12th Sunday in Ordinary time Year B Trinity 3: St. John’s Upper Norwood 2021
Rowan Williams, our former Archbishop, often has the knack of summing up a very profound thought very simply. In 2014 he produced a very manageable little book for churches to use in Lent that works through Mark’s Gospel. It works through the earliest Gospel to be written, and the Gospel we are working our way through on Sundays at Mass this year. Each week he suggests a short prayer to be used after the passage appointed for each day. In the second week, which includes todays’ Gospel passage, the stilling of the storm, the prayer is-“God, let me stand in awe of your power. Give me wonder that goes beyond fact and fiction. Amen.”
If, as I ramble on, and you lose the plot(!!!!) then hold fast to that prayer which holds in a nutshell what I think todays readings are all about!
As Bishop Rowan reminds us, in the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel we are introduced to what he describes as – “ A very controversial, and sometimes confusing figure.” P.79 op. cit. We see Jesus breaking the Sabbath regulations, facing his family, who think he has gone off his head, or is possessed by a demon. He tells stories that leave his disciples puzzled. Passing through a crowd he heals a woman without even knowing it. Finally, and this is the climax of this section of the Gospel, he tells the story of the stilling of the storm. Quite deliberately Mark throws us riddles that we have to engage with. That is always his style, as the – “dot, dot, dot- to be continued” ending to the Gospel reveals. And Rowan Williams asks his own questions- How do you react to these stories? Does it make a difference to you whether these events happened just as Mark says?
That’s where the ‘fact or fiction’ bit of the prayer comes in. I think. We need to understand that the original account of what happened is bound to shaped to express the message Mark wants to convey, but this would be overlaid by further interpretations as first the early church repeated it, and then again we try to make sense, and draw meaning for our own lives from what we have just heard. The challenge of the Gospel, and particularly that question Jesus confronts his disciples with in today’s story calls for our response. to Who do we think Jesus really is. We are faced with the same question as the awe-struck disciples in the boat. “Do you still not yet believe?”
Bishop Rowan puts it like this. “ What impression do these stories give us about Jesus, and how do we experience God through them?” His prayer encourages us to ask for an awe and a wonder that is able to go beyond the story, acknowledging our own limitations, and questionings, our puzzling, and open ourselves to the healing, and power and tenderness of God himself.
And that is what the first reading this morning lays bare too. Job is a devout believer, but his life is suddenly torn apart. His children are killed in a terrifying accident, his crops and herds are seized by bandits, and finally his own body is disfigured, covered in suppurating sores. Well meaning friends come to sympathise with him, and try to explain that, whether he knows it or not, he must have displeased God, and is being punished. At Morning Prayer at the moment we are wading through the endless wrangles and arguments between Job, the believer, tormented and rebellious, and his so called ‘comforters’. In todays Old Testament reading we reach the climax of this stand –off with his friends, and more radically his facing up to God. Suddenly God arrives, and, far from providing Job with answers, he poses a series of unanswerable questions about events beyond human understanding, or imagining. Job regains his acceptance that God works for our good, often in hidden ways. Finally the author and God both attest to Job’s innocence. But this poetic tale poses another question- “How am I to manage and cope with suffering when it comes?” What becomes clear is that the only way to live out a realistic relationship with God, or any one else for that matter, is to be completely open and honest about our true emotions and thoughts if we are going to allow God, or others the chance to do anything with us, or for us.
This openness to God’s sometimes hidden purpose is echoed in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. We discover a man who again is ready to lay bare his feelings. We see someone ready to encourage, to show affection, but, at the same time, someone who is easily hurt. He expresses his disappointment with the community. Recently they have been too easily impressed by pushy newcomers, self-styled evangelists. Paul nicknames them ‘Super-apostles’. These preachers are eager for success and power. They boast of the popularity and financial rewards they have gained because of people’s generosity. They see this as evidence of their authority. Paul reminds the community that the Gospel of God’s love pays no attention to such things. The message of the good news only came to them through the hardships and sufferings that he, and other apostles have endured. Sharing in the vulnerable, sometimes even powerless, living and loving of the Lord Jesus is the mark of true discipleship.
Finally in today’s Gospel we come to the moment when like Job, the disciples in the boat come face to face with God. In his brief commentary Rowan Williams describes Mark’s purpose. He says that Mark wants to introduce us to, ( in his words), “ a person around whom extraordinary things happened, and these events are credible because they have changed the teller. “ Mark offers us, who hear his Gospel, “a relationship of utter confidence.” We are assured that God is with us, whatever we face.
Jesus commands the forces of nature to be still, “rebuking the wind” almost as if at an exorcism. As God subdued the forces of chaos at the beginnings of creation so now in Jesus, God made man, He acts to tame the forces of destruction, and to save his followers. But Mark’s purpose is to help us understand that our Lord and Master acts to protect us too, as we face the storms of life, even if we, like those first believers, may face sufferings, persecution, and even the time of trial.
I just want to remind you of that other version of the stilling of the storm in Matthew’s Gospel, once more revealing Jesus as Lord of Creation, Saviour of his disciples. In this account Jesus comes to the aid of his disciples, walking across the lake. He invites Peter to come to him across the raging waters. Once again the story asks Peter, and us, to believe and to trust despite our questions and fears. For a moment Peter dares to step towards his Master on the water, only to panic and sink beneath the waves. Jesus reaches out to him and brings him to safety on beard. Oscar Wilde uses this incident to express his own cry for help in a time of depression and shame. He gives it the title ‘E Tenebris’ – Out of the Darkness. For me this poem gives voice to the cry for help all us make in dark times.
“ Come down, O Christ, and help me! Reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand.
My heart is as some famine- murdered land,
whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie,
if I this night before God’s throne should stand.”
At this point Wilde hears negative voices that tell him he is irredeemable, unforgiveable, and that like the desperate priests of Ball, crying to s silent heaven, he will not be heard.
“ ‘He sleeps, perchance, or rideth to the chase.’
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
from morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.”
Here is no “utter confidence.” But then the image of the powerful Saviour, reaching out to save his disciple, reassures him, the Saviour now in glory, and yet still bearing the wounds of love.
“ Nay, peace- I shall behold, before the night
the feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
the wounded hands, the weary human face.”