This is my sermon of June 24 2018 shared at St John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. We do revisit my recent trip to the MVA a bit, but in light of God’s promise and presence in the middle of trouble. =)
“Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. Blessed be Abba God, the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Source of all mercies and the God of all consoling, who comforts us in all our troubles…” These words were part of the greeting from the Apostle Paul to the Church of Corinth, opening his letter to them, the one we call 2 Corinthians.
In that letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul digs deeply into trouble and being troubled. He speaks of despair, of hope, of opposition and of faith, both the troubles and the faith of those Christians when facing hard times, and his own as an apostle, teacher and prophetic voice for Christ. Paul believes that we have in us from God a deep and strong vein of treasure to be accessed, a wealth of blessing completing us in our spiritual lives and also strengthening us in our daily lives. In chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians he’ll speak of that deep treasure and the troubled storms of life very poetically, “But this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
Paul knew something about the storms of life. In his letters he often speaks of the trials of being beaten, ship-wrecked, rejected and neglected. He knew all about the storms of life. Our Gospel passage today is about a storm, an unexpected storm that stirred up an otherwise routine and placid trip across the Sea of Galilee. Now, this is a Pilgrim Church, so may I see a show of hands of everyone who has taken a boat out on the Sea of Galilee? I was also there, with a group of pilgrims from this parish, just a couple of months ago… but my boat ride was as calm and serene as expected. No surprise winds or sudden storms came upon us, but just the lap of the waters against the sides of our boat overseen by that platinum sky and the pounding midday heat.
We’ve not all been on the Sea of Galilee, but we all know what its like when storms brew up in life, right? I went been through a storm recently, church… I had to go last week to the MVA… the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. Sometimes our storms in life are less sudden and more directly linked to our procrastination, and I’m not going to lie about it. My car’s registration had expired a couple of weeks before, and I had spend the previous week and several hundred dollars getting various fines and parking tickets cleared up, but I was at the MVA believing that I was all done and ready to get things squared away. Come on… who can ever anticipate what will happen once you get to the MVA, right? I arrived, waited in a long line to share with a very pleasant woman why I was there, just to be told that I had some things to clear up with EZPass. I had spoken with them the previous week and paid about $50 to get that account cleared up, as my transponder hadn’t had funds for a some toll runs, but apparently there was more to do… a storm began brew for my quick run to the MVA. Thankfully EZPass is housed at the MVA, so I just had to go hop in another line and wait a bit to speak to another every pleasant person there. She pulled up my registration and said I had fines of around $650 to clear up before they would release my registration to be renewed. How does that happen? I had not had funds for about $30 in tolls, but they add gigantic “civil penalties” to those tolls, which added up in my case to over $650. Didn’t sound very “civil” to me. My storm was in full swing. I did not have $650+ to spend on these fines, and I had a real problem with their legitimacy and right to so outrageously fine me.
What do we do in these kinds of storms? When sudden storms pop up in our lives, people seem to be arrayed against us, and seems so unjust, that even if I didn’t keep my account current with EZPass, they had said the week before I was fine, and now I see these incredible fines before me… what do I do? Have you ever been in a storm like this? Have you ever just raged along with the storm? Fight fire with fire and all that? Certainly, I felt the storm pulling me into its embrace and tempting me to lash about and blow a lot of hot air of my own.
But thank God, I didn’t. I took a deep breath and composed myself. I didn’t have $650, or even a clue what to do next, but I wasn’t going to rage with the storm or give up or give in, and I would certainly not attack this person before me who neither let my account run out of money (that was me) or was responsible for imposing the fines on my overdrawn account. I took a moment of silence to breath deep and settle myself, and in that moment of quiet I heard her voice again, this time asking me a question, “Have you ever had a one-time waiver?” A one-time waiver? I’ve never heard of this thing, but wow does it sound promising! “No, I don’t believe I have ever had that waiver” I answered. If you don’t know this thing either, ONCE IN YOUR LIFE the folks at EZPass will waive the giant civil penalties by changing every $50 fine into $3! I got away from that little window spending about $70 total instead of nearly $700, and was out of the MVA in about 30 minutes with a renewed registration and an updated Driver’s License. Storm defeated, but not because I out-raged it or fought it to a stand-still or because I had any power at all in the storm except power over myself. I believe that if I had raged and fought and filled the stormy day at the MVA with my own ragings, I probably wouldn’t have heard that important question she asked me, or at least wouldn’t have been able to hear it as the gift and blessing that it was.
So In our Gospel reading today we find our friends, the friends of Jesus, in a boat and in a storm, and they are freaking out. The storm is raging and so are they! They wake Jesus up exclaiming, “You don’t care if we die!” They feel neglected, ignored and they feel acutely the injustice of this storm in their lives. They don’t deserve this storm, they’re serving Jesus! And Jesus isn’t doing anything they can see, so he doesn’t care. And you know how we keep hearing in scripture over and over “Do not be afraid” when God speaks or angels arrive unexpectedly we hear “Do not be afraid.” Well not this time! This time Jesus doesn’t say don’t be afraid, he basically asks, “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t you have any faith? He questions their raging along with the storm. Yes, they were scared. True, they did not have the power of Jesus to dispel the storm. But they had given up the only control they had in that storm, which was their ability to still themselves.
Not all storms in life are going to finish us off, as not all storms are just, not all are deserved, but all of them are opportunities to be faithful to the people that God has called and created us to be. Sometimes we can see God working in those storms, and sometimes we can’t see God in the midst of the trouble. But we know that God has loved us and called us and given us hope to be calm in those storms, true and just in those storms and gracious in the middle of turmoil. We have God’s promise to be with us. In a storm tossed world, we are so greatly needed, church. For we not only ride out the storms for our sakes, but for the sake of those within our reach.
In no way would I ever want to downplay some of the real struggles we face in life with an overly simple comparison to a trip to the MVA: those disciples in the boat sound as though they really thought they were going to die. But I do know that I need the occasional reminder that God’s grace, God’s love and God’s presence are not lost in the troubles of a day, the storms of this life. In these storms God’s grace, love and presence are the truly lasting things to which we cling and claim the power to remain ourselves. Perhaps some of the storms we have most feared will actually become moments of faith, gratitude and potential, when we remember who God has made and enabled us to be. “…this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
When the wind kicks up in the coming week, and the storms of life begin to move around us, unjust and unwanted, may we remember that we are still God’s beloved people. When the fear begins to creep in and our hearts race and our minds reel, and when we don’t immediately see the God in whom we have hoped, may we remember that God is still with us. When we are tempted to rage along with the unexpected twists and turns of the day, may we remember to still ourselves, to remain faithful, just and kind.
As we began with Paul’s greeting to Corinth, we’ll end with his farewell to that church and to us all, “And now, sisters and brothers, I must say goodbye. Mend your ways. Encourage one another. Live in harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones send you greetings. The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God and the friendship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.
The audio of my sermon should be posted soon at St John’s: https://stjohnsnorwood.org/sermons/