November 8, 2020

The Perfect Storm

Passage: Mark 4:35–41

Jesus Stills a Storm
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “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?”

You remember that film The Perfect Storm with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, about the Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing boat the Andrea Gail which got lost to The Perfect Storm in 1991?

In Sebastian Junger’s book and Wolfgang Peterson’s film, a wonky meteorologist stares raptly at a computer screen and says, “Look at this. One: Hurricane Grace moving north off the Atlantic Seaboard, huge, getting massive. Two: A low-pressure center south of Sable Island, ready to explode. Three: Fresh cold front swooping down from Canada. Wait, what if Hurricane Grace runs smack into it, and this baby off Sable Island, scrounging for energy, should start feeding off the hurricane and the Canadian front? You could be a meteorologist all your life and never see anything like this. It would be a disaster of epic proportions. It would be”—all together now—“The Perfect Storm.”

When I think about my country right now, that’s the image that keeps popping into my head. A pandemic, George Floyd, unrest in the streets, a second wave, a withering economy, especially for entertainers, restaurant workers, flight attendants, and Metra conductors, and now a razor thin margin in the presidential campaign.

The Perfect Storm: George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg climbing up the face of that sheer wall of water in their tiny little boat.

Full disclosure: I preached a different sermon with this same title and text at my last church in June of 2005. It was my last sermon before leaving on a three-month sabbatical.

That summer, my son was a rising senior in high school, and I wanted to show him this stunning land, so we drove to the west coast and back, 10,000 miles total, to the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Yosemite, Glacier.

So the senior pastor was headed out of town for weeks. That same Sunday, that very Sunday, we said goodbye to an Associate Pastor who was just as beloved to that congregation as Jo is to us. We were very sad, but he too was accepting a new call in an exciting church, so we championed his decision.

The day after I left, giant Caterpillars started tearing my entire church down with claws and hooks and battering rams. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see the 30-foot void in the earth which was all that was left behind.

For the next 18 months we worshiped in a middle-school auditorium and officed in an industrial park. We didn’t know how much of the congregation would weather the storm and follow us to the new church we were building.

Three weeks later, my Minister of Music resigned to take a new call. He was just as beloved to that congregation as Lisa is to us. He called while we were driving up the Napa Valley. I can still see the vineyards we were driving by when he called with the bad news.

The same day, Kathy called to tell me that her dental office had been struck by lightning. No one was hurt, the building survived, but at the time, that seemed like the coup de grâce.

Any one of those events would have stressed out the healthiest congregation, but when they all converged, like those storms in the Atlantic in 1991, it felt like The Perfect Storm. Actually from the perspective of 2020, all that looks like Sunday in the Park with George in comparison.

Happily there is a word from the Lord on this. One day near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the crowds pressing in upon his beachside perch become so large and aggressive that Jesus hops into a boat, pushes off a few yards from shore, and uses that boat as a pulpit. He preaches for a bit, tells a few stories—mostly about farmers, not sailors, strangely enough—and when he gets tired, he tells the disciples to sail him to the other side. He promptly falls asleep in the stern of the boat.

In 1986 in the Sea of Galilee they found a first-century fishing boat which must have been just exactly like the one Jesus used as his pulpit. It was 26 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 4 feet from keel to gunwale,[1] or about the size of your Sea Ray or Cobra or Chris-Craft or Boston Whaler or whatever it is you ply Lake Michigan with.

In the Galilean boat, the helmsman sat on a raised platform in the stern, and underneath, there was a convenient place to take a nap if you were a carpenter and didn’t know a jib from a mainsail, and therefore on a boat full of fishermen you’d just be in the way.

The Sea of Galilee is a modest little freshwater lake, but fierce gales can slip through gaps in the surrounding mountain ranges, and this day, one does. The sails are flapping so wildly you can’t hear yourself think, the boat is heeled over at 60 degrees, waves are cresting the gunwales and swamping the boat, the fishermen-cum-disciples are in terror for their lives, and Jesus just goes on snoozing away; he’d obviously had a rough day. Well, I for one am sympathetic; preaching isn’t as easy it looks.

When they finally succeed in waking him up with a blunt rebuke to his regrettably inappropriate calmness, which you could easily interpret as indifference, he stands up and shouts, “Peace! Be Still!”  And instantly the winds cease, the waves sit down flat like an obedient puppy dog, and there they sit, “as idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean,” as Coleridge puts it.[2]

The Greek imperative Jesus uses there literally means “put a muzzle on it.” One commentator translates it “Shut up!”[3] In other words, “Close your yap!” “Put a lid on it.” “Chill out, would ya?” Mark tells us that Jesus was rebuking the wind and the waves, but he could easily have been talking to the disciples too: “Peace! Chill out! Relax, already. It’s going to be all right.”

The word from the Lord, of course, is that Jesus sleeps through a lot of things that keep us awake all night. Why was he sleeping through Hurricane Grace? It’s because of who he is and what he can do.

The disciples are in the boat with Jesus, and Jesus, says Mark at the very outset of his Gospel, is the Son of the Living God, the same God whose spirit brooded over the face of the deep when the earth was a shapeless void and chaos prevailed at the beginning of time.

This is the same God who, when Job complained about the earth’s inept management, thundered forth, “Where were you when I shut in the sea with doors, and said ‘Thus far shall you come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?  Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Where were you when I cut a channel for the torrents of rain and a path for the thunderbolt?”[4]

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” ask the disciples when they witness his dominion over the imperious, defiant elements themselves.

You know of course that one of the commonest images for the Christian Church over the last 2,000 years is a tiny boat tossed about by swelling waves on a restless sea. In the logo of the World Council of Churches, the boat is tiny and the waves are huge, but the mast is a cross.

Even a muscular superpower can sometimes seem like a tiny boat tossed about by swelling waves on a restless sea, when a hurricane of a pandemic converges with a nor’easter of racial discord, and a cyclone of an impossibly tight presidential election.

What does it mean that three of the six presidential elections in the 2000's are decided by a four-figure margin out of nine-figure total?

In 2000, George Bush won Florida by 537 out of almost 6,000,000 votes cast. Someone called that election not The Perfect Storm, but The Perfect Tie.[5]

Again, this year, a near tie in Georgia. I don’t know what that implies about our democracy, but it sure doesn’t make anything easy. I will never trust another pollster again. President Trump thinks they are corrupt, but they are probably just inept, or, at best, arrogant in their certitude.

But it’s working, yes? So far, no violence. Almost 150,000,000 votes cast, the most since 1900 as a percentage of eligible voters.

Did you know that in 1792 George Washington was reelected by 6.3% of eligible voters? Not 6.3% of the population, but 6.3% of all voters, which was already just tiny slice of the total population in the original 13 states. Only white, landowning men could vote.

All those faithful, careful, scrupulous vote counters pulling the levers of democracy, almost literally; 150,000,000 voices heard.

Adrian Fontes, the top elections administrator in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix and 60 percent of the state’s voters, said: “We are a raucous, dysfunctional family who will stand together in the best of times and in the worst of times. If you can’t believe that then you have no business running American elections.”[6]

As riven as this land surely is, we all want the same thing for our families: good schools; clean water; wild places; safe cities; jobs that can support a family if you put in an honest week, cultivate your craft, honor your contracts and covenants, and serve your customer with grace and excellence; equal opportunity for all people regardless of the color of your skin, the orientation of your sexuality, the religion you cling to, or the land you came from.

By the grace of God, that is the American dream we will realize. We’re going to be all right.

Nationally The Perfect Storm has brought anxious, unsettling, divisive times to our land. Locally we are disconsolate that our friend and pastor is leaving us but overjoyed by the reason she has made this decision. A new adventure. More faithful ministry in another part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Isn’t God good? Through every storm, even the perfect ones? Have we ever been alone? Aren’t we all in the same boat, and isn’t Jesus in there with us? Oh it’s true. Jesus sleeps through troubles that keep the rest of us awake all night. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. It just means he’s in charge. “What manner of man is this that even the wind and sea obey him?”

The Church, a church, any church, is a tiny boat tossed about by towering waves on a restless sea, but its mast is a cross.

[1] Related by Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, in The Anchor Bible, vol. 27 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 332.

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, part II.

[3] Joel Marcus, op. cit.

[4] Slightly adapted from Job 38:8–24, NRSV.

[5] James W. Ceaser & Andrew E. Busch, The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

[6] Reid J. Epstein, “After Warnings It Could Go Off the Rails, the Election Actually Ran Smoothly,” The New York Times, November 8, 2020.