Sunday, March 12, 2017

Facing Danger (The Storm)

Facing Danger
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 12, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Mark 4: 35-41
Daniel 6: 10-16

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

We talked last week, as we were heading into this season of Lent, about Jesus heading into the desert to face temptation, and not just him facing temptation under normal circumstances, but those ratcheted up to a great degree by 40 days and 40 nights of fast, that he headed into his confrontation with Satan, having crippling pangs of hunger, and a truly burning thirst, standing, being able to stand only by and through miracle, truly not by bread alone, and that perhaps this exactly was his way of preparing himself for the suffering of the passion, for the excruciating pain of the cross. This led us to think about Lent as a season of preparation for ourselves, and how difficult it is to prepare for the real of life because it is so hard to artificially create that realness, we can practice and practice, but if we do so in safety and comfort our preparation is limited to that safety and comfort, and when those are challenged, so too will we be, and hopefully we’ll be able to stand in our faith, shine our lights, but who really knows, so like a basketball player, shooting free throws in the gym, not just going through the motions, but trying to create in his mind that scenario, where he is down two with two to shoot, trying to mentally and imaginatively create the real, so too will we during lent try to find and experience the real of that darkness with this series of sermons, knowing there is no substitute for real and true experience, but doing our best in the mean time.
In your bulletin you will find an insert that shows our schedule for the weeks ahead leading up to Easter. . . in this facing darkness series we will look at Facing Danger, Facing Disease, Facing Death, Facing Deception (betrayed by those closest to you), and finally Facing Desertion, (when you are left seemingly all alone). Each Sunday will include an Old and New Testament story or episode, where we’ll find a character facing these situations of Darkness and look for ways that they in their situations found some way to shine their lights, and seek to see the connections between their reality and our own. . . and so today we focus on facing Danger. . . which is good as first because often these dangers are found only in our perception, in our fears and worries. . . Erick has already read a portion from the story of Daniel heading to the Lion’s Den, now we turn our eyes to the Gospel of Mark’s account of the Storm. . . Mark 4: 35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 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?” 39 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. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

I’ve always loved this story, mostly because the imagery is so great, even in the typical sparseness we always find in Mark’s gospel. . . . Mark’s depiction of things is always in such a hurry.  Things happen immediately, bang, bang. . . one right after another. We don’t get much information here, but we don’t need it because our imagination and our experience does the rest. We’ve all experienced storms, literal storms, and I want to focus on the literal first because it is always good literary practice to do so, and I speak as one who has some authority on the subject, putting on my English Teacher hat. . . I don’t know how many times I say it in class, focus on the literal first, it grounds you in the details, and that is important in interpretation.
And yes we all know what storms are like. We know what it is like to hear that crazy noise on the radio, buzzbeepscccccrrrrrr. . . this is the emergency broadcast system. . . and this time it is not a test, but you are in it. . . your county made the list. . . but you really didn’t need to know that because the rain is already pouring, and you can’t see much because the windshield wipers, clicking back and forth back and forth, just can’t quite keep up. . . the temperature dropped and the windshield is fogging up anyway, and even if it wasn’t the rain drops are so close together their liquid just eats up any light that  your headlights put out, and if you flick to your high beams all you see is a thick wave of drop upon drop, some blowing sideways, some falling down, some bouncing off the windshield and hood of your car, and some being splashed aside by the wipers, still going swish swish swish. . . . and you without even realizing it you are now barely going 20 miles per hour on an interstate road, where only moments before you were going 70. . . and from the slow moving car, the sight is impressive, what you can make out,  just the power, and then you see the first flash of lightning, and a crash of thunder right on its heels. . . boom, and you see trees bending, bending bending. . . you grip the wheel tighter, your eyes bug out, you sit up straight behind the wheel, ever vigilant, creeping along. Yes you’ve been there. . . we know what it is like, from the time we were kids and heard our first house shaking thunder clap, we knew that storms were a reality outside of our control. . . there to be endured. . . safely . . . there inside, always inside, we know we have sense enough to come in out of the rain.
But what about those times when you can’t? When it creeps up on you, before you can find your way inside. . . what about being trapped outside of the safety of the inside of manmade structures? When the wind is blowing, and you can stand and face it, but like the comedian Ron White said about hurricanes. . . its not that the wind is blowing, it’s what the wind is blowing, you can hang on and face it all you want, but if that wind blows a tree branch or something large and heavy, something else at you, its possible that holding on and hanging on, and facing it head on just aint the right thing to do. . . and the disciples aren’t even on land. . . and yeah at sea, the wind may not have much sharp and heavy to blow at you, it just has you to blow, and the boat, oh yeah and of course the water itself. . . in big waves, with the boat rocking, tipping way up, then falling way down. . .
I’ve been in a boat in that situation before. . . I was teaching at Christchurch. . . teaching freshman English, and the freshmen also took Environmental Science, which was taught by one of my best friends. Now he had this great idea. . . he said hey what we need to do is take these kids on an immersion trip, we need to get them out of their comfort zones. . . he was big on these types of trips. . . I was not, but I’m a big sucker. . . he said, hey you can get them to write journals and poems and stuff about their experiences. . . now I know anytime another teacher has that great idea my red flags go up, exactly, what type of experience are you talking about. He said, We’ll take them out to this island out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the CBF owns an island for these kinds of trips, right by Tangier. . . we can go, stay for a couple of days, get in the mud, it’ll be a blast. . . ok, sure. . . why not. . . sucker. . . so we go, no bathroom, just a hole, called by them a Clivus, but I know some Latin, and I don’t remember Clivus being latin for “hole,” but that is certainly all it was. . . and it was cold and wet, and we were staying with a bunch of 14 year olds, about 40 boys and 10 or so girls. . . awesome right. . . yeah, can’t wait to read the poems. . . now it wasn’t really so bad, but on the way back, we are taking a small person ferry kinda boat back across the bay, and a storm picks up. . . not a big storm. . . probably not much compared to what the disciples were going through, but it was enough. . . enough to have freezing cold mist rain, that froze your fingers and cheeks. . . and you couldn’t put your hands in your pockets because you had to hold on for your life, and you couldn’t hide your head from the wind because you needed the air, and you needed to look up. . . because 50 kids were all seated around you, as I said 40 boys and about 10 girls. . . all getting seasick like you wouldn’t believe. . . as the boat, shifts up and down in the waves. . . and they are all looking to me. . . at least the ones who were not yet puking, and I stand there firm but freezing trying to show them confidence, to be strong, and keep from getting sick myself, and I sing. . . and the silly songs we are singing keeps faces up and laughing and singing along, peace in the midst of the storm and the puking. . . the storms of life, right. . . literally. . . and there I was standing strong, but what is Jesus doing?
Sleeping. . . look at the details directly from the text.
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 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?”

Asleep, on a cushion, while the boat was being swamped by waves beating into it. . . I don’t know what I would have done, if I was there standing on that boat, holding on to a freezing and wet metal pole, keeping my head up in the wind, lest I get sick. . . I don’t know what I would have done if my friend was down below asleep on a cushion. . . ticked I think. . . Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Maybe I had that experience in mind when I wrote this. . . it’s there in the bulletin.
While you were sleeping, Jesus
The storm came upon us, Jesus
The rain fell on us, Jesus
The winds blew us, Jesus
The waves almost buried us, Jesus

While you were sleeping, Jesus
We filled with worry, Jesus
We were in danger, Jesus
We couldn’t find you, Jesus
We almost died, Jesus

I repeated the name Jesus because it really brings it front and center. . . they are blaming Jesus. . . if you ever wondered why the ancient Hebrews put such sanctity on the name of God, never saying it, its because using names has power, and repeating it like that shows it. . . it can belittle. . . it is an act of power, using someone’s name like that. . . think about it, you are in an argument, and you out of the blue decide to mention their name. . . it is totally condescending. . . the disciples don’t use the name, they say, Teacher. . . Rabbi. . .which may be worse. . . hey teacher, remember this is your job to protect us, we are in danger and you are here sleeping. . . really?
39 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.

I finish the poem like this. . .

Then you awoke, Jesus
The wind and rain stopped, Jesus
The waves were calmed, Jesus
We were saved, Jesus
But we are so afraid, Jesus

And we are afraid. . . aren’t we. . . even though we’ve been in storms before, still talking literal storms, even though we’ve been in storms before we are still afraid because they are awesome and like I said earlier, they are completely out of our control, and we don’t like that, we like to be in control. . . and Jesus says. . . You of little faith, be not afraid. . . or actually in Mark’s version it is so much more powerful. . . he asks them, “why are you afraid, and says, have you no faith.” Now that you’ve seen, now that you’ve experienced, why are you still afraid. . . and we are. Though we’ve been in storms before, and have made it through, we still have those moments of doubt and fear. . .  and of course there is more to this story than the literal. . . there are also figurative storms. . . look at Daniel. . .
Known, trusted, interpreter of dreams and the writing on the wall, living in peace and comfort in the palace of the King, even given and dressed in his own purple robes of royalty. . . but then the wind shifts, and other advisors plot his demise. . . before he knows it, he finds himself in a completely different world, one where the rules have changed, and the simple act of worshipping his God is no longer allowed. . . he remains firm, prays to God, but the advisors, accuse him of breaking the new law, and the shifting whirlwind lands him with a death sentence, a night with hungry lions. . . a perfect picture of the out of Daniel’s control storm, plenty to be afraid of. . . at the control and whims of others. . . and the thunder rolls. . .
We’ve been there too, songs are written about such things. . . the thunder rolls and the lightning strikes, another love goes cold on a sleepless night, as the storm blows on, out of control, deep in her heart, the thunder rolls. . . . we often find ourselves in the storms of life when things feel like they are out of control, when there seems to be danger, when the world is shifting and turning, and change is all around us, the rules, the things we counted on, our ballast, our systems are failing and flailing in the blowing winds of change. . . be it politics, or economics, or personal relationships, we feel it, and we are afraid because we do not have the control. . . but what do we do with our fear. . . what are we? Who do we become? It’s quite a question:
DeAnna and I watched a movie this week, serendipitously and providentially so. . . I had no idea it would be perfect for this sermon, we were just looking for something to watch, but it was perfect, because the movie was all about who do you become when you are facing dangers. . . what does fear do? It was called Unthinkable, and it was a situation where this terrorist had placed three nuclear bombs in three US cities, but he didn’t say which cities, he just said they would go off Friday, it was Monday. . . the authorities caught him by Wednesday. . . and they needed to get out of him where the bombs were, to save the lives of countless Americans. . . and the main plot of the movie was all about how far Samuel L. Jackson, who was the “Special Interrogator” would go in torturing this man. . . physically and mentally. . .at first the FBI and CIA and military operatives also there tried to hold him back, but little by little as they were overcome with fear of the reality, they let him get away with more and more, until finally it included the murdering of the guys’ wife in front of him, and then what was “unthinkable”bringing in his children. . . until finally the FBI agent had enough and pulled the children out saying it was not worth it. . . and the movie ended right then. . . we don’t know whether the bombs went off. . . the movie wasn’t about that, it wasn’t about the bombs, but about our values, when placed in front of the real. . . I’ve said, character is who you are when the pressure is on and it is real. . . Jesus says. . . why are you afraid, do you still have no faith?
What does he mean? I think he means, don’t you see that I’m with you. . . that it will be alright, that if I can control the waves and the winds, then you don’t need to worry about not having control yourself. . . that you can rely on me. . . even when it looks like you are sleeping? And silent? And that you don’t exist? Jesus. . . especially then. . . he says.

Do we remember that Jesus has led us safe thus far, and that he will lead us home, that God Our Help in Ages past is also our hope for years to come? Do we remember such things in the depths of the storm. . . and what difference would it make if we could remember such things. . . I hate being cold, I hate being wet, and I have a history of motion sickness, but for some reason on that boat with all those kids, I knew that if I stayed firm, they could look to me, and they needed that. . . It wasn’t much, but it was something, and I was given the strength to make that stand. . . in the face of that darkness I was given a light to shine. . . it was not one I could have planned, it was not one I could have said, yes that’s me, I have that skill, let me be that guy in that moment. . . I wouldn’t have chosen it, I was just there. . . and it was enough. Unlike, Jesus, I couldn’t rebuke the wind and calm the storm. . . I could only have faith that He would, faith that in the midst of the storm I could find enough peace. . . it makes a difference. . . it makes all the difference in the world. . . it is a little thing. . . but it makes all the difference in the world. . . the very power of faith. . . and often being a standing witness to that faith. . . is enough shining light to reveal the illusion of the darkness to someone faltering in doubt. . . may God give us strength, we’ll need it because storms are only apparent danger. . . there is more to come. “We do believe, Jesus, help our unbelief” amen. Next week, “Facing Disease”