This is a reflection I offered for “Storm Sunday,” from the Season of Creation, on Job 28:20-27, 1 Corinthians 1:21-31, and Luke 8:22-25.
For the past 4 weeks of this series on creation we have spoken of many beautiful and awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world—flowers, animals, woods, water—and today’s topic, storms, is no different. Storms—rainstorms, thunderstorms, snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes: these all have a certain beauty to them and can often be awe-inspiring, but their beauty often stands at our expense. They threaten us—our homes, our families, our sources of food, the very infrastructures that make life possible (especially as we expect to live it). As much as storms are beautiful and awesome, they are horrific.
I grew up in a beach town in Southern New Jersey and I have this very strong memory of walking along the boardwalk with my mom and my brother after the worst of the Halloween Nor’easter of 1991 had passed—this was also termed the “Perfect Storm” if you have heard anything about it. Waves up to 30 ft in height hit the shoreline and my town, Ventnor is only 3 feet above sea level . I would have been in 1st grade then. We were only three out of what seemed to me at the time to be 3,000 people walking on the boardwalk. I saw most of my classmates with their families, the parish priest, the owners of the corner store near our house. We had all gathered to marvel at the high tides which had swallowed the entire beach (normally about 350 feet wide). We were all drawn there. Water shot up through the planks of wood below our feet to high up above our heads without any notice. On one side of us as we walked along the boardwalk, water as far as you could see; on the other side, dangerously close to the water’s edge, were the houses of my friends, small businesses, city hall. And using what powers of reasoning that were available to my 7 yr old brain, I couldn’t tell whether the water level was slowly falling or slowly rising. It was beautiful, alarming, amazing.
This experience made such an impression on me that ever since then I’ve had the same reoccurring dream that I’m living on an island which has been engulfed by a huge tidal wave and I must figure out how to save myself and my brother. Storms allure us even as they might assault us.
The question that presses on me this morning is, where is God in the storm? Does the experience of the storm reveal to us something about God and God’s wisdom?
In the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read this morning, we hear him riffing on God’s wisdom. We hear that God’s wisdom is unlike human wisdom. Paul uses language of gradation here—whatever human power is like, God’s version of it is better: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. But it’s not just that God’s wisdom or strength is simply a bigger and better version of ours, but rather that God’s wisdom and strength is wholly different sort of wisdom or strength than ours is. And, this other sort of wisdom or strength helps to challenge conventional human ways of valuing strength and wisdom. We get a sense of this when Paul says that God’s choices of Jesus’ disciples reveal what God’s wisdom is like to us. God doesn’t choose the strong and the educated to lead the early church. God chooses people we wouldn’t have thought to choose. So, what Paul is trying to express here is that God is not what we think he is, she is. God’s wisdom is not like human wisdom, yet it is difficult for Paul to put into words what it is like. He can only really say, rather mysteriously, that Jesus is God’s wisdom for us.
What about Jesus reveals God’s wisdom to us? What about Jesus reveals who God is? And, is there anything about Jesus that can specifically speak to the question of where God is in the storm?
In the passage from Luke’s gospel we read this morning, we get some hints about the way that Jesus reveals God to us and we get something of the same kind of message Paul was trying to communicate: God isn’t the kind of God we expect.
Jesus is in a boat with his disciples when they find themselves in the midst of what appears to be a fatal windstorm. The boat has already begun to fill with water and is starting to sink when the disciples decide to wake up their sleeping leader. A lot of commentaries suggest that this might have been rude to wake him up with frivolities, but I think it is rather considerate to wake up someone who is about to drown and at least give him the news. And, in fact, it proved to be a good idea to wake him up because he halts the storm. Luke describes the response of the disciples to Jesus’s action as both one of fear and amazement. This is understandable because this kind of ability, to quiet storms, is something totally unfamiliar. Does it mean their leader is holy or demonic? Does it mean he can save them or destroy them? Is he a human being or a god? How to make sense of this? And Jesus, noticing this, asks them: “Where is your faith?”
Where is your faith?
I don’t imagine this as an accusation, like “Where is your faith?” suggesting that if they were truly faith-filled people they never would have had any emotional reaction to the storm at all.
Growing up as a Christian, I was familiar with this story from the Bible. I’m sure most of us were. And, I’m not sure if I got this idea from the pulpit or whether this was my own reasoning, but I thought (growing up) that this was mean to be a story about how the disciples get all worked up about this storm, Jesus yells at them for being worked up, saves them, and they realize that being worried at all was a reflection of their lack of faith in Jesus’ ability to take care of everything. The moral of this story, I thought, was that if we truly have faith we can be confident that God will protect us from evil. And, I reasoned even further, if we do experience horrible things it is because either (A) God is letting them happen to us for a reason—to teach us something. In other words, God’s purposes are sometimes accomplished through human tragedies, OR (B) horrible things happen because people don’t have enough faith in God’s protective powers. But, I don’t think that either one of these explanations do justice to the loving God who Jesus reveals to us.
And, neither one of these explanations can be supported by the portrait of God in the passage we read from Job this morning either. In the passage from Job we hear God explaining to Job that it is God who decides where rain will break forth and where thunder will clash, and that we may not understand this, but it is accomplished according to God’s wisdom. Job’s friends, who appear earlier in the text, but who we don’t read about today, provide the antithesis of God’s wisdom: suffering comes to those who deserve it. God always rewards good and punishes evil. But, this is not how God works . God’s wisdom doesn’t operate lie this and Job is living proof of this reality for his friends: he is an innocent man and yet he experiences extreme suffering. So this passage, that we reflect on together today, suggests that though the earth operates on the basis of divine wisdom, rain doesn’t fall on the evil, while the faithful are preserved from the storm. Both the faithful and the unfaithful are vulnerable to the destructive powers of the earth. Both are threatened by its storming. Piety is no protection from the storm.
In the passage from Luke in the boat on the lake, I imagine Jesus not as chastising the disciples for any lack of faith, but rather as asking a legitimate open question as a teacher is apt to ask his students: where is your faith?
Where is your faith?
If your faith is in God, what kind of God do you have faith in? Do you have faith in a God who protects you from evil? one who saves you from suffering? one who won’t let you die a tragic death out on the waters? Do you?
These questions are posed by this short passage in Luke, but not the answers. We learn later in Luke’s text, in his second volume, that all faithful followers of Jesus don’t die peacefully in their beds in old age. Though this storm doesn’t end up taking their lives, many of the disciples of Jesus end up dying violent and tragic deaths anyway.
Jesus doesn’t save his followers from suffering or from catastrophic deaths. He doesn’t always calm the storms in our lives. Despite my childhood impression of this story, this story is not mean to suggest that Jesus always protects us from lethal storms. The disciples survive this deadly force only to be killed by the lethal force of the Romans. And, the same could be said for Jesus as well.
Where is your faith? The God of Jesus Christ does not reveal herself, himself to be one who protects those who love God from evil. God doesn’t prevent suffering. God doesn’t save one from a tragic death. God doesn’t promise any of these grand, fantastical things to humanity. Instead, the promise of God is more subtle and, I think, more powerful.
God promises Godself. The gift of God is herself, himself. This is grace: God’s presence, intimacy with God. Nothing more and nothing less.
This subtle and powerful gift of intimacy with God is what allows for the transformation of suffering and death from an ultimate end into another opportunity for relationship. The storm, though not a test from God, is transformed into another opportunity for relationship with God. This gift of intimacy with God ensures that suffering and death cannot hold us.
As Paul states, in the passage from this morning, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” not the Christ who could not die, not the Christ who did not suffer, but Christ who did suffer and die and yet death could not hold him.
Christ came, Paul states, to be “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” in other words, to make us right with God, to bring about our healing and our restoration. Healing restoration doesn’t consist in erasing suffering—not in erasing our past sources of pain and suffering, nor is avoiding future sufferings. The healing that Christ brings consists in the gift of God’s presence with us, in our boats. This presence can give us the strength to endure suffering and the peace of God’s promise that love survives death (the peace that not all is destroyed). We can walk in dangerous places and our faith is not that we will come out unharmed, but rather that we will not be destroyed.
My childhood town, Ventnor, New Jersey, where my memories of the Halloween storm of 1991 come from was one of the worst affected by the recent Superstorm Hurricane Sandy. Even though I joyfully call South Bend my home now, as the storm was progressing this past October I found myself compelled to follow the media coverage. I looked at the pictures on the internet of my childhood home overwhelmed by water and I cried. I mourned its flooded streets.
We don’t know what the future holds for us, for the city of South Bend, for us as a people, us as individuals. It seems like our ability to live comfortably is further put into question each year: the summers are growing hotter, oil for heating and transportation and growing is running out, clean water perhaps will be soon rationed and sold to the highest bidder, we don’t know how to survive if we had to provide our own food, fuel, shelter, and heat.
Where is your faith?
I want to suggest that our Christian faith doesn’t ensure that these realities won’t cause us great suffering or even kill us. It is surely good and holy to engage in action which may lessen the chances of environmental destruction. To the extent that we act on behalf of the good of the earth and the good of our human community, these efforts are certainly blessed by God. Yet, God’s blessing does not ensure its success. In other words, we don’t engage in such good and holy action because we have any assurance that our efforts will be effective. It may be the case that many harmful environmental consequences may be too far underway to be reversed at this point and that our time on earth as a species living in relative comfort is quickly passing. Yet, God is still with us. All we know and value may be disappearing, yet we can be assured that love will remain. We will die, we know this for sure, but death cannot hold us.
Where is your faith? Here. In this subtle and powerful promise of presence. We celebrate God’s presence with us today in the bread and the cup, the mundane realities of daily subsistence transformed, ritualized as a reminder that God is here with us as we move through our days, as we struggle to survive, as we eat together, as we gather in community, as we feed each other. In the wake of the storm, it (communion) is a reminder that everything won’t be alright, but not all can be destroyed.