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‘When in distress to him I called, he to my rescue came.’
The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar
Sunday, 24th June 2018 at 11.00 AM
If we ever wanted to make a complaint against Jesus that would stick, not caring would probably be one of the last we'd think of. The gospels are full of Jesus’ care and compassion for people. Yet twice in the gospels Jesus is asked ‘Don't you care?' On both occasions the question is put to him by close friends who should have known better.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus is invited for a meal by Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and in exasperation Martha says to him: ‘Don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Tell her to help me.' The other complaint against Jesus is in St Mark. We’ve just heard it in this morning’s gospel (Mark 4.35-end). ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?’ say his disciples.
The panic-stricken disciples are terrified that they will all die in a storm while Jesus sleeps through it. For seasoned fishermen, the fact that they are scared to death tells us that this was no mere gust of wind, but one of those very strong storms that blow up with no warning on the land-locked Sea of Galilee. In desperation they wake Jesus up.
Mark tells us that Jesus was absolutely exhausted. He had been taken into the boat ‘just as he was’, sound asleep on a cushion, too tired to be woken even by a storm. No wonder his reply was rather short. Although the disciples’ question, ‘don't you care that we are perishing?' was irrational - Jesus was (after all) asleep and oblivious of the storm - it shows the depth of the disciples’ fear, not only about drowning but about whether Jesus cares for their safety and well-being. It's very human to fear that you are being abandoned to your fate. Once woken, Jesus did the necessary. He stilled the storm, and then asked his disciples ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?' In other words, ‘Whatever is the matter with you?' He had expected better of them.
In this morning’s epistle (2 Corinthians 6.1-13), the apostle St Paul finds himself in a difficult place with the church in Corinth. Not only is he having to tell them some unwelcome home truths, but some members of the church are actively undermining his authority as an apostle. So, the catalogue of hardships he recounts is not so much Paul blowing his own trumpet or seeking to elicit sympathy. It is an attempt on his part to persuade the Corinthians of his authentic credentials as an apostle.
We rattle the list off without thinking about it – ‘afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger’ – but when we pause and reflect for a moment on what Paul had been through, suddenly the fact that he has kept faith with God through all this becomes remarkable. How did Paul keep the faith? There must have been times when he too asked the same question the disciples put to Jesus in this morning’s gospel, ‘don't you care?' It’s a healthy question to ask at times of distress; and it brings God into the conversation.
This morning’s readings tell us that we don't have to pretend to sail serenely through difficulty. It’s ok to say we are frightened or worried and there are times when some vigorous and probing conversation with God is called for. We only have to look at the psalms or the book of Job to realise how much a deep questioning of God is central to the Jewish faith.
So Paul tells the Corinthians to ‘open wide their hearts to God’ as he has done ……’by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God.’ It's one thing to be kind and truthful when all is going well, quite another when you are under intense pressure or falsely imprisoned.
Purity and holiness of spirit sound somewhat pious but think for a moment of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. After her death her journals revealed that she had struggled daily with doubts. They reveal that her holiness of spirit was not an easy attribute but a hard-won purity, forged in the thousand and one little daily decisions made in the slums of Calcutta and in the commitment to prayer, whether or not she felt like praying.
In that context, Jesus' sharp question to the disciples in the boat is partly annoyance at being woken up but also frustration at their failure to trust him. They have panicked and fear that Jesus doesn't really care about them after all.
So what was it that enabled Paul, with a few years’ experience of following Jesus, to be more secure in his response to hardship and fear than the disciples in the boat?
Put simply, it’s what is called the ‘cantus firmus’ in his life. This is the deep-seated song that is at the core of who we are and enables us to live with fear and change. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazis in the dying days of the Second World War, wrote from prison of, ‘a kind of ‘cantus firmus’ to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint.
‘Where the ground bass is firm and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and assure us that nothing can go wrong so long as the bass line is kept going. ... Put your faith in the cantus firmus’, he wrote.
When, like the disciples, we face adversity, how will we cope? When we receive bad news, what will keep us calm and focussed? In extreme circumstances we will shout to God ‘don't you care?' and, as the disciples discovered, there will be an answer. But if we have gained wisdom as well as knowledge in our Christian discipleship, the core of who we are will be remain rooted in Jesus Christ so that we are equipped, like Paul, with the inner resources to face whatever life throws at us.
It takes slow, deliberate and at times unexciting work to be formed in Christ. It is the work of a lifetime. But it is what will enable us to handle the fear and foreboding when waves rock our boat.
At the end of this morning’s service we will be blessed with the assurance that the peace of God remains with us always, and then dismissed with the words, ‘Go in the peace of Christ.' The written testimony of the disciples’ fear and of Paul’s confidence in adversity are there for our comfort. They reassure us that it is no flight of fancy if our bottom line, our ‘cantus firmus’, is rooted in the assurance that God cares for us, come what may. There may indeed be troubles ahead, but as and when they come we will know the truth that ‘when in distress to him I called, he to my rescue came’ and, as another hymn puts it, we will then ‘run our course with even joy, and closely walk with thee to heaven'. Amen.