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At church camp for children one of the counselors was leading a discussion on the purpose God has for all of his creation.
They began to find good reasons for the clouds and trees and rocks and rivers and animals and just about everything else in nature.
Finally, one of the children asked, “If God has a good purpose for everything, then why did He create poison ivy?” This made the discussion leader gulp and, as he struggled with the question, one of the other children piped up, “The reason God made poison ivy is that He wanted us to know that there are certain things we should keep our dang hands off of!”
We could have some remarkably good arguments here this morning if I started talking about how God, “In the beginning…,” created. However, instead of delving into that quagmire, I just want to look at one particular element of creation: water.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God [read that: while the Spirit of God] swept over the face of the waters.”
There are many stories in Scripture regarding water, and in most of them there are consistent themes. The water is an uncrossable barrier without the help of God. The water swallows up the land in the time of Moses killing every living thing except those saved by the ark and the water allowed the Israelites to cross, but swallowed up the Egyptians. The water is home to the greatest and most terrifying creatures: the behemoth and the leviathan. It all comes down to the water being chaos, hell, and death. The water is evil. David writes in the Psalms:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
To go into the water was to go into the chaos, the evil, and death. The Israelites believed this and were therefore people of the land. Let others go off in their boats, we’ll tend the pastures. Yet, there were a few fishermen and, as we know, many of the disciples were. So when Jesus told them to put out on the water to go to the other side, they would not have hesitated, but they would have known not to take the waters for granted, especially the waters of the Sea of Galilee that they were crossing.
The Sea of Galilee is 700 feet below sea level and 200 feet deep. It is 12 miles long, and 8 miles wide at the widest point. Surrounded by mountains and desert brings in the cold and warm air. We’re in Oklahoma. You know what that means: storms. Because the Sea of Galilee is so small and contained, extremely violent storms can come up very quickly, turning the waters into a roiling cauldron. This is what occurred in our Gospel reading today. “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.”
The storm was so violent that even though the disciples were seasoned fishermen, they were terrified and believed they were going to die. Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat, but “they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” Teacher, hell has come against. Chaos is everywhere. Death is near.
I think I’ve shared this with you: when I was in college, I worked dog kennel. We boarded up to 200 dogs every weekend. The workday started early – 5:30 a.m. In the four years I worked there, I was only late once, but there was one other occasion when I almost didn’t make it at all. Cold winter morning and me and my Datusn B-210 were tooling along nicely. For the record, your cellphone puts out more light than the headlights on this car, but I managed fine until that morning. The first thing I saw was a small glowing red dot in the middle of the road, about eye level. It turned out to be the reflector in the middle of a flatbed trailer that was straddling the road. When I saw it for what it was, I still had plenty of time to stop. What I didn’t know was that there had been just enough of an ice storm that night to put a nice shine on the road. I have few memories that actually scare me when I recall them. That one does. I can almost feel that flatbed hitting me right about here. I did manage to stop before the big crunch, but… Teacher, hell has come against us. Chaos is everywhere. Death is near.
My friend in Montana has four wonderful daughters. The oldest, in her mid-twenties, the twins in their early twenties, and Molly who came along a bit later and said, “Surprise!” Well, on Wednesday afternoon about 4:45 p.m. I was sitting right up there, waiting in vain for one of you lot to come in for confession. So that my time waiting on you won’t be wasted, I generally do some reading in preparation for the Sunday sermon. I kid you not, I was reading a commentary by N.T. Wright and had truly just read the sentence that begins, “The forces of evil are roused, angry and threatening…” when the phone rings, it was my friend from Montana. I’m happy to hear from him, but like the storms rising without warning on the Sea of Galilee… he called to tell me that his oldest daughter had been found dead that morning. Hell. Chaos. Death.
He called me, his friend. His priest. He needed to know why. Why would this happen? He needed an answer from “the Big Book.” I didn’t have one. If you were to ask him, he probably would tell you that Jesus was sleeping in the stern of the boat, while the rest of us are facing the chaos. He… heck, I wanted to cry out, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” Teacher, hell has come against us. Chaos is everywhere. Death is… not near… death is hear. Don’t you care?
I didn’t have an answer for my friend and I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t know why the storms come up like they do, so suddenly and so violently, but I’ll tell you what I do know. First, there is hell, chaos, and death and these things are indiscriminate in who they effect. Movie: The Help. Deals with race and civil rights in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi. (If you haven’t seen it, rent it.) At one point in the story, a tornado comes tearing through Jackson. The main character, Aibileen tells us, “Eighteen people were killed in Jackson that night. Ten white and eight black. God don’t pay no mind to color once he decide to set a tornado loose.” The first thing I know: there are storms in this world, there is evil, and it will come against anyone it chooses.
The second thing I know: there is evil, but then, there’s Jesus. (You should say, Amen.) When the evil comes, we look for Jesus and find him asleep. We wake him and cry out, “Don’t you care that we are dying?” When he’s awake, Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I always hear that and think I’m being reprimanded. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” But I’ve come to believe that they are words spoken with deep compassion and understanding. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Why do I think that?
The incident in the boat: the storm, the evil, the fear, Jesus sleeping and rising, calming the storm… not only is this showing Jesus command over the natural world, but this is also a foreshadowing incident of what is happening and what is to come. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing. The people love him, but the religious leaders… remember from just a few weeks ago after Jesus rebuked the Pharisees? “The Pharisees went out right away and began to plot with the Herodians against Jesus, trying to find a way to destroy him.” Jesus is doing the work of God, but the storm, the evil is rising against him. Later, he is crucified, and instead of sleeping in a boat, he’s sleeping in the earth, in the grave. On the boat, when in great fear the disciples wake Jesus, Scripture says, “[Jesus] woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” Three days after Jesus was crucified, the disciples were again afraid, hiding in the upper room, and Jesus came to them and said, “Peace be with you!” “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Jesus speaks those words — “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”—with compassion and understanding because he also knows the evil. He has entered into the chaos. He has experienced our greatest fear: death. And he speaks those words to remind us that even though we also experience these things—evil, chaos, fear, death—he has conquered them once and for all. He speaks to these thing as he did the sea and says, “Keep your dang hands off. These are my mothers and brothers and sisters, for they are the ones who do the will of God.”
I don’t know why the storms rise. I don’t know why the evil comes, but I do know that Jesus does not leave us to face it alone. I know that he has gone before us and that where the chaos and evil speak death, Jesus speaks life.
The light of God surrounds us.
The love of God enfolds us.
The power of God protects us.
The presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are, God is,
And where God is, all is well.