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Job 38:1–11 | 2 Corinthians 6:1–13 | Mark 4:3541
There’s a church in Honfleur, France, that was literally constructed some hundreds of years ago—with the same technique as the seagoing people used on their boats: A hull constructed and turned upside down—with walls added. When the congregation outgrew one “boat ceiling,” a second was attached next to it: There result being a rather curious construction of two joined naves (literally from the Latin navis for boat)—and the largest all-wooden church in France where catholics still worship. Even in modern churches, the vaulted ceiling has the practical job of shedding water and supporting weight, but also conveys a physical metaphor into our gatherings: As if we were all in a boat together. (If we were here—and we will be again soon!) Maybe not unlike the disciples on the lake that day.
And there’s a storm. And Jesus—maybe really human after all—is taking a nap. The time seems inconvenient to the disciples who would like a little help here. Now Jesus has been pointing to this rising Kingdom of God that grows with persistence and mystery like a seed—and so we keep this in mind as we witness his power amidst the elements: This is also not just “another miracle” but an apocalyptic revelation of Jesus’s identity. It happens on a watercraft tossed in the waters of chaos: The disciples’ state moving from needing some tangible help; going to find it while wondering if Jesus even cares; (and the stilling of the storm) to being questioned about their state of mind, heart and will; to marveling and wondering about WHO THIS IS: We see the actual need for safety and the metaphor for the storms of life—as it were. But we are stretched even beyond this imagery. In fact, whenever there is water involved; and especially if it’s stormy water—it is clearly a a cosmic event. We are invited into the story for the sake of understanding what is all around us—particularly when it is unsettling and even downright terrifying—along with God’s role in it. And here, we have Jesus who performs an “exorcism” on the storm: “Peace!” “Be still!” (These are the words he uses elsewhere in Mark as Jesus’ kingdom ministry for casting out troublesome spirits.) Rather than making excuses for resting or foisting platitudes of consolation (“it’ll be okay”) or injunction (“just face your fears”), Jesus stands in to a world out of whack and faces down the storm.
This is not so unlike being in church, boat imagery and all. Here (even if that’s at home right now) we participate in particularities in order to be woken up to the cosmic: Things like space and silence; music and speaking; hearing and knowing; eating and moving. These invite us into that which is eternal; what was and is and will be. And it isn’t always peaceful. In fact, it may make us very aware of the chaos in our lives- individually and collectively. It also makes us aware of Jesus standing up to speak in the middle of the storm.
So Job… We hear only a small part of a long story. Up until Job 38, we hear about the difficulties of this one man who we hear is an upright and all-around good person. He’s also done well in terms in the material world: Family, resources, health. What happens, we hear, when all this is lost in a seemingly arbitrary way?Job’s friends respond with the predictable consolations. They are mostly kind, but they: Try to make up stories for God so they can hang onto their favorite images of God that help them feel better about problems in life- like there really is order and justice. The problem must be elsewhere, then: Clear and reasonable causes for Job’s misfortune. Blame can be put, perhaps, on Job’s children’s potential sins; or Job’s own probable shortcomings. He should work harder to get God’s favor; or maybe there’s a lesson to be learned. Job, however, doesn’t settle for these inadequate stories and. Unique to any other ancient Near Eastern literature about the divine; he deduces with devastating acuity: Divine justice is absent. There is no proper cause and effect. WHAT IS, is undeserved. Furthermore, more difficult stuff exists. Unfairness and injustice abound—from devastating systemic things like racism to every little indignity in an aging body. How, then, can we have a meaningful relationship with God, the architect of creation? How do we not despair?
Into this storm of misfortune and discussion, God finally speaks to Job. And of course, it’s no real answer—as we think of answers. Just as the storm is part of the lesson with Jesus and not just something to get over, but part of the learning—we hear God now speaking OUT OF a whirlwind. God speaks INTO the chaos- or it’s metaphor, water—and also lays claim to birthing it. This creates some tension even today in how we understand God! The irony, is that when we see God in the chaos—as opposed to just getting rid of it in the way we think is right—we are more likely to see clearly the destructiveness of chaotic human behavior and and moral failings. When we are able to embrace the mystery of God, we are more likely to allow God to exorcise the spirits of the “programs for happiness that can never work” (our extreme need for control, esteem and safety). The battle that God calls Job to is one in which he is going to be called to grow up and see the world as it is- not as he would have it be. (“I will ask you… and you will make me understand..” says God.) And in so doing, recognize ever-more poignantly, the mercies of God that JUST ARE despite our own failings and disease. God is here made known to be (as Kathleen O’Connor puts it), “wild, beautiful, free, and deeply upsetting.”
To check in—this does not mean that God is the perpetrator of outright moral evil—nor commends it to humans. Chaos is not the same as immorality and it will probably never make sense to us; but we are not privy to the working of creation. We might remember that the chaos of things like volcanoes, earthquakes and fire—even viruses—which make up something like 7% of our genetic code—are a natural and even necessary part of the world’s construction. Chaos is sewn into the fabric of the cosmos (Nature needs disorder for its order to function)—not to punish us or terrorize us, but though threatening, simply endemic to life.
This is a mystery asserted by God without explanation or defense. It’s the mystery of which we are a part; with beauty and creativity and danger, too. The story is bigger than us, and yet we have this boat. Answers might feel few and far between, and yet we are shaped by experience and knowledge to be ourselves, people who reflect what we know of God’s justice. To be pointed in the direction of God —as we are in church—leads us to re-framing our own questions and new ways to see the world in which disappointment and grief are not the end or the entirety of the story. Thanks be to God. Amen.