Preached as sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 20th June 2021. Readings: Job 38.1-11; Mark 4.35-41.
Last Friday morning I was standing in a queue outside the Lidl on Church Street, in the middle of a heavy downpour, waiting for the shop to open.
The great thing about a priest wearing a clerical collar is that people react. It’s either by studiously ignoring you; or being pretty rude; or being really rather pleased to see a priest and engaging in conversation. To be honest sometimes those conversations can be pretty off the wall and, at other times, really heart-warming and transformative.
So it was that I stood in the rain - dog collar on and umbrella in hand - when a woman struck up a conversation. As we talked, both getting soaked, she spoke about her experience of lockdown.
She talked about her faith and about the church.
She said how the lockdowns had brought her to a greater realisation of her need for prayer and the sense of the power of God working in her life. She sought a power greater than herself in the great storms of life.
The storm of the pandemic blew up as if from nowhere, catching us all off guard.
Sometimes, of course, we know a storm is coming. Storms, literal or metaphorical, are disorientating and frightening.
That’s true of a mental or physical health episode, or when addiction or dependence just can’t be shaken off, or when money has run out, or debt becomes overbearing, or when life just crowds in on us.
So that woman in the queue had sought help from God in the storm she faced. Prayer became her lifeline and kept her in touch with the peace of God which passes all understanding.
She could not still the storm, but she knew someone who could!
That takes us to this morning’s gospel reading.
Jesus has been teaching the crowds about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4.26-34). There were so many people who wanted to hear him that he had spoken from a boat as the crowd stood on the lakeside.
By evening Jesus was clearly exhausted, so they set off away from the crowds on the tranquil Sea of Galilee. And Jesus fell asleep.
Then the storm blew up.
If you have been to the Holy Land you will know that the Sea of Galilee, which is a large inland lake really, is open on one side and surrounded by hills.
Storms can blow up very quickly on the lake, just as they can in our lives too, out of nowhere, and they disrupt and frighten.
The wind squalls around and waves crash in on those in the little boat.
Let’s just observe the detail for a moment. Jesus is asleep, but the experienced fishermen, well used to the storms on Galilee, are the ones who panic, they are ‘at their wits’ end’ as our psalm today put it. (cf Psalm 107.23-29). That psalm is a good commentary on the gospel reading.
What’s going on? What can we extract from this passage as we ponder the storms of life, the confusions, the sense of being tossed about and at the mercy of forces beyond our control?
As our first reading from the book of Job makes clear we fool ourselves when we think we are in control, when we have everything sorted, ordered just as we want it.
An ancient heresy, known as Pelagianism has a modern form: it’s when we say ‘I’ve got it all sorted, mapped out, planned. By my own effort I will overcome’. It is when we believe we don’t need the grace of God.
But, God asks Job, rhetorically, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’
In other words, you won’t find salvation within yourself, but you will when you reach out in faith and trust and cry out to me.
As Psalm 107 says of ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’ (23):
So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble: he delivereth them out of their distress.
For he maketh the storm to cease: so that the waves thereof are still’ (Psalm 107.28,29)
It is when we acknowledge our dependency upon God in the storms of life that we will find our true haven, our place of rest, tranquillity and shelter from the storms.
Storms will blow up again, personal, national, global and spiritual, but we know where to cry out.
As the psalm again says, ‘Then were they glad because they were at rest, and he brought them to the haven they desired’ (Psalm 107.30).
They woke the sleeping Christ and found peace: ‘peace. Be still’.
Christ sleeps, not because he doesn’t care that we are perishing, but rather that he embodies a deep peace and tranquillity that is of God and available to us in union with the Divine Life.
Here we see Jesus truly human; truly divine: gently sleeping; firmly speaking and rebuking the storm. No wonder the disciples ask, agog, ‘who then is this?’
This is the Lover of your soul: Jesus Christ, the image, the presence, the power of God who can calm the storms in your life too.
We call upon him to receive the peace of God which passes all understanding, the peace flowing from the altar, the peace we come to meet now in this ship of faith, meeting Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar:
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
‘Sweet Sacrament, divine’, Francis Stanfield 1835-1914