Calm in the Chaos – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Matthew 8:23-27

If I were to ask you to give a definition of the word ‘chaos,’ what would you say? Or, if I asked you to give an example of chaos, what would be your story? I imagine that I would hear everything from a simple straight forward definition to personal stories of life experience with chaos. The word chaos simply means “a state of utter confusion.” Traffic can be chaotic. Work can be chaotic. Getting the kids ready for bed can be chaotic. We experience chaos in our political landscape. We see chaos in the climate crisis. However, the word takes on more nuance depending on the context of its usage. For instance, in relation to the science of physics, chaos is defined as “a state of things in which chance is supreme, especially: the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms.” For me, science was not my strong suit in school, especially physics. For me, Physics was chaotic! Perhaps you can relate.

But, for many of us here, this scientific definition might recall for us the story of creation from the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for “the deep” is tehor, which scholars think might be related to the ancient Babylonian goddess Tiamat, a divinity associated with oceanic chaos.[i] We gather from ancient writings, including our own Judeo-Christian background, that to the ancients, especially those who lived in desert habitats, the sea was ‘chaos’ and therefore something to be feared.[ii] In it lived monstrous sea creatures that would eat you (think of the story of Jonah and the whale); from the sea arose destructive storms that could alter landscapes (think Noah and the flood); and to be caught in the middle of the sea without protection meant certain death (think Moses and the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites and its closing in on the Egyptians who were pursuing them). For those whose livelihoods were as fishermen, their jobs put them in considerable danger with the forces of chaos.

The Psalms, which chronicle the landscape of human emotions, certainly point to the fear of chaos through water. In Psalm 69 the psalmist cries: “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. And Psalm 130 begins: “Out of the deep have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, here my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.” The official hymn of the United States Navy, which we have in our hymnal (#608), we sing: “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave, who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep: O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.” This morning, a report from Queensland, Australia tells of a close encounter with a whale by a fisherman who said “It came so close, I could almost smell its breath!” And we all know of the recent tragedy of the OceanGate submarine that imploded in the depths of the ocean near the wreck of the Titanic that killed five people. The ocean is scary even to those of us living in modern times.

We can understand, then, why the disciples were distraught at the fierce storm that arose that day on the Sea of Galilee. In your bulletin you’ll see the famous painting by Rembrandt, stolen over thirty years ago from the Gardner Museum here in Boston, which is a very apt rendition of this very scene. In it we see the panic on the disciples faces, the struggle to steady the boat with oars and sails, one disciple leaning over the boat as if he is losing his lunch, the waves capsizing the vessel.[iii] Matthew says that the disciples (of which we know some were fishermen and sailors by trade) panic and they turn to Jesus for help. And what was Jesus doing in the midst of this chaos? Sleeping. Sleeping like a baby. This may strike us as both odd and humorous. How can this be? He asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith.” He then rebukes the wind and the sea, bringing order out of chaos and his disciples marveled: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

So, what can we take away from this story of Jesus calming the sea? First, I would say it speaks to the nature of fear. We fear that which we cannot control. We fear those whom we do not understand. We fear what we cannot explain or questions in which we have no answers. If we want to dominate and control others, the easiest way is through instilling fear. In our political landscape these days, we hear a lot about the politics of fear that causes us to approach difference with trepidation and with our defenses raised, whether that be differences in skin color, sexual orientation, gender binaries, culture, neurotypes, or opinions and outlooks on issues that affect us all. I recently was on mission in Birmingham, AL. In Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church were sculptures depicting riots which included vicious dogs being released on black people and water cannons being pointed at them with their backs turned to try to protect themselves from the force of the water. However, In the middle of the park is a deconstructed sculpture with two black children standing on a step. A few feet in front of it is a sculpture of bars to a jail cell. If you view it from in front of the bars, it appears they are in jail. If you walk between them, they’re simply standing free. The inscription on the steps reads “I ain’t afraid of your jail.” When we find ourselves in a place of fear, we might want to ask ourselves why we are afraid and approach the situation from a place of curiosity. It is instinctual to react in fear. However, it takes intention to resist reaction and enter into the situation with curiosity. Behind the bars there appears to be criminals. Moving between the sculpture, there are simply two children innocently standing with each other with no fear. Ask yourself the question that Jesus asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid?”

Second, it is important to remember that while Jesus was ‘in’ the stormy chaos, he wasn’t subsumed by it as the disciples were. He was a calm presence in the storm because of his relation to God. In the Prologue to John’s gospel we read that Jesus is referred to as the ‘Word of God made flesh.’  The Word that was present before the beginning of time and will be long after the notation of time ceases. Jesus was of substance with the one he called “Father,” who hovered over the depths and brought order out of chaos when God spoke the words “Let there be.” With each day of creation, God brought more into order and at the end of each day, God saw it was good. Jesus calm in the midst of the storm showed the disciples that he already had the chaos under control. His question (why are you afraid, you of little faith?) signaled that this was not his first experience amidst chaos, and his rebuking of the storm and the return of peace mirrored that of the one he called father, the bringing of order out of chaos.

Third, through our baptism, we too are children of God by adoption and through faith cannot be subsumed by the chaos around us. When Jesus entered the waters of baptism in the river Jordan, he foreshadowed his entry into the chaos of death and his victory over death through his resurrection. It was then that we see a dove descend upon Jesus and a voice affirming Jesus’ identity of God’s son. So, for us, we too claim our identity as God’s children with assurance of our own victory over death and chaos given to us by our identification with God through Jesus. This gives us the agency to stand up in the face of fear and speak truth to power; to enact God’s justice, mercy, compassion, and peace; to say “Peace, be still.”

So, as you come forward in a few moments for communion, bring your fear and the chaos that is trying to consume you, and give it to Jesus. In return receive and consume that peace that passes all understanding and know yourself as a child of God, and an arbiter of God’s peace to a world that so desperate needs it.


[i] Coogan, M. D., Brettler, M. Z., Newsom, C. A., & Perkins, P. (2001). The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press.

[ii] Mackenzie, R. (1988). Education for ministry (Vol. 1). University of the South.

[iii] https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/collection/10953

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3 Comments

  1. Reuben on July 1, 2024 at 15:33

    “Third, through our baptism, we too are children of God by adoption and through faith cannot be subsumed by the chaos around us.”

    I have to say i am troubled by the insertion of “we too are children of God by adoption”

    I thought everyone was a child of God regardless of baptism. It would resonate better with my limited understanding of our faith written as “through our baptism and through our faith[, we] cannot be subsumed by the chaos around us.”

    If it really means baptism makes us adopted children of God, i guess i have to re-think my relationship and understanding of Christianity and my place in it, and i am a baptized Episcopalian.

    Thanks for listening.
    Reuben

  2. Jane Steer on July 1, 2024 at 02:35

    Thank you so needed this reminder today.

    • Wendy on July 2, 2024 at 02:42

      AMEN As did I! I am deeply grateful for these words you have spoken Br Woodrum.

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