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Calming the Storm

For the next two months, we'll be returning to the traditional lectionary readings from the Gospel of Mark. So, I'd like to begin by placing Mark in a historical context, because the context in which it was written will add color and depth to the story that we might otherwise miss.

As an interesting little side note, none of the gospels were signed by an author, nor did their first page read, “According to the Gospel of Mark (or Matthew, or Luke, or John).” Names were only given to the gospels in the second century when the existence of multiple gospels required a way to distinguish them from one another.

Mark was the first narrative story written about Jesus, and it is dated around the year 70 CE, about 40 years after Jesus’ death, and in the midst of war with Rome. In the year 66 CE, a revolt against Rome broke out. Jewish revolutionaries were initially successful. Then Rome sent several legions of soldiers to squash the revolt. Four years later, in the year 70 CE, the troops took back the city of Jerusalem and destroyed both the city and the Temple. This was unimaginable to the Jews. Herod the Great had “turned the temple into a magnificent combination of courtyards and buildings that had features of a fortress.” Its walls were huge – over 300 feet high at one point. Some of the stones that were used to build it were massive – up to 40 feet long, 15 feet wide and 7 feet high, weighing 200 tons. Not only did it seem impregnable, but it was also considered the dwelling place of God on earth. How could anything destroy it? And yet they did.

It feels akin to me to the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. No one imagined such a thing could happen, and yet it did. That event colored everything we said, wrote or thought about for a long time. So, too, the destruction of the temple, the end of life as the Jews knew it, severely changed how they saw the world, God and themselves and is reflected in this Gospel if you pay attention. This helps us understand Mark's strong emphasis on Jesus as Messiah. They desperately wanted someone who save their people and usher in a new era of freedom and peace. 

While Mark was the first narrative of Jesus’ life, we still have to recognize that Paul had been establishing house churches around the Mediterranean and writing letters to them between the years 45 and 60 CE. We still have seven of what are considered authentic Pauline letters including 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians. At the point we’re jumping into Mark with the miracle of the calming of the storm, it is important to note that none of these early letters mention anything about miracles that Jesus supposedly performed.  Certainly if this had been a part of Paul’s understanding of Jesus, we would have seen some evidence of it in his writings as a compelling argument to follow Jesus. But we have none of that.

According to John Shleby Spong, "Miracles associated with Jesus do not appear to have been connected to Jesus’ life until Mark’s gospel." Many of them were even loosely based on Old Testament stories (for example, Jesus calming the storm is an echo of God calming the storm in Psalm 107). Given this, it is hard to take these stories literally. It is likely, scholars assert, the healing stories and the miracle stories were created to give weight to the belief that Jesus was Messiah. Perhaps these stories gave people hope in better tomorrows in the midst of their lives of war and conflict.

This doesn’t make these stories wrong or useless. In fact, writers in the ancient world did not believe they had to be confined to facts in their stories. Story held power to inspire and motivate, to challenge, heal and help. For me, this leaves us with the challenge of understanding the message beneath the words, the more-than-literal meaning that can still speak to us today.

Let’s turn to Jesus calming the storm in Mark4:35-41...

Read literally, there is nowhere to go with it. The disciples and Jesus get in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, a storm whips up, Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, the disciples get scared and wake him up. "Jesus, don’t you care about us?” He calms the storm and says, “Do you have no faith?”

Most of us don’t go out on boats too often, and when we do we’ve paid attention to the forecast and we’re not going out when a storm is coming in. So, that doesn’t work for us. Plus, even if a storm did come in we don’t have Jesus with us, so then what?

No, there has to be more in this story for us. Marcus Borg, in his book "The God We Never Knew" writes, "Scripture as sacred story is not something to be believed in but a means for mediating the sacred. That is, Scripture is not to be treated as an object of belief but is to be lived within."

This is what I hope we will do today and in the weeks to come… live within the story. Let it mediate a connection between us and the spiritual plane. Feel and sense how the sacred speaks to us, and is with us, without needing to believe the particular story actually happened.

So, let’s flesh out the metaphor together:

Jesus represents who or what? God or perhaps a Spirit person – someone for whom God was an experiential reality, or someone who simply has the ability to bring calm and steadiness

The disciples represent? Us when we’re frazzled, afraid, swamped, overwhelmed, drowning. From what we can tell, the disciples are in high drama mode, they can’t think straight and aren’t even bailing. They don’t actually expect Jesus to do anything, but they want him as worked up as they are.

The storm represents? Anything that threatens our peace and calm. From concern over what is going on in Afghanistan and worry for the refugees, to COVID, bullying, violence, harassment, and personal issues at work, home, health, parents, kids, grandkids.The list is probably endless.

The Sea of Galilee represents? Something we have to cross, get through, it's a journey from one point to another, perhaps one stage of life to another, or one perspective to another. Again, the options are many.

Looked at in this way, it’s easy to see myself in the picture. There are certainly times when I get so caught up in my fears and worries that all rational, calm thinking seems to have exited my brain. And the part of me that is connected to God, the part of me that has faith, well, that part of me seems to be asleep, MIA, not weighing in, or maybe my shouting is so loud that I can’t hear it. At these times I need a voice of reason, a calming presence, a faithful presence to reassure me that life might be tough, but you’re not alone and you’re going to get through it. You will not drown, we’ll get across the lake together. Just don’t give up.

Rachel Remen tells a story about Louisa, who is a highly skilled AIDS doctor and keeps a picture of her grandmother in a place in her home where she can spend a few minutes siting in front of it every day before she leaves for work. Her grandmother was a wise, Italian-born woman who held her family close. Once when Louisa was very small, her kitten was killed in an accident. It was her first experience of death and she had been devastated. Her parents had encouraged her not to be sad, telling her that the kitten was in heaven now with God. Despite these assurances, she had not been comforted. She had prayed to God, asking God to give her kitten back. But God did not respond.

In her anguish she had turned to her grandmother and asked, “Why?” Her grandmother had not told her that her kitten was in heaven as so many of the other adults had. Instead, she had simply held her and reminded her of the time when her grandfather had died. She, too, had prayed to God, but God had not brought Grandpa back. She did not know why. Louisa had turned into the soft warmth of her grandmother’s shoulder then and sobbed. When finally she was able to look up, she saw that her grandmother was crying as well.

Although her grandmother could not answer her question, a great loneliness had gone and she felt able to go on. All the assurances that Peaches was in heaven had not given her this strength or peace. “My grandmother was a lap,” Louisa said, “… I know a great deal about AIDS, but what I really want to be for my patients is a lap. A place from which they can face what they have to face and not be alone.”

We all face storms in life. It’s part of living. What we need is a voice and presence to remind us that we aren’t alone, to bring calm to the storm, to give us hope and to renew our faith in getting through the tough times. Sometimes that is another person. Sometimes it is the ineffable presence of the Divine. Sometimes it is the still small voice within us. And, sometimes we can even be that voice and presence for others; a (metaphorical) lap to crawl into to gain strength and courage to face the storm again.

Love & Light!