2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-end
Almost exactly 3 years ago, I preached here on this passage. These verses, and the picture ‘Be calm’ by Sieger Köder spoke very much to me at a particular time of uncertainty in my life, when it felt like the waves would overcome both Rosemary and me. The story and the picture – and by extension, Christ Himself – were telling me to trust, not to be afraid to call out for help, and to know that even if I can’t control events, I know someone who can. That picture was – and is – a source of strength to me capturing, as it does, both a storm and the presence of Christ. Today, this story has a slightly different message for me and it seems to fit quite well with the experience that many had in the week of guided prayer so I’ll go ahead and share it, even though you may think I’m being a bit free and easy with the text.
The Sea of Galilee, where the events recorded here took place, is a place where a wild storm can really blow up quickly. Today the car parks on the western shore have notices warning drivers of what can happen in high winds: your car can be completely swamped. So even for experienced fishermen like Peter and his friends, it was terrifying to be in the middle of that storm – look at the terror on the faces in the picture and try to imagine what it was like. Perhaps these are your last few seconds of life…and Jesus is comfortably ‘asleep on a cushion in the stern’. The story goes on: “They woke him up. ‘Teacher!’ they said to him, ‘We’re going to drown! Don’t you care?’ He got up, scolded the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Silence! Shut up!’ The wind died, and there was a flat calm.” As I read this again, I begin to wonder if one of the reasons that Jesus spoke to the storm was because he knew it would obey him! I don’t really think there was any danger of that boat sinking with Jesus in it, asleep though he was. Indeed, Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples, “Why are you scared? Don’t you believe yet?” seems to underline that. I wonder if for a split second, Jesus thought, ‘Shall I tell THEM to shut up? No – they won’t do it! So I’ll tell the storm instead.’ What I am hearing as I respond to this story is Jesus saying to me, ‘Silence! Shut up!’. And indeed, the disciples heard those words – perhaps overheard is a better word – and remembered them, passed them on or we wouldn’t have them now. And I wonder whether they didn’t begin to think that perhaps it was as much a message for them as it was for the wind and the waves.
I so appreciated Mark’s sermon last week, talking as he did about the experience of ‘throwing away’ time in prayer. That spending half an hour a day during that week just in prayer looks for all the world like a waste of time, not achieving anything. It was a lovely moment when he invited half a dozen of the week’s participants to share what the week had meant to them with the people sitting around them. The first thing that the person I went to be with shared was this, what an impression silence made to her. How, in the middle of a busy life, being silent was a powerful experience, one that brought her closer to God. A couple of weeks ago I went walking with an old friend and I tried to tell him about the week of guided prayer. When I told him that each of the participants would be spending half an hour a day in prayer, he said, ‘So does that mean they’re like, praying for every country in the world?’ He had this very one-dimensional view of prayer, that it’s about a sort of shopping-list. And many of us may have a similar view of prayer, I certainly have had for years. It’s not wrong, it’s just that there’s more to it. Sure, prayer can be about asking God for things. And about speaking with God, a conversation. But it’s also about shutting up, about being silent, about resting in the presence of God, about stilling the storm within, about listening.
It is gradually becoming my own experience. Some of you know that at present, I am following the Ignatian spiritual exercises and I see a spiritual director every week and have been since October. It’s one of the privileges of being retired that I can find space for the daily prayer times without too much difficulty. In the first couple of weeks, the only thing I was required to do was to shut up and be silent for at least 20 minutes a day. To simply be aware of the moment, to look out of the window and observe what was happening in the garden. To relax. I found that very difficult. I kept thinking of all the things I had to do. I kept wanting to look at the clock. After a few days I set a timer on my phone and took the clock out of the room (I don’t have a watch). Gradually, the silence became easier to drop into and the busy thoughts in my mind – almost a storm, you might say – less demanding and strident. I began to enjoy the time. And here’s the thing. When we are silent, when we are not ‘doing’ anything, not achieving, not proving ourselves, not fixing, not rescuing, not planning out the day, not telling God what he should be doing, when we just are, we will find that what is left, is God. It’s like, if you only look at the wind and the waves, you forget who is in the boat with you. If we are so pre-occupied with our thoughts, out activities, our stuff, our worries, we will not be conscious of the presence of God. We will miss him. God does not force himself on us, he is not like a noisy neighbour, hammering on the door. He is easily missed. And yet he is present and can be found. In a very real sense, we don’t have to do anything at all because God is present everywhere and all of the time. The only difference is this: are we conscious of his presence or not?
Every week we gather in church here and we receive the presence of God in case we forget, in two particular ways. The first is as we hear and participate in what is called the ‘liturgy of the word’ – that is, specifically the reading of scripture and especially the gospel, which is why it is given such ceremonial importance. The second is, of course, the holy communion, the eucharist. In that, the presence of Christ takes physical contours in the bread and the wine which we take into our bodies. We receive both the word and the bread and wine. The only requirement is that we are present. And silent, in order to listen.
To be practical for a moment, I want to speak about intention. Mark picked up this theme last week. Silence, and prayer, don’t really just happen. We have to make space and I know this is a real issue for many of us. Usually there is a time and a space which we can give to silence and prayer, but we will have to think about it and put a fence around it, or it just won’t happen. It may be early in the morning, or late at night if you’re a night owl, in a spare room in the house, in a specific chair or on the train if you’re a regular commuter. But to heed that word, ‘Silence!’ where we are nothing except ourselves before God is to enter a different dimension of relationship to Him.
Let me share with you a few verses from the Psalms. This was the first piece of scripture I was given to meditate on after I had got used to being silent. ‘Oh God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.’ (Psalm 139) When we read these words and allow them to soak in to our quietened minds and hearts they will touch us deeply. We may read these words – we may know them! – but I challenge you to take them into a silent place and to covet them, to treasure them. They are true! They express perhaps the most important thing there is to know. The words of full of images – searching, sitting, standing, lying down, my path, my tongue, His hand laid on me. Let those images take shape in you and know that God is closer to you than you are to yourself.
We have travelled a long way from the story of the disciples out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus asleep on a cushion in the back, when a storm blows up and they fear for their lives. We will all have storms in our lives – there is no escaping. Some will come just because ‘shit happens’ – illness, bereavement, failure, relationship breakdown, financial worries. There may be more specific storms to do with our following of Jesus – misunderstanding, prejudice, rejection. Of course, we will pray that Jesus will still the storm but we can also hear those words, ‘Silence! Shut up!’ addressed to us and find that silent place where we can consciously experience and know the presence of God from whom we cannot escape. And as a wise person said to me years ago, ‘God even uses shit!’
Let me end with a few words from another Psalm, Psalm 46. We will hear the theme of wind and waves once again: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth’ (vv. 1-4,10)