17 Pentecost C—9/11/16
Job 28:20-27; Psalm 29; 1 Corinthians 1:21-31; Luke 8:22-25
Pr. Scott Kramer
When many people my generation and younger hear the term “U2 incident” we might imagine some disturbance at a rock concert by the Irish band of the same name. Some of you, though, are old enough to know that the original “U2 incident” involved an American spy plane that was shot down in 1960 over Soviet airspace.
The 2015 movie Bridge of Spies is based on this event. Some time before the American plane was shot down Russian spy Rudolf Abel had been arrested in the U.S. In the movie, Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, the attorney who represented the Russian spy at his trial. But Rudolph Abel refuses to cooperate with the American government and his attorney is exasperated. Here’s an excerpt from the movie script:
James Donovan: I have a mandate [as your attorney] to serve you. Nobody else does. Quite frankly, everybody else has an interest in sending you to the electric chair.
Rudolf Abel: All right…
James Donovan: You don’t seem alarmed.
Rudolf Abel: Would it help?
One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!”
People who are anxious and afraid tend to expect—and maybe need!–everyone around them also to be anxious and afraid. I remember after the 2008 presidential election one of my Facebook friends (not an Obama supporter!) posted, Be afraid. Be very afraid—which, regardless of your political leanings, is exactly the opposite of what Jesus consistently taught. Don’t be afraid, he said at every opportunity.
But we human beings tend to be anxious, nervous creatures. Sometimes it’s a Chicken Little story—The sky is falling!—and what we fear never happens, nor is it likely to happen. But sometimes the threat is real: Here’s a Russian spy facing a possible death sentence. “Aren’t you alarmed?” says his attorney. And he replies, “Would it help?” And, here’s a carpenter in a fishing boat with his friends in the middle of a storm. “Master, master, we are perishing!” But Jesus is fast asleep. Maybe you can think of an example from your own life, where you’re feeling fearful or angry and you expect everyone around you to share that fear or anger.
People who are calm in the midst of a crisis often drive us crazy! Can’t you see what’s going on? Or, Don’t you care??
In Luke’s story Jesus says a few words, the storm ends, and the disciples—representing the human race—completely miss the point. “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” In the minds of his people Jesus becomes Superman, and the miracles he performed throughout his ministry tended to support the belief that he could, and would, fix any problem. No wonder he said over and over, “Don’t tell anyone about these miracles!”—because he knew they would miss the point. And they did.
We know from the stories of our own lives that Jesus doesn’t jump in to solve every problem or calm our every storm. Our lives are marked by frequent disappointments—maybe even life and death crises. So, if “Jesus is Superman!” misses the point, just what is the point of today’s gospel reading?
What if the point is not that God can fix any problem or that God can control even the weather? What if the point of the story is: Jesus is asleep in the boat. I don’t mean “asleep at the wheel” or “asleep at the switch.” I don’t mean clueless or uncaring. What if instead our Lord is giving us by his example the key to weathering any storm?
We don’t have tropical storms in this part of the country but we all know how they work. They’re called cyclones in the Pacific Ocean, hurricanes in the Atlantic. The storm builds and grows as it goes round and round. But at the center of the storm is the eye, which is calm. There was Jesus, calm at the center of the raging storm, calm in the midst of his friends’ raging panic and fear.
What if you were the calm center in the midst of the storms raging around you? What if, in the midst of anxiety and anger and fear at home, at work, at school, at church, in the midst of war, street violence, homelessness and presidential campaign drama—what if you were to follow Jesus’ example?
Anxiety, anger and fear are contagious. They spread like wildfire (which is a kind of storm—a firestorm). But the person who is calm in the midst of a storm has equal power to influence those around him or her. Each of us, at any given moment, has the power either to be part of the storm raging around us, or, the calm at the center of the storm.
To be the calm center of the storm is risky. If you stand still the storm moves and swallows you up. But when we remain at the calm center, alert, flexible, following the storm–having done its worst, the storm eventually blows over.
Each of us is strongly tempted to become part of the storms around us and within us, sucked in, for example, by shouting, angry politicians, or the internet, or TV, or…fill in the blank. Or, maybe we’re sucked in by pressure from friends or family to fix their problems, to calm their storms. Equally tempting is the impulse to escape the storm. But to be at the center of life’s storms doesn’t mean escaping the storm!
Do you know what percentage of the world’s prescription pain-killers Americans consume? Eighty percent. Less than 5% of the world’s population consumes 80% of the world’s pain-killers. Add to that alcohol, illegal drugs such as heroin, or, material wealth, endless forms of sports and other entertainment, and it’s clear that we are a nation of addicts, grasping for any “fix” that we think will help calm our storms, that will ease our anxiety and pain. And these things do ease the pain–until we need another fix. In light of all this, slogans like “Make America Great Again” seem like desperate, useless distractions from courageous efforts to address the deep anxiety, pain and spiritual emptiness in our land.
Where is your faith? Jesus asks his disciples after the storm has died down. Not as a criticism, as in, “What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you have faith!” “Where is your faith?” is a question that assumes we have faith, and we all do! All of us have faith in something, which can change, hour to hour, minute to minute. But only faith in the calm center has saving power in the midst of the storms around us.
Would it help to become part of the storm? Would it help to escape? Disciples of Jesus are not called to be part of the storm. Nor are we called to escape the storm. He has given us the key to weathering any storm. We are invited by the one asleep in the boat, for the sake of the world, to follow his example.