Sermon: “Peace! Be still!”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
1 Samuel 17.1a,4-11,19-23; Psalm 9.9-20; 2 Corinthians 6.1-13; Mark 4.35-41
Last Sunday we examined two of Jesus’ parables about the reign of God – the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Parables usually tell a thought-provoking story. The Parable of the Growing Seed invites us to consider how God’s reign grows in mystifying ways. Likewise, The Parable of the Mustard Seed invites us to consider how God’s reign can begin from the smallest of impulses yet grow mightily such that it provides shelter and refreshment to many+.
Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus’ suggestion that they travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus had been teaching from the boat, they simply set sail. Several other boats accompanied them. Now bear in mind the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by mountainous regions; it is subject to rapidly intensifying storms. Further bear in mind that at least four of Jesus’ disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) were highly seasoned fisherman. They had regularly fished these waters and were familiar with the weather. I suspect they had previously encountered some very rough seas.
Mark tells us, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing’” (Mark 4. 37-38; NRSV).
I have recently been watching (yes, sometimes binge-watching) the television series, The Blacklist. One of the episodes refers to Rembrandt’s painting, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” It is a beautiful painting which captures the violence of the storm. One of the disciples can be seen vomiting over the edge of the boat. A couple of disciples are clinging to the mast; others are clinging to the rigging while Jesus is reclining in the stern.
“Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm” (Mark 4.39; NRSV). If one were to read the first four chapters of Mark in a single sitting, one might notice a prior use of the words, “Peace! Be still!” In chapter one, when Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth. Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” “Jesus rebuked him saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (Mark 1.21-27; NRSV). Did you catch that? “Be silent, and come out of him!” “Peace! Be still!” Though the words may differ, the message is the same!
In Jesus’ time, the sea was seen as dark, chaotic, as the abode of monsters! This storm was not your ordinary storm. Seasoned fishermen were in fear for their lives and crying out to Jesus. Mark is telling us this storm was one of demonic nature. -
After calming the storm, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Admittedly, they had witnessed many miracles, but they were astounded, and asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4.40-41; NRSV) Clearly, this was an apocalyptic experience. No doubt these disciples were aware of the creation stories in Genesis, of how the wind of God swept over the waters, of how the waters above were separated from the waters below. No doubt they were aware of how God divided the waters of the Red Sea, of how the people of Israel crossed the Jordan river on dry ground. God controls the waters, yet Jesus spoke and the waters obeyed. Who is this man?
This story and the other scripture readings for today serve to remind us that we often find ourselves in the middle of a storm. In 1 Samuel 17, King Saul’s army is confronted by a “storm.” Goliath taunts them: “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” The author tells us, “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid” (1 Samuel 17.10-11; NRSV). David replied,
You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand (I Samuel 17.45-47; NRSV).
With a sling and a small stone, David left out the “Peace!” but delivered the message, “Be still!”
In Psalm 9, David sings of how God has turned away his enemies, of how God is a stronghold for the oppressed: “When my enemies turned back, they stumbled and perished before you. … The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9.3,9; BCP). This is David’s testimony that God is with us in them midst of the storm.
In 2 Corinthians 6, St. Paul reminds us of God’s words: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on the day of salvation I have helped you” (Vs.2; NRSV).Paul further speaks of how, “as servants of God” they have commended themselves through various storms: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (Vs. 4-5; NRSV). And how have they commended themselves? Through “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (Vs. 6-7; NRSV).
Life brings us many storms: loss of income, betrayal of friendships, severe accidents and weather events, the death of loved ones, divorce, cancer and numerous other diseases, etc. These frequently induce extreme physical, spiritual, and emotional pain. All too often it seems like Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat! Like the disciples, we cry out. Sometimes, we ask why these things are happening to us? Why me?
Many of these things are simply what is. We are very often merely experiencing the consequences of natural laws. Nonetheless, it behooves us to act prudently. I cannot help but wonder what the long-range effects of the use of herbicides and pesticides will be. To what extent will they enter our water supply and cause increased long-range health problems.
I encourage us to remember two things. First, although God never promises we will evade the storms of life, God does promise God’s presence as we endure them. God is in the boat with us!
Second, speaking of boats, if one looks up at the ceiling of the nave of a church, one sees that it often resembles a boat. In fact, “nave” derives from the Medieval Latin “navis” which means “ship” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nave). A ship, or boat, has long served as a metaphor for community. As members of St. Paul’s we are sailing, or journeying, together. As such we weather our storms together through the love and caring support we provide one another – a card, a phone call, a text message, helping with chores, or a casserole. These are all expressions of God’s love; they serve to encourage and sustain us. But we not only share our storms; we also celebrate our good times – the best of weather!
Yes, we may sometimes think God is sleeping in the stern of the boat, but God is with us, and in the howling winds, if we listen carefully, we may hear, “Peace! Be still!”