the midst of it. He will offer you peace. If there is a storm between you and your neighbour, or between you and a loved one, carry Christ into that relationship. His calm will help you settle the storm. And once you have received the gift of his healing presence, you will be able to carry Jesus into the larger world, to help calm the storms that rage out there. We come to the altar to receive the healing presence of Christ, and we are sent to carry that healing presence to a world weary from many storms.
Just as God commanded Jonah, and just as Jesus did willingly, we are also called to do. Jesus is inviting us. “Let us pass over unto the other side.” Let us sail into the storm, confident in Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.