Sunday, June 21, 2009

Homily: Third Sunday after Pentecost [June 21, 2009, Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL]

In 1978, my wife Kathy and I got married and moved from Massachusetts to Michigan. She is from Ohio and I am from California and we met, of course, in Boston. We lived in Bloomfield Hills the first three years of our married life, and the only thing I wasn’t prepared for there was the tornado warning. In California they don’t have tornados, but in Michigan they do—in fact, a big one had touched done major damage in West Bloomfield right before we got there—and I wasn’t ready for how frightened I would get when the sky would turn that weird color and the sirens would go off and they would tell you to head for a basement. Kathy, of course, looked at me in those panic moments as if to say, “What’s your problem? These are tornado warnings. They happen all the time. No big deal.”
The situation was reversed in 1981 when we moved to Los Angeles and, a month or so after we got there, we had a fairly large earthquake. I had grown up with earthquakes—in fact I’d slept through the big Sylmar earthquake of 1971—and so when this one happened, I got up, looked to see if there had been any damage, and went back to bed. When I got there, I saw two enormous blue eyes looking at me. “What was that?” Kathy asked. I replied. “It’s just an earthquake. No big deal. Go back to bed.”
Even though today is Father’s Day, I don’t think my empathetic response qualified me for “Husband of the Year.” But that’s the way it is. You learn to live with what life gives you, I guess. Midwesterners are blasé about tornadoes; Californians take earthquakes in their stride. But, at some deep level, all of us know the massive extent of destructive force that nature can exert in any geography.
In his great poem, “Tree at My Window,” Robert Frost talks about outer and inner weather. Being human, we must make things more than they are, and it has always been that way with storms. States of weather have always been primary human metaphors for states of the soul. Just think of all those song titles: “Stormy Weather,” “April Showers,” “Good Day Sunshine.” Weather always means more to us than the roaring of the sky or the shaking of the earth. It stands also for the state of our souls. Or as Frost says as he looks out at and addresses a tree being blown about in the heaves of a storm,

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost. That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather. [Robert Frost, “Tree at My Window”]

When we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll all admit, if even only to ourselves, that life can sometimes be an extended series of storms, a mixed bag of earthquakes and tornadoes, floods, fires, and hurricanes. Life comes at us and we find ourselves “taken and swept/And all but lost” as Frost says. It isn’t always sunny weather.
Jesus knew that it isn’t always sunny weather. He knew that there were disruptions that can overwhelm us. And that is why when, in today’s Gospel, Jesus calms the storm, he comes toward us in love not just as master of our outer weather. It’s good news that Jesus can calm a raging outer storm. It’s even better news that he can calm the rages of our inner weather.


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?" [Mark 4.37-40]

This is a familiar story, similar in many ways to the Gospel account of Jesus walking across the water. In both stories, two things are true. The first is that this is not just a symbolic story: Jesus really does calm the storm. But it’s clear that he calms the storm out of compassion for his friends who are beside themselves with fear.
Beyond that, two more things are going on. The storm outside is raging. The storm inside is raging.
The storm outside is raging. Jesus lived and taught among people who were out there in the storm. To be a Palestinian Jew in Jesus’s day was to be a poor, hungry, person living in a country occupied by a powerful foreign empire. Jesus’s compatriots were depressed and anxious about life, and at least one central aspect of his teaching and ministry was holding out the promise that you can live an abundant life in the midst of real deprivation. When things get tough, we tend to want to pull apart from each other and hunker down separately in survival mode. But Jesus taught and lived a different truth: the way through hard social times is to come together, to live generously and compassionately with each other. When we do that, there is always, as in the feeding of the 5,000, more than enough to go around.
But of course the storm outside is raging in another sense. It’s a real storm threatening to swamp a real boat. Jesus’s friends experienced his calming of the storm as an expression of his divine nature, his deep connectedness to God as the source of his being. In its outward expression, then, the storm is both real weather and challenging economic and social conditions. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks.
Many of us in this church today confront the outer weather of this moment in our economic and social lives. Whether it’s your job, your investments, your work, each of us in some way confronts stresses and challenges on behalf of ourselves and others. Life is hard right now, and in the midst of a hard storm like this one, we can all lose heart and wonder whether it’s worth going on. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks The first truth we need to hear this morning is this: Jesus rises among us, even now, to calm that storm which rages all around us. He does that precisely by pointing to a way of living—in mutuality, in generosity, in compassion—which is the real strategy for enduring tough times. We will make it through all of this with Jesus and each other as we do it together. That is the real Christian hope he offers us to calm the raging outer storm.

But there’s that inner weather, too. The storm inside is raging. Not only do we suffer the blasts of outer events beyond our control. We all of us suffer those inner blasts of anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness, and loss. It’s part of the sick illusion of our culture that you can always be on top of things outwardly and inwardly. Sometimes the pain we feel for ourselves and on behalf of others is just too much. We all have those nights (or weeks, or months, or years) when, as Frost says, “I was taken and sweptAnd all but lost.” Jesus’s companions thought they were going to go down with the boat. There are times, for each of us, when we fear getting swamped by the inner forces which can feel beyond our control.
It is to calm this inner storm that Jesus invites you in the Gospel this morning. If Jesus had another central point in his ministry beyond a call into compassionate living, it was a call into self-acceptance. You may think that there are parts of you so dark and secret that nobody could love them. You may think that there are aspects of your being that are unlovable. You may think that there are things you have done (or thought about doing) that are unforgivable. It’s normal to think that way. All of us do it, and not just occasionally.
Part of the ministry of hard times is that they carry with them what Frederick Buechner calls a “fierce blessing.” These hard times shine a bright light on our outer and our inner storms, and they often expose to our notice those parts of our selves that we would rather not acknowledge. And it is in bringing all those dark places to light that Jesus also reaches out to us and calms our inner storm. You are made in the image of God. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has taken on your life and experience. There is no part of you that God does not know. There is no part of you that God does not bless. There is nothing you have been or done that God does not accept and forgive.
We suffer internally because we think that we and others cannot take the truth about us. The fierce blessing of social and personal storms is that they open us up to the truly important things in life. In the love and companionship of your neighbors and family and friends, you have been given the means to make it through the hardest of economic and social stress. And in Jesus’s call for you to know and love and accept all of yourself—even that part of you that seems unknowable, unlovable, unacceptable—you have been given the way to live with peace and joy and power even in the stormy times which can threaten to swamp us all. When Jesus asks his terrified disciples, “Why are you afraid?” what he is really saying is this: Have no fear. The outward things you worry about have no real power over you. The inward secrets you seek to hide are not as bad as you think they are.
And so Jesus stood in the boat, rebuked the storm, and calmed the waves. Whether it’s tornadoes or earthquakes you fear, whether it’s unemployment, shrunken resources, or the suffering of your friends and neighbors that threatens to overwhelm you; whether it’s your own guilt or sorrow or remorse which keeps you from the joyful acceptance of God’s love for you: take heart. Even now, Jesus stands in the boat and offers to calm the outer and inner storms which seem so powerful. He calls you to step out of your alienation and into compassion with every other human child of God, who feels just as you do. He calls you to let go of your stern judgment of yourself and others and accept God’s love and forgiveness.
We come now to his table, the place where we share this meal which stands as a sign both of our connection to each other and of our acceptance by Jesus and the One he calls his Father. Come forward, be fed, and go forth on a calmer sea, ready to love and be loved by the God who is always at work calming our outer and inner storms. Amen.

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