Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Master of the Unruly Sea: Sermon for Pentecost IV

And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm."  St. Mark 4:39

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The monument stood right at the waterfront, eight columns of black granite, each year followed by name upon name.  A central column was marked with words taken from today’s Psalm: "Dedicated to the memory of those who have gone down to the sea in ships and who have never returned and as a tribute to those who continue to occupy their business in the great waters."  The small city of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where we vacationed a few summers ago, faces onto the North Atlantic.  With a fine harbor, its wealth has long lay in the region’s cod fisheries, the world’s most abundant for many generations. 

But the sea takes its toll, as those who live on it and by it know better than the rest of us.  Fortunes have been made on the waters, but they have brought awful tragedy as well.  I expect there was a member of every one of Lunenburg’s old families carved on one of those granite columns.  He might have been a seasoned helmsman or maybe a fresh-faced boy who found himself in the wrong place when the ever-unpredictable sea showed its full fury.   Even today, every sailor who goes down to the dock passes by those names—a somber warning of the perils that may lay ahead.  The fisherman must learn to respect the sea, to know his place before it.  It’s no wonder that all the ancient pagans had a god of the sea—and a fierce one at that. 

When Jesus boarded the boat that night with His disciples, he was travelling with men like those Lunenburg fishermen, men who had learned through hard experience to respect the power of the sea.  As far as we know, all of Jesus’ original disciples were Galileans, and the abundant Sea of Galilee dominated the geography and economy of the region.  We know that at least four of the disciples were professional fishermen, and many of the others would surely have grown up around the water, working in the various trades that supported the fishermen’s work. 

Dramatic and unpredictable storms remain common on the Sea of Galilee, and these men would have known family members and friends who had perished in them.  They knew how to read the movement of the winds and how to balance and steer the boat through uneven waters.  But this was no ordinary storm.  St. Mark called it a “great windstorm,” and the water was threatening to swamp the boat, far from shore.  The disciples cried out to Jesus for help, in panic, sure they were soon to perish. 

This wasn’t the fretting of a group of inexperienced weekend boatsmen.  These Galileans understood just how dangerous the situation really was.  St. Mark doesn’t say, but I would guess they had tried all their normal techniques, ran through all the old sailor’s adages, before they turned to the son of an inland carpenter for help.  Jesus was awakened at the moment of greatest confusion, when all the familiar plans and tested solutions were proving useless.

Jesus calms the sea immediately, speaking just a few words: “Peace, be still.” And just like that, there is a great calm.  The disciples, Saint Mark tells us, were deeply frightened, full of awe.  “Who is this,” they say, “who commands even the winds and the sea?”

Who indeed, but God Himself, the Master of the unruly seas.  The miracle on the water recalls creation itself, when the Spirit hovered over the watery abyss.  There’s a memory too of the miracle at the Red Sea, when God parted the waters and drew his people to freedom on dry ground.  In the Psalms, Israel’s God is often acclaimed as the one “enthroned upon the waterfloods,” He whose force cannot be broken by nature’s fiercest power.  Kneeling in the waterlogged boat, the disciples don’t confess all this—not yet—but this miracle calls from them a fuller confession of faith than anything else they have seen before.  They had heard some of Jesus’ teaching, and they had seen him heal and speak boldly to the authorities.  But to still the sea, that speaks to men like this at an even deeper level.  He stepped in when it had all really fallen to pieces.  Only God could work a miracle like that.

We might assume that if we have Jesus with us in the boat, it will keep the waves at bay.  But Jesus in the stern is not really like the rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror, a good luck charm to ward away life’s perils.  In fact, Jesus usually shows Himself to us most clearly when things are going quite badly for us, when we can’t tell which way we are headed, and all our own methods have proved useless. 

If you’ve tried to live in this life with Him for very long, you will remember moments when He seemed very much to be sleeping through the storm, when you seemed to be staring death in the face.  Maybe it was physical death, or instead something very much like it: the loss of your job, a painful division in your family, betrayal by someone you deeply trusted.  You were at the end of the rope, all that was left to do was to turn to Him for help.  And then He showed Himself, stood up tall in the midst of the storm, and an unexpected peace descended over the situation.  You knew His presence, and you were assured of His protection and guidance.  Maybe the physical situation didn’t even change, but you could see you would make it through. 

Today, we bring two young people through the waters of Baptism into that new life in which Christ commits Himself to them completely.  The Baptismal liturgy frankly acknowledges the presence of sin and death worked so deeply into the fabric of this life.  It recognizes that faithfulness to these promises will be difficult, sustained only by the grace of this Savior, who is alone is more powerful than the forces that would drag us down.  Baptism is no assurance of an easy life, but the beginning of the great struggle.  “Go forward Christian soldier, beneath His banner true,” we will sing at the close of our service today, a fitting way to send off these newly baptized boys into the way of discipleship.  

This life in Christ will have times of confusion and danger, when our desires are tested, and all our strategies prove useless.  That’s because these are the times when we learn we cannot save ourselves, that all depends on the peace that He alone can give.  We are in the boat together, but there only one Master of the unruly sea.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.  

No comments:

Post a Comment