June 24, 2012
I love a good thunderstorm. We haven’t had many this summer, but I enjoy watching and listening as a storm comes through, with thunder and lightning and a good hard rain. I’m not crazy. I’m not talking about the severe ones with threats of hail and tornadoes.
Of course, any thunderstorm can become dangerous, almost without warning. All through high school and college, I worked for my dad in the summers. He was a builder and I mostly worked, framing, roofing, and siding houses, all outside work. I grew up in a part of the country that is much flatter than southern Wisconsin, and if we were working on a roof, we could watch the clouds and the storms approaching us or passing us by.
One summer day, we were putting a metal roof on a large barn. It was dangerous work, because the metal was slippery underfoot when it was dry. We were finishing up the ridge, probably forty feet above ground and at the peak of a roof that ran more than fifty feet down. Suddenly a storm came on us, with heavy rain, thunder and lightning. Did I mention it was a metal roof? I won’t explain how we got to the ground that day without injury but it was one of the scariest experiences of my life.
Most of us have such stories, whether they are of living through a tornado, being caught in a blizzard, or trying to survive a hurricane or tropical storm, these sorts of weather experiences can bring us up against the reality that life is fragile and that all of our efforts to keep the power of weather at bay can come to naught in a second.
For those very reasons, the gospel story of Jesus’ calming the storm resonates powerfully with us. The story draws us in. We can imagine ourselves on a boat in the middle of a storm, fearing for our lives, praying for deliverance. And suddenly, surprisingly that deliverance comes. The sea is calm and we can continue on our way. It’s the sort of story we hear from time to time. It’s the sort of story we may even tell—a story of crisis and danger, of prayer to God, and miraculous deliverance.
Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus calming the storm is much more complicated than that. Mark is the least wordy of the gospels, so it’s important to pay close attention when he does provide detail, and pay close attention to how he tells the story. The little things matter a great deal. In addition to those little details, Mark takes great care in structuring the gospel. It’s easy to overlook that structure when we break up the reading in the weekly lectionary.
I’d like to point out two structural elements that are important. The first is geography. Jesus has been teaching by the lake, the Sea of Genneserat. That’s where he told the parables we heard last week. In fact, that crowd was so large, that he taught from a boat in the lake. At the end of the day, he and his disciples crossed over to the other side of the lake, where he will encounter another possessed man. After that, he will cross back over the lake. The geographical detail reminds us of another important structural or thematic element. Jesus transgresses boundaries. We have already seen him heal on the Sabbath, offend other Sabbath laws. He has demonstrated his power over evil, and will do it again. Here, he demonstrates his power over nature.
One of the things that strikes me in Mark’s version of this story is how he depicts Jesus—sleeping on a cushion in the midst of a mighty storm. Mark presents us with an image of Jesus at ease, comfortable, resting, while all around him is struggle, noise, and tumult. Also of interest is the little point that Mark doesn’t bring up the disciples’ fear until after Jesus calms the storm. Jesus asks the disciples after the coming of dead calm, “Why are you still afraid?” Mark’s telling of the story lets us ask the question: Was it the storm that caused their fear, or was it that Jesus brought the storm to an end? Which power is more frightening, more awesome, the power of a storm or the power of the one who can calm the storm?
In addition, the language Mark uses when describing Jesus’ actions reveals a great deal about how Mark understands what’s happening. He says that Jesus “rebuked the storm.” An odd choice of words, especially in light of the fact that Mark used the same word to describe Jesus casting out an unclean spirit from a man in chapter 1.
All of this comes at the end of the day on which Jesus taught the people using parables. Indeed, for Mark, it is the only significant occasion on which Jesus told parables. The enigmas he presented his listeners then, the kingdom of God he was preaching by using the parables, are presented here in the story of the calming of the storm, in another way.
The disciples asked him to explain the parables, now they ask who he is. It is a question that will be asked again in the course of the gospel. Jesus will ask it himself. The answer, the complete answer will come only as the story unfolds. We and the disciples will only begin to understand fully who Jesus is in the light of the cross and resurrection.
But already we see elements of the answer. It isn’t so much that Jesus has power. That’s not particularly important for Mark. Rather, what is important is that his readers understand who Jesus is and what it means that he is the Messiah. Storms rage around us, and in us, but do we see Jesus Christ in their midst?
In the midst of their storm, the disciples came to Jesus, in a way rebuking him. Why are you sleeping as we are about to perish? They didn’t ask him for help. They didn’t ask him to save them; they asked him only to be aware that all of them, including him, were going down with the boat. Just as they didn’t understand the parables, they don’t understand their true plight. Neither do we.
In the midst of storms, whether they be weather events, or the troubles of contemporary existence, it can be difficult to recognize God. We may not be able to detect Jesus’ presence in the world and in our lives. Like the disciples, we may be looking for a way out of a difficult situation. And very often, the answers we receive to our requests and questions don’t seem adequate to the situation. It may be that we want Jesus to calm the troubled waters by saying, “Peace, be still.” But the demonstration of that power may create as much fear in us as the storm itself.
Whatever the case, let us be mindful that God is there, with us, in the midst of it all. Let us be mindful, too, that like the disciples, we may not see or recognize God. But let us be open to God’s presence, open to God’s speech, and open to the possibility that God will still those storms all around us.