Sermon: “Calming the Storm”

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the Universalist National Memorial Church on June 23, 2024 using lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary from 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and Mark 4:35-41.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me to the pulpit in his absence and you for welcoming me back. It’s been a while. As most of you know, my father fell sick and died two months ago. I appreciate the kind words and prayers for me, my family and for his soul, and I share the same for a dear member and his family.

It’s little wonder then, that I’ve been reviewing some of those habits and skills Dad set in me. While my knot-tying is poor and knife sharpening substandard, I am very much his son.

Like him, I watch for hazardous weather, repair my own computers, plan out what I want to see and where I want to eat when on vacation, and speed-run my grocery shopping. A retired Coast Guardsman and a leading historian of the service, he lived by its motto Semper Paratus, “always prepared.”

But sometimes I go further than Dad did. I pack and repack backpacks and shoulder bags to see how much I can get in each, to travel the longest period of time. (I went to a conference in Italy last year with the contents of backpack, and think I could do better.) I weighed everything I carried and put it in a spreadsheet. I have an assortment of recharging batteries, a weather radio, emergency food and plan to get out of town if a dire situation arises. Looking at my relatively modest but not wholly necessary gear, plans and thoughts, I had to ask myself, “Am I a survivalist?” That’s a thing now, and not so uncommon.

It’s not the same thing as saying that I want to live and that I want to survive disasters. That’s a given. Survivalism is a more extreme set of skills, attitudes and actions, that sets survival at such a high bar that it identifies enemies (who may not exist), risks (real or imagined, truly survivable or not) and resources (that compete with real daily needs) so much that makes life today less livable. Survivalism seems like something other than caution, but rather paranoia and fearfulness, and doesn’t seem worth having. I don’t know exactly where the line between preparation and survivalism is, but on reflection — using that primary theological skill, reflection — I don’t think I’m anywhere close to crossing it. I might even share some of my peanut butter with you. That’s the kind of life I want to live.

But it is easy to be fretful if not outright fearful. Crime is far too common and adds the sting of chaos in our city; housing is a source of worry for too many, whether from cost, quality, availability; and the political season coming has its own attendant fears. Who will win high office and what changes will that bring?

When examining risks, we should start with reflection. What is our situation? What is in my control? What is out of my control? What do I value? How can I act? And for us here today I want to focus on the religious part of it.

Religion first, I think, because it’s how so many of us frame of a sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, care and neglect, even if unconsciously. From that, we often develop a sense of scale and responsibility that is the opposite of a survivalist perspective. It’s both how we see the world, and a window through what we hope to see in it. For instance, I enjoy my comforts, but this religion continually reminds me that there are other people in this world with hopes and desires of their own, and I can’t have everything and them have nothing. So, reflecting on the basics:

First, God has been with us and and our ancestors in all ages, though sometimes we have a better understanding of this divine presence, and sometimes in the presence of immense suffering seems absent.

We while we have our lives, our senses, our will, our feelings, our heritage, the sky and the land, a view of the night sky and its wonders, access to food and water, and closeness to people who care, even love us. These alone hint to a grandness we did not make, perhaps the divine presence, that in a reflection of God’s image we create and choose, ponder and enter into relationships. Do all have these gifts sufficiently or in equal measure? No. There have always been people who are poor in material goods, health, companionship and hope. And it’s a cornerstone of the Christian faith (even if sometimes neglected) to support those who have few or none of these. And not out of noblesse oblige, because none of us is so noblesse to be immune to suffering and loss. When we see others cry, we may not know why, but having cried ourselves understand loss. And when we sense fear and threats, we know others sense it too.

Let’s turn to the texts.

Today, we hear on Paul’s passionate appeal to the young church at Corinth and Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Clearly, they have these common themes of fear and threats, though of different kinds. The Corinthian church dealt with the problems human beings have with one another, while Jesus and the disciples faced a natural threat, but source of the threat isn’t all that important here.

To recap: while there are two letters from Paul to the young Christian community in Corinth, internal evidence suggests there were more that have not survived. Between these letters, those references and a mention in Acts, we get a profile of a church in crisis. Paul’s letters were his way to exercise care — virtually, you might say — from Macedonia to the north and Ephesus, in modern Turkey.

While in Mark’s gospel, a Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee, a furious squall arises, threatening to capsize their boat. The disciples, terrified, wake Jesus, who is asleep in the stern. With a word, Jesus calms the storm, rebuking the wind and the waves. “Peace! Be still!” and then he gives them an earful for their unfaithfulness.

My childhood Bible had a inset picture of Jesus calming the storm, so powerful this passage in the Christian imagination. Surely the power over the natural world is a sign of deity. But there is another testament of faith displayed here that is invariably overlooked.

The passage goes: “But [Jesus] 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?’” Wait: Jesus was asleep!? In the face of the storm. Jesus slept and had to be roused by his anxious and fretful disciples. Why was he calm and they so alarmed? Now sometimes I sleep through storms myself, and other times they wake me. The wind howls, thunder crashes, and sheets of rain pelt the windows and walls. When the storm is long, I’m more likely to tune it out and rest if not actually sleep, but if I know it’s coming I sometimes can’t even get to sleep. Perhaps the storm on the Galilee was not just sudden and intense, but short. A naturalist argument follows that Jesus didn’t stop anything, but simply did not fear a threat which could not last.

Another option, and what I suspect happened, was that Jesus trusted divine will, and was not afraid of what was happening – living what he prayed, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and he projected his surety to calm the disciples in the face of the storm. In short, his faith in God that they would endure, and giving encouragement when fears arise. Likewise, be courageous, so that others may have courage.

We are social beings, and are affected by those around us. Fear breeds fear and hatred grows hatred. It’s remarkably difficult to go against the current, and so much harder when weakened by personal or societal stress. And we are at risk. But let’s reflect and focus on what real risks we face, so we can prepare effectively, and not be distracted by deception, invented or unimportant matters. You will have your own personal concerns; here, naturally, I’m speaking about those we all face.

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual report of emerging risks, its Global Risks Report, which lay out the “findings of the GlobalRisks Perception Survey…which captures insights from nearly 1,500 global experts.” (p. 6) You might be able to anticipate what’s in this year’s report, though that doesn’t make them any more tolerable. The forecast is not good. The survey “highlight[s] a predominantly negative outlook for the world over the next two years that is expected to worsen over the next decade.”

The first reason is extreme weather and biosystem collapse as a result of climate change. It’s hard to argue with that, especially since the warning bells have been going off for decades, or feeling the abnormally high temperatures we’re having this weekend. I just don’t have a good answer for that one, thought I suspect we’re the phase where we help as many people as possible cope with the change which is already underway. Be courageous.

The second risk is society polarization with an economic downturn as an interconnected threat, and would be magnified by the third threat: malicious campaigns of misinformation and disinformation, particularly before elections. Recall that this year and next seven of the world’s largest democracies – including the United States – will have, or will have had national elections. Lies will spread with the truth, and as we have seen with images generated by artificial intelligence – even the imperfect ones – we can no longer naively trust what we see. Assaults on the truth itself have led to untold death and suffering over the last century, and it’s seems to be getting more sophisticated and complex, not better, especially when we tie in other emerging risks like economic stagnation, the role of artificial intelligence, organized crime and armed conflict.

This is a valuable review and resource, and worth reading. But a list of threats doesn’t come with a perfect or convenient set of solutions, and what is the worst for the world isn’t the same as what imperils us the most. When Dad was sick and dying that was my number-one concern. I cared about supporting my family more than the economy or carbon dioxide, even though it all comes at once.

And so each of us respond in the contexts we live in with both personal and social risks, and the good news is that we will have a variety of solutions. We need that variety. Problems, as we well know, rarely have single, tidy solutions. But sticking with the problems-in-common, I appreciate hearing that much of what I suspected to be true is a realistic threat, because we have a better sense of what we’re facing. Hiding doesn’t make the monster go away.

And a faith worth having has to be able to respond to crises and risks, which means interpreting the world in a way that makes more sense than not. Now, we are not bound to any particular means of interpreting the world around us, provided we are truthful and loving. I have known, loved and worked with people who see the world in a very different way than I, and we have had each other’s back. That diversity of viewpoint has been a strength, and has helped me fill in this story of faith in my head. So when we chose the gospel, and make that the guiding story, we have already chosen between appealing options, and returning to it, consider why we make it the cornerstone. Christianity brings its way of interpreting the world with its mistrust of unquestioned power; defense of the innocent and imperiled; awareness of our dependence on powers far beyond our control or understanding; and patience and humility before unalterable suffering. We can be glad and hopeful, even while we are sad and fearful, because we know what passes for eternal and incontrovertible in this world is infinitely small in the both a cosmic and divine scale. Laughing or crying or both, we look to the hardness of this world and ask, “then what am I? How can I stand?” And we hear the voice of blessing: “You are a child and heir of the living God.” And we persist.

And as Christians, we are accustomed to liars tempting us. (We even have a window about it.) “Cast yourself down,” the Tempter said, but Jesus rebuked him. We’re strong and ready for this, relying on his “spiritual leadership.” [See the church’s declaration of faith.] When lies, false tales and half truths come, we must be ready to call them out.

And like the Apostle Paul, we have to persevere through trials and hardships. Resilience is not about avoiding difficulties but about facing them with wisdom, strength and love. Preparing for the future means acknowledging the risks and continuing to move forward with hope and faith. Let us navigate life’s storms with resilience, confidence, open hearts and courage. Trusting in God’s presence, let us face the challenges of each coming day.

Let us pray: may God guide us, empower us, and unite us as we strive to live well in the face of whatever risks or perils face us. Amen.

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