24th June 2024

Jesus calms the storm

A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham

Sunday 23 June 2024- 10:30am

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and Mark 4: 35-end

At a recent clergy team lunch, some of the other Cathedral clergy and I were chatting when the conversation got on to sermons we’ve heard that have moved us; sermons that made us listen, or spoke to the heart of some dilemma we were facing One of my colleagues spoke about a sermon he’d heard by an Anglo-Catholic priest, whose support of women becoming priests had really cost him, and caused him to lose friends- who spoke honestly and rawly about his experience. Another said how a particular sermon had helped him grapple with how he could begin to describe to others some unspeakable experiences he’d been witnessing. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that sermons aren’t the only thing we talk about at our lunches- but I was interested to hear what it was that had resonated with my colleagues in what they heard, especially when normally, statistics tell us, we remember such a tiny percentage of the words we hear, yet they remembered it, in some cases quite a few years later.


Hopefully there are at least one or two sermons you can think of that have moved you over the years- and hopefully not too many that have had the opposite effect! When I looked at the Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus calming the storm, it reminded me of a sermon I once heard about this reading that was significant for me. The preacher quoted the African-American author and social activist Alice Walker, from her short story collection, “The Way Forward is with a broken heart” (2000). In one of the stories, a character “hit a square” while flying his small aircraft, a situation in which it’s impossible to tell up from down or earth from sky, and lost his way.


The preacher related this evocative description of a pilot losing control of an aircraft to the disciples in the Gospel we’ve just heard- that sense of sheer terror that we can find, in a situation in life where we feel we’ve lost control, or just don’t know what to do. The expression “hit a square” describes this perfectly. The phrase describes an actual journey in a small aircraft, but it’s also a metaphor- leading the author to reflect on all the “squares” she has hit, on the fears we face in life and collectively, in our society and in our world. “We’ve never seen weather like the weather there is today,” she writes. “We’ve never seen violence like the violence we see today..” she writes, “We look at the destruction around us and perceive our collective poverty. We see that everything that is truly needed by the world is too large for individuals to give.”


This sense of being overwhelmed by the elements is palpable in our Gospel reading today. Mark, more perhaps that any of the other Gospel writers who also include this nature miracle in their Gospels, gives us vivid details of what happened that make it feel authentic: it was evening, there were other boats there, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. You can really feel the disciples’ fear. Their words to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” are vividly conveyed in the Greek, rough and indignant. Jesus’ command to the sea to “Be still” is equally bold and dramatic.


We tend to think of the sea in a Romantic way. Perhaps like me, you find being by water calming, and time spent by the sea restorative. But this was not the biblical understanding at all. Behind this story of Jesus calming the sea are biblical texts such as the creation of the world at the start of Genesis out of the deep, the great expanse of water that represented the cosmos. Underlying the Genesis story is a profound sense that this primordial ocean lies mysteriously outside what was understood as the created order. While there are also positive images of water in the bible, the deep is something “other”, the pre-creation chaos out of which God brings order to create the cosmos. The deep therefore represents what is negative and untameable. The theological point being made, in both Genesis, and in Jesus’s stilling of the waves, is that if God- and now if Jesus- is able to tame and control this primordial chaos, then that God- now manifest in Jesus- is truly omnipotent. God is in powerful and in control, and good will ultimately overcome all that is evil and chaotic.


This negative portrayal of the sea can also be seen in today’s psalm, Psalm 107, a thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from troubles. “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters… they went down to the depths… they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed”. The sea is a battleground, a place of associated with death, monsters and evil. Yet throughout the bible, the sea also plays a key role in the story of salvation, the story of God making right something that has gone wrong with humanity and in our relationship with God. This is true from the Flood in Genesis, by which God seeks to purge humankind of sin, to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to the renewal of heaven and earth in the book of Revelation, where the dangerous sea “is no more”.


For, if the sea is a terrible and dangerous place, it’s precisely by the sea, the waters of chaos, that the healing of humanity begins. The Israelites can only be saved from the stormy waters of the red sea by going through them. Only by walking through the storm can they learn trust. Likewise, the Sea of Galilee, with its rough squalls and tempests, is for the disciples the place of spiritual transformation. This particular sea, where they meet with Jesus, is presented as the border land between the physical and the spiritual, a “liminal” place where the seashore is a place of encounter, between Jesus and his followers. This is the place where, in all their stumbling attempts to trust in Jesus, the disciples themselves eventually will gain the confidence to become fishers of people. The Sea of Galilee, like the way of faith itself- is prone to rushing winds and sudden storms, but it’s also on this sea that Jesus is shown to be the Messiah, the Saviour, through his control of the waves.


When we talk about God being in control, this doesn’t mean God is a kind of divine machine operator of the world, without there being any space for human freedom. In saying that God is in control, Mark is talking about the incoming Kingdom of God. He’s saying that, in a world in which life often feels chaotic, God’s kingdom paradoxically reigns. He’s saying that, in a world marred by sin and darkness, not least in our human capacity to destroy and harm our environment, ultimately good will triumph; that God can be trusted in this midst of the wrong turns we take, despite life’s precariousness and its stormy seas.
Sailors in biblical times, and throughout history, were acutely aware of the sea’s dangers, an awareness that is starting to resurface in our own times, as we see shocking photos in our media of desperate people drowning in the ocean, or view exhibits like Seascape, the art work currently outside the Cathedral on the north lawn, that alert our attention to rising sea levels and their human cost and consequences.
In the Book of Common Prayer, the section entitled “Forms of Prayer to be used at sea” is longer than the section on marriage, containing many prayers for use during storms, various thanksgivings following storms and tempest, and an order for burial at sea. Our reliance on the sea now is less than it was then. But its imaginative power as a metaphor for our spiritual life, our daily struggles and battles with sin and evil, can be seen in the vast number of hymns, prayers and biblical readings that take the sea as their theme. When the waters threaten to overwhelm us, when life is in chaos, today’s Gospel affirms that somehow- despite appearances to the contrary- God is powerful and God is ultimately in control.


Whatever squares we hit in life, then, whatever failures we may feel we’ve sustained, God’s beauty and power over creation remind us that his Kingdom is greater, and that, for all our doubts and fears, we can have the confidence to work with him, and to pray and act for the coming of this Kingdom. For the apostle Paul, the way of the cross involved danger at sea and even being shipwrecked. We, he says, are called to be spiritual seafarers, living a life of service like “under-rowers” on board ship (1 Corinthians 4:1). Just as the helmsman of a ship must be astute, understanding tides, currents and winds in order to steer, so we support one another in the ship that is the Church, working creatively with each other’s spiritual gifts, sorrowful yet always rejoicing, in the words of today’s Corinthians reading, poor and having nothing, and yet possessing everything. So then, whenever the seas threaten to overwhelm us, whatever the chaos of life’s deep waters, may our fears and anxieties be transformed into the sure and certain courage and conviction that God is there in the midst of it all, and in that conviction may we walk without fear.