June 21, 2015 – Pentecost IV
Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, by Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf (Mennonite)
In our family, we’re fair weather sailors. We don’t go out in storms.
Because Stanley is the genuine sailor of the two of us, he’s the one who checks the winds and tides and weather forecasts beforehand. If there’s any hint of foul weather, he says, “Not today.”
He often reminds me, “I never go out on the water without remembering that the sea can destroy me.”
Jesus’ disciples probably had deep respect for the sea as well. Some of them made their living on boats; they likely didn’t have the luxury of saying “no” to a day’s work on a threatening sea. There were mouths to feed and mortgages to be paid. They had to learn the ways of the sea.
We’re told that weather on the Sea of Galilee is notoriously unpredictable. The lake is surrounded by steep hills, some as high as 2000 feet on the eastern side (that’s about 2/3 the height of our Mount Walker). When cooler air masses over the mountains collide with warmer air in the lake’s basin, a storm can rise up quickly. Without any warning, a small boat out on the sea could be in immediate danger.
The most violent storms can send waves 10 feet high crashing into towns along the shore and cause significant damage. Imagine waves 10 feet high crashing into downtown Port Townsend – and you get the picture.
But what interests me in this story is not so much the weather patterns on the Sea of Galilee as the fact that Jesus was asleep in the boat. The Psalms portray God as one who “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” Yet Jesus is both human and divine. He does get tired. He takes naps.
According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been going from one village to another in a marathon of teaching and healing and casting out demons. He had called twelve followers to join him. And many others came along too.
On this particular day, such a large crowd had gathered that Jesus got into a boat and pushed out from the shore in order to be heard and seen by the people. He taught them all day — told them many parables: the parable of the sower and of the mustard seed and of a lamp hidden under a basket.
In addition, he took his disciples aside and instructed them privately about the hidden meanings of parables. It had been intense – and he needed to get away.
Now there aren’t many more relaxing places to be than on a boat sailing on smooth waters. It’s so quiet out there. The only sound is water lapping lazily against the hull.
Especially on a warm afternoon, it’s delightful to curl up on the cushions, drift off to sleep and let someone else take charge. And that’s just what Jesus did – he slept hard after a long, busy day.
The disciples, however, are awake. Like good sailors everywhere, they probably noticed immediately when the wind began to shift – and then to whip up a storm. They swung into action.
But before they knew it, the waves were beating and crashing against the boat and began to swamp them.
I don’t know what it’s like for you – but when I get into a tight spot, my fears become full- blown in a hurry.
The telephone rings; my brother is hospitalized for tests. And within seconds, I’ve imagined dire consequences for him and his family. In my mind, he’s already dead and buried and we’re weeping at his grave.
Or it’s one of my children who is in trouble. Our daughter loses her job. And before long, I’m seeing her homeless and hungry and sick. What will she do when we’re dead and no longer around to bail her out?
Or it’s the evening news. A threatened drought. A hurricane. Another terrorist attack. A plane crash. A falling stock market. Or the sickening repetition of violence we saw in Charleston, SC, this past week – the endless waves of racism and hatred that poison our nation’s soul.
When storms erupt around us, fear grips us and we panic. We do what the disciples did. We cry out, “God, help me! Help us! Help this whole world!”
It does help to pray. But sometimes it seems like God really is asleep. When terrible things happen, we begin to wonder whether God really cares. Or even exists.
Maybe it isn’t just external stuff. Maybe it’s the internal chaos of anxiety or loneliness or deep tiredness or despair. Maybe it’s an inner disquiet – a loss of faith, or hope, or purpose.
It can seem like God is very far away. What may have been a vibrant relationship with God just withers on the vine. We keep coming to worship. We sing the songs and say the prayers. We come to the Lord’s Table. But nothing much happens.
It could be boredom. Or fatigue. Or spiritual laziness on our part. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s what the Christian tradition calls a “dark night of the soul.”1
The disciples in our gospel story experienced a literal, physical dark night – but it seems to me there are more layers of darkness to explore here.
In classic Christian spirituality, there are two kinds of dark nights: one typically comes earlier in the spiritual journey – after the newness has worn off. The second one may come later, after we’re well established and grounded in faith.
Both dark nights are a gift from God – they’re an invitation to go deeper, to trust God more fully. They initiate us into a season of transformation.
Early in the spiritual journey, it may feel like we’re on a honeymoon with God; we’re enthralled with God and the good feelings that come from connecting with God. In reality, we’re not so much in love with God as with what we think God will do for us.
And then the Spirit comes along and dries up those warm feelings. What was previously nourishing or satisfying no longer comforts us; what gave us energy or strength no longer revives us.
We begin to wonder: Who is God anyway, and what is God actually asking of us?
At such times, we need to listen carefully to the Spirit’s nudges – because what God is doing is awakening our soul to a longing for something more. We may need to learn new ways to pray, especially the kinds of prayer where we do less talking and more waiting in God’s presence. We may need to find a small group of fellow seekers or a spiritual guide or spiritual retreats.
Interestingly, this dark night isn’t usually helped by getting busier at church! Rather, it’s a time for deepening, for turning our attention more fully to God.
The second dark night of the soul usually comes later in the spiritual journey and can be a much more intense experience. It doesn’t come because we’ve wandered away from God. We’re still faithful followers – but the sense of God’s presence grows dim. Prayer feels like a routine more than genuine communication. We plug away, but we may feel that God has left us high and dry.
This darkness can last a short time or maybe even for several years. And some, like Mother Teresa, endure the dark night for decades.
The spiritual masters tell us this is a weaning process. Just as a mother turns the young child away from her breast, so God steps away for a time.
You see, we can become attached to our religiosity. We can become attached to our ideas about God – even good ideas. We may even become attached to our church. We think we’ve got it figured out: we know how the spiritual journey works. And maybe in some corner of our mind, we think we’ll just coast all the way home.
But God wants more: God wants us to know an even deeper trust. Someday we’ll come to the darkest night of all: our own death. If we haven’t learned the naked trust that depends on God alone, that will be a very difficult journey indeed.
In the dark night of the soul, we learn that love is where we came from, and love is where we’re going. We do not need to be afraid.
When the disciples are terrified on the stormy sea, they cry to Jesus: “We’re going under! Don’t you care that we’re perishing!”
And what does Jesus do? First he calms the external storm: “Peace, be still.” And then he turns his attention to the internal storm: “Why are you afraid? Where is your faith? After all you’ve seen and experienced on the road with me — all the loving and teaching and healing and compassion and joy, do you still not get it? God holds us in loving hands. You don’t need to be afraid.”
Perhaps this is one of the first dark nights for the disciples. It’s early days; they’re still in the euphoria of their honeymoon with Jesus. What impresses them on this night is Jesus’ power to still the storm. They are filled with awe: Who is this One they’re following? And then perhaps they congratulate themselves: Haven’t we hitched our wagon to an awesome star?
Later, of course, they will experience an even deeper dark night. The One they’ve trusted, they One in whom they’ve placed their hope, will be crucified. God will not only sleep. God will be dead. They will be left alone.
But again — Jesus’ words to them will be the same: when Jesus walks through closed doors on the evening of Resurrection Day, he says, “Peace be with you! Don’t be afraid.”
So what are we afraid of today? What fears beat at the doors of our hearts? What threatens to destroy our peace?
Let’s be still for a moment. Breathe in and out. In and out. Receive the peace.
If we listen carefully, we may hear Jesus saying to us, “I’m not just a fair-weather sailor. I go out in all weathers. I’m in the boat with you.”
In the Celtic Christian tradition there is a prayer called the caim, a prayer for protection in times of stress and fear. It’s a very simple prayer – one that children or grandchildren can pray as well as adults.
The prayer reminds us that God is with us; God hasn’t disappeared or abandoned us. God is close by – nearer to us than our breathing (as Augustine says).
You pray this prayer by extending your arm and forefinger, slowly turning, and making a circle. While you turn, you can say any words you want, or no words at all, but the Celts said things like this:
Circle me, Christ. Keep protection near and danger afar.
Circle me, Christ. Keep hope within, keep despair without.
Circle me, Christ. Keep light near and darkness afar.
Circle me, Christ. Keep peace within and fear without.2
Peace, be still. Be still.
1 For a clear discussion of the dark night of the soul, see Dan Schrock, The Dark Night: A Gift of God (Herald Press, 2009).
2 This prayer is adapted from a prayer written by David Adam in Landscapes of Light: An Illustrated Anthology of Prayers (SPCK, 2001).