The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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10.30am Holy Communion      20th February 2022
Stilling the Storm
Andrew Penny

Living in a basement flat with a front door to ourselves, we are often visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like who, tell us that the dreadful floods, storms, fires etc. which afflict the Earth are indications of God’s wrath which will only be averted if one signs up to whichever extreme brand of religion is on offer. Lucy’s tactic is to explain quickly that she is a Roman Catholic, which is either taken to mean she’ll be OK on the dreadful day or so utterly lost that it’s not worth trying to save her. I listen and talk, but quickly regret it and end up resorting to fibs about a cake in the oven. I end up feeling that I have been unkind as well as dishonest and I have to admit that they have a sort of a point; there have been more floods, fires and only a day ago a terrific storm, but these are not I think God’s punishment for our wickedness but the consequence of mankind’s stupidity, and selfish greed.

God would be justified in punishing us for our actions; they have brought out the worst in those primordial elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Creation in Genesis is started by the wind moving over the chaotic dark waters goes on to divide earth and sky, water and dry land. It is just this ordering of the world, which God sees and says is very good, that our actions have upset.

However, while the ordering is indeed good, each individual element comes with inherent potential for bad; water cleans and refreshes, but it also drowns; air is vital, but wind can destroy; the earth nourishes but can quake and fire both warms and burns. It’s usually mankind’s foolishness that releases the elements’ innate but harmful potential.

There are premonitions that this in our reading from Genesis chapter 2. In a way, this serves as a tidying up of the story in Chapter 1, supplying, for example, water for the plants. More importantly, however it gives more detail about the creation of man; we have been told he and she were made in God’s image and given dominion over flora and fauna. Now we are told more precisely how they were created out of the dust of the ground (recently made more malleable by the addition of water). We are then told how man and woman join God in the creative project, naming the plants and the animals-in other words categorising creation and taking the first step in understanding and controlling it, necessarily entailing the possibility of exploiting it and spoiling it.

Underlying this process is the fundamental premise of Old Testament thought that links creation with justice. Mankind is literally grounded and formed from the earth and thus human justice is a mirror of the beneficent ordering of the world, the balancing of nature which keeps its harmful potential under control, as justice should keep in check the human propensity for evil. Notably this link between justice and the natural world is seen in God’s control of weather, which is I suppose one the most volatile of nature’s activities. We see this first in God setting the rainbow in the sky to confirm his covenant with Noah. This continues and Psalm 65 is a further example, with its particularly aqueous imagery, of nature reflecting moral order and wellbeing. Man’s moral and social activity is a reflection of God’s activity in nature.

This is all by way of an over lengthy introduction to a question which bothers me about the story of the storm on Lake Galilee. That Jesus should calm the sea and the wind is a natural-in every sense- demonstration of His divine power as creator and guardian of nature, and that seems to be the main point of the story. Each of the Gospel writers, however, adds Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples for lacking faith or trust. I want to ask: Should they really have trusted Jesus to look after them despite the terrifying danger that they were in? There are many sailors who have prayed in vain to avoid shipwreck. We may trust in God in a general way, but when it comes to specific danger, whether drowning, disease or other disaster experience suggests that miraculous interventions are rare, and it would be utterly alien to belief in a gracious God to think that salvation is only a question of having enough faith or praying hard enough (whatever that might mean).

Does it make a difference that the disciples had Jesus there with them in the boat? Should they have known that he would not let himself be drowned? That would be an unedifying moral to draw from the story, and finally, of course, Jesus does let himself be killed but in his own time.

I want to suggest that what mattered was that Jesus was there in human form. This is a suggestion poorly supported by the passage itself, but which seems to me to make sense in a wider context. Is it that it is as a man that the disciples should have trusted Jesus? Was it that underlying Jesus’ rebuke is the notion that man’s behaviour can and should reflect the ordering of nature, as it does for example in Genesis and the Psalms? It is faith in ourselves as part of creation, and as agents of God that we need. This faith would not necessarily have saved the disciples on this occasion but faith in mankind’s ability to respect nature and live in harmony with creation will lead to an existence which is happy and as free from danger and harm as is possible.

This faith in humanity must, however, go hand in hand with a belief in justice and the practice of fairness; it is humanity as whole that has the power to make the most of creation and, unfortunately, the consequences of failure to respect creation tend to visit the innocent rather more than those guilty selfish greed; it is not so much the affluent parts of the world that suffer, although that may be changing. Jesus’ life on earth, as fully a human being, shows among other things, the human potential to act with God, and it is faith in that potential that we need. This is a great responsibility and challenge; it’s equally a great, perhaps the only, opportunity that we have. It is not that God is punishing us but that we ourselves are doing so.  While I admit that my argument is theologically shaky, I’m an optimist, and I want to think it is right! Amen.

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