A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on June 21, 2015, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.
I said last week that I did not choose the readings for these last two weeks but I couldn’t have chosen much better. Last week we had some thoughts about choosing leadership. This week, more on a very similar subject. I looked up the readings for today weeks ago and when I came back to work on them it turned out that I had misremembered what the gospel was about and thought it was about Jesus walking on water. So I’d been thinking what a great opportunity that made to talk about what you should look for in a priest. It’s actually a pretty standard thing to say when parishes start thinking about what they want in a priest and walking on water is a pretty good summary.
But, in fact, that is not today’s Gospel: today’s Gospel is a simpler matter of stilling the storm – but it may be even more relevant. I mean, is it useful to have a priest who can walk on water? Under what circumstances would it be helpful? Maybe if you were in Texas or Oklahoma this last week it would be a useful skill. But not here. Here’s there’s not enough water to walk on even if somebody could. But stilling storms . . . that I can see would have value. We can pray that our next President can do it; he or she will need to. And most parishes also will find themselves needing a good storm-stiller from time to time. And maybe we have our own storms to face and need to remember the Lord who asked the storm-tossed disciples, “Why are you afraid?
So let’s think about what’s going on here and what relevance it has for us. I think the first question a lot of people want to ask about stories like these – stilling a storm, walking on water, whatever – the question we ask in the scientific age is what are the facts? What really happened? And the problem we have is that there’s no one who can answer that question. Well, there are people out there who will say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But Episcopalians aren’t usually that easily satisfied. We like to talk about “Scripture, tradition, and reason” as our sources of authority, how we settle things.
It’s easy for Roman Catholics: they have the pope to settle things or maybe unsettle things when he starts to talk about climate change. And it’s easy for fundamentalists: they can look it up in the Bible. But we’re Anglicans and we’re not satisfied with just the pope and not just the Bible, and not just tradition, and not just reason, but “Scripture, and tradition, and reason.” Is it in the Bible is always the first question. That counts for a lot, but for us it’s not the whole story. There’s also tradition: is it something that comes from long tradition like worshiping on Sunday? That’s not in the Bible, but it’s a pretty strong tradition. We should pay attention to such traditions. But there’s still a third question: is it reasonable? Most churches ask only one of these questions: if it’s in the Bible, that’s all that matters, or if the Pope said so, that’s all that matters, or if it’s reasonable, that’s all that matters. But we want it all: Scripture, and tradition, and reason.
So when we come to a story of Jesus walking on water or stilling a storm, the fact that it’s in the Bible counts for a lot but we still need to weigh in with reason. Is it really likely that this happened? Is it reasonable? Part of our problem then is that they didn’t ask those questions in the first century when they were writing these stories down. It was what we call a “pre-scientific world.” Some events were more unusual than others, but there was no dividing line between natural and supernatural. So the idea that Jesus could walk on water or still a storm didn’t particularly surprise them. Yes, it was unusual, but unusual things happened all the time. Lightening flashed and thunder rolled and the stable earth quaked and no one knew why so they blamed it on God and if God created storms, God could certainly still storms. So they told this story because it showed Jesus doing one of the things that God does. In particular, it showed Jesus fulfilling scripture which spoke of God stilling storms.
Take Psalm 107, for example, a hymn of praise for a God revealed in nature. That psalm talks about a storm at sea and the fears of those involved, and it says:
28 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper * and quieted the waves of the sea.
30 Then were they glad because of the calm, * and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.
31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy * and the wonders he does for his children.
God can still storms. The Jews were a desert people and a storm at sea was a fearful display of God’s power. What could be more wonderful than the quieting of such a storm? And, you see, that’s exactly what the story shows Jesus doing: doing what God does, ruling over nature. So if Jesus was doing what God does, what does that tell you about Jesus? That’s the point of the story. That’s what interested people in the first century – and, actually, most centuries until we got scientific.
But we live in that new and different world and we ask new and different questions. We want to know what really happened, don’t we? And I’m not going to tell you, I’m not even going to offer an opinion. I don’t know what happened; I wasn’t there. There’s really no way of knowing. The Bible says so and that certainly counts in its favor but if I use the God-given gift of reason I can’t be sure. Mark wrote this story down thirty or forty years after the fact. But even so, it has remarkable details that sound like an eye witness account So perhaps there was a sudden storm and perhaps Jesus did rebuke it and perhaps it did calm down. But what does that prove to us scientists? Not much. A scientist has to repeat the experiment: do it ten times in a row and I’ll begin to take you seriously. Just once could be a coincidence. Let’s see you do it again. But our God is one and does unique, unrepeatable things and frustrates the scientists. Jesus speaks to the storm in the same words he uses to cast out demons, evil spirits that get control of people or – and we use language like that ourselves – psychiatric storms that unpredictably gain control of human beings.
So maybe you can believe that Jesus did for the storm what he did for people, restoring peace, or maybe you prefer to believe that the storm just happened to die down at that moment; that’s up to you. But those who were there saw Jesus calm in the midst of trouble and restoring peace for his disciples with a power and confidence they had never seen before. Either way, they came away with a deeper sense of who he was and a deeper trust in his power to shape events and a greater confidence that they could face their own fears and troubles trusting in Jesus.
And that’s the point. That’s the real point. That, it seems to me, is the critical faith to have as you and I move forward into a future that is always uncertain. We live in a world more frightening, it seems to me, than theirs. We survived the Cold War with the fear of atomic bombs but we were up against an enemy who at least played by the rules. You could meet and negotiate and even fight wars in Korea and Vietnam but you knew who the enemy was and where the battlefield was. And we don’t know that anymore. And if the fear of terrorism isn’t enough there are all the uncertainties of an ebola virus and weird strains of flu and global warming – which is now becoming a theological issue with the pope on one side and Republican politicians on the other, and that would be fun to watch if it weren’t so serious. But we live in a world with forces at work that we can’t seem to control and that threaten to overwhelm us. And it’s frightening to live in such a world. That’s why some people prefer to deny it, close their eyes and hope it will go away.
But it’s not going away and I’m not sure the world has ever been all that different or all that safe. A century ago there was a world wide fear of anarchists – anarchists shot down President McKinley and triggered World War I by shooting down the Austrian Archduke. They were intent on destroying established governments everywhere and you never knew where they would strike next. But anarchists merged into communists and communists perhaps merged into Islamicists. There always seems to be somebody mad at the world and in this country you have a right to pack a gun and shoot them.
There are people who thought the problem with that Bible study group in South Carolina was that they didn’t all have guns. Permit guns in churches, they tell us, and these things won’t happen. But they don’t happen in England and Japan and places where no one has guns. Could we learn from them? Wouldn’t that be reasonable? I grew up in this tradition and learned to value reason. I’d like to bring it to bear on some of our national problems.
There are real reasons in our world to feel insecure and politicians will play to our fears if we let them. But for Christians to react irrationally, fearfully, angrily, is faithless. We know one who can calm the storm. And the wonderful part of being a Christian and being joined together with other Christians in a worshiping congregation is that we see the evidence of God’s calming power day by day in people right here who have every bit as many reasons to be afraid of the future as we all do. It’s a frightening world, we have every reason to be afraid. But here I meet with people who are not afraid, who go on in calm and cheerful confidence that God is walking with us reaching out a hand to steady us in the midst of the waves and the storm.
That’s what we need to know and what we need to tell others. You and I have a gospel to preach in words, yes, but also in our lives. There’s no reason to be afraid of the storms. We know one who can calm the storms. and is with us here today. I don’t expect the members of the Mother Church in Charleston will be packing guns this morning. They know that’s not the answer. Violence will not solve the problems, the storms, most of us face daily. But faith can. God can. We know that and it’s why we’re here and it’s why this congregation can go forward unafraid.
There was a song that was popular some years ago that put it simply and clearly. Anglicans, Episcopalians, might think it a little simplistic, insufficiently sophisticated, but maybe once in awhile something simple may say it best. Remember how it goes?
Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters
Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea . . .
put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.