I grew up in Southern California and went to seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a valley boy, I often felt at a bit cowed in the presence of patrician New Englanders, but I also had a bit of an attitude about it—they didn’t take it kindly when I called Cambridge “the Berkeley of the east”. I did, though, have one real advantage when it came to studying the Bible. New Englanders, like northern Europeans, live in a four-season climate. This explains the counterfactual lines we sing in our Christmas hymns, like “The snow lay on the ground/The stars shone bright.” There was no snow on the ground in Bethlehem in December. At Christmas, they were probably all out skateboarding. When it comes to understanding biblical weather, Easterners are hopelessly confused. Californians, however, know better. The Holy Land, like the Golden State, is a two-season climate. True, we do not have a round of spring, summer, fall, winter seasons. Instead, like Palestine, we have two: dry season and wet season. It’s not that we have no seasons. It’s that we have two that we can recognize and interlopers can’t.
Being from a two-season climate is a great help in reading the Bible, especially when it comes to understanding scripture’s profound ambivalence about water. In climates like ours, water is either scarce or superabundant; there is either too little or too much. Every once in a while we get the just the right amount of it, but on many occasions we find ourselves facing either into drought or flood. Hence the Bible’s seemingly two-faced attitude toward water. It is, at the same time, precious and dangerous. It is at once the source of and threat to life.
The Bible’s hydraulic doublethink helps us understand the symbolic undertone to today’s gospel (Mark 4:35-41). If you think back to the book of Genesis and its creation and flood stories, you’ll see that biblical water often stands for chaos. In the earlier creation account, God makes the world by bringing order out of chaos, especially by separating “the [upper] waters from the [lower] waters” (Genesis 1:6). In the later Noah story (Genesis 6-9) God punishes human wickedness by “bringing a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life” (Genesis 6:17). Over the long haul of its history, when Israel thinks about chaos, the element they use to represent it is water, especially by the way we experience water in a storm.
Jesus and his companions were Jews, and so they lived and thought within the Bible’s cultural and symbolic framework. It is no accident, then, that in today’s gospel story, Mark uses a windstorm on the water to represent the internal and social chaos which we all experience and innately fear. A windstorm arises, the waves threaten to swamp the boat. While his disciples panic, Jesus is asleep in the stern. They wake him up, he calms the storm, and the story ends with general astonishment that “even the wind and the sea” obey him.
It’s not only ancient Israelites and first century Palestinian Jews who find meaning in windstorms and floods. You and I also seem to be hardwired to see weather standing for something more than itself. Robert Frost talked about “outer” and “inner” weather. We humans seem reflexively to see climatic conditions as emblematic of states of the soul. Just think of the songs: “Blue Skies”, “Stormy Weather”, and so on. We cannot seem to help talking about our inner lives without using meteorological comparisons. Wallace Stevens often referred to his own internal struggles as “major weather”.
It is easy to imagine the inner and outer major weather Jesus and his followers knew, not only in the boat but in their daily lives. Remember that first century Palestinian Jews lived under Roman rule and, because of Rome’s need both to tax them and take all their food to feed their army, the Jews were at once oppressed, impoverished, and starving. But the Bible’s stories are not only about them. They are also about us. The windstorm on the lake stands for more than the inner and outer weather of the disciples’ lives. That windstorm represents our own chaos, too.
On Tuesday night, when she began to read a breaking Associated Press story about the immigrant family detention crisis, Rachel Maddow broke down in tears. Here is how that story she couldn’t get through reading begins:
The Trump administration has set up at least three “tender age” shelters to detain babies and other young children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, The Associated Press has learned. Doctors and lawyers who have visited the shelters in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley said the facilities were fine, clean and safe, but the children — who have no idea where their parents are — were hysterical, crying and acting out. Many of them are under age 5, and some are so young they have not yet learned to talk. [https://apnews.com/dc0c9a5134d14862ba7c7ad9a811160e]
It is a sign of Rachel Maddow’s fundamental humanity that she had an impossible time reading this story live on the air. If there is any emblem of the social, political, and moral chaos in which we live and move right now, it has to be this ongoing story of the Administration’s separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the border. That we have gotten to a point in this nation where our leaders not only take children away from their parents but callously quote the Bible as they do so, means we have lost any moral and ethical moorings we may have once possessed.
As I have lived with this story during this awful week of cruel and inhumane news, I have felt exactly like one of Jesus’s disciples in a storm-tossed boat. We seem, now, to live in a world that makes absolutely no sense. All of the values we used to expect from our leaders (justice, compassion, and at the very least telling the truth) have departed. We are being swamped by waves of chaotic indifference and cruelty. Nothing in our shared experience has prepared us for living in such a constant state of moral and social turmoil. When the disciples angrily confront Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I know what they are talking about. Wake up, God! How can this be happening?
The traditional way to read this gospel story depends on its tag line: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” We preachers normally take this story as some kind of miraculous endorsement of Jesus and his divinity. To me this week, though, it’s what Jesus says after he calms the storm that really matters. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” This is not only a story about Jesus as a first century wonder worker. This is a story about Jesus empowering his companions, especially us.
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I was sorry that Rachel Maddow felt it necessary the next day to apologize for losing it live on the air. But I was enormously pleased that, the next night, she was back at it, ready to jump into the fray. The point of today’s gospel is not only that Jesus can calm the chaotic storms of life. The point of today’s gospel is that God has empowered us to do that, too. What makes us think we can opt out of these struggles and rely solely on divine guidance to save us? Jesus knew what you and I need to learn: the disciples had it within them to calm the storm themselves. They did not trust their own power, and so the storm threatened to defeat them. Faced with the chaos and cruelty of the current moment, you and I have license neither to opt out nor to despair. We have only one choice, and that is to work together to organize and resist the depredations brought on by those who would engulf us in constant, traumatic, unfeeling chaos and despair.
I was cheered this week when I read on Facebook that a Bay Area friend of mine is devoting his free time between now and November to working in Tulare to help defeat a particularly onerous member of Congress. I was saddened to read on the Secretary of State’s website that only 35.6% of California voters turned out for the June 5 primary. Elections, now, are the things that matter. The rallies and the pussy hats and the Twitter posts are great, but if we are going to calm the chaotic storm we face together, you and I are really going to have to get to serious work. As the late William Sloane Coffin, Jr. once said to me, “Anyone can preach. Blessed are those who can organize.”
If you remember the last page of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (back to New England again), you’ll recall that as the whaling ship Pequod sinks beneath the wave, the last image we see is of the American flag being nailed to the submerging spar. At least one of Melville’s meanings suggests that solipsistic tyrants like Captain Ahab endanger not only themselves but our whole collective enterprise. Our ship of state is sinking fast, and we cannot let our current Fifth Avenue Ahab bring us all down. The Pequod was not a democracy, but (at least for the moment) America still is. We can change our course if we organize and act together for the common good. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The best cure for chaotic inner weather is working together to calm our outer weather. Jesus knew that authentic power is shared and we hold it together. The situation is serious but not hopeless. To quote our current despot against himself, “We alone can fix it.” Amen.