Peace! Be Still!
When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:35-41
Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee. They are moving from the Jewish side to the Gentile side, the side where they are at home to the side where they are strangers, the side where life is familiar to the side where life is new, different, and unfamiliar. We may have never crossed the Sea of Galilee but has not each of us been in that boat?
I know I have been. Moving from an Italian ghetto in Brooklyn to a seminary in which the Irish, and their strange ways, outnumbered everyone else; moving from being a single celibate priest to being a married priest with no ecclesial home; moving from the rigid absolutes of Roman Catholicism to the flexibility, informed by human experience, of the Anglican way; moving from the public acceptability of a straight life to owning my identity as a gay man; moving from a generalized experience of physical wellness to being a reservoir of several critical health issues – to name but a few.
So this is not just a story about a boat trip and some bad weather. It is a story about life. It’s a story about faith. It’s a story about fear. Wherever we find one of these, we will find all three: Life, Faith and Fear. They really cannot be separated.
Sometimes the sea of life is rough. The wind is strong. The waves are high. The boat is taking on water and appears to be sinking. We all know what that is like. Each of us could tell a storm story or two. Some of our storm stories will begin with a phone call, a doctor’s visit, or news we did not want to hear. Some of them will start with the choices we have made, our mistakes, and our sins. Other storm stories will tell about the difficulty of relationships, hopes and plans that fell apart, or the struggle to grow up and find our way. Some storms seem to arise out of nowhere and take us by surprise. Other storms build and brew as we watch.
Storms happen. There are: Storms of loss and sorrow; Storms of suffering; Storms of confusion. Storms of failure; Storms of loneliness; Storms of disappointment and regret; Storms of depression; Storms of uncertainty and second guessing; Storms of thoughts, storms of voices and even storms of dreams.
Regardless of when or how they arise, storms are about changing atmospheric conditions. And storms of life are also about changing conditions or circumstances. Life becomes overwhelming and out of control. Things don’t go our way. Circumstances seem too much for us to handle. Order gives way to chaos. We are sinking. The water is deep and the new shore, even if we can see it, is a distant horizon.
Storms rage in our communal life as well. There is the covid storm, the storm of white supremacy and racial hatred, the storm of national populism, the brewing storm that will break when the moratorium on evictions ends, the storm of political miscreants who won’t go silently into the night, the storms of gun violence and passenger violence on airplanes. Need I raise up more?
In this morning’s gospel the disciples are quick to make the storm about Jesus. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” they ask. We’ve probably all echoed their words in the storms of our lives. “Do something. Fix it. Make it better. Don’t you care, O Lord, that I am, or we are, perishing?” In the midst of this storm on Sea of Galilee Jesus seems absent, passive, uncaring. How can he sleep at a time like this? A sleeping Jesus is not what they or we want.
A sleeping Jesus, however, is in the same boat and in the same storm and in the same peril as the disciples. He is surrounded by the same water as the disciples. He is blown by the same wind and beaten by the same waves. His response, however, is different than theirs. While the disciples fret and worry, he sleeps. The disciples want engagement and demand action.
Jesus sleeps in peace and stillness. His sleep reveals that the greater storm and the real threat is not the wind, waves, and water around us – the circumstances in which we find ourselves – but the greater storm is always the storm within us. The real storm, the more threatening storm is always the one that churns and rages inside.
That interior storm is the one that blows us off course. It beats against our faith. It threatens to drown us. Fear, vulnerability, and the experience of powerlessness blow within us. The sense of abandonment, the unknown, and the judgment and criticism of ourselves and others are the waves that pound us. Too often anger, isolation, cynicism, or denial become our shelter from the storm.
“Peace! Be still!” Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea. While it appears that Jesus is changing the weather, is He not, more than this, inviting the disciples to change. Does He not speak to the wind and the waves within them? The disciples have been pointing to what is going on outside them. Jesus points to what is going on inside them. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Jesus’ words are more about us than the circumstances of our lives, the storms we meet. Storms happen. Faith, more faith, better faith, stronger faith, the right kind of faith do not eliminate the storms of our lives. Faith does not change the storm. Faith changes us. Faith does not take us around the storm but through the storm. Faith allows us to see and know that Jesus is there with us. Faith is what allows us to be still, to be peaceful, in the midst of the storm. It means we do not have to interiorize the storm. We do not have to let it rage within us even as it may rage outside of us.
The Spirit of God blows through and within us more mightily than the winds of any storm. The power of God is stronger than any wave that beats against us. The love of God is deeper than any water that threatens to drown us. In every storm Jesus is present and his response is always the same, “Peace! Be still! Do not be afraid!”
On June 17th we observed the fourth anniversary of the storm of racial hatred, and the violence and destruction born of racial hatred, that raged within a church in Charleston. A young man, who was apparently nurtured on ignorance and fear, and who when he arrived at the age of maturity, was armed by his father with a weapon, took the lives of nine disciples of Jesus.
If you followed the story, you will remember that those closest to those murdered disciples, their surviving family members, whose lives were turned upside down, by this savage storm, raised a chorus of life in the face of death and a chorus of faith in the face of fear. The symphony they sang from depth of their pain and the horror of their loss was a song of forgiveness. They refused, simply refused, to have their lives deformed by the storm of hatred and instead chose to have their lives further transformed and more deeply shaped by the power of Christ’s love. They offered us an absolutely remarkable witness that is possible, when we believe that Christ is in the boat with us. We can find our peace in His presence no matter how vicious the storm that rages outside ourselves.
In every storm there are choices to be made. Will we interiorize the storm or the peace of Jesus? The peace that is from above and that surpasses all understanding. Do we put our faith in the power of the storm or in the power of God in Christ? The faith that brings light out of darkness and victory out of apparent defeat. How and where do you want to live? Do we want to live in fear? Or do we choose to live in faith?
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 20, 2021