Sunday, June 21, 2009

Who Is This, That The Winds And The Seas Obey Him?

Job 38: 1, 8-11
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said
"Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt'?

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Brothers and sisters;
Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 7Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Mark 4:35-41
That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"

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Late one afternoon in the summer of 1942 – or maybe 1943 – I was staying overnight at my grandparents’ apartment at the other end of town. It was about 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon when the sky turned totally dark, and there was a deafening clap of thunder, and a bolt of lightning sped from the clouds and touched down in the back yard. I rushed into the house, and hid my face in Memere’s skirts.

She patted me on the back, between my shoulders, sat me down at the kitchen table, and told me a story about the deep sea fishermen from Normandy and Brittany – where her Quebecois ancestors had come from – and what they did as they were leaving port. They prayed to Bonne Sainte Anne: “Good Saint Anne, protect us. The sea is so vast, and our boat is so small! Take care of us and bring us safely home.”

Today’s first reading reminds me of that incident – which was repeated several times until I grew up just a little bit, and understood a little more about the late summer weather – even though I continue to this day to be startled – no longer scared – by the sound of thunder.

For several chapters preceding the one we hear today, Job has been pleading his case to the Lord, arguing, complaining, whining about being treated poorly – or, being unjustly punished by God. His three friends have tried their best to console him, but to no avail. Job had been the owner of a great deal of property. He had a large family of children and grandchildren, and was very devout in his worship of God. The devil suggested to the LORD that if Job were to lose everything – perhaps he would be singing a different tune. Would Job remain faithful, if all his worldly goods were lost, and all his family members killed by disease? God agreed to the testing of Job, and the poor old man experienced sorrows, frustrations , doubts and temptations to despair, everything but deny God.

Today’s first reading is the beginning of God’s side of the story, which is intended to calm Job’s fears and worries, and not leave him either to the power of the devil or allow him to die in defeat.
God’s voice thunders from the midst of a violent rainstorm, a biblical symbol for God’s mighty power. The bottom line of God’s defense is that Job does not know very much about what God has been doing since the creation of the world. Where was Job, when the seas, the mighty waters, were put in their place? Job’s responses are like the waves, which have their power, but eventually find stillness at the sea shore of God’s plan. There is a hint, at the end of the reading, of God’s message: the influence of the Tempter, like the power of the ocean waves, has its limits: thus far and no farther, because this is My creation, and It is intended not for evil, but for good.

Today’s gospel reading follows a series of parables told by Jesus in the book of Mark. Seeds of many kinds fall on the ground; a lamp is lighted and placed not under a basket but on a lamp stand; a tiny mustard seed grows into an enormous bush. These parables are intended to illustrate the “kingdom of God”, for those who are attentive to them, and from them, gain wisdom and strength in living their daily lives.

The gospel pictures a boat with Jesus in the back sleeping and a huge storm’s arising. The disciples, professional fishermen though they are, are scared out of their wits. The awaken Jesus who calms the winds and the waves, and gently but firmly chides them for their lack of confidence in him. “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

The disciples in the boat sigh in relief and in wonder. They express their awe at the power of Jesus, an expression of the first glimmers of their faith that Jesus is the Lord, who has power to make the wind and the wave obey his command. Later, they will see that he has dominion over evil spirits, over the devil and sin itself.

But the people for whom this gospel was written is a much later community of Christians. The author, Saint Mark the evangelist, was a child when these events took place. The community for which he writes is struggling to live according to the teachings, and it is faced with the prospect that the LORD will soon return in glory to judge the living and the dead – and they’d better be ready to greet him when he comes! The waves that rock their boat are not caused by the winds and the tides, but by their efforts to be faithful to what they believe, to live up to the commitment they made when they were baptized into Christ Jesus, into his life, and – for some of them, at least – into death as witnesses to him.

From the beginning, Jesus was making waves. Mary and Joseph had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem in Judea for the census, so that the Messiah could be born in the city of David. Because of Him, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee into Egypt and remain there for several years. When he was brought to Jerusalem at the age of twelve, to prepare for his bar-mitzvah, he stayed behind talking with the Temple scholars while they started back to the North Country without him.

Years later, Jesus disturbed the scholars even more by speaking to the people about new and more positive ways of living as a community and relating to God. He bothered the political authorities by confronting Roman power. He constantly urged his listeners to choose one way or another, often putting them in conflict with their own prejudices and with others, including family members.
Jesus was known to say, “I have not come into this world to bring peace, but division”. Although this Gospel passage is focused on the conflict between believers and unbelievers, it is also a picture of our own divisions, and the hard choices we need to make if we accept his invitation “Come, follow me.” Once we invite him into our boat, there are storms within ourselves, as we have seen with Job and with the first four on the Sea of Galilee. Remaining faithful to Jesus is an up-and down, back-and forth undulation like a boat tossed on the waves as the storm arises. Sometimes we find it easy to be charitable, loving, generous, forgiving – even, within certain limits – suffering. But at other times, we escape the oncoming storm by jumping ship and swimming far from the whole problem.

Jesus did not step out of the boat and walk to shore on the crest of the waves, shaking the spray off his feet in disappointment at their lack of faith. Instead, he pretended to be asleep, inattentive to their struggles. When he was awakened he simply asked them what they were afraid of. The simple answer is that they were a small group of real people genuinely fearful of losing everything they owned, their livelihood, and perhaps, their lives. This sort of fear is healthy, because faith does not wipe away our human fears immediately. In fact, prayer does not resolve fears. The storm does not go away simply because the little boy falls to his knees -- or on his bottom.

One of the best things to do, since we are no longer pre-school children, but supposedly grown up, is to look clearly and humbly at our fears. Start by making a list of the one you are aware of, and the ones that remain hidden may begin to show themselves, as well. Our fears, once we are aware of them, are a series of signposts that show us the path between where we are and where God wants us to be at the end of our story. Confidence in ourselves is not faith, but bravado. Genuine faith is the way of truth. “Do not be afraid” doesn’t mean “Pretend not to be afraid”, but “Keep on going, even though you’re trembling in your boots.” Remember, your guide and guardian is right there beside you, showing you the way.

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