Wednesday, July 28, 2021

God's Preservative Added (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year B, 2021)

 

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:27) 

There’s a great line in my favorite Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life: The angel Clarence tells the despondent and financially troubled George Bailey, “We don’t use money in heaven.” George quickly replies, “Well, it comes in pretty handy down here, bub!” 

My esteemed colleague Pastor Joey Klinger reminded me and the rest of our clergy Bible study group that verse 27 (above) in the Gospel reading for Pentecost 10, Year B (John 6:24-35) wouldn’t make someone feel all warm and cozy when the bread that perishes is in short supply. There’s something rather callous in telling hungry people they should just have a little faith. That’s why it’s so important to put this verse in the context of the larger Bible narrative. Jesus is admonishing a crowd that isn’t hungry. In fact, not only has this bunch just been fed a pretty hearty lunch of bread and fish, but they actually have a ton of leftovers. 

This second episode in the five-week “bread of life” marathon that comes in the cycle of readings for Year B is actually kind of funny. This well-fed multitude seizes on Jesus like he’s a slot machine paying off. When Jesus tries to get away, they run after him. Can you just picture this gang running around the lip of a huge lake trying to beat a boat rowing to the opposite shore? I see these guys showing up at the beach all sweaty and panting and then nonchalantly saying, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” It’s as if they’re trying to make him believe all five thousand of them always take a mile-long run around the Sea of Galilee every day and just happened to run into Jesus. 

Of course, Jesus isn’t buying any of this, and he calls them on their stuff right away. He basically tells them, “You guys aren’t looking for God or righteousness or anything like that. You’re looking for more free food.” The Son of Man doesn’t have time for their crap. Their material needs have been met—actually more than met—by a good and giving God. It’s time for them to receive the inner peace, the compassion, the forgiveness, and the love God wants to give them. It’s time for them to find the courage which comes from faith in eternal life.  It’s time for them to chill out, be grateful, and take a longer picture of things. 

But they don’t get it. Like so many of the verbal exchanges in John’s Gospel, this dialogue reminds me of scenes from Schitt’s Creek, the whacky TV comedy where just about every conversation is awkward or at cross purposes. The crowd ignores the eternal life stuff and the remark about God setting his seal on the guy in front of them and asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” That is to say, “Tell us what we need to do so we can get more stuff.” Now, this isn’t religion. This is superstition. Like we all tend to do at times, they’re taking the focus off of God and putting it on themselves. It’s a quid pro quo kind of thing. If we do X, God will give us Y. And that’s just not how it works. 

The road between us and God is a one-way street. It comes only from God to us, and never the other way around. Jesus tells the crowd that they got it wrong when they say Moses provided their ancestors with manna in the wilderness. Moses didn’t provide a thing. God provided. And all God is asking is that we believe. 

Believe what? Believe that God is present and active. Believe God in Jesus the Son of Man is the manifestation of God’s love for humanity It’s God’s willingness to walk with us and suffer with us and teach us how much we each are valued. Believe that this moment is just a tiny, sub-atomic particle of all eternity. 

I’ll grant that it might be hard to focus on God in a chaotic moment like this. We’re not just worried about material things like our daily bread, but we’re seeing existential change, too. Everybody seems to be fearing change and loss and getting more than a little crazy. “Pandemic Anxiety” is a thing now. Even our Olympic athletes are starting like crack under the strain. 

This is the time to take a breath, let go, and let God be God. We are already the heirs of eternal life, and that knowledge calls us to look at things with more perspective. Things always change, troubles always come, but so do blessings. We don’t have faith because our spiritual hunger is satisfied. Such hunger is satisfied because we have faith. 

Keep the faith, my friend.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

This Is Only a Test (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year B, 2021)

“He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” (John 6:6) 

If anyone ever writes my obituary, I’d like it to be remembered that I once studied under one of the most prestigious of Lutheran scholars, the late Rev. Dr. John H.P. Reumann[i], and lived to tell about it. Dr. Reumann had an encyclopedic knowledge of the New Testament, an eidetic memory for facts, a—sometimes—caustic wit, and a very low tolerance for dead-beat future pastors who were more intent on drinking beer than studying for his examinations. Theses exams were brutal beyond the blackest cruelty of the Dark Ages and could disgorge cold perspiration from the brow of even the most celebrated Jeopardy champion. I passed most of them, but really tanked my final on the Gospel of John. I got the first 25% of the test right, but really blew the 75% essay portion on the origins and development of the Fourth Gospel. 

This was a big humiliation for me as I’d never received an “F” on any test I’d taken in formal education. Reumann’s response was to write a very pastoral note in my “Blue Book,” saying he could see I was trying and that he still felt I had great potential as a Biblical scholar. Because so many other students complained, he later re-weighted the exam percentages, which snuck me up into the “D” range.[ii] 

This all begs the question: Why do professors give exams in the first place? Answer: It’s the only way they can find out if their students learned anything. A test or an examination is an exploration into something. It’s a fact-finding mission. In this famous Gospel passage appointed for Pentecost 9 (John 6:1-21), Jesus gives Philip a little practical exam to see if Philip can figure out how to feed five thousand hungry people. Jesus, the scripture tells us, doesn’t really need to test Philip since he already knows how this situation is going to play out. Similarly, God doesn’t need to test any of us to discover our strengths or weaknesses. God already knows. 

When we feel we’re being “tested,” it’s not because God needs us to prove ourselves. It’s also not because God loves to jerk us around just to watch us squirm. No. The examination is all on our part. We’re the ones who will find out what we know and don’t know. And we’re the ones who will learn from the experience. 

Maybe Philip and the other disciples learned to take a real, critical but faith-filled look at what God could provide before they started fretting that the situation was going south. There’s a reason why we have the expression “blinded by fear.” A lack of faith keeps us from seeing what God can do through us. Adventurers have often said, “If you panic, you die.” Far from panicking, Jesus takes the meager food that he has and gives thanks for it (v. 11).[iii] Jesus sees what has been provided, not what is lacking. 

Now, you might think that after watching the Lord perform boatloads of healing miracles, Philip would’ve just told Jesus, “I don’t know where the food will come from, boss, but I know you can provide it.” But no. His answer, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little (v. 7)” gets him an “A” in economics but a “D” in theology. He only escapes an “F” because he didn’t declare that feeding the 5K was utterly impossible (although he may have thought it!). 

There’s a thin line between pessimism and realism. As Christians, we’re expected to be realistic about the world situation. We’re expected to see hurt and need and sin and call them for what they are. But we’re also expected to be people of faith—people who know that on the crappiest day we’ll ever have God still provides more blessings than we can count. It’s never God’s intent to let us “fail” our earthly test. Rather, it’s our opportunity to see how God has acted for us and through us in the past, and draw strength, resolve, and inspiration for the present. 

Alas, Philip isn’t the only one who gets low marks on the exam in this story. The whole crowd—everyone who truly believed Jesus could provide them with free healthcare—totally misinterprets this feeding miracle and tries to take Jesus by force to be the kind of Messiah they want (v. 16). They want a God of Prosperity, an earthly ruler who can pump up the stock market and scare the pants off of their enemies. But that’s not who Jesus is. In fact, Jesus withdraws from this (v. 15). If we want Jesus on our own terms, it’s not really Jesus we want. 

I think our whole life of faith is one giant practical exam. God is constantly challenging us to examine ourselves, our motives, and our ability to trust. We can’t escape trying circumstances or the suffering which sometimes comes from them. We can, however, learn to see God and our relationship with God through a new lens. As Martin Luther put it: 

It is true that God tempts no one, but we ask…that God would preserve and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, and that, although we may be attacked by them, we may finally prevail and gain the victory.[iv] 



[i] If you’d like to learn more about this remarkable Lutheran, you can click on his name: John HP Reumann.

[ii] Still humiliating, but better than an F. I eventually took a B in the class—in case you were wondering.

[iii] And this food is pretty meager. Barley was just about the cheapest grain you could use to make bread, and was a staple for the poor folks.

[iv] The Small Catechism. Luther’s explanation to the Sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

On the Fringe (Reflection on Pentecost 8, Year B, 2021

“And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:56) 

So what’s up with the “fringe” of Jesus’ cloak? Now of days, when we speak of “fringe,” we’re often referring to something on the margins or way on the outside of the customary. You know, like “lunatic fringe.” A “fringe group” refers to members of an organization who have views that are much wackier than those of the rank-and-file members. “Fringe Art” festivals, which several major cities often sponsor, feature uncensored, independent, non-commercial, and—frankly—sometimes just plain weird expressions of peoples’ creativity. 

But the fringe in our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 8, Year B (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) was definitely something that sat squarely in the mainstream. Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus doesn’t seem to go in for eccentric dress. His cloak displays the four fringed tassels which Jewish men were expected to wear as an outward sign of who they were—people committed to God’s laws and righteousness. 

As you know, Jewish men were circumcised as a physical sign that they were set apart as God’s chosen people; however, you really wouldn’t want to go around showing off this particular feature. (That would be in rather poor taste!) So, during the time of the Exodus, the Hebrew folks were instructed to wear four fringed tassels on their outer garments with a royal blue thread on each as a reminder of the 10 Commandments.[i] Wearing the fringe would be like Christians wearing a cross. It would say to everyone, “Look! This is my faith, and I’m pretty darn proud of it.” Even today, Hasidic Jewish men continue to wear the fringe. (Should you run into a bearded gentleman wearing a hat and he has four long fringes hanging out from under his jacket, don’t offer him a ham sandwich!) 

Two things strike me about this story. First, Jesus doesn’t really seem to be too much “on the fringe” in that he’s obedient to certain Jewish customs. His fringes say that he abides by God’s law and is a seeker after righteousness. The other thing is the desperation of those who so need Jesus’ healing compassion. They know that even grasping the outermost and lowest part of his attire will bring them the relief they need. 

Both the First Lesson and the Gospel for this Sunday have an ovine motif. That is, we get more of that sheep and shepherd stuff. In the Hebrew Scripture lesson (Jeremiah 23:1-6) we hear the prophet lamenting—as only Jeremiah can—that the “shepherds” (i.e. the folks who were supposed to be in charge of the nation and supposed to make sure everyone was treated fairly) had really screwed up. He prophesies that God will—someday—raise up a new shepherd who’ll reign justly and will keep the people safe. In the Gospel, Jesus, after planning a little retreat for his hard-working disciples, finds himself swamped by needy folks whom he sees as “sheep without a shepherd.” (v. 34) 

Whenever I read a Bible story, I try to imagine which character in the story represents me. It’s not too hard to figure out that we’re the sheep in this passage. Sheep need a shepherd because—let’s face it—they’re too dumb to get along on their own. Sheep without a shepherd would probably just wander around the pasture waiting to be eaten by something. A good shepherd would keep the animals safe and make sure they got what they needed. Even the most intellectually challenged sheep would know he needed his shepherd. 

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis identifies our need for God and for each other as a manifestation of love. He admits, of course, that needy people can be annoying and sometimes tyrannically selfish; nevertheless, the reality of our need demonstrates that we are creatures who are insufficient in ourselves and who are intended to be in some kind of relationship with God and with others. Lewis calls this “Need-love,” and describes it as the same trusting love a frightened child would have for his or her mother’s arms.[ii] 

I’d say we all probably feel a bit like sheep without a shepherd at times. Our earthly “shepherds,” like the do-nothing kings in the days of Jeremiah, are only human and let us down with alarming regularity. It’s pretty hard to know who to trust. On top of this, we’re living in a crazy world which is getting crazier by the day—pandemic, climate change, gun violence, opioid addiction, assaults on democracy— it looks like everything is heading straight into the dumper. 

This is the time when we clutch at the fringe of Jesus’ garments. When everything in the world or in our personal lives seems to be going sideways, we look at this man wearing the fringe of God’s righteousness and we say, “I need you.” We are forced to renounce the mainstream’s love of independence, assurance, and rugged self-determination and accept that we are broken, confused, doubting, and helpless. It’s not glamorous, but it’s who we are. 

We are, perhaps, closest and dearest to God when we are on the fringe.


[i] See Numbers 15:38-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12

[ii] See C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Harcourt Brace, New York 1960.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Just a Little Herod in Us All (Reflections on Pentecost 7,Year B, 2021)

 


“…for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) 

So what’s up with this? Those ancient Jews had some weird laws. If, for example, a married man died without having had a son, his brother was expected to marry his widow, knock her up, and produce a son who would be considered the son of his dead brother.[i] Nobody had a problem with that. But, if a gal just got tired of her old man and decided she liked his brother better, that was a whole different story. This would be considered adultery, and John the Baptist took a pretty dim view of this in the gospel lesson for Pentecost 7, Year B (Mark 6:14-29) 

You can’t blame John. For the same reason even loyal Democrats got a little miffed when Bill Clinton got caught fooling around with a White House intern. People just want to know that the folks in charge are honest, decent, dependable people. You may think a law is silly—and Herod and Herodias had a right to fall in love if they wanted to—but the law is the law until someone changes it. The people who make the laws aren’t supposed to break the laws. 

Once upon a time I used to run into this guy—and it seemed I was running into him whenever I went out—and I’d see him with this chick I knew wasn’t his wife. I have to admit I was pretty embarrassed by this—especially since the guy was my boss. Back then I’d never have the courage to confront him about this. Instead I just thought this was his private life and it was none of my business. He fired me anyway. 

Mark sticks the story of John the Baptist’s arrest and execution right between Jesus’ sending out of the disciples and the return of those disciples. Smart Bible scholars think this might be one really graphic illustration of the truth the saints will face—telling people what they don’t want to hear will not be fun. Sometimes you’ll just be able to shake the dust off your feet and get back to the business of casting out evil spirits of falsehood, hatred, ignorance, and doubt. Sometimes you might get your head cut off. Jesus will be killed himself. 

It’s been said that political leaders are rarely motivated to do the right thing just because it is the right thing. Old Herod knew that John was a good dude, but he still had him beheaded. Some of the greatest motivators for people already in power are ambition, greed, and fear. Herod let this holy man be killed so he could keep a stupid oath he never should’ve made in the first place and not look like the dumbass he was in front of his wife and his pals. Basically, he committed murder out of fear of embarrassment. 

I think this story begs the question: What are you afraid of? What might keep you from speaking out against racist speech or gossip? What might keep you from keeping your own promise never to allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence? Why would you keep silent when you see a situation that’s about to go over a cliff, or a person whose life is headed into the dumper, or a perplexed soul who really needs to understand the gospel? Maybe your call to repentance will be slung back in your teeth. But maybe it won’t. And maybe you’ll make an incredible impact on someone. 

We all have a little Herod in us, don’t we? We like to hear the Good News, but it perplexes us at times. We want to be holy—but just not too holy. We know we’d be better off just fessing up to our faults, giving in to some red-faced embarrassment, and trying to correct our course, but it’s easier to blame the ones who call our bone-headedness to our attention. 

It might seem easier to be Herod than to be John the Baptist. Both men struggle, but, I suspect only one rests in peace. 

Thanks for dropping by, my friend.


[i] See Deuteronomy 25:5-7. Yup. It’s in there.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Free and Responsible (Reflections on Pentecost 6, Year B and Independence Day)

 

So just what does the Fourth of July mean to you? I suspect that, for many Americans, this is just another excuse for a backyard barbeque and a chance to watch some pretty impressive fireworks. Yes, we do celebrate the founding of our country, but what exactly does that signify? Are we just being chauvinists, saying, in effect, “We’re great because we’re us, and everybody else sucks?” 

To celebrate this day should imply putting some meaning behind it. 

I’ve been praying a lot for our country lately. I’m certainly proud of America’s founding commitment to egalitarian government (however narrowly our Founders defined that!), but the events of last January 6th really have me rattled. I am beginning to fear that blind partisanship has taken the place of patriotism, vulgar selfishness has replaced freedom, opportunism is replacing true service, and plutocracy is taking the place of democracy. 

245 years ago, some very smart men decided they would slither out from under the thumb of a monarchy and a parliamentary system controlled by landed blue-bloods and form a common person’s democratic government. They gained their freedom, but they took on one heck of a lot of responsibility. If this is to be a government of the people, then the people must take ownership of it and be committed to its upkeep. 

Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of responsibility on our plate just at present. We have a responsibility to tell the truth—even if that means admitting that many of those very smart fellows who formed our government were slave holders, and that the legacy of human bondage has left a still-festering wound cut deeply into the flesh of this nation. We have a responsibility to promote equality. 

We have a responsibility address climate change. We have a responsibility to demand a new, clean energy economy. We have an obligation to promote better education for our children and accessible healthcare for all our citizens. The Declaration of Independence states that whenever a government fails to provide for the safety and well-being of the citizens, those citizens have the responsibility to change the government. 

The work of living in a democracy is hard. It only works if people are invested and really believe that what we do matters. As illustrated in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 6, Year B (Mark 6:1-13), not even Jesus could do an act of power for people who would not believe or listen. I always like Mark’s bare-knuckles approach to storytelling. Matthew’s Gospel cleans this story up by saying Jesus “did not do many deeds of power there because of their unbelief.”[i] Mark, in contrast says Jesus “could do no deeds of power there.” If hope and commitment are absent, nothing can get done. 

Emerson Powery a professor of Biblical studies at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, notes that Mark juxtaposes the tale of Jesus’ failure to reach the unbelieving home crowd with his sending out of the disciples to proclaim the Gospel. Jesus has just been disappointed by his failure to reach the locals, a sign, according to Professor Powery, that every new movement is going to face some opposition. We will always encounter people who just don’t want to be bothered with doing what is right or merciful or inconvenient. Jesus warns the disciples that this is going to happen to them. If and when it does, they are to shake it off and keep going.

Jesus’ instructions to the twelve seem to me to be pretty good instructions for being responsible citizens. He tells them not to stockpile or horde. They are to use what they have, a reminder that when we look to God to provide, enough is as good as a feast (vv.8-9). The disciples proclaim repentance, a changing of the peoples’ minds, but they also become healers of the sick. Their mission is ultimately to bring well-being. We still have a responsibility for the health of those around us. I can’t help but think that getting COVID-19 vaccinations, wearing masks in crowded places, and taking precautions for the protection of others should take precedence over our own personal likes and dislikes. 

The disciples accomplish acts of healing by anointing the sick (v.13). The sick, considered to be outcasts, are honored with oil just as a king would be. The sharing of oil with a stranger was an act of incorporation, a sign that they are included and part of the larger societal family. 

As Christians and as Americans we are always a work in progress. Our holidays should not be simply a commemoration of past events, but a re-dedication to what we are intended to be. Like the twelve, we are called to be on a mission and to do deeds of power.


[i] Matt. 13:58

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Whose Kid Gets the Help? (Reflections on Pentecost 5, Year B, 2021)

 


“…Daughter, your faith has made you well…” (Mark 6:34) 

Daughters are special. Moms and daughters don’t always get on, but dads love their little girls. I know. It’s a stupid prejudice, but, as a teacher in public school and Confirmation classes, I find I’ve always been more tolerant of the girls when they act up than of the boys when they do the same. How does that lyric from Gigi go..? “Thank heavens for little girls…those little eyes so helpless and appealing…” I’m not a biological parent myself, but through the years I’ve sort of emotionally adopted a number of children, and they’ve all been girls. Even my pets have been female. And I can never get mad at any of them. 

I’ll bet Jairus, the synagogue official in the Gospel lesson the RCL appoints for Pentecost 5, Year B (Mark 5:21-43) felt the same way. I’ll bet his little girl was just the Cheeze Whiz on the Philly steak sandwich of his life.[i] When his little darling takes ill, there’s nothing her daddy wouldn’t do to get her well again. He’d even be willing to kneel down in front of the hippie preacher from Nazareth and plead with him for a miracle cure. 

Naturally, Jesus is ready and willing to come with this deeply religious man and do what he can for the sick child. Jairus has made it clear that this is a “lights and sirens” kind of emergency—this little girl is sick enough to die if help doesn’t come in a hurry. So I’m thinking they all took off for Jairus’ place at a pretty darn fast clip. Of course, people being people, folks noticed the hustling Messiah and, looking forward to seeing a good emergency situation, they started following Jesus, Jairus, and the other twelve to see how this thing would play out. After all, Jesus wasn’t always on the best of terms with the religious high muckety-mucks, so seeing the two of them racing off together must’ve caused some general interest. 

As things would have it, just as this whole mob of folks set off to see an emergency healing miracle, Jesus suddenly gets a weird sensation. Somebody in the crowd has touched him and snatched away a little miraculous healing power without even asking. Jesus whips around to see who it is who thinks they’re entitled to his own heavenly-ordained brand of healthcare. It turns out to be woman who’d been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. I imagine things got a little tense when she revealed herself. The Bible says she confessed in “fear and trembling,” and no wonder. This was a pretty audacious act for her to commit. It’s one thing to be a religious leader and ask for help, but a woman was a second class citizen. A sick woman was obviously—according to the thinking of the day—on God’s naughty list and had no business approaching a holy man. A sick bleeding woman was even ritually unclean and her touch was considered a defilement.[ii] 

What’s worse is this chick is holding up the parade. Obviously she doesn’t realize that there’s an emergency situation going on. Her little stunt has just cost precious time that could be the difference between life and death for Jairus’ daughter. In fact, by the time Jesus does reach Jairus’ house, he’s told the little girl has died. But Jesus has time for two miracles on the same day. Jairus’ daughter is also God’s daughter. So is the bleeding woman. Jesus even addresses her as “Daughter.”  Jesus doesn’t make any distinctions between a religious leader and an “impure” woman. He has love for both. 

Who deserves God’s healthcare plan? Anyone who is sick. Anyone. We so want to decide who is worthy and who is undeserving. We hate the idea that someone may get something they’re not “entitled” to or haven’t earned. We’re so hung up on justice that we’ve forgotten grace and mercy. 

I look at this story as a reminder that God has no priorities. The infant baptized is loved by God just as much as the pious elderly saint. The long-time church member who served on the council, sang in the choir, cleaned up after the potluck suppers, and contributed liberally to the offering plate is no more a child of God than the pot-smoking teenager who vanished after his Confirmation vowing never to enter a church again if he could help it. The citizen and the alien, the straight and the gay, the captain of industry and the unemployed single mom—all are heirs of grace. When we realize this as a society, we too can be agents of healing. How marvelous to look at all of God’s people as a proud daddy looks at his darling baby girl with love, tenderness, and a desire to keep her safe and healthy.


[i] Metaphorically speaking, of course. A Philly cheesesteak would, technically, be a violation of Jewish dietary law.

[ii] See Leviticus 15:25

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

"Shut Up, Wind!" (Reflections on Pentecost 4, Year B)

 

“…and they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41) 

Do you ever catch yourself reading a Gospel lesson like the one for Pentecost 4, Year B (Mark 4:35-41) and saying to yourself, “So what?” Okay. Jesus is asleep in a boat with the disciples, a big storm comes up (as storms are wont to do on the Sea of Galilee), Jesus’ buddies get spooked, they call on him, and—being Jesus—he works a miracle and the storm stops. Everybody’s safe. 

Big deal, right? 

I mean, haven’t we all heard this story a bazillion times before? Of course, Jesus stills the storm. He’s the Son of God, right? But what does that have to do with me? 

Well, if you’re reading this post you’ve already decided that Jesus is pretty important in your life. The reminder of a one-time miracle may not be floating your boat just now[i], but a dive into some of the details of the story might do the trick. 

I’ve been in pretty choppy water twice in my life. The first time was when I was sailing with some friends in the Channel Islands off the southern California coast. We’d sailed past the lee of Anacapa Island and found the open ocean a little rougher than we (or at least I) anticipated. I remember the skipper very calmly saying—as if he had to think about it for a few minutes—“I think we should put on our life jackets.” 

The second time was when I was asked to accompany friends Tom and Vicky on a sailboat race in the Gulf of Mexico in what I perceived to be nothing less than a monsoon. As I helped to raise the ship’s spinnaker, we were caught by a huge gust of wind. The ship listed to port, and your Old Religious Guy got washed over the side. Fortunately, Tom grabbed me just as I floated past the stern and pulled me back onto the boat. 

I think I can say without boasting that neither of these nautical events filled me with abject terror, even though I certainly don’t relish the idea of death by drowning. The truth is, in both cases I had tremendous faith that a more able mariner than myself was in charge of the vessel, and he would certainly know what to do if things started to go sideways[ii]. 

The disciples in our Gospel tale this week don’t seem to have the same level of confidence. In fact, they’re scared spitless, and they even seem to be a bit uncertain that the only begotten Son of God gives enough of a rip about them to wake from his nap and save them. And maybe we’re in the same boat with them right now.[iii] 

For the ancients, water was a metaphor for chaos, and chaos isn’t very comforting. Now, you’d think that experienced fishermen would have a little more confidence in their own ability to pilot a boat safely back to shore even in rough weather conditions, but everyone gets rattled from time to time—even the folks who have been rescued over and over again. Jesus isn’t too gentle with his scaredy-cat buddies here. He asks them why they have no faith, and that’s the question which is always germane, isn’t it? 

Yes. Things are wild and crazy now. In fact, they’re even existentially crazy. We have a planet that is speeding like a greased-up bullet towards climate catastrophe and a bunch of guys in charge of the government who may be more interested in oil prices than survival of our species. We have a political system in freefall. We have city streets turning into shooting galleries. We have hungry people at the southern border and right down the block. Our marvelous digital age has put out the welcome mat for a whole new classification of criminal activity, and I could go on and on. I certainly wouldn’t blame you for feeling scared or not having faith, because I’m starting to perspire a little myself. 

We’re all in the same boat and getting knocked around by the chaos and wondering why God seems to be asleep. Perhaps we forget that we’ve been rescued before, and it is God’s will to rescue us again if we are willing to be faithful. There are some notable details in this story that give me a weird sense of uncomfortable comfort. The first is that Jesus “rebukes” the storm (v. 39). The word in Greek is epetimesen (epetimhsen, literally, “he rebuked”). This means Jesus didn’t just ask the chaos to stop. He ordered it to stop, scolded it, reprimanded it, kicked its butt and took down its name. He told that chaos it had no business doing what it was doing. He not only faced it, but directly challenged it. What’s more, the Greek which we translate as “Be still!” (pephimoso or pefimwso for those of you like to read it in the original[iv]) is in the perfect tense passive voice which could be translated “Be stilled!” or “Be silenced!” meaning “Shut the freak up and don’t talk again!” 

The reaction of the disciples to this rebuke is pretty whacky. Our wimpy New Revised Standard Version translates it as “they were filled with great awe.” (v. 41). But, if you look at the original Greek (or even the dear old King James Bible which is a bit more faithful—to say nothing of poetic), the disciples bhqhsan fobon megan, which literally translates “feared a great fear” when Jesus silenced the storm. I guess confronting and denouncing the chaos scared them just as much as the chaos itself did. This kind of makes me think that following Jesus always tends to be a little bit scary. If we’re not scared to act as Jesus acted, maybe we’re not doing it right. 

But there’s one more little detail which doesn’t seem to figure in the story. In verse 36 we learn that the disciples’ boat isn’t alone on the lake. There are “other boats” with them. The Greek calls them ploiaria or “small ships.” That is, they were smaller than the ship Jesus and the twelve were in. I remember when I fell into the Gulf of Mexico that there were other boats very nearby. If my shipmate hadn’t pulled me back, some other craft would’ve rescued me. I think the Bible is trying to tell us that, scared as we are, we’re not alone. If our little ship goes down, there will still be others who will make it across. We have a very able captain. Why should we ever be in doubt? Let’s face the storm.


[i] Pun intended.

[ii] Another pun intended.

[iii] Had enough of the sea-going puns yet?

[iv] And who doesn’t?