Sebastian Junger, in his book The Perfect Storm, relates the fates of a number of ships during the 1991 "storm of the century." One ship in particular, the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, illustrates the peril of the sea. The crew of the Andrea Gail entered the storm of the century the way we walk into a room: one minute all is calm with light variable winds and the next minute, the sea boils, churning up winds that begin at forty knots and then grows to exceed ninety knots. In just one hour, the barometric pressure dropped 996 millibars and the waves were over seventy feet high! 1
In a storm like this, there comes a point when physics takes over. I am told that if a boat heads into a wave that is higher than the boat is long, it will get pitched end to end to its doom. The Andrea Gail was a large ship of seventy-two feet. In a storm of the magnitude of the one in 1991, the Andrea Gail eventually met a wave higher than it was long. It was pitched to the bottom of the North Atlantic. 2
Now Jesus' disciples were not ocean-faring sailors, but several of them were experienced fishermen. Even when they combined their skill with their knowledge about the storms they had experienced on the lake, they sensed some dreadful dynamics that night that they were transporting Jesus to the other side.
Biblical criticism has taught us that each of the gospel writers shared some of the same sources for their writings of the gospels. The discretion of the author is why some stories are included in a gospel and why some are left out. Because all the gospels include some version of this stormy night on the lake; however, we are given an immediate heads up that there is something happening in this story that is so vital that no gospel would be complete without its inclusion. Let's set the stage for what was happening.
You will remember the preceding parables are about the mustard seed and the non-anxious farmer. Just a few verses before, Jesus has also told the parable about the sower who, upon flinging his seeds, finds that some had fallen on good soil, some on rocks, and others on hard soil. In all three of these parables, Jesus conveys the mighty possibilities of the Kingdom of God, but that for now, it is only coming in the softest of whispers or the smallest of beginnings. In fact, the Kingdom is presented as so vulnerable that it can be snatched away by birds, choked out by weeds, or withered by the noonday sun. 3
Following the storm on the sea, Jesus performs several miracles in Mark's gospel: he exorcises demons, raises a little girl from the dead and heals a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. These experiences are followed by the feeding of the five thousand and His walking on the water.
The experience of today's text, then, is surrounded by a remarkable set of contrasts. On one hand, the Kingdom of God, though powerful, looks weak to those who do not understand it. On the other hand, Jesus performs mighty miracles that reveal His Lordship. This simple carpenter's son is able to tame creation, root out the demonic, conquer death, rout disease, and feed the hungry. And nestled in the very middle of these extremes is the story of our storm-fearing disciples who wake the present, yet sleeping Jesus.
Fear is a remarkable motivator. For just as fear can move us to call upon the sleeping Christ with "Don't you care that we are perishing?" fear also erupts when we realize that this dozing Lord possesses the ability to calm the water and still the wind. Mark says that the disciples, after seeing what Christ did when they awake him, began to "fear with a great fear." In other words, the disciples experienced a whole new dimension of fear after Jesus delivered them from the storm. It is the difference between the fear of Good Friday, "Jesus, don't you care that we perish?" and the fear of Easter when the women leave the tomb and do not tell anyone because why? They were afraid! 4 Interestingly, it is Jesus who names the disciples' fear when he asks why they were still afraid even after the danger had passed.
We often join these disciples in this fear, for we too recognize the signs of a threatening storm, such as a bad report from our annual physical, a difficult job evaluation, turmoil in relationships. We often feel like little David standing before the giant Goliath. Think of how often we come up against a bully on the playground or in the work place or in the courtroom or in the doctor's office. At those times we know what it is like to be small, powerless, and on the bottom. We know what it is like to be exposed to the power wielded by another who is larger, richer or more armored than we.
Even within our congregations we experience thunderstorms that have the potential to be devastating. Fear often threatens to sink us when we worry over too many changes too quickly, or of growing at such a rate that we do not know those who sit with us on our pew, or of taking on debt one more time for expansion and renovation, or of loosing our edge or distinctive personality. Some days it feels a little like what an early church father once said about Noah and his boat; If it weren't for the storm outside, we could not stand the stench within!
Augustine says of this:
When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind. When your anger is aroused, you are being tossed by the waves. So when the winds blow and the waves mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering. On hearing yourself insulted, you long to retaliate; but the joy of revenge brings with it another kind of misfortune--shipwreck. Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten his presence. Rouse him, then; remember him, let him keep watch within you, pay heed to him. 5
This is when the significance of this story strikes us, for it is so much more than the fact that Christ commands all to be quiet and still amidst the chaos. It is the acknowledgment that just as the Kingdom of God indwells Christ like a seed waiting to sprout...so this Christ sleeps within each of us...rousing himself to respond to the intensity of our cries that we cannot stand it any more--we cannot bear it on our own any more--that like the disciples, we have exhausted all of our resources and need help beyond our abilities. This is also when we realize that we are allies of little David, who used not only his wits, but his faith in God to triumph over Goliath. These stories teach us that for those who trust in God there is a way when it seems there is no way. Then comes the fear of amazement and awe as we stop to consider the mighty ways that Jesus responds.
It is a well known historical fact that Birmingham, Alabama, was at the center of a storm when the Civil Rights Movement began. Being a life-long resident of Birmingham, I cringe each time the news re-runs the old footage of Bull Connor and his orders to use fire hoses and German Shepherds to keep the marchers "under control." It was in Birmingham that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. It was sent to eight pastors of mainline denominations in the downtown area. One of these was Dr. Earl Stallings of Birmingham's First Baptist Church.
First Baptist Church became a focal point of the movement. 6 On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1963, Andrew Young and several other African-American young people came to worship at First Baptist. Following the service, Stallings graciously greeted the church's guests at the doors. Also gathered were church members, photographers and reporters. The next morning, papers all over the country, including the New York Times, printed a large photograph of a cheerful Stallings shaking hands with the visitors. While some found encouragement in the picture, others deplored this "integrationist" stand occurring in the doors of the church. From that point on, Stallings' home phone rang around the clock with messages from segregationalists who were members and non-members of the congregation. When asked why he continued to answer the phone, his reply was that he did not want to fail in responding to a genuine need should the call be for someone's sincere request for a pastor.
The storm continued to rage. Dr. Herbert Gilmore followed Stallings as pastor of First Baptist Church. The church had been hosting after-school tutoring for children who lived across the street in government housing. One of these was an African-American girl, Twila Fortune. She, and her mother, Winifred Bryant, began to visit Sunday School and worship at First Baptist. After several years of visiting, Twila told her mother that she was ready to make her profession of faith and be baptized. Winifred contacted Dr. Gilmore who visited with them in their home. He left knowing their desire to join First Baptist would stir the winds of chaos into tornadic activity.
So on a Sunday in October of 1970, Twila and Winifred walked the aisle of First Baptist Church to present themselves as candidates for membership. They were told that First Baptist was not receiving new members and that their application would have to be deferred. Over the course of the next weeks and after many late night discussions (some lasting until two in the morning), their application for membership was presented three times for the congregation's vote. All three times, they were denied membership.
After the third refusal, a layman, Dr. Byrn Williamson, stood in the sanctuary and said he would like to talk with anyone who wanted to be a part of a church who would welcome individuals like Twila and Winifred. The sleeping Christ within, awoke! But not only within Dr. Williamson, for immediately over 300 people stood and walked out of the sanctuary of First Baptist Church!
Eventually, this remnant became known as Baptist Church of the Covenant. It is my privilege to serve as their pastor and it is also my challenge! For, you see, once the sleeping Christ awakens, our eyes and our hearts open as well to the possibilities that might occur if the love of Christ is set free to touch the lives of people. It can be as fear invoking as when the winds cease blowing at a command. It can also be faith empowering just like when David confidently faced Goliath with a slingshot.
Frederick Buechner has said:
Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we're done, so that even in their midst we may find peace...we may find Christ. 7
This is, ultimately, my prayer for each of us. It is my prayer for our churches where we desire that the presence of Christ will be among the pews and the music, in the teaching and in the prayers, in the giving and in the taking, in the rough and in the smooth sailing. But most of all I pray that the presence of Christ will be so alive and awake in our spirits that truth will not only be spoken but heard and carried out into the world...so that something like love may be done. 8
1 Scott Hoezee, "Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B," The Lectionary Commentary
4 William Willimon, "Two Kinds of Fear," Pulpit Resource, June 25, 2006
5 Augustine, Sermons, 63:1-3: Pulpit Resource, 6-25-06
6 S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are the Peacemakers
7 Frederick Buechner, "A 250th Birthday Prayer," Secrets in the Dark