June 20, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
I arrived as a freshman at Gustavus four years after an F4 tornado roared across campus and dealt the college a devastating blow. Within a matter of just a few minutes, the storm destroyed multiple buildings, uprooted more than 2,000 trees, and shattered 80% of the windows on campus. When all was said and done, what was once a lush, green campus had become a barren wasteland, the site of an epic battle between the forces of meteorological chaos and human civilization. Confronted by a storm as powerful as this one, trees and buildings simply didn’t stand a chance. (Fortunately, the storm came during spring break, when most students were off-campus, and nobody was seriously injured.)
At the heart of campus is Christ Chapel, which is both the center of spiritual life and probably the most iconic symbol of the college. Like every other building on campus, it sustained serious damage in the tornado. The storm snapped its 187-foot spire like a toothpick. The steel cross that was once fixed at the top of the spire was flung across campus and found later, disfigured but, notably, not destroyed. The pews inside the sanctuary were pitted with rocks, hymnals were waterlogged, the organ would need to be rebuilt.
But everyone’s favorite story to tell about Christ Chapel and the tornado is the story about the eternal flame—the continually-burning candle that hangs in so many churches, including here at Gloria Dei, representing Christ’s eternal presence in our midst. One of the chaplains at Gustavus, Brian Johnson, described walking into Christ Chapel after the storm, while the wind was whistling through the broken windows and water was draining into all the books, and hearing a creaking sound going back and forth. As he got to the front of the chapel, he realized the creaking was the sound of the eternal flame swinging back and forth, and sure enough, despite everything, the candle was still burning. Years later, that eternal flame remains a powerful symbol for the college—sometimes even carried in worship processions—representing Christ’s undying presence even in the midst of chaos and destruction. The storms may rage, the winds may roar. A tornado may flatten an entire college campus. But no storm is too powerful for Jesus. The forces of chaos and death may work their terrible power and sow destruction on earth, but Christ ultimately holds authority over them all.
Jesus and his disciples are on a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. It had been a long day. Huge crowds of people had gathered to hear from this strange new teacher and he gave them what they wanted. He told them parable after parable about the kingdom of God (parables that left them mostly confused, actually). Finally, evening comes, and he and his disciples get into a boat. “Let’s go to the other side,” he says, and then he lies down for a nap. Suddenly a great windstorm engulfs them and the boat is immediately swamped. They wake Jesus up, screaming at him, “Don’t you care that we’re dying here?” The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus gets up and rebukes the storm; he says, “Peace! Be still!”, and immediately there is calm. “Why are you afraid?” he asks. “Have you no faith?” The disciples are all stunned, asking each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
There is so much to unpack here. Let’s start with this—something that is probably obvious: The storm in this story is a metaphor. We know what it means to endure a storm—to feel tossed about, like we’re taking on water and beginning to sink, at the mercy of forces outside our control, crying out to God, “Don’t you care that we’re dying here?” There are storms—rainstorms, thunderstorms, hailstorms—and then there are storms.
The first readers of Mark’s Gospel would have known something about these kinds of storms. Jesus lived and carried out his ministry sometime around the 20s or 30s AD, but Mark’s Gospel would only be written half a century later—scholars think probably somewhere in the 70s AD. That’s important because in the year 70 AD, the temple was destroyed when the Roman army captured Jerusalem. The temple was the cultural and religious center of the people, and it was now gone. Talk about a storm. It must have felt as though their entire world was collapsing around them and chaos reigned supreme.
So when Mark pens this story about Jesus in a boat with his disciples encountering a massive storm, he is writing to a community of people in Jerusalem who are living through a massive storm of their own. Like those disciples who worried the windstorm would capsize their boat and cause them all to drown, Mark’s audience felt as though their world had been turned upside down, helpless, confused, and afraid.
And Jesus is revealed to be one who has the power to vanquish the storm. Actually, the message of Mark’s Gospel is even more sweeping than that. The Gospel writer says that Jesus “rebuked” the wind and shouted, “Peace! Be still!” Which is super interesting, because a few chapters earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus encountered a man who was possessed by an evil spirit. How did Jesus respond? Mark says Jesus “rebuked” the evil spirit and shouted, “Silence! Come out of him!” Jesus’ response to the windstorm is nearly identical to his response to the demon that has possessed a man a few chapters earlier. It’s as though Mark is trying to tell us that this windstorm isn’t just an atmospheric disturbance. When Jesus rebukes the storm and demands peace and calm, he is performing an exorcism. This storm represents the forces of chaos doing battle against humankind. In this story and throughout Mark’s Gospel, what’s being described is a cosmic battle in which evil, demonic spirits are attempting to sow death and destruction and Jesus has come to cast these spirits out once and for all.
We’ve all experienced storms: a lost job, a broken marriage, the sudden death of a loved one, a child’s addiction. I mean, we’ve just experienced a once-in-a-century global pandemic. These are storms that stretch us to our limits and make us wonder how we will ever survive. Somehow, by God’s grace, we do. But I wonder if we don’t also face storms that are utterly beyond our capacity to subdue, storms that require Jesus to step in with all his heavenly authority and cast out the evil spirits attempting to sow chaos and division, death and destruction.
Six years ago this past Thursday—on June 17, 2015—a self-professed white nationalist who was also a member of an ELCA congregation took part in a Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and then murdered nine of those in attendance. ELCA Lutherans feel a particular responsibility to memorialize that atrocity, by virtue of our connection both to the murderer and to the two murdered Mother Emanuel pastors, both graduates of one of our ELCA seminaries. A resolution to commemorate June 17 as a day of repentance for the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine was adopted by the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, and today at the conclusion of this service we will remember those nine and give thanks for their lives.
Racism and white supremacy have so corrupted our systems and institutions and so poisoned our interpersonal relations that I sometimes wonder if we aren’t dealing with an evil spirit that will not be vanquished until all of us who feel ourselves tossed around in the boat wake Jesus up, scream at him to do something, and insist that he cast out that evil spirit once and for all. Don’t get me wrong: Our diversity and inclusion initiatives are worthy efforts. We ought to educate ourselves about the history of racism in our country. We should all seek to understand how power and privilege are at work in our own lives. But maybe this is a time when we need to call upon a higher authority. The promise of today’s Gospel is that we are not alone in the boat. If we were, we really would be lost. We are accompanied by Jesus, who acts with the authority of the whole heavenly realm to calm the storms, to vanquish the evil forces of chaos and death, and to restore to our world the peace and calm that is God’s will for humankind and all of creation. We are not alone in the boat.
David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Commentary on Mark 4:35-41,” on WorkingPreacher.org, accessed June 16, 2021, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.
Sea Stachura, “Ten years after devastating tornadoes, communities thriving,” on Minnesota Public Radio, published March 28, 2008, accessed June 16, 2021, https://www.mprnews.org/story/2008/03/27/tornadoanniv.