Stillness and the storm
Sermon by the Rev. J. John Keggi, SOSc, St.Mark's, Augusta, Maine
22 June 1997
"Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?" (Job 38:18) "Why are you
afraid? Have you no faith?" (Mark 4:40)
Today and for the next couple of weeks we come face to face with some of the
miracles of Jesus: Jesus calms a storm, raises someone from the dead, and fails
to effect any signs on his own home ground.
Some people have problems with miracle stories. Unlike Job who was properly
speechless when God confronted him with the question, "What do you, little man,
know about it?" they think they have most of the answers about the origin, history,
structure, and prognosis of this Earth of ours. They think we have the laws of
nature pretty well figured out and stand ready to answer God, should they be put
the question. They assume that these laws are not and cannot be broken. Thus, if
we can answer the question, there is no more room for God in such a "scientific"
perception of nature. There is no room for miracle: disturbances in the
atmosphere work out of their own inner dynamic, storms run their determined
course, folks don't walk on water, dead bodies stay dead. And miracle stories,
which then become something of an embarrassment, have to be explained away.
That movement which had its start in the 17th century (Spinoza, Descartes, etc),
culminating in Europe in the latter part of the 19th, and running into mid-century in
this continent, seems to have run its course. New and more searching ways are
coming to the fore and I don't mean the fundamentalism and biblical literalism of
the religious Right, or the pseudoscience of "creationism".
Something very interesting is happening in the way science is now beginning to
look at the universe. Scientism, the quasi religious dogma that scientific empirical
truth is the only truth, has been invalidated on at least two counts: existentially
and in light of current scientific understanding.
Existentially we can see that science cannot give us any truth that matters. As
John Snow, a theologian at EDS, put it recently, science can tell me how to fix my
bicycle, but it cannot tell me why I should get up in the morning. Au contraire, it
can even be argued (fairly convincingly) that not getting up is the more rational
course. On the questions that really matter to us as persons in our human lives
science has no answers. It doesn't even recognize the questions as valid within
the framework of scientific inquiry. Nevertheless, as long as humans have been
human, the questions of meaning, purpose -- of right and wrong -- have mattered;
and into the teeth of the apparent meaninglessness of existence humans have
always thrown the great "And Yet..." of faith. That's most clearly stated in the
Commendation of the Burial Office: "All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the
grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." (ECUSA BCP, p.499) What
evolutionarily distinguishes humans from their primate predecessors is precisely
their funeral rites!!
Our current scientific understanding has moved considerably from the view that
the universe, both on the cosmic scale and in the inner workings of matter, is
understandable in terms of a sticks-and-balls mechanism, the behavior of which
can be elucidated and predicted with greater and greater precision. Instead, we
see a large, interactive process with a great deal of unpredictability built into the
very nature of things. What is even more fascinating is that the observer you
and me and the scientist behind the measuring instruments -- become a part of
the process. The observer, in a curious way, becomes part of what the outcome of
the observation is. Mind, in effect, can be seen as an additional reality of the
universe, inseparable from its time_space dimensions. Rather than consisting of a
lot of separate objects, the universe is comprehensible as a whole of complex
events in which everything relates to everything else.
Thus the 18th century "clockwork universe" has become a useless model quite
some time ago. It's just that the junior high school science textbooks have not yet
caught up with that fact, and probably never will, because on that (junior high)
level we must deal with the simplest explanations that can be illustrated in terms
of the limited mechanical model. The limitations of that model, applicable only to a
narrow slice of our overall experience, are not made clear. And for many practical
purposes, like, say, fixing a bicycle, the limits do not matter. But the moment you
start asking questions outside the scope of this narrow slice of reality, the picture
changes radically. The scale and scope of the question makes all the difference.
Let me give you a simple illustration. In our local travels, for all practical purposes
of giving directions of how to get from where you live to St.Mark's, the earth is flat,
North is North, and East is East, and up is up, and down is down. The sun rises
and sets over it, and clocks tick off a time that runs smoothly in one direction only.
Such is our concrete common sense experience, powerfully reinforced every day
of our lives. Yet we do not have to look very far to see its limits. All you have to do
is stand on the shore and observe a ship sinking below the horizon. In light of a
flat-earth model we've observed a shipwreck at sea. Yet we do not run out to
notify the Coast Guard and would look very foolish if we did. So we note that the
earth is round, and then cheerfully put that notion out of our minds as we drive
back home from the shore, a flat-earth map firmly reinstated in our heads.
One can multiply the examples. (1) If you travel around the globe, at any given
spot and at any given time of the voyage the flat-earth experience seems to
prevail, but when you get back to where you started from, if you haven't changed
your clock and calendar as you went along, you'll find that you have lost or gained
a whole day a full 24 hours __ depending on whether you traveled East or
westward. (2) A glance at a globe makes it clear that what to us is "up" is the
precise opposite for someone in Australia. (3) If you asked me in which direction is
the parish hall, I could point to it one way or in precisely the opposite way and be
quite correct. It's just that one way is shorter, and the other involves traveling all
the way around the globe. And so forth.
What it comes down to when we read the Gospel stories is this: we need not
explain them away as mirages, mistakes, or mass hysteria. That would dismiss a
sincere account of a very real and deeply held experience of a community -- and
experience for which they were willing to lay down their lives if necessary.
On the other hand, we do not have to squeeze the story into our physical reality
by postulating a supernatural break in the laws of nature. That would be the
equivalent of applying a flat-earth model to a spherical globe and insisting that one
had witnessed the sinking of the Nova Scotia ferry and its subsequent magical
refloating on the return trip. And then getting into an absolutely pointless argument
with the passengers who had been aboard for the trip and insist that there was no
sinking and no refloating of any kind.
What we need to understand is that the way a meteorologist describes a storm
and the way a storm is referred to in a faith story involves two very different
models of reality and uses language in very different ways. The meteorologist
speaks of the phenomena our senses perceive and our instruments measure, and
within the physical slice of reality that the weatherman deals with he is doing valid
and useful work. However, the meteorologist's model is only the physical slice of
reality and his models stand to the larger faith reality as a flat-earth map stands to
And so today's Gospel is not about a weatherman's storms at all. It is about the
experience of the Christ of faith in the Christian community which talked about
their experience in story, song, and celebration. It is about the divine reality in
which our experience as persons is grounded. It's the reality which upholds and
sustains the totality of our experience as persons. It is about the apparently
meaningless chaos still being a meaningful part of the divine whole. It points
straight to the Creation story of God creating order and light out of the
meaninglessness of chaos. It is about faith: faith in this larger reality rather than
fear and despair. It is not faith in magic, but in God. The question to the disciples
and to us is and always remains, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" That's
why the most basic prayer is, "Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief."