Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 4:35-41
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
We’ve heard this story. A bunch of disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is sleeping on a cushion in the stern when they are caught by a storm.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that although God is with them, incarnate in this man Jesus, they are still wanting more. It isn’t enough that God is present: they want God to do something. After all, what use is a God who doesn’t do anything?
We may say that we want the presence of God. In truth, we want God to act. Heal. Bless. Save.
We want God to do something for the same reason that those muddle headed disciples wanted it: we’re afraid. We’re afraid of what has happened or hasn’t, or of what is happening or isn’t, or of what is going to happen or not, and sometimes with good reason. If the lion slips her cage while we’re at the zoo, fear is a useful reaction. It’s appropriate. Even when the lion sleeps, we’re afraid of what might happen.
That’s the real bogey man. His name is Mr Thusandsuchmighthappen (it is German, I believe). He and his twin sister go by YouKnow and AndThen. With them, things always go from bad to worse.
The bogey man meets our expectations. God does not.
Christians make many claims on God. One of the most interesting is that God is in control, with the possible implication that everything that happens is by the will and choice of God.
The idea of God as Sovereign may work well for theologians in an ivory tower, and the notion does not trouble saints who are beyond any attachment to this present world. For the rest of us, the idea of Sovereignty is a problem, an enigma. We are left hearing Inigo Montoya from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In practical theology, where storms do threaten our boats, the idea gets trampled down into something like, “God is in control.” That is a wonderful concept, right up to the moment when the boat sinks.
Lesser difficulties are still manageable. The loss of a house, a job. A survivable illness. We might come through those with our skins and our notions about God intact.
What about the worse things? What about the real storms, the ones that threaten to send us to the bottom of the sea? Many people never live to face one. Many others do not live through them.
A perfect storm as a concept is survivable. A perfect storm in reality may not be.
What about these storms we do not survive, sometimes not at all, sometimes not as the people we were when the wind began to rise? What if the storm comes, and it seems to us that God is somewhere in the back of the boat, asleep at the tiller?
What if we drown?
There is a verse, Job 13:15, traditionally translated, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him: but I will maintain my own ways before him.” It may not mean what we think it means. That translation is based on one way of understanding the Hebrew text. Reading the text another way, the New Revised Standard translation gives us, “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face.”
Quite different, isn’t it? Either way, what does it mean? Do we lie down and wait for the worst? Even Job, sitting on the ashes of his home and surrounded by pious pontificators, has the intention of at least speaking up for himself.
Maybe it comes down to translating another passage from a letter to a church in Rome. The King James gives us what we find on most refrigerator magnets, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God….” It would take an optimistic saint indeed to watch the spectacles of tragedy, natural and human-made, all around us and think those worked to anyone’s good. A better translation would be that “…God works through all things…”, even those things.
Seeking something good on the other side of tragedy, seeking something good even in the midst of tragedy, something to redeem the loss and the pain, now that is powerful. It is the gospel story. The measure of the power of God isn’t found in the heat of stars or in the fathomless reaches of space. We witness the power of God when something good remains even from the storms that drown us, or worse, the storms that sweep away those we love, the storms that leave us gasping in our misery on the deck.
Even in our loss, God creates. Restoration where there was loss. Something from the nothing that is left. Redemption. That is the gospel. That is true redemption, the practice and presence of grace, the iron resolution of love.