Several times this past week I have caught myself using the phrase “tempest in a teacup.” Many of us have heard or used this phrase to describe some small event that someone, even ourselves, has blown out of proportion. I am not sure whether it was just a coincidence to catch myself using this phrase, whether I was more alert to it due to meditation on this week’s gospel passage, or whether this week’s passage inspired it, but I do think this passage from Mark describes a very similar situation to a “tempest in a teacup.”
Jesus and the disciples are traveling by boat across the Sea of Galilee. We do need a bit of a geography lesson as very few of us have been to the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is not a major body of water, although the use of the word “sea” sometimes implies that it is. It is an inland body of water and something one might more likely call a lake rather than a sea. In fact, with an area of 64 square miles, it is just a little more than half the size of Lake Cumberland that measures at 102 square miles. On the western shores of the Galilee were the Jewish settlements from which the boat has departed, and it is headed toward the eastern shores, toward Gentile settlements. This becomes very important in the next portion of the gospel when we encounter the story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac from whom the unclean spirits are cast into a nearby large herd of swine, animals that would have been very welcome in the predominately Jewish western shore of Galilee. So, Jesus and his disciples are passing from the Jewish side toward the Gentile side. This and the next chapter recount at least two crossings between these two sides of the sea and Jesus spends time on each side preaching, teaching and healing.
As the boat is making its way an unusual storm arises. Our English translations do not do this storm justice. The word used for the storm is λαῖλαψ (lailaps), a word that can be translated as “hurricane.” Quite literally the beginning of verse 37 can be translated as, “And there began a great hurricane of wind.” A great hurricane of wind… On an inland lake smaller than Lake Cumberland… I lived for thirteens years in Cleveland, Ohio, near the shores of Lake Erie, a lake considerably larger than the Sea of Galilee and Lake Cumberland (9,940 squares miles, in case you were wondering), and while I had heard reports of strong storms and the appearance of water spouts similar to tornadoes on the lake, I never heard of a hurricane. We begin to see our tempest in the teacup appearing.
The disciples are suitably overwhelmed by the unusual nature of this storm. The waves are cresting over the side of the boat and filling it with water, and I am sure as experienced fishermen they were doing everything in their power to keep the boat on course and bail the water as fast as they could. All this time Jesus is in the stern asleep. So the disciples wake him and accuse him of not caring, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
In response, Jesus rises and sternly commands the winds and the seas to be still, and they obey. However, he takes a surprising step and challenges the disciples. He asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Jesus seems to minimize the fear the disciples were experiencing, assuming that survival of this storm was always within their power and something they should have expected.
It is quite possible the community to which Mark told this story could relate to the overwhelming sense of doom the disciples face in this story. The church at the time of the composition of the Gospel of Mark was going through a change from a predominately Jewish-Christian community, possibly symbolized by the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, to one that is becoming predominately a Gentile-Christian community, symbolized by the gentile side of the sea. This period of change was probably causing conflict and confusion in the community. They were experiencing storms of contention and they may have felt that God was ignoring their plight as they attempted to keep their floundering community afloat against seemingly overwhelming odds. Mark’s community is crying out to Jesus to save them, and Mark wants to assure his community that Jesus can bring peace to the storms, but Mark also wants to challenge the community. They must have faith, for through faith they can deal with the storm that is confronting them.
We at St. John’s are experiencing our own challenges during a time of transition. We just said goodbye to a talented priest who has guided, supported and challenged us for two years. We know our financial situation will not allow us to call a full-time priest to serve our community, and we wonder about the likelihood of finding someone who could serve part-time for our church. We may at times feel that the waves are crashing in upon us and the boat is going to capsize. However, we must remember that Christ is with us and he may be giving us the opportunity to step out in faith and confront this storm – a storm that may seem far more overwhelming than it actually is. Throughout its history St. John’s has not only survived, but it has thrived for many years without regular, full-time clergy, and we will continue to do so for many more years to come. Like those disciples in the boat we are far better equipped than we recognize for we have a healthy congregation and the support of the diocesan staff and of our Bishop. The transition from a primarily clergy-centered church to a church where we each claim our baptismal call as ministers of the church in cooperation with the clergy will be a difficult transition, but we will survive it and become stronger in the process.
In addition to speaking to our corporate life as the community of St. John’s, this passage should also speak to us personally. There are times in our lives where the storms may seem overwhelming and that we will not be able to overcome them. We may feel that God is asleep in the stern and allowing us to perish. We need to be challenged to face these storms with faith, knowing that though the storm may seem to be a hurricane on the inland lakes of our lives, with God’s help we can confront the storm and overcome it rather than allow it to overcome us.
And sometimes we need to look with honesty at the hurricanes on our inland lakes, evaluating them calmly through the eyes of faith. Sometimes they just might be tempests in our teacups.