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Hurricane Goliath

stormMark 4: 35-41
1 Samuel 17: 32-50
Introduction to the reading
It is evening, the end of a full and exhausting day of teaching in the countryside along the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ decision to cross to the other side is the only way he and his disciples can leave the crowd so they can be alone together and perhaps get some rest.

But they got no rest, for a great storm arose. A storm on a lake is fast and furious. With no room to spread out, it expends its violent energy over and over in the contained space. The boat is soon awash.

Sermon
My seminary education at Princeton began in September 1999, also the September of Hurricane Floyd. You might remember how Floyd struck inland New Jersey with unusual force.

Besides being overwhelmed by the challenge of starting a graduate degree program well into middle age, on the very first day of classes, I was trapped. Every road north was closed due to flooding from the hurricane, and I was forced – and lucky enough - to get a room at a Marriott on Route 1. I bought a very expensive toothbrush and settled in for the night with my new Bible and books on the history of Christianity.

I was completely out of my element…. a strange beginning to say the least to a theological education, an encounter, so to speak, with the living God.

Looking back, I wonder if Hurricane Floyd was a harbinger of what’s to come, weather-wise, I mean. We are told that climate change will produce stronger, more devastating storms and we have seen it: Katrina, Sandy, Andrew and last year three, one after another – Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and the Caribbean, and Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico. It’s sometimes hard to keep track, and that may get worse.

But the names help. The World Meteorological Organization began officially naming Atlantic storms in 1953. The practice now covers storms in the Pacific as well. But people have been naming storms for a long time. In the 19th century, for example, hurricanes were often named after saints of the Roman Catholic Church, like Hurricane Santa Ana that struck Puerto Rico in 1825.

Why this naming? Beyond avoiding confusion, that is? I think it’s a way of bringing order to chaos – to attempt control over the uncontrollable and to reduce anxiety and fear. For the same reasons, ancient peoples gave names to their gods of nature and human experience– to impose order and reason, to reduce anxiety and fear, to cope with mystery.

But here’s a 21st century thought rooted in an ancient story. Do you think we would dare name a hurricane Goliath? For Goliath is a symbol for the ultimate enemy – the most threatening, the most terrible, the most destructive, the most evil. As soon as we’d name a hurricane Goliath, another one worse might come along. And so… I don’t think so.

Yet “goliath” stands for any giant that threatens to undo us. And certainly there is no shortage of threats these days. The global world order that for so long has held justice, peace, freedom, acceptance and yes, love in highest regard and that set these as goals to be pursued for all seems to be coming undone. The goliath we face today is huge and terrifying. It defies naming, or it has many names. It defies reason, compassion and even common sense. It creates anxiety and fear.

The story of David, the shepherd boy facing his goliath with only five smooth stones and a slingshot, presages Jesus, himself born into a human family in the lineage of David. Jesus presents us with a better way to face our goliath-size storms.

  1. The story of the stilling of the storm serves to reassure us on an individual, personal level. In times of grave danger or crisis - when a natural human reaction is to wonder whether or not there is a God, and if so, whether God is even aware of my problem – we try to wake God up to take care of us. We cry out like the writer of Psalm 13, a psalm of David: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? Likewise, the disciples beg, in disbelief, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And Jesus responds with a question of his own: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Don’t they realize that Jesus is in the boat with them?
  2. The stilling of the storm reassures us that in times of social change and global distress, such as what we are experiencing now, Jesus Christ is Lord of all, that God is ruler of nature and of history and that Jesus is present with us in our anxiety. This is a little harder to grasp because we can only see our present time, not the longer sweep of history. Maybe you recall the despair of Job, the quintessential sufferer: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me. …where then is my hope?” (Job 17: 1, 15a) And God answers Job out of the whirlwind, the storm, with that great question: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4a) God puts us in our place and at the same time says, “Don’t worry about it.”
  3. But we do worry, we are anxious – on all fronts, global and personal. One affects the other; everything churns within us. But we can take a lesson from David, the shepherd boy. David defeated Goliath with five smooth stones and a sling shot. So…what are your five smooth stones?

Some years ago, I experienced several panic attacks – shaking, dizzy, nauseous. What was wrong with me? Classic panic attack, my doctor said. What to do? Don’t get stuck in the middle of a crowd; always have a way out. Breathe deeply. Visually focus on something outward. I have a friend who has been suffering from acute anxiety attacks. One way to cope? He focuses his attention on a computer game until the attack passes.

As Jesus people, caught up along with everyone else in the confusion and changes of our anxious times, we need to focus also. Where is Jesus, in our particular situation? What exactly would Jesus have us do? I believe the answer is to keep feeding people – literally, with food through all that we do in this congregation, from the Bound Brook Soup Kitchen to S.H.I.P. to God’s Co-op Pantry; and spiritually, with the word of God, through those missions and through worship and teaching and proclaiming and loving one another.

If we keep our focus on Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, if we keep alert for the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit, God will reveal himself and will supply the resources and energy we need to weather the storm, just as happened with David as he faced Goliath, just as happened with the disciples in that boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Be still and know that I am God, writes the psalmist. Peace … be still.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
June 24, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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