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Peace! Be Still!
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost — June 24, 2018
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?”
This past week was KIDZ Camp at Reveille, a ministry that provides elementary-age children with different daily, local mission opportunities as well as opportunities to learn and grow in the faith. Each year, I am given the opportunity to spend time with groups of these children in twenty minute segments for an activity called “Wesleyan Ways,” something I use as an opportunity to help the young people process the missions work they did earlier in the day in a distinctly Methodist context using the life and ministry of John Wesley as a backdrop.
Each year, I tell the children an abridged version of the story of Methodism’s founder. I tell them how John’s mother Susanna was born the twenty-fifth child in her family, and how she would eventually give birth to nineteen children herself. I tell them the story of how, on February 9, 1708, when John was five, he almost perished in a fire at his father’s rectory, and I tell them the story of the trip that John and his brother Charles took to the province of Georgia in the American colonies, a trip that almost resulted in Methodism becoming but an obscure footnote in Christian history.
On October 14, 1735, John and Charles Wesley departed Kent, England for Savannah, Georgia. The Wesleys had been invited by the colony’s founder James Oglethorpe to be the pastor of a newly-formed parish in Savannah. John saw this as not only an opportunity to minister to European settlers, but to do what he really wanted to do, which was to evangelize the Native Americans.
As their ship The Simmonds crossed the Atlantic, they encountered a tremendous storm, a storm so severe that it broke the ship’s mainmast. During this calamity, John, the chaplain of the voyage (as well as the rest of the English) panicked, fearful, convinced that they were all going to die that night. However, during this time of crisis, John noticed a group of Moravian Christians who were calmly and peacefully singing hymns and praying to God.
When the storm subsided, John Wesley asked them how they did it, how they remained so calm during such a potentially deadly time, and they told him that they simply trusted God to protect them, come what may. It was an important turning point in Wesley’s life, as it convinced him that the Moravians had a depth to their faith, an inner strength lacking in his own faith. As time passed, their deeply personal, intimate belief would greatly influence Wesley’s theology of Methodism.
In this morning’s text, Jesus persuades his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. They board a boat and Jesus falls asleep on a cushion in the stern when a severe windstorm arose and began to swamp the boat. Panicked, the disciples awaken Jesus and ask him “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Storms on the sea were terrifying to people in Jesus’ day. They represented chaos, all that was not of God, an alarming loss of control. This is why, in the Book of Revelation, the new heaven and new earth are described as a place “where the sea will be no more.”
Storms in our lives can be terrifying, both the literal storms and the symbolic ones. They are terrifying because they are often situations we did not choose, that we cannot prevent, and that last as long as they have to. For Jesus’s disciples, the storm was a literal matter of life and death, an event symbolic of the absence of God in their present circumstances. At first glance, their words as they roust Jesus from his slumber sound not only desperate but accusatory: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” I wonder if this situation reminded them of the story of Jonah, whose story also begins with the protagonist asleep on a boat amidst a storm, a storm sent by God. I wonder if they saw their storm as a sign of God’s absence, or perhaps, as was the case in the story of Jonah, a sign of God’s presence?
Do you not care that we are perishing? How often does this happen to us? How often do we profess faith in a God who relates to us intimately, as the Moravians do, but then, at the first sign of danger, become deists, people who made the world like a clock, who wound it up, and then left it alone, left us alone to our own devices? “It’s one thing to believe that ‘God is love,’” said John Wesley. “It’s quite another to believe that God is love pro nobis, for us.” Bishop William H. Willimon writes “I doubt that many come to church on Sunday asking themselves, ‘Does God exist?’ Rather, we come desperately wanting to know, ‘Does God care?’”
As it turns out, the storms would not subside for John Wesley when he arrived in Georgia in February of 1736. Upon his arrival, he asked a Moravian pastor named Gottleib Spangenberg who had been his shipmate for advice on being successful in pastoral ministry. This is the conversation Wesley records in his Journal: “[Spangenberg] said, ‘My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your Spirit, that you are a child of God?’ I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ? I paused, and said, ‘I know he is the Savior of the world.’ True, replied he, ‘but do you know he has saved you?’ I answered, ‘I hope he has died to save me.’ He only added, ‘Do you know yourself?’”
Wesley replied, “I do,” but later in his journal confessed, “I fear they were vain words.”
Wesley would have a stormy relationship with the people in his new parish in Georgia. It turned out that they did not wish to rise in the wee hours of the morning for daily bible study and prayer, and it turned out that the Native Americans were far less enthusiastic about hearing the gospel than he had anticipated. This, in addition to the fact that he excommunicated his ex-fiancee when she married another, which caused her to sue him for defamation, which resulted in Wesley fleeing back to England in December of 1737, his saving grace being, that this was what his parishioners wanted anyway.
“It is one thing,” Wesley would later write, “to believe that God is love. It is quite another to believe that God is love pro nobis, for us.”
I consider all of the times I have been awakened by one of my children who heard something go bump in the night, and all the times I would assure them “There is nothing to be afraid of.” I remember the many times I have gathered with my church members and their families in the preoperative room, moments before the gurney arrived, and prayed prayers with such confidence that “everything was going to be alright.” I consider the times someone came to my study, or asked me out for coffee, or who dropped by the parsonage I was living in and confessed a sin to me that threatened their job or their marriage or their relationship with their children, and how sometimes the best, if not only thing I had to offer them was the promise that God is the God of love and grace, and that this present storm did not have to be what characterized their lives, and how they should try to replace their fear with hopefulness.
Yet here is the thing: there are plenty of very real things in this world for us to fear. To say “There is nothing to be afraid of” as I wipe my children’s tears and tuck them back into bed is not necessarily the whole truth. Likewise, our bodies age and die, and sometimes God’s redemption, while setting a new trajectory for our lives does not necessarily erase all the consequences of what we have already done, and sometimes things happen to us that are random, unpreventable, and unfair.
And it is in these times when we find ourselves crawling to the stern of our little storm-tossed boats to roust our sleeping God and ask, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” hoping, praying for our savior to arise and rebuke the storm: “Peace! Be still!”
I believe that what is most telling in this morning’s text is not what Jesus says after the sea turns to glass and the wind is silent and still, when he says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” What is most telling is what Jesus does not say. In today’s reading, Jesus never once says that there is nothing to fear. Jesus knew what kind of very real danger they were in on that little boat. Here, Jesus is not taking away the things that terrify us. Instead, Jesus is showing us that there is nothing we will face that has greater power over our lives than God does. Our hope, therefore, does not come from some rose-colored naivety about the world. It comes from the God who gets into the boat with us, who faces what we face, come what may.
When John Wesley arrived back in England in early 1738, he was most definitely beaten and battered by the figurative storms that had resulted in his failures in Georgia. He was still greatly depressed when on May 24, he very unwillingly attended a bible study one evening on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening, in the midst of so much failure, so much regret, so much self-doubt and depression, Wesley heard someone at the study reading from Martin Luther’s Epistle to the Romans. It was about 8:45 p.m. when the reader was describing the change that God works in the heart of the believer when he felt his heart, in his words, “strangely warmed.” He writes, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
This was perhaps the most pivotal moment in Wesley’s life and the Methodist movement, for without it, John Wesley and Methodism would be but obscure footnotes in Christian history. Our story is, in many ways, a story of near misses and God’s abundant, miraculous, saving grace. When John Wesley was five, he was saved from a house fire moments before the roof collapsed. When he was thirty-two, he almost died in a shipwreck. When he was thirty-four he almost skips the bible study where he has the moment of conversion that changes his life and the course of history.
And the storms in his life would persist. Today, John Wesley is a celebrated hero of Christendom. However, through most of his life and ministry, he and the people who he served were persecuted in England. Tracts were published against him. Early Methodists were often harassed and arrested. Once, Wesley was preaching in a field when someone released a bull to chase him off the property.
Yet what he could not shake was this conviction that God was with him and his fledgling renewal movement within the Church of England, that God is indeed a God of love pro nobis, for us, and that the teacher sleeping in the stern of the boat does indeed care that we are perishing, the rabbi who rebukes the wind and the waves and not us, not those of us who fear. For our great teacher, the guardian of our souls is not merely the one who rises from sleep to rebuke the wind and the waves. He is also the promised messiah who rose from the grave to rebuke death itself, yours and mine, and to redeem this broken, sinful, fearful, beloved world in which we live.
The most common commandment made in the Bible is not about sex or money or power. The most common commandment in the Bible is “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid is the commandment that bookends the life and ministry of Jesus. It is the commandment made to his mother at the Anunciation and to the shepherds at his birth, and it is the commandment he makes at his resurrection, and it is the commandment he makes so many times in between. What if we his people could be agents of embodying that commandment? What if we could spend as much time rebuking the things that cause so many people so much fear as we do trying to convert people to our way of thinking about God, about the world, and about each other?
How different would this world be if Christians saw the cultivation of fear as anathema to the gospel? How differently would people see us? How more likely would they be to regard our worship spaces as true sanctuaries? How much more likely would storm-tossed souls be to seek refuge in the church, in the ship of Christ? How much more would we embody the gospel if we, like Christ, went to the scary places with them in the name of the one who even the wind and the waves obey?
How different would life be for these people, especially people so full of fear at our nation’s southern border, desperate, terrified people in near hopeless situations only because their found themselves with no good choices? Sisters and brothers, I believe it is time for Christian congregations to un-circle our wagons, to move beyond mere institutional preservation, to get out of that which is safe and familiar, and get into the boat with the one who is our teacher, master, and Lord. For ships are safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships were built for. Is the ship of Christ any different?
I do not believe it is a coincidence that this reading about Jesus calming a storm was chosen for the same Sunday where we read about David conquering Goliath. Today is a day about our worship of a God who is bigger than the things that plague us, greater than the powers that oppress us, stronger than the things that hold us back. Our God is the God of unlikely heroes and unlikely victories.
Whatever storm you are enduring or whatever giant stands before you this day, I challenge you to do what I spoke of in my last sermon, to let go of it for awhile, and to trust your life and that situation to the handiwork of God working in and through you and the people around you, praying, trusting that the one whose name means “God is with us” is in the boat with you, crying out to the wind and to the waves.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.