Sunday, 21 June 2009

Peace! Have you still no faith?

Preached at Trinity URC and MCC North London, both in Camden Town, 21st June 2009

Job 38:1-11

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

"Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?-- when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?"

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "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. But he 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?" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"


It’s been an eventful couple of weeks, I bring greetings from MCC Austin, TX, the Office of Formation and Leadership development, 19 MCC churches represented at REVM and of course MCCBE, Clinton Crawshaw and Leon Huton. It always does me good to visit churches in our communion and see just what MCC is capable of; what strength, joy, faith and fellowship we can share with one another.

These few verses in Mark have all the tension and drama of a major Hollywood blockbuster condensed into a few short verses. We see Jesus, the big-time celebrity, climbing into his chauffeur-driven vehicle to escape the crowds (well, it’s a fishing boat, but bear with me). Then, horror of horrors, a crisis begins. The storm clouds gather, the others in the boat begin to look worried. We know they are experienced sailors, fishermen even. They know these waters; their livelihoods depend on their ability to successfully cross a lake in any conditions, but they are clearly worried. Rain is pelting down from all sides, they are caught in the most terrible winds, and they can see waves crashing down on all sides. The tension builds as the little wooden fishing boat containing out hero and his underdog companions is thrown across the waters. It is dark, we can barely make them out, and the soundtrack is full of dramatic chords in the strings and violent percussion. The audience is on the edge of their seats, but something is wrong. In the middle of all that violence, and drama and chaos, we realise we haven’t seen Jesus for a while. Where is he? Has he fallen out unnoticed? What is going on? Then one of the disciples moves to the front of the boat. Jesus is lying, motionless. Surely something has happened to him? How could he fail to be woken up by all the commotion? One of the disciples – we don’t know who but I think the smart money is on Peter – wakes him, desperate for some help. “Master,” he says, “do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ response is puzzling. He is little more than irritated at the response. In something of an anticlimax, we get a small gesture, a word of peace and a rebuke (“Have you still no faith?”) and the water is calm.

So, Hollywood would be disappointed. Imagine the re-write if that was how The Perfect Storm, Titanic or the Poseidon Adventure had been drafted! You see the director, wince “well, it’s good, Mark, but it’s lacking that punch. You ruin the tension, it’s over too quickly. Can’t you kill off a minor character in the early parts of the storm? One of those saints no one knows the name of, or one of the brothers, just to build up the tension? Then give Jesus some doubt. Some really scary doubt, like he doesn’t know if he can do it and then all of a sudden – BAM! Do you see what I’m saying?”

Thankfully, God doesn’t write Hollywood disaster movies. No one died, because Jesus was with them, and the hand of God was on their voyage. When they set out, they should have know that whatever happened they would be safe. They should have known when the storm started that they could rely on God to get them to the other side. And to an extent they did, but they are only human. Just like the rest of us, they eventually panicked and woke Jesus up. They knew God would keep them safe, but seeing Jesus asleep made them doubt. They thought that they would not be saved unless he woke up and perform a miracle. Jesus knew that this was why they woke him up, and I wonder, to whom did he say, “Peace! Be calm!” According to Mark, it was directed at the sea, but he didn’t need to speak to the see. He could silence the sea by lifting a finger, winking an eye, or just willing it silently. Jesus always speaks as he performs his miracles, and I think that’s because He is speaking words that the spectators need to hear. Speaking to the sea is not what calmed it, but I bet those words had an impact on the disciples. “Peace!” – stop panicking. Stop crying. “Be still!” Stop trying to control the boat. Stop trying to use your own power to keep you safe. God is in control.

Then, once they were calmed down, he asks the big question. “Have you still no faith?” After all they have seen Jesus do, after they left their homes and their livelihoods to follow him, have they still not enough faith to trust him with their lives? It sounds very familiar. Many of us in this room have chosen to lay down our lives and follow Jesus. We may have lost family, friends, even relationships and jobs, to follow Him. Or we may have been fortunate enough to lose nothing but the odd Sunday night, but we profess that we are ready to follow Him. We willingly give up our hearts and souls, we are ready to seek him and to give everything we have. But in my experience we all hold something back.

I am reminded of something that was said to me a few weeks ago by a much wiser person. David Mullatt, who was working with the Office of Formation and Leadership Devpt. on REVM, gave this advice; “It is much easier to be a pastor than to be a Christian”.

It is much easier to be a minister – and we are all ministers, in MCC we believe firmly in the priesthood of all believers – than it is to be a Christian. It is easy to find the words to say to someone when they are distressed, to pray with someone who needs it, than to calm our own spirit, to ask for prayer from someone else, and to spend time alone with God. But although we are called to demonstrate our faith in public it is by living it and not by big gestures and “look-at-me” Christianity. When we make it look like we are giving our all in public, what are we holding back in private?

I struggled for many years with depression. It still comes and goes, but for a long time after I became a Christian I held that depression back from God. I used to think that it represented a failure, and was something that had been given to me as a punishment for being gay. My church didn’t particularly do anything to dissuade me of that belief and it persisted. The longer it went on the more I held back from God. I would ask for prayer about it in public, but when I prayed on my own I persisted in neglecting it. There was a sort of pride in it, my depression was my Cross to Bear, and I let myself be so defined by it that I didn’t see a way that I could carry on living without it.

Eventually, I began to realise that it wasn’t necessary to hide behind an illness in order to be myself. I realised that people didn’t spend time with me because they felt sorry for me, but because they actually liked me. I began to realise that God wasn’t punishing me, and I started to let go. It was the most liberating thing that I have ever done. It was as though I heard God say to me, “Have you still no faith?” Do you think, after all I have done for you, that I can’t lift this burden? Do you honestly believe that just because I seem to be asleep on a cushion I am ignorant of your plight? Did I not tell you I would never leave you? Peace! Be still!”

In the first reading, we heard God say the same thing to Job. I don’t know about you, but I struggle reading the story of Job, so I’ll try to unpick it a little. Job is the central figure in one of the OT books known as the “wisdom books”. Like the Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Songs, Job is full of allegory and discussion of the nature of God. The book opens with a discussion between God and Satan. I need to make one thing clear, here. Satan in the OT is not a little red man with a pointed tail and horns. He is, in Hebrew, called ha’ satan, which means The Accuser. At the beginning of the story, we hear that Job is an honest, God-fearing man who is good to his family and servants. However, as the narration goes on, Job loses everything. First his children, his servants and his property, and then his health. Throughout the whole ordeal, he continues not just to resign himself to God’s will but to give himself to God gladly and to praise God’s name. After a while, he starts getting visits from friends and from members of his community. Fine, upstanding people whom we would call pillars of the community come to offer comfort. God doesn’t get it wrong, they say. You must have sinned, or maybe your children did. Someone is being punished. Call on God to forgive you and make it right.

After a long time, what must have felt like a lifetime of agony to Job, God decides to answer his prayer. But the answer, as we heard tonight, sounds cryptic and critical to human ears. Listen to the opening of God’s response again; this time in translation from The Message;

Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you're talking about?

Pull yourself together! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers. Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you'll know that! Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise? And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? That was me!

Can’t you hear what is being said to Job here? God says, “You might think this is important, but sweetheart this is nothing. I created you. I created the heavens and the earth. And you have no idea what your place in that is, do you? You don’t know how I did it or what you mean to me. That sounds to me an awful lot like what Jesus was saying to his disciples. “Peace! Be still! Have you still no faith?”

No one is denying that Job was fearful of his life. It was all he had left to lose. And the disciples were terrified, they genuinely believed that they were in mortal peril. But what, in reality, does that mean in the great scheme of God’s plan? If we profess with our hearts, minds and bodies that we will stand alongside God in Heaven forever – however you imagine and interpret that – then does it really matter if we lose our lives in this world? There is nothing wrong with being scared, but when that happens the important thing is to look back at God. If you think that all you can see is Jesus asleep, don’t think that means God is ignorant of your plight. Since Pentecost, we have one thing that the disciples didn’t yet have, and that Job could not have imagined. We have an advocate in the form of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us and guides us. Now it is we who can channel the power of God and say to the storm around us, whether it is a literal storm, an illness, a difficult relationship with friends, with Church or with a partner, “Peace! Be still! I have faith!” We can find it in us to get over anything we are faced with. We can also bless those around us with the peace that surpasses all understanding in Jesus Christ and help them to see that there is no storm in this life that is greater than the power of God.


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