It’s hard to “image” God, that is, to imagine or come up with a picture or description of God, isn’t it? I mean, we’re talking about God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth! We’re talking about God the Son, Jesus, who became truly human, suffered, died, rose and ascended into heaven! We’re talking about God the Holy Spirit, who enlivens the Church, and who is the source of all life, temporal and eternal! These are among the images that we confess together in the Christian creeds, but even these words are just images, and images are, by nature, metaphorical, and in many ways inadequate.
Gail Ramshaw, in a commentary on today’s lessons (sundaysandseasons.com) says: “Each image of God comes closer to truth when it meets a contrary image.” This struggle can be seen in the Biblical witness.
- Is God hidden in smoke and fire, and so holy that if you see God you die on the spot, or if a cow touches even the foot of the mountain where God is dwelling, that cow will die? Or is God the one who invites Moses and the 70 elders up on the mountain and feasts with them?
- Is God the one who speaks to Job in the whirlwind? Or is God the one who is not found in the whirlwind, but, instead, found by the Prophet Elijah in the sound of sheer silence?
- Is God the one who blesses the upright and punishes the wicked? Or is God the one who allows a blameless and upright man named Job to suffer and to lose everything and everyone he holds dear?
Of course, the maddening answer to all of these questions, with all of their contradictions, is: “YES!”
Again, “Each image of God comes closer to truth when it meets a contrary image.”
How we image God makes a huge difference in how we understand faith, and how we understand life and death, the world, and our place in the world as the people of this particular God…
In our Gospel for this week, we read a story about Christ calming the storm, and there are questions in the story that grant us insight into the characters.
When the storm comes up, and Jesus is asleep, the disciples wake him with the question: Don’t you care that we’re all gonna die? The question is intriguing depending on how you read it. Are they waking him because they think he can do something to change the fix they’re in? And if that’s the case, why would Jesus question their faith? Waking him up to do something would display faith in his ability to do so. No. I think they’re waking Jesus up to let him know he’s about to die right along with the rest of them. I don’t think they expect that he’s going to be able to do anything to help. So when he does, when he wakes up and calms the storm with a word: “Peace! Be still!” (Or, as it actually reads in the Greek, he speaks to the lake and says: “Be still! Be silenced!”), the disciples don’t quite know what to make of it. “Who then is this” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Their image of God, their understanding of who this Jesus of Nazareth guy was, didn’t include the ability to speak to a stormy sea and to tell it, essentially, “Settle down and shut up!”, and to have the storm and the sea do what he says…
I want to step back for a minute today and look at the disciple’s first question in a different light. Do you care that we are perishing?
In light of the horrific events we’ve seen unfold across the country this week, and especially the events at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, this question takes on new and powerful meaning for us as God’s people.
Is this mental illness or evil? This question has been considered by many over the last few days, and I want to say: I don’t think anyone in their right mind could do such a thing, but this cannot be used as an excuse for us. We cannot allow this to be dismissed by saying: He was sick, and we’re not, so we’re ok! The fact of the matter is that racism has left deep and abiding scars on our nation, on our culture, and on each of us, and it’s not just something from our past.
We, as a primarily white, middle to upper class community, live daily with the benefits of privilege. We, just by the nature of who we are and how and where we were born, have power that others, specifically people of color other than white, simply do not have in this culture. It’s a hard and sad fact.
But as God’s people
- We are called to overcome evil with good. That’s what Paul writes in Romans 12.
- We are called to speak into the storms of life with the word and authority of God, calling for peace.
- We are called to use our power and privilege to speak up and to speak out against racism and all such deep seated evil, and to do all that we can to become aware of how our privilege and our power, and our use and abuse of such, contributes to the continuance of this great evil in our world…
Between the two questions asked by the disciples, Jesus asks questions of his own.
Having calmed the sea, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And we find, again, something I’ve pointed out to you on several occasions, that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather that fear is the opposite of faith. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
But I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the importance of the first question – Why are you afraid? – as if it’s only a set up for the more important question – Have you still no faith? – because I think it’s a real and a very important question…
Why are you afraid?
The disciples, or at least some of them, presumably the ones in the boat with Jesus, were fish mongers. They knew these waters, and they had, I’m sure, weathered many storms. But anyone who has spent time on the water will tell you, there are storms, and there are STORMS! And this, I think we can be pretty sure, was a STORM! And even these well-seasoned fish mongers, and highly skilled boaters, were being overwhelmed by this storm to the point that they thought they were going to die and that Jesus was going to go down with them. They certainly didn’t think that Jesus, who knew nothing about boating (I mean, he was a carpenter, for crying out loud!) could do anything helpful in the situation, except, maybe, wake up and help them bail water out. So I think Jesus’ question, when read from that perspective, can mean one thing. Why are you afraid? Haven’t you faced storms on the sea before?
It can also be read, as I think many people have commonly read it, more like Jesus is saying: Ok, guys. Come on. You’ve been with me for a while now, and you’ve seen some pretty amazing things – healings and deliverances and such – So why are you afraid? Don’t you think I can handle this?
But we all face storms in life, and some of them are just storms, but some of them are STORMS! Right? And when things start to really go sideways in unexpected ways in our lives, or in the world, when we watch or read the news and it seems like there’s no good news to be found among the Church shootings, and the tropical storms, and the raging wildfires, and the deadly floods, we, like the disciples, can have the tendency to freak out a bit, and to forget who we’ve got in our boat, and what he’s capable of – that he’s the one who speaks and even the wind and sea obey him! So, why are you afraid?…
And it all comes back to our image of God in Christ. As I said a few minutes ago, how we image God makes a huge difference in how we understand faith, and how we understand life and death, the world, and our place in it.
If our God is who we know God to be in the crucified and risen Christ – if God is the one who loves the whole world so much that God sends the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through him – then why are you afraid?
God who gives us the gift of faith, God who is the giver of life, loves us with a love that is stronger even than death. So why are you afraid?
God’s got it covered from beginning to end.
Or as Julian of Norwich famously wrote, all the way back in the late 1300s: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”