Calming the Storm
Ordinary Sunday 12: 24th June, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
When I was four, my father was offered a position in the Physics department at Manchester University (UMIST). In those days air travel was a bit of a luxury, so we travelled by ship from Australia. I have some wonderful memories of this adventure: my very own little brown leather suitcase, of which I was so proud; the fact that my baby sister got to sleep in a drawer that was pulled out and turned into a cot; and a hurricane that we managed to edge around on the trip.
I guess my parents were rather anxious about the gigantic storm that must have been announced by the captain. I recall them telling me about an elderly lady who was burnt as a pot of tea fell of the table and into her lap as the waves rose. As for the young Hugh Kempster, it was all rather exciting. One vivid memory I have is of the television room. It had a long bench seat that was usually full of people watching what ever programme was being shown. Because of the storm there was no television and no one in the room. As the ship tossed on the massive waves this bench was transformed into the ultimate slide. I didn't even have to climb back to the top; it just kept going and going as the ship rocked back and forth.
The story of Jesus calming the storm is a powerful one. I have been to Galilee. The lake seemed rather innocuous on the beautiful summer's day that I was there, but the Israeli friend I was travelling with assured me that it could be treacherous once the wind whipped up a storm. So it was in the gospel story. Jesus was still sleeping and the disciples were starting to panic: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" So he wakes up: "Peace! Be still!" The wind is gone and there is a dead calm. "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
Paul Tillich's book The Courage to Be is an important theological study of fear and anxiety. He writes (p.37):
Fear and anxiety are distinguished but not separated. They are immanent within each other: The sting of fear is anxiety, and anxiety strives towards fear. Fear is being afraid of something, a pain, the rejection by a person or a group, the loss of something or somebody .... The outstanding example ... is the fear of dying. Insofar as it is fear its object is the anticipated event of being killed ... and therby suffering agony and the loss of everything. Insofar as it is anxiety its object is the absolutely unknown "after death," the non-being which remains non-being even if it is filled with images of our present experience.
Hamlet's soliloquy, "to be or not to be," has become so imbedded in our language because it encapsulates something of that same fear and anxiety. Medieval images of hellfire and brimstone drummed up by Dante and Bosch are good examples of our human projections into the void.
There is no magic solution to this anxiety. It is a part of existence. But what it evokes is the potential for a courageous response to anxiety, or in Tillich's terms: the courage to be. This courage in the face of the storms of life has a profound theological component; it connects us with God who is the ground of our being. Tillich writes: "By affirming our being we participate in the self-affirmation of being-itself. There are no valid arguments for the "existence" of God, but there are acts of courage in which we affirm the power of being . . .. Courage has revealing power, the courage to be is the key to being itself."
It would seem that Mark's Jesus expects courage from his disciples and is disappointed when they fearfully wake him up in the middle of the storm. After calming the waves he rebukes them: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Fear is synonymous with lack of faith, and therefore conversely courage in the face of fear with the faith that Jesus is looking for.
Some days we may need to summon up great courage just to get up in the morning if life is getting on top of us. The storms of life may require us to summon up courage in the face of illness, violence, personal differences, relationship break-up, stress at work or home. Out of this faith-courage is born the possibility of profound peace, a miraculous calm to the storm. The Christ within awakes and utters the powerful words of calm and healing: "Peace! Be still!"
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.