Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Sure Foundation of God’s Lovingkindness” (Mark 4:35-41)
June 24, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the collect for today we are reminded of the gracious sovereignty of God: “O Lord…you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your lovingkindness” (BCP 230).  This is very good news, especially in the seasons of our life when the foundations are shaken, or worse—when as the psalmist asked, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3, BCP 596).

In today’s gospel passage Mark recounts an episode when the disciples felt like their foundations were being destroyed:

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.  Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:35-38).

Can you relate?  Have you ever found yourself metaphorically doing what you are sure God called you to do, only to feel like your foundations are being destroyed due to something beyond your control?  After all, it was not the disciples’ idea to get into the boat and cross the lake that night, it was Jesus’ idea.  Moreover, the disciples had no control over the weather (do you have control over the “weather” in your life?), and still they found themselves in the midst of a violent storm—again, as Mark write, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”  And yet, Jesus was with them, “just as he was,” asleep in the stern.  The disciples thought even though Jesus was with them, that he was apparently indifferent, that he just did not care, which is why they awoke him and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In your life each one of you has found yourself in violent storms, violent storms which you did not see coming, over which you had no control, during which you may have known intellectually that Jesus was present but felt emotionally he was not, or that if he were, he was indifferent or did not care.  In his 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” about the tragic November 10, 1975 sinking of a freighter during a violent storm on Lake Superior, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot asked this, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” (from the album Summertime Dream).

These storms take various forms, from a major financial setback, to a sudden job loss, to a broken relationship or divorce, to an unexpected medical diagnosis, to the death of a loved one, a veritable buffet of storms.  And during such storms it is tempting not only to think God is absent, but also in cynical moments, that life itself is simply a joke, as Herman Melville wrote in his masterpiece Moby Dick:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own…That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke (Bantam Classics edition 243-244).

Along these lines, in his prescient song “All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan wrote about a conversation between a thief and a joker:

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”

How does the thief respond?

“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, for the hour is getting late”
(From his 1967 album John Wesley Harding)

Bob Dylan is exactly right—even though the storms in your life may tempt you dismiss life as a joke, that is not your fate, and so you need to be reminded of the truth of the gospel, the truth of the sovereign grace of God in the midst of those storms in your life, for indeed “the hour is getting late.”

Last spring I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  I knew I would be moved seeing Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1889) and Picasso’s “The Blind Man’s Meal” (1903)—both of which are remarkable paintings, but I was unexpectedly moved by Jackson Pollock’s 1947 drip painting entitled “Full Fathom Five.”  From a distance it looks like a simple mixture of dripped black, white and gray paint, very chaotic, but when you look at it closely you see not only many other colors of paint, but also something I had never seen before in any other painting, an assortment of detritus including nails, cigarette butts, a key, buttons, coins, matches—all actual objects embedded in the actual painting—resembling the flotsam and jetsam in the wake of a storm.

In fact, the title of this painting, “Full Fathom Five,” is from Shakespeare’s play about a storm at sea, The Tempest, in which the sprite Ariel sings this to Ferdinand about his father Alonso’s apparent death in that storm at sea:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell
(I, ii, 396-402).

At that point in the play Ferdinand is convinced that his father, with whom he was very close, had been lost at sea, that his foundations were being destroyed.  But the play was not over yet.

And Mark’s account of the storm at sea did not end with the disciples crying to Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  This episode did not end with Jesus staying asleep and all of them sinking and dying.  And this is also true with the violent storms in your life.  Here is how the episode actually ended:

(Jesus) woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:39-41).

This episode did not end with the disciples dying at sea, but with Jesus saving them.  And Jesus made sure they got where they needed to go—as scripture tells us that after that storm “they came to the other side of the sea” (Mark 5:1).  Not only does the Lord care about the storms in your life, not only is the Lord with you in those storms, ultimately the Lord will rescue you and save you and ensure that you get to “the other side of the sea.”  You have been set on the sure foundation of God’s lovingkindness.  Centuries before Jesus the psalmist described what the Lord did (and does) for those in the midst of a terrifying storm at sea:

They mounted up to the heaves and fell back to the depths; their hearts melted because of their peril.  They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end.  Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.  He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.  Then they were glad because of the calm, and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for (Psalms 107:26-30, BCP 748).

In other words, the gracious sovereignty of God has the last word, not the storm.

In his compelling 1997 book The Perfect Storm Sebastian Junger recounts the horrific 1991 autumn storm at sea that occurred along the New England coast.  Many were lost at sea in that storm, but not Karen Stimpson and Sue Bylander, who although lost their boat, were rescued by the Coast Guard.  Listen to this:

“When I got up into the helicopter I remember everyone looking in my and Sue’s faces to make sure we were okay,” says Stimson.  “I remember the intensity, it really struck me…They’d take us by the shoulders and look us in the eyes and say, ‘I’m so glad you’re alive, we were with you last night, we prayed for you.  We were worried about you’” (163).

Near the conclusion of his book Junger makes this important observation:

Anyone who has been through a severe storm at sea has, to one degree or another, almost died, and that fact will continue to alter them long after the winds have stopped blowing and the waves have died down…the effects of a storm go rippling outward through webs of people for years, even generations…nothing is ever again the same (219-220).

On Good Friday Jesus underwent the most violent storm of all in his suffering and death on the cross—as wave after wave of pain and mockery swamped him, and these waves turned the minutes to hours.  Jesus died dismissed as the Joker between two thieves, with no way out of there.  And in this storm Jesus felt all alone as he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And when the storm ended, Jesus’ life ended too, and the foundations of the world appeared to be utterly destroyed.  And then Jesus’ body was buried “full fathom five” in a tomb.

But on Easter morning Jesus experienced the sea-change of the resurrection, and his body was transformed “into something rich and strange”, a risen and glorified Jesus whose body still bore the scars from his storm at sea on Good Friday.

Back to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for a moment…near the end of the play it is revealed that Ferdinand’s father Alonso was not dead after all.  Prospero, the magician whose gracious sovereignty had been involved the entire play, summons everyone before him, freely bestows forgiveness and blessings on all, and then speaks these concluding words of the play:

And my ending is despair
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be
Let your indulgence set me free (Epilogue 15-20).

So when the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?  Well, Jesus, the Righteous One, Mercy personified, died on the cross to save you.  Jesus’ indulgence has already set you free, already set you forever on the sure foundation of God’s lovingkindness, and will set you safely on “the other side of the sea.”