"Storm Stories"
Scripture - Mark 4:31-45
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, June 22, 2014

Friday morning when I woke up the sky was blue, there were no clouds above, the temperatures were comfortable and the humidity was low. Walking my dogs as the sun was coming up over the horizon, I thought, "What a wonderful day to be alive;" and then I also thought, "What a wonderful morning to be Presbyterian." As you may have heard, by action of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church on Thursday, Presbyterian clergy, guided by their own understanding of scripture and guided by their consciences, may now perform marriages of same gender couples where it is legal without fearing ecclesiastical disciplinary charges being brought against them. In addition, the General Assembly also decided by another substantial majority to send to Presbyteries for action, a proposed amendment to the constitution of our church that would refine our description of marriage. This refined description is inclusive of all who seek God's blessings in the church for their marriages.

Although some see these actions as a threat to tradition, or as a misreading of Scripture, I see it very differently. I see it as a faithful response to God's love, and a faithful understanding of what I believe scripture says we are to be and to do and to become. A cornerstone of our heritage as Presbyterians is the concept that having been once reformed, we are always in the process of reforming as we understand more fully God's word and call in each new time. And so we are.

Not everyone in our denomination, and probably not everyone here today, joins me in celebrating these actions. But regardless of where we are on these issues, all of us are truly one in Christ, and we are all part of a denomination that seeks to be faithful to God's word and to God's call anew in each day and age.

In taking these actions, I believe that the Assembly got caught up the Spirit of God. And every time our church lets the spirit of God carry us to new places, there's the possibility of new vitality for our church. These actions by our highest Council give me great hope that our denomination will continue to be a church marked and shaped by the incredible welcome of God, and that we will be able ever more faithfully to bear witness to the justice and love of our Savior Jesus Christ in the world around us today. It is my prayer that our church can live into these actions with grace and love, with hope and joy.

While I woke up on Thursday to sunny skies and sunny emotions, I found myself pondering my choice of text for today- a text about a storm. As I pondered the text about a storm, I found myself remembering a day a few summers ago that started out sunny. As that day progressed the sky began to take on a menacing quality, and the humidity increased, and the gentle breeze began to morph into a wind. By 5 o'clock when I looked out of my office window, I saw storm clouds gathering - fierce, dark and frightening storm clouds. The daylight began to fail quickly although sunset wasn't for several more hours. I immediately looked at my weather ap and found out that there was a terrible storm on the way. High winds, potentially significant hail, and torrential rains were to hit my area within the next hour. Looking at the weather map, it appeared that the worst of the storm was heading right for my office. But as it turned out, the storm never arrived at my office that day at all. We didn't get so much as a single drop of rain that afternoon.

But shortly afterward as I talked to friends who were working or living only a few miles from my office, I heard reports from them of hail destroying windshields, torrential rains overfilling gullies, and winds that had blown down trees and power lines. And for the rest of the night and the next day too, everywhere I went I heard someone talking about their own storm stories from that afternoon.

We all have storm stories to tell I suppose, and so did Jesus' disciples. It had been a long day of teaching, and presumably Jesus needed a break from it all. He was tired so he told his disciples that it was time to go across the lake known as the Sea of Galilee. Among his companions in the boat that day were at least 4 experienced fishermen, men who presumably had excellent sailing skills and would not have been frightened at a typical afternoon storm blowing across the lake.

But as they were crossing to the other side a great big storm came up. The weather started betting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, if not for the courage of the fearless crew the Minnow ... Oh wait, wrong story. Wrong song. [Note: theme song from Gilligan's Island] The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, and to borrow an image from that ancient television show, it looked like a 3-hour cruise (or whatever it might take to cross the lake) would suddenly never end. Or, suddenly end, but end in death.

Adrenalin pumping, terrorized by the waves, traumatized by the gale force winds, the disciples became frantic. The storm was so terrible, that even the experienced fishermen and sailors were shaking in their sandals. And then, they looked at Jesus. While they were bailing water out of the boat as fast as they could to keep it afloat, and while they were holding onto the sides for dear life as it tossed and pitched from side to side in the mist of this horrible storm, they looked at Jesus and found that their leader was asleep, asleep, asleep like a baby on a cushion.

"Wake up. Wake up, Jesus." they cried. They wanted him awake. They needed him awake. It was truly one of those all-hands on deck moments. They needed his help bailing water, holding onto the sails. They needed him awake, not sleeping in the middle of a life-threatening crisis.

As they shook him awake, they cried, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? We're going to die, and there you are asleep. We're going to capsize, and your eyes are closed, your head is on a cushion, what's going on. Wake up, don't you care about us?"

When Jesus' disciples got Jesus awake, Jesus rebuked the wind, commanded the seas to be still; and the disciples watched in utter shock I'm sure as the wind died down and the seas settled down, there was calm...serene...peaceful...calm...sunny skies.

When the disciples got back to shore, they had a storm story to tell, to be sure. Perhaps it was the storm story of all storm stories. A life threatening storm had been stilled by a man who had been sleeping through most of it. But when the storm was ended, instead of letting them sit there and commiserate or celebrate, Jesus asked a couple of probing questions: Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

I don't know what Jesus' tone was when he asked these questions, but did you notice that Jesus didn't try to convince them that the storm hadn't been as deadly and dangerous as they had feared? He didn't say they overestimated the size of the waves or the strength of the winds. He didn't deny they had been in a pickle out on the middle of the stormy lake. He asked, "Why are you afraid?" Truly the wind and the waves were fearful that day. The physical danger they faced was surely real and immediate. But then, so was Jesus' presence in that boat as well - real and immediate too. And regardless of what happened to the boat, with Jesus present, there would be nothing that could ever separate them from his love...not even the storm surging around them.

I remember another hot, humid, summer afternoon. I was talking with a man who was experiencing a time of homelessness in his life. We were sitting in the yard of a building that housed a daytime drop-in program he was attending. As he and I were chatting, we looked up at the sky and realized that storm clouds were gathering quickly. A look of apprehension filled his face as he told me that the tent that sheltered him was in a low place in the woods, a place that would likely be flooded if heavy rain came because the ground was already saturated from rains the days before. He was concerned about his tent since it was the closest thing to a home he had; but he was also worried because the few things he owned, in fact everything he owned in the world except the clothing on his back, was inside that tent. If it flooded, more than likely everything he had owned in the world would either be destroyed by water or would be washed away and lost forever. Looking at the gathering storm, he stood up and said that he was hoping to be able to make it back to his tent and move it to higher ground before the rain came, but as he left, he looked at me and said, "You know, whatever happens to my tent, and whatever happens to my belongings, and whatever happens to me, I know that it will be OK."

His faith was strong and sure that day, even in the midst of the gathering.

We all have storm stories to tell. The doctor shakes her head and says, "There's nothing more I can do". We experience major plumbing, electrical and automobile troubles all at the same time straining or pushing our budgets to the brink. Our lives rocked by addictions we can't shake, depression that envelops us, or physical pain that encompasses us. Yes, we all experience storms in our lives and many of these storms do hold frightening possibilities.

But Jesus' word even in the midst of the storms that rock our lives is not, "There's nothing do be frightened of," but rather it is, "Do not fear. Do not fear even though there are fearful things all around you. Do not fear, because I am right there beside you."

Jesus' word is not some sort of namby-pamby, "It's all going to be fine," because sometimes things don't turn out fine. But rather Jesus word is, "I am in the boat with you. Storms may rock and roll your lives, threaten to undo you, but I'm sitting there with you, right beside you. And whatever happens, it will be OK."

The Gospel does not guarantee that our skies will always be sunny, or that everything on earth will work out as we hope or dream. Rather the assurance of the Gospel is that Jesus is in the boat with us even in the middle of the storms rolling over our lives and he will not let us go. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. And so, in the end it will truly be OK!