The Terror of Stillness

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 2, 2017, the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Text: Mark 4:35-41


Jesus has a work ethic that would give even the most driven DC resident a run for her money.  In Mark’s Gospel, there’s no peaceful pause in the beginning to gaze at a baby or sing Kum ba yah.  In Mark, the story “hits the ground running” and Jesus is the one running the race.  He is busy.  Just in the day or two leading up to the incident we read about today, Jesus is loving people back to healing and wholeness, doing massive crowd control, hiking a mountain of discernment, training co-workers to do what he does, challenging the religious bureaucracy that would keep him from using his gifts in service to God, and preaching a monster sermon.  In addition, he is dealing with tricky family dynamics and painful tensions between his call and the needs of those closest to him.  And the crowds have gotten in the way of his eating. The man’s hungry. (Mk 3-4)


No wonder he takes the opportunity to curl up in the back of the boat and go to sleep.  The problem comes when Jesus stays asleep in the midst of a storm.  The disciples come at Jesus in a panic.  They don’t give any hint they think Jesus can actually fix anything, but instead just sputter out this half desperation, half accusation question:  “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”  That question has a familiar ring to it—perhaps not the actual words, but the guilt and manipulation of it seem pretty contemporary… “Don’t you care?!” “We need you!” “It feels like the end of the world!” 


This week on our Lenten journey, the “American idol” we confront is what I call the epidemic of overwork, constant activity, and the need to always be “productive.”  This dwells deep in the DNA of America.  We are a “can do” culture after all, full of homesteaders and entrepreneurs and inventors and innovators.  All that is beautiful and good; but when we fold in capitalism and a strong dash of an easily perverted “Protestant work ethic” partly fueled by a fear of “idleness” (the devil’s playground!), the cocktail gets potent and dangerous.  It is truly difficult to push back against the siren call in America to do more, produce more, take on more responsibility, give more of our time.  There are a number of concrete reasons it can be so difficult—cultural expectations, fear of losing our job, the necessity to work more to make ends meet, the desire to feel needed or to prove ourselves, being given the workload once managed by two or more people, the vigilance required in the current political climate…and that’s just naming a few.


The value and dignity of work is a Christian virtue; but it’s easily perverted.  And it gets manipulated to support the unhealthy appetites of our American ethos, making it difficult to practice Sabbath and maintain a healthy rhythm of work and rest.  Our faith is clear about the need for Sabbath and stillness—I can’t preach about this without reminding us that Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8)—and remember those are given not to limit life, but to help us live abundantly with love and justice.  And the way things are in America today makes it very difficult—I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel guilty for keeping the commandment (how twisted is that?)!  There are things that might begin to shift the cultural dynamic: a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, a shortened workweek, a mandate for shorter daily work hours… These and the economic challenges tied up in all this—and what drives or might correct those challenges—are issues best left to our wise economists, sociologists, and other people smarter than I.


What I am here to highlight today are some of the spiritual issues lurking around the edges of this frenetic, overworked culture in which we live.  The idolatry of constant work sets us up to function as though everything depends on us, as though we are more crucial to the world than the Creator of the world who actually took a full day off on the seventh day.  The God of constant work is a harsh taskmaster who depletes the well of creative energy and patience, replacing those nourishing elements with what can become destructive competitive energies and low defenses against negative inner voices that lead us astray.  //


Over the years when I’ve taught a Christian form of meditation called Centering Prayer, one of the consistent responses I receive is that people find it scary.  The practice involves bringing yourself before God in silence and stillness, making yourself available—without words—to just rest in God’s presence.  The way my teacher and friend, Fr. Tom Ryan, invites folks into centering prayer is by saying, “Bring yourself to be before the One Who Is, in full, loving attention.”  I remember the first time I tried to do this.  The word I used to describe the experience was “terror.”  It felt terrifying to be in God’s presence with all that silence and stillness.  I felt exposed and vulnerable.  In the still, steady presence of God, I couldn’t escape myself.  For the few minutes I was able to stay in that space, I was forced to grapple with the realities of my life—without all the background noise and distractions. // Our culture doesn’t do well with silence.  We are very good at distractions.  But in our constant activity and chatter, we miss the opportunity that is always there to “bring ourselves to be before the One Who Is.”  And that is a real loss; because, over time, being with God becomes an experience not of terror, but of renewal, not of vulnerability, but of profound awareness of God’s ever-present love and mercy.  Centering Prayer isn’t the only way to be with God, of course.  But regardless of the specific practice, silence and stillness will be key components.  And to find silence and stillness you have to be still.  You have to stop the busyness. You have to stop.

Five years ago during my annual silent retreat, I was struggling to be quiet and still, to get my mind to stop spinning, to release all the needs and work responsibilities that were weighing me down with worry.  The prompt from my spiritual director was to prayerfully put myself into Matthew’s version of our Gospel story from today; to be on the boat, to see Jesus asleep, and ask myself, “What do I want to say or do to him?”  In Matthew’s version, the first line is, “When [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him.” (Mt 8:23)  My first reaction was to the phrase, “his disciples followed him.”  I found myself thinking, “You got me into this, Jesus!  I wouldn’t be in this freakin’ boat in the middle of a storm if you hadn’t led me here!”  My gut reaction was to be angry at Jesus, to blame Jesus, and to join in the disciples’ accusation: “You don’t even care!”


Then I became aware of the strong winds (being from Oklahoma, strong winds scare me); and then I remembered that I don’t know anything about boats; and then I thought of how vulnerable human bodies are in the middle of the sea.  As I stayed in the boat with all these thoughts and feelings, I looked again at Jesus just lying there sleeping and I found myself asking: How is Jesus sleeping under these conditions?  And then I realized that my real question was: How can I do that?  And the word I received then was an invitation:  “Just as you followed me into the boat, follow me into my rest.”


For the past five years, I have been trying to respond to that invitation.  What does it mean to follow Jesus into his rest?  And how do we do it in the context in which we live?  I imagine the answers will be slightly different for different people—because God knows our particular circumstances and need.  But one thing our Gospel reveals is that after a long and fruitful time of work, Jesus simply stopped.  He let his body sleep.  He continued to sleep even when the storm raged.  And when Jesus is awakened by the disciples with words that mostly just sound angry that he isn’t all freaked out like they are, Jesus doesn’t get wrapped up in their drama.  He does assure them that they don’t need to fear.  The story shows us that others will likely get angry or panic when we set healthy boundaries around our need for adequate rest and time away from work.  But, like Jesus, we don’t have to allow others’ reaction to suck us in.  Jesus—by example—gives us permission to stop and rest, to trust that the world won’t fall apart if we take a break. 


Jesus also shows us how to be still, to be at peace, in the midst of the things swirling around us that tempt us to panic.  This does NOT mean is that we crawl under a blanket and hide from or fail to respond to the challenges of the world.  Rather, what our Gospel reveals is that even in the middle of danger, Christ is a steady, still presence in whom we can trust.  We can intellectually understand that from reading the story.  But we only learn to really know and trust in the presence of God by actually spending time in the presence of God.  We learn how to bring ourselves to rest in God’s presence by practicing silence and stillness, by being intentionally aware of God’s presence and listening for God’s voice.  Overcoming the terror of stillness and following Jesus into his rest trains your senses to be able—even right in the middle of the scary, stormy realities of your life—to hear Jesus say to you, “Peace, be still.”  And to know that Christ has the power to make it so…