06/23/2019: A Captain We Can Trust
Luke 8: 22-25
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
June 23, 2019
I have long pondered the significance of the storm stories in the Bible. You can be sure that they have special symbolic significance because the people who wrote the various books of the Bible were not seafaring people. They were landlubbers, desert people, dusty-sandaled and sunburned people.
So you can be sure that when they sat around a campfire in the desert and told stories about a storm at sea, it had special significance. There was, deeply imbedded in their hearts, a terror of the sea. It was something they feared, full of strange sea creatures, subject to unexpected and terrifying storms and frightful death by drowning.
The imagery of the storm at sea can be seen in Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only seascape. This is one of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum twenty-nine years ago. We can see the desperation on the faces of the disciples as their boat seems just about to capsize.
I can’t help but wonder if Rembrandt was painting autobiographically here. He was only 24 years old when he painted this, and he was in the midst of a big transition in his life. He had just moved from his hometown of Leiden to the bustling business capital city of Amsterdam. He had just set up his own studio and was trying to establish himself as a portrait painter. In addition, he was in love with his landlord’s cousin. They would marry the following year without the presence of Rembrandt’s relatives, who apparently refused to come to the wedding. He was clearly in a time of great turmoil in his personal life.
In his religious life he was also in turmoil. His mother was Roman Catholic and his father was Protestant, and his parents were constantly having religious conflict. His life in 1633 was a storm in more than one way.
So in this powerful painting, and we see the panic-stricken disciples struggling to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and nearly capsizing it. When you look at it closely you can see one of the disciples hanging his head over the side vomiting. In the midst of all this chaos is the dim figure of Christ, at the right, who is calm, like the eye of a storm. He is about to rebuke the wind and the sea, but he is also about to rebuke his disciples: Where is your faith? he says.
The face of each disciple is meticulously characterized to encourage close and prolonged looking and wondering what they are thinking. But there is one figure that looks directly out at us as he steadies himself by holding on to a rope. His face seems familiar to anyone who has seen Rembrandt’s self-portraits. His gaze fixes on ours as we recognize Rembrandt himself, clearly part of the picture, clearly experiencing the storm of life that he has depicted so brilliantly in this painting, and clearly inviting us into his vivid dramatization of a storm that Christ is about to calm.
This painting, and the biblical story it depicts, is about transitions. In the biblical story, the Sea of Galilee functions as a transition between two cultures. The other side of the lake was Gentile territory, which means that the early church read this as the struggle that took place as they tried to embrace people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different traditions. It depicts the disciples fearful that they are going to lose everything! Master, Master, we are perishing!
But this story speaks to every age, for every age goes through dangerous and anxious transitions. We have all heard such grim statistics about church attendance throughout the land. The church as the ship sailing through a stormy sea has become contemporary, but some people are convinced that the ship is the Titanic. It is only a matter of time before it hits the iceberg and sinks to the bottom, they say. You can hear echoes of the disciples: Master, Master, we are perishing!
But such forecasts have come and gone in generations past, and the people for whom resurrection is central to their faith have emerged in new forms. There is a compelling story in the Christian Century about one such church. It is a story about a family in transition who experienced a terrible storm, perhaps the worst kind of storm. They had just moved to Brooklyn; they knew no one, and their 15-month-old son was dying in a pediatric intensive care unit in a Manhattan hospital.
The story is told by a pastor who received a Facebook message from a west coast friend telling her about this family. Unfortunately, the pastor herself was in the hospital recovering from hip replacement surgery. So she called her seminary intern and asked her to go see this family. This seminary intern stood with this family through that terrible experience. There was an older brother named Charlie, five years old. She helped Charlie say goodbye to his younger brother who was dying, and the seminary intern conducted the funeral.
The family became part of that church, but Charlie refused to go to Sunday School for a time. He kept close to his parents. Finally one Sunday Charlie was willing to go to Sunday School as long as his father would stay with him. On that Sunday, the teacher had prepared a lesson on the biblical story of Tabitha. It is the story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead. The teacher panicked. Of all Sundays for Charlie to come to Sunday School! Wouldn’t Charlie wonder why Jesus didn’t bring his little brother back to life?
And then this quiet little boy, for the first time ever in class, began to speak. He told that class of preschoolers to second graders that his little brother had died and that he was with Jesus in heaven. Every eye and every ear was focused on the testimony of their Sunday School classmate who had been through a storm that they could hardly imagine.
There was a little girl in the class born with drugs in her veins, raised by a grandmother while her mother went in and out of treatment. Her name was Heaven. Heaven spontaneously got up and went over and gave her classmate Charlie a hug. Following her example, every child in the class got up and, one by one, hugged their little brother in Christ.
Dear friends, I am not naïve about the problems of churches throughout our land. I know that there will be churches that will sink in this cultural anti-institutional storm we are experiencing in our age. I urge you to take heart, for our Captain is still with us, and our Captain is one we can trust.
As long as the church continues to wrap its arms around families like Charlie’s; as long as the church keeps faith focused on the power of this Christ who stays with us through every storm; the church will sail safely through all kinds of wind and weather.
Though the lightening strikes and the wind shrieks! Though the old craft creaks and groans in the waves; there is still the Captain whose voice rises over the screaming of the wind: Where is your faith?…peace, be still.