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Sermon for St John and St Stephen, Trinity 3B – 20th June 2021

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Mark 4:35-41

Jesus Stills a Storm

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Where is the miraculous today?

It was a blustery day in August 1992, and we were going on holiday to France on a catamaran-style ferry. Up till then I’d always been happy to travel on boats and had even, as a teenager, been strapped to a mast for safety during a strong gale, while taking a competent crew course sailing around the Isle of Wight in a yacht.

As we progressed on our ferry towards France the wind got up significantly and about an hour into the crossing, a steward appeared and announced that we were heading into a gale and that anyone who felt sick or who otherwise needed assistance should indicate now. I can’t remember what happened after that – obviously we got to France eventually, after the catamaran had cut its speed by three quarters to account for the swell – but something altered in my brain that day.

I don’t know if it was my age, or if something deeper triggered me, but from that time on, I became quite anxious about travelling at sea. I would obsessively watch the wind in the trees before boarding a ferry, to try and gauge how bumpy the crossing would be. Despite loving trips to France, I increasingly tried to avoid ferries and when this wasn’t possible, endured a couple of very unpleasant crossings, not because of any storm outside, but because of the one in my head.

Once, Chris had to singlehandedly shepherd our then three small children below decks to queue up and get everyone lunch, which included procuring a high chair, while I sat on the other side of the boat staring out into the in increasingly grey sky and confiding in a complete stranger that I was terrified. Another time I accompanied a school trip to Boulogne and whilst some children threw up on the coach, I just felt sick with nerves.

My reaction was tapping into some sort of deep-seated fear of the depths and of the unpredictability of the sea. In his commentary on this gospel story, John Pridmore refers to the ‘Jewish visceral dread of the sea’ (The Word is very near you, p. 196). I’ve since come across the word “thalassaphobia”, or fear of the sea and in particular of being in the middle of it and not being able to see either the land you’ve left, or the land you’ve yet to arrive at.

A crossing is some sort of metaphor for life I suppose – we’re on the journey between birth and death and all of us here, by definition, haven’t quite arrived ‘on the other side.’ It could also describe the position in the UK right now in that we’ve been in the middle of a pandemic for some time, and we still haven’t arrived ‘on the other side’.

The biblical fear of the sea begins at the dawn of creation where the Spirit broods over the chaos of the waters, and ends in Revelation’s vision of the New Jerusalem, that contains the promise of ‘no more sea’.

The fact that we’re generally disappointed that the seaside apparently doesn’t feature in heaven is a sign that our Western experience of the sea is very different from the gospel writers’ – and it’s important to bear this in mind when we come to the stilling of the storm today.

Although there are plenty of Westerners – I’m thinking of highlanders & other coastal dwellers – who do know the danger of the sea all too well; we are an island nation after all. One of my earliest experiences of spirituality at primary school was of wearing my Mission to Seaman badge with pride, aged 7. Shipwrecks and our national lifeboat service are testament to the reality of what TS Eliot referred to as ‘Death by Water’. Today thousands of refugees take to boats to make the most hazardous of crossings imaginable, which for many, have ended in tragedy – the elements being wholly against them.

The stilling of the storm in today’s gospel is well-known – a so called ‘nature miracle’. These seem to be rarer than the healing miracles, but does that make them more miraculous? Maybe we should see all miracles within the same framework of the breaking in of God’s kingdom on all levels. Being Lord of the body and Lord of the sea is nothing for Jesus, apparently. In addition, there isn’t supposed to be a sentence break between last week’s reading on the growing seed and this weeks on the stilling of the storm, – something to bear in mind as we come to the main question this morning:

Where is the miraculous today, and why is this an important question?

If you were watching the football last Sunday, you would’ve seen Christian Erikson of Denmark collapsing on the pitch? Did you pray for him, I wonder? Because countless people did. It’s the absolutely natural thing to do. We were all praying ‘please don’t let him be dead’ (at least I was). What did we think we were asking God at that point?

It’s important because it makes a lot of difference if we can expect God to intervene with a miracle when we pray, or if we feel there’s no point. We’ve all met people who stopped praying when God didn’t answer a prayer for healing, when God didn’t prevent someone they loved from dying. Or maybe you stopped praying because you started to wonder if praying for anything ever made a difference?

In our own prayers in church, we often pray for the sick. Does this involve an expectation of a direct intervention from God, that would otherwise not happen?

With our medical service in this country, is it even appropriate for us to expect God to heal miraculously, or are we more often simply asking God to give skill to medical staff because what they do is miraculous anyway? It’s certainly the case that some of the cures modern medicine can provide would have seemed miraculous to our forebears. And perhaps the enormous effort of our frontline staff during the darkest days of the pandemic is seen as miraculous. But are we in danger of watering down the concept, if what we really mean is that they went ‘above and beyond’?

So maybe the definition of miraculous changes over time, and maybe the beauty of the natural world, the way the seed puts forth a root, then a shoot, then the flower and the fruit, without us doing anything, is also as miraculous as Jesus calming a storm? Some people use the word ‘miraculous’ to describe something that was only perhaps extremely unlikely – but it counts for everything to them.

Have you got a miraculous story?

Or perhaps you’ve felt less of a Christian because you haven’t got one, though you’ve been a churchgoer for years? Maybe it’s a miracle you’re still going strong without a miracle?

This week I shared an article by writer and pastor John Pavlovitz, entitled ‘Prayer doesn’t heal people – At least, I hope not’. He thinks that if we have to endlessly petition God to do something (and only then will anything happen) we have the wrong view of God.

He writes this, specifically about prayer for healing: “I have asked for such prayers thousands upon thousands of times. I’ve solicited my congregations to pray for children in accidents, young mothers with cancer, and teenage gunshot victims. We have held prayer vigils and created online prayer chains and stood circled round ICU bedsides. In countless moments I have privately and desperately petitioned God to bring miraculous cures and to reverse seemingly hopeless situations, I believed healing was possible and I believed I could sway God with words to bring it about. I don’t believe that any longer.’ (www.johnpavlovitz.com)

The day I shared this was the day before Christian Erikson, collapsed on the football field and nearly died. Prayer on social media exploded! You may remember, too, a certain Fabrice Muwamba, also in his 20s, who collapsed on the football field? His heart stopped for 78 minutes. Given that he’s alive and well today, although no longer a footballer, you might think this was a miracle in itself.

Proving that we don’t really know much about the miraculous, least of all if there’s going to be a miracle on any specific day or not, and how many prayers it takes to get one. What we do know that it’s entirely natural to turn to Jesus when we’re in need.

And the disciples turn to Jesus in the storm. But it’s not a faith-filled turning and there’s not much piety involved! No ‘Oh Lord, we beseech thee’ etc. Just ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?’ John Pridmore writes, helpfully, ‘when did we start thinking we had to be polite to Jesus?’

Don’t you care….?

Don’t you care? is a very common biblical refrain for when God doesn’t appear to be doing anything (which is frequently). Theodicy* in three words: Don’t you care?

It turns out Jesus did care – he was just tired. He napped. Then he wielded cosmic power.

Here are the two natures of Christ in one: man and God (if you like spotting the pre-echoes of Christian doctrine in the bible stories).

So, things Jesus didn’t say to the disciples in the storm: “The storm may still be all around you, but I’m with you it in”. And “Work on your attitude to the circumstances, not the circumstances themselves”. And “others have it so much worse; just count your blessings”. And “God won’t give you more than you can cope with”.

And he doesn’t say “it just goes to show we must respect the environment and save the oceans”, which made the telephone call from Greenpeace that I took whilst writing this sermon, all the more ironic. The professional fundraiser on the end of the line wanted to know if I could give monthly towards the creation of ocean sanctuaries and I thought about Jesus rebuking the ocean and it was one of those surreal moments that sometimes happen when you’re trying to cultivate a Christian worldview.

But perhaps what joined those two things together was that chilling comment Jesus makes when talking about the end of the world in Matthew; that ‘people will live in fear of the sea’. Jesus appeared to know something about climate change.

So, he didn’t say any of the above things: instead, he got up and rebuked the wind – that is, he gave it a sound telling off. The sense of the word for ‘rebuke’ here is that he charged the wind and the waves – much like a policeman might charge someone with a crime before reading them the riot act. It’s more like an exorcism than anything else. The wind and the waves are not neutral here – they’re overwhelming forces that have to be stood against. They are, if you like, a sort of frightening chaos from which the disciples need to be delivered.

And he chided them for not having faith. I can only assume he meant not having the kind of faith he exhibited. It can’t mean ‘didn’t you have faith that the storm could be zapped?’ Because Jesus’ faith in the Father was so strong that he was asleep on a cushion even though the waves were about to submerge the boat.

And if we were tempted to think a few miracles that like would be most welcome today, what tends to happen with a bona fide miracle (that is, when the raging storm that was about to engulf you, stops immediately and there’s a dead calm) – well, that just gives you more questions!

Because the question the disciples are left with is “Who then is this, that the wind and waves obey him?” And that is a question borne out of swapping one terror for another. They were in terrified awe of death by water; now they’re in terrified awe of Jesus.

So, in fact, miracles can leave you with a lot more questions. Including, ‘why them and not me’. Why her, and not him?

Jesus’ decisive action in calming the storm, so immediately and emphatically, is the sort of action we all long for, isn’t it? We’d like him to halt the disease, take away the obsessive thoughts and show he’s properly in charge. But we also know that actions have consequences and that we are now living with an untameable climate that we have made more unstable by our consumerism. And that alone is giving us very understandable anxiety.

How do we keep hold of the sense of the miraculous without descending into the kind of transaction-type mentality we know in our heart of hearts seldom works (by that I mean, we pray for immediate, obvious divine intervention and it happens without any further human input and we think it’ll happen every time and then it doesn’t and we’re floored)?

God is not a celestial slot machine. Or perhaps he is. Joni Erikson Tada, a Christian who prayed for God to heal her quadriplegia, but who has spent 50 years in a wheelchair, wrote this: ‘just as we cannot box God in and say he always heals, we cannot box God in and say he never heals’ (www.annvoskamp.com) In a sense, we don’t know what will happen when we pray, but we pray anyway. And hopefully those prayers are more often ‘why don’t you care?’ than ‘O Lord, we beseech thee, etc.’

Does it show a lack of faith if we pray for the miraculous and it doesn’t happen? No. The focus of our faith is always about resting in God like Jesus did.

I guess all churches are on a spectrum when it comes to the miraculous. That’s why my favourite spiritual gift has always been discernment. When is it right to pray for a miracle and when is it right to live with something that afflicts us, while the grace of God grows ever more abundantly within us because of the affliction? This was St Paul’s experience eventually. Suffering can break us open to more love, if we let it.

I hope we’re not so far down the other end of the miracle spectrum, though, that we don’t expect God to act at all, but instead feel that everything is down to us. On this Fathers’ Day let it be our experience that like Jesus, we are content to rest on the cushion of God’s care whatever the outcome.