24th June, 2018
Two people watched the same sunset.
One said: “At times like this I am afraid.
The sky is so vast, the sea so immense.
In comparison, I’m a speck of dust,
Here today, gone tomorrow.
When I look at the hugeness of creation,
I feel my insignificance
And I wonder what my life
Is all about.”
The second person said:
“What a glorious sunset!
I am the reason that this exists.
I am the only proof I have
Of all the beauty in this world.
Without the gift of my life,
The gift of my senses,
All this would be as nothing.
I praise God that the universe is held
In the wonder of my being.”
I like these words of Joy Cowley. It is a psalm I return to over and over again. It offers two different perspectives on the same thing, in this case a sunset. One person speaks of fear, of the sense of being small and insignificant and deep questions of the meaning and purpose of one’s life. The other expresses joy in the moment and a profound sense of wonder at what is being experienced.
I like this psalm because I recognise both responses. I used to think that this psalm suggested that one of these response was better than the other. That the text suggests a movement away from those feelings of fear and questions about the meaning of our lives and towards a deeper embrace of the wondrous life we have been given. That’s a fair interpretation, but what I have come to see is that it is simply my interpretation.
There is a beach on the South Coast of Wellington that has always been a very special place in my life. There is a particular spot I like to go to, where one can sit at a cliff top and look out over cook straight. From there you can the not insignificant amount of water that separates Te Ika a Maui from Te Wai Pounamu. You can see the Marlborough sounds, the snow covered peaks of the southern ranges, and sometimes you can even see the tiny speck that is the Picton ferry sailing between the Islands.
What I feel when taking in this view is actually something of a strange mixture of the two views in Joy Cowley’s psalm. I certainly become very aware of just how small I am, how vast the ocean, sky and land are as they stretch out before me, and how I will never fully grasp the absolute grandeur of this world. Sometimes there is that sense of fear, but I would name that feeling differently. I call it awe. Awe is the moment we step beyond fear into a place where we are so overwhelmed that words slip away. Awe may include a strong sense of our own limitations, our inability to grasp all that there is. But the overall feeling is not one of fear but rather of amazement and joy.
One of my favourite old testament texts is the book of Job. It is not a story from history, but rather an allegory for the human condition. The story seeks to grapple with the premise of why bad things happen to good people. Over the course of Job’s story he goes from being a man with children, farmland and animals to losing absolutely everything. His children, servant and animals die. Job himself in afflicted with boils. It’s a terrible turn of events.
Job has friends who are convinced that Job himself is to blame for what has happened. Job however is convinced that he is not to blame and that God is just, despite his experience that suggests the contrary. Finally the voice of God enters the narrative, which is where our reading today begins. God speaks from the whirlwind. And what does God say? This actual passage is a creation narrative. When we say creation narrative we often think of the two stories of creation found at the beginning of Genesis. Those are creation stories, but not the only ones found in the bible.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?… Have you commanded the morning since your days began?”
God’s response to Job’s suffering is not an answer as such. Instead God overwhelms Job with the vast expanse of the universe and all that has been created. Is God trying to make Job feel small and insignificant like the first vision in Joy Cowley’s psalm? Or is God encouraging Job to look beyond his misery to a vision of the universe that draws him out of his pain and into a greater understanding of himself and all he has endured? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Certainly Job’s final words suggest that while he may not have received a satisfactory answer, he is overawed at the grandeur of God.
The people who chose the readings for the day likely chose the reading from Job as a companion to the Gospel reading because one mentions a whirlwind and the other a storm. A slightly tenuous connection, but fortunately not the only one.
The story of Jesus calming the storm is often used to talk about trust in Christ and how he is the one who calms the storms of our lives. This interpretation takes the story at face value and assumes that it is a miracle story. What this overlooks is one of the important narrative devices of the Gospel of Mark in which the story appears.
In the Gospel of Mark there is a strong theme of secret knowledge and misunderstanding. Over and over Jesus hides his identity, but he also veils much of what he is trying to communicate in stories open to a broad range of interpretation. Over and over he expresses frustration with the disciples who keep getting the wrong end of the stick. When it comes to the story of Jesus stilling the storm, I am suggesting that maybe we are the ones getting wrong end of the stick.
A key verse is when Jesus asked the disciples “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The question is, faith in what? Our traditional interpretation suggests faith in Jesus. From there we go on to suggest that if only we have enough faith in Jesus he will appear to calm the storms of our lives. That’s a problematic reading because it suggests that when Jesus doesn’t appear to help us in times of trouble, it’s our fault for lacking in faith.
But this isn’t what I think Jesus is getting with when he asks “Have you still no faith?” One of the few bits of information we have about the disciples is that some of them were from villages in Galilee close to the sea of Galilee. We also know that a number were fishermen. Even if we think that these followers of Jesus may have only been in their 20’s, as people from this part of the world, who have worked on the lake much of their lives, they would have possessed significant knowledge. They certainly knew how to sail and navigate. They knew how to fish. But they also would have known that in the early evening the lake would typically be calm and safer to cross, but that squalls at any time were a possibility. In fact, it is highly likely that given the amount of time they would have spent fishing over the course of their lives, they would have experienced any and every kind of weather.
This context gives us a different sense of Jesus’s words. Suddenly his statement is less about their failure to trust in him and more about their failure to trust in themselves. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Maybe Jesus reminding them the abilities they already possess. Perhaps Jesus is right to question their reaction of fear because they had already overcome many such storms. Jesus is offering them an opportunity to adjust their vision of themselves from one in which they are helpless, to one in which they are self-assured and confident in their own abilities.
So there are two ways to understand this gospel story. We could stick with the tradition interpretation that having enough faith in Jesus will help us to face the storms in our lives. Or we could think that God has already given us what we need to face the storms of our lives and that when we find the courage to face them, Jesus is there beside us.
There is one small danger to adopting the latter. If we believe that God has given us the ability to face the storms in our lives, then we have a responsibility to use that ability. And there are storms in this world that need to be faced up to. Climate change, the rise of fascism, refugees being denied basic human rights. Can we dare to listen to the Jesus who says to us, what are you afraid of? Do you still lack the faith in yourself to do something about that? Do we?
– Reverend Richard Bonifant