In the first century before the birth of Christ, Rome had a very rich and powerful citizen named Marcus Crassus. Crassus is remembered today primarily for his partnership with Julius Caesar. But at the time he was famed for his wealth, which was truly vast.
It was so vast that he could fund his own fire department. The city of Rome did not have a municipal fire department. So when a fire broke out, the Crassus Fire Brigade would show up. And they would offer to put out the fire, on one condition: the owner had to sell them his burning property. Faced with selling it for a steep discount while it was on fire or for nothing after the fire destroyed, people mostly sold. And so Crassus accumulated a whole lot of land in the city of Rome and added to his staggering wealth.
This is not just a glimpse of a harsh world without public services and utilities. A lot of the world still works like this. Want emergency health care? Get ready to pay for it, perhaps for the rest of your life and beyond. Do you want to be educated for a profession? You can do so, if you're willing to pay a portion of everything you make for decades.
And unfortunately it is also possible for Christians to talk as though God comes to our emergencies just like the Crassus Fire Brigade did: I’m here to help, if you sell everything you have at a desperation discount. God will come to our rescue but he will wait there until you surrender the right things and the right way to him.
It’s the logic of the world, right: you want something--recovery from addiction, rescue from financial distress, a healing of grief or marital strife--and God wants something--your soul. Give him what he wants, and the blessings will flow.
Fortunately or not, life does not work this way. And God does not operate this way.
If you want an alternative to the Crassus Fire Brigade, you can take a look at the words from the book of Job today. When God shows up here, Job has already lost his house, his property, his family, and his health. All he has left is his life. He has been angrily demanding an answer from God: why has this happened to me? How is this just?
Once upon a time I was really in love with the book of Job. I read it over and over. I was in awe of its terror and beauty. I feel rather differently about it now. But I still strongly recommend it to anyone.
What we hear today is the beginning of God’s eventual answer, out of the whirlwind, to Job. Remember that phrase, “out of the whirlwind.” And God answers Job’s question by changing the subject: Have you ever, even once, looked around you? Do you have any notion of the vastness of my creation? Of the power by which it was made and is still preserved? Did you see how I set a boundary for the sea and forbade it to go further?
The world, Job, is not about you. You are not at the center. You are not the main character. You are part of the greater story and greater beauty of creation; it is not your story and not your beauty.
These are true and important words to Job. We all need to hear them when we get bogged down in our personal misfortunes.
But while God speaks truth to Job, God does not speak Good News to Job.
For Good News in the storm, we need to turn to the reading from Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus has been teaching in parables, as we heard last week. And today he suggests a trip across the lake. He promptly falls asleep in the rear of the boat.
A storm arises, threatening the disciples’ boat as well as the other boats with them on the lake. The water is already threatening to capsize their little craft. And the disciples are terrified. This is the world where Rome, the great city, didn’t even have a fire department. So there’s definitely no Galilean Coast Guard to go out and rescue you either if you get into trouble.
They wake up Jesus. And notice they don’t think to ask him to save them. They just say “do you even care that we’re all going to die?!”
Jesus rebukes the wind: Peace, be still. And immediately the wind ceases and a dead calm falls over the water. Jesus has demonstrated his power over the sea and the wind--the power God reminds Job about in the speech out of the whirlwind. Power over water and wind is divine power. This is not some little healing or exorcism. This is a boss-level miracle, defeating the chaotic or even demonic powers that drive the storm.
This is why the disciples are so shocked. And it’s why Jesus reproves them for lack of faith.
So here are three responses to disaster:
- There’s the Marcus Crassus Fire Brigade answer: I’ll help you out of this fix if you sell to me.
- There’s the Job answer: Try hanging some stars in the heavens and then ask me to explain myself.
- And there’s Jesus: do you still have no faith?
And when Jesus stills the storm, he doesn’t just save his frightened friends. He saves all those other boats that are on the lake that day too. Without being asked or begged. Without anyone having to sell their boat at a discount in order to get help.
So what does this mean for the storms of our lives? And we’re in Texas, so let’s be literal about that. Where is Jesus in the chaotic power of tornadoes and hurricanes and deadly heat waves? Or being less literal: where is Jesus in addiction, grief, financial distress, depression, marital stress, loneliness? And not just in our own lives: where is Jesus when we face the effects of ecological crisis, extreme inequality, crumbling institutions?
Do you even care that we are drowning?
My attempts to answer this question have never satisfied me. And they’ve probably never satisfied the person asking. Why do bad things happen, to me or anyone, in a world God supposedly rules? Why didn’t Jesus calm this storm?
This story does not answer that question (any more than God does in speaking to Job). But it assures us of this: Jesus is inside the storm with us. Jesus is in the boat.
And it assures us that Jesus is also greater than our little boats and our storms. He speaks to us both from within the storm and from outside of it. We know him both in his power and in our suffering. There has never been any other way to know him.
“Have you still no faith?” This is not a promise that things will go smoothly. It is not a promise that disaster will spare us. It is not a suggestion that things will get better if we pray harder or give a greater or better portion of ourselves away.
But Jesus promises this much: as long as we are with him, we are ultimately safe.