Sermon ‘Calm in the Storm’ Sunday 13 June 2021
Lesson St Mark 4: 35-41
On the path from the visitor centre to Skara Brae in Orkney there is a series of carved stone markers counting down the time as the visitor is transported back from 21st century life to the Neolithic housing complex as they walk. The visitor travels past plaques naming significant world events: the first person on the moon, the first flight of the Wright brothers, various catastrophic wars, the death and birth of Christ, the building of the Parthenon, the creation of the great pyramids, the erection of Stonehenge: all in preparation for the visitor’s arrival at the round stone houses on the edge of the shore, a breath-taking turquoise sea and brilliant white sands lying next to the edge of what remains of the settlement. A settlement created over 5000 years ago. And in those stone houses, there is the evidence of human life going on: the valuable items belonging to the family unit placed upon a dresser to show them off, comfortable beds of moss and seal pup skin, the essential bits and pieces for maintaining a comfortable life in relative safety and security, centred around a hearth where food and stories would be shared.
One thousand years later, the inhabitants of Salisbury plain were busying themselves creating a monument to mark the winter solstice, the darkest, most bleak time in the year, when human life is at its most fragile and difficult in this part of the northern hemisphere. People would come together from all over their known world to share in the essential business of being alive, sharing their stories and trying to make sense of who they were and how they came to be, making meaning through important rituals which are now long forgotten.
Around the same time, the people of ancient Mesopotamia in what is now known as Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria, were sharing what is believed to be the oldest fictional story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. This adventurous tale is of a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh, described as one-third man, two-thirds god who goes on a hero’s adventure slaying monsters, rubbing elbows with the gods, and searching for the key to immortality, all with predictably tragic results. The epic is sometimes given the subtitle ‘he who sees the unknown’ or ‘he who sees the deep’, as Gilgamesh confronts some of the worst aspects of humanity on his adventures.
About a thousand years later, amid societies changing and progressing, in the same part of the world, people started to record their essential stories on stone tablets, one of the oldest being the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation story which tells of the great god Marduk’s victory over the forces of chaos, and his establishment of order through the creation of the world. According to this story, in the beginning, there was only undifferentiated water swirling in chaos. Out of this swirl, the waters divided into sweet, fresh water, known as the god Apsu, and salty bitter water, the goddess Tiamat. Once differentiated, the union of these two entities gave birth to the younger gods, of whom Marduk, the strongest and most powerful, created the heavens and the earth.
For people have always sought to make sense of who they are, why they are, and how they come to be, and the sharing of stories has been essential to that. It is well documented that our modern life and the advent of writing plus the printing press has taken from our societies the ancient ability to tell stories: storytellers travelling round the country would share news and stories, embellishing them for audiences, adding bits in here and there, taking out parts that didn’t get a good enough laugh or reaction the last time that particular story was told. The mystery plays in the Middle Ages were responsible for educating the masses in Christianity, so that the stories in the Bible of creation, Noah’s Ark, or the crucifixion of Jesus would be accessible to all. And the audiences of those plays would understand these messages in their setting, in language they could follow and relate to, recognising truths that applied to them in their lives.
The same applies to the Gospel account attributed to St Mark that we heard today. The themes in the story would be well understood by those initial hearers of tales of Jesus and what he did. For those first hearers, they would have understood what it meant when a storm played an important part in a story: they would have known that this signified the tension between good and evil forces in the world, particularly when a person was caught in a storm as it meant that this person was righteous and would overcome the trials. The ability to control the sea and to subdue a tempest was regarded as one of the characteristics of divine power. An individual sleeping peacefully and untroubled was a sign of perfect trust in God, but this could have a double meaning here as sometimes it was impossible to have perfect trust in God. The Old Testament is full of times when it seemed as if God had lost interest in his people. In this lack of interest God was said to be asleep.
For the first hearers and followers, this story of the storm had great significance in showing them how they needed to understand the man Jesus that they were interested in. He was being shown as purely divine, he had perfect trust in God, even though it sounded as though God had abandoned them in the boat. Those first followers of the way of Christ felt a similar abandonment after the death of Jesus – we remember that the disciples are said to have hidden, frightened, in an upper room not sure what to do next. This reminder that God was present in the worst circumstances of life would have been heard as a message of comfort to those followers who experienced persecution for their beliefs.
Having delved deeply into this account of Jesus stilling the storm, what remains for the 21st century hearers?. We encounter a story rich in an historic understanding that finding a centre in God, and God in the centre of one’s being, restores, calms, and gives peace. Of Jesus being fully one with God. Of human frailty and fear, of centuries of seeking understanding, of the Divine. And it is with that understanding we can see for ourselves the significance of these strands of ancient wisdom coming together to help us steer our lives, our understanding of the Divine. Our heritage is full of people seeking to make sense of the unknown, the difficult, the hard, the frightening, and building their cultures around their conclusions. Societies have always sought to make such sense of these questions, to explore the essential truths of our existence, to find God and the inner peace that keeps us steady in the chaos and maelstroms that occur in life.
From the carefully constructed Neolithic houses built around a central hearth, creating a shelter from the storms that ravaged the Orkney Islands, to the monolithic stones erected to create meaning for gathered communities in the middle of winter, at the point where the days were shortest, and life was most endangered. From the sharing of stories exploring where humankind came from, to the early explanations of how land came to be separate from the sky, people have wondered and asked. In our modern societies where change happens too quickly and we feel left behind, when terrible things happen, and we feel helpless in the face of environmental disaster and pandemic. Different cultures and peoples have tried to explain how and where humankind has come from and the nature of individuality. The strand holding them all together is what brings us to worship today. The need to make meaning of our lives and glimpse, even if just for a fleeting moment, the true essence of God that is Love.