Saturday, February 6, 2010

Stilling the Storm

Luke 8. 22-25

When I was young, I used to make regular trips across to France on a Brittany Ferry - usually on school exchanges.  Because we lived in Devon, the route we took was the longest crossing of the Channel - the Plymouth to Roscoff route. Those were fun voyages.  Freed from the shackles of home, we would buy duty free cigarettes and smoke ourselves silly.  In France we would buy explosive fire crackers, and then, on the way back home, we would set them off in various places around the ship...just to laugh at the reaction of startled passengers.  God only knows where our teachers were at these times - I think they just let us experiment with life while they propped up a bar somewhere on the ship!

However, one particular crossing stands out very clearly in my head...a crossing in which I had a very close brush with death.  We had to cross in a force 9 gale - in mountainous seas.  Nowadays, if you find yourself on a ship in a storm, the doors to the outside decks will be locked - for health and safety reasons.  But back in the 1970s, no-one worried about such things.  Now, let me tell you, this was a storm and a half.  What should have been an 8 hour crossing just went on and on...10 hours, 12 hours, 14 hours.  All the while, the ship battled against the weather...climbing up huge waves, and then racing down the other side of them.  As a result, as you can imagine, most people on board were very, very sick.  I will leave your imaginations to picture what the floors of the ship were like, with so many people being very very ill.  So I decided to go out on deck, into the storm, but also into some rather fresher air.

Outside, I did up my trendy Parker - with it's fur-lined hood - and then picked up a plastic chair that was rolling around the deck, and sat down behind a bulkhead in a relatively sheltered spot.  I was very tired, and so put my head on my chest and attempted to grab some sleep.  Eventually, I managed to drift off...but just at that moment, the ship rolled off the side of a wave, and pitched sideways at an alarming angle.  The plastic legs of my plastic chair buckled underneath me, and I woke up to find myself sliding down the deck towards the railings.  Frantically, I reached out and grabbed the railing, just in time to stop myself sliding off the ship into the sea.  For a brief, terrifying moment I stared into the boiling sea, the foam just a few feet from my face, thinking 'this is it!  I'm a gonner!'  Well, as you can see, I survived!  But that experience has left me always a little wary of the sea, and always conscious of the suddenness with which life could come to an end.

Israelites were wary of the sea too.  They were not a sea-faring nation, despite having the entire Eastern Mediteranean along their shores.  Historians can tell us why this is.  Partly it was because Israelites, through Abraham, emerged out of the desert - and so were naturally and culturally desert-dwellers, not sea-farers.  Partly it was because there were too many powerful nations, like the Egyptians and then the Romans who had gained mastery of the sea before them.  Other nations had effectively taken over all the useful ports along the coast. As a result, the only significant contact with water that Israelites tended to have was through the Lake of Galilee.  Galilee was, and still is, a large lake - large enough to be known to the locals as the 'Sea' of Galilee - but still essentially a lake.

To Israeli minds, the sea was place of danger and of chaos.  Their scriptures always saw the sea as a force to be overcome (like during the crossing of the Red Sea) or a place of doom and trial (like in the very ancient story of Jonah).  Land was where your typical Israeli wanted to keep his feet.  In Genesis, land had emerged out of the sea.  Land was about order and control, life and possibility.  The sea - or 'the Deep' as Genesis calls it, is about chaos and danger.

So, we can now perhaps put ourselves in the position of the Disciples who were accompanying Jesus across the Lake...when a storm blew up.  Not only were they experiencing the normal fear that any of us might feel...being tossed about in a little fishing boat.  Behind that lay all the cultural fears that they carried with them.  The sea, that place of danger and chaos, had turned violent.  The disciples were now being affected by forces they could not control - victimised by it, terrified by it.  And any Jewish audience, listening to this early story about Jesus, would have recoiled at the thought of being caught in a storm at sea.

The sea, then, was a challenge to everything that feels certain and safe in life.  It invoked images of primordial chaos...but it also invoked stories of God creating life out of the chaos, of God delivering Jonah from the belly of the great fish, of God rescuing the Hebrew nation across the Red Sea.  By telling this story about Jesus calming the storm, Luke is helping his readers to make a connection between God and Jesus.  This is an 'epiphany' story - a manifestation of Jesus' divine power and identity.  Luke, and also Matthew and Mark who tell the same story with some different details, are all saying 'this Jesus has the power of God to control even the elements, and bend them to his will'.  Luke ends the story with a characteristically rhetorical question from the Disciples, "Who is this that even the winds and the water obey him?"

It's perhaps worth noticing that this is the first of a series of stories that Luke tells - all of which are designed to show Jesus' mastery over nature, demons, illness and death.  After completing his journey on the Lake, Jesus casts out the demons in the man called Legion. Immediately after that, he heals the woman who suffers from bleeding; and then he raises Jairus' daughter from the dead.  Luke is underlining an essential fact:  the One who brings the Word of God also exercises the Power of God.  'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' - as we shall remind ourselves during the Eucharist in a few minutes. Luke wants us to realise that Jesus was not just a holy and wise teacher - but someone who was connected to the very forces that create and sustain the world in which we live.

But let's get back to the disciples.  They were, as I've said, being mightily affected by, indeed bullied and victimised by forces that were beyond their control.  Jesus, however, didn't seem to be bothered.  While all this chaos is going on around them, Jesus is blissfully asleep.  He wasn't on a plastic chair on a Brittany Ferry, like I was - but, according to Mark's version of the same story, he was curled up in the stern, on a cushion.  Even when his disciples woke him up, Jesus seems to have remained blissfully unconcerned.  He seems to know that this storm won't be a danger...or at least that he has the divine power to control it.  And he wonders why his disciples are not similarly cool.  "Where is your faith?"  he asks them.  In other words, "Don't you realise who I am...and what I can do?"

That same question rings across the centuries to us.

"Don't you realise who I am...and what I can do?"

This weekend, Clare and Emily and I have had the privilege of hosting Bishop Edmund Dawson-Ahmoah from Ghana.  Something that Christians from other countries often show me is how much they rely on the mighty power of God to intervene in, and transform, human lives.  When our good friend Fr. Joseph first came to live among us, he told me that he had come to England without any idea of where he was going to live.  But nevertheless, he set out on his journey, confident that God would supply all his needs.  Time and time again, people I have met from other parts of the world, have a deep sense, borne out of real experience,  that God is able to still the storms in their life, and take care of their needs.

Sometimes I wonder whether we English are now so self-sufficient that we have forgotten what it is to rely on God - to have the faith that Jesus expected his disciples to have.  In general we English have reached a level of prosperity, and have now lived for so long without war on our shores, that we have stopped looking to heaven, and begun looking only to our own resources.  Could it be that the reason why church attendance is falling is precisely because we now worship Gods of economics, or the God of pensions, or the God of the national health service - instead of the Creative Force behind and beyond all life?

Trusting in God is, instead of in our own resources, is of course a far less predictable path.  "How will God resolve my problems?" we want to know.  "How exactly will he do it?".  We won't give ourselves to God until we have some level of certainty about how God's action will turn out.  But this is not the way of faith.  Fr. Joseph has said to me, many times, that if he had not been willing to trust in God, he would still be in Ghana now, and he would never had made all the new friends and relationships that he has among us.

But this is not the English way.  In general, we live lives that are diaried, packaged, timetabled, planned and executed with ruthless precision.  Ask any English person where they will be at 3pm next Thursday, and they will know precisely.  But I've discovered that if you ask an African the same question, they may very well reply something like "wherever God has put me at that time".  We English have a routine.  We go to work, we come home, we close the curtains, tune-in the TV and tune-out the world.  Bishop Edmund, on the other hand, tells me that every-time his family prepares a meal, they always prepare extra food...for the neighbours or friends who are very likely to just turn up and share in fellowship, conversation, laughter and life.    

I find myself both excited and challenged by this non-English way of looking at God.  This life of faith is a way of living that remains constantly open to the God who stilled the storm, cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead.  It is a way of living which embraces the God who disrupts the normality of life, with dramatic, life-changing intervention.

The life of faith is a way of living that relies on God.  Its a way of living which looks-forward to what God will do in our lives.  It a way of embracing God as God goes through life's storms and celebrations with us.  It is a, it is The Way, which leads to The Truth and The Life.  


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