A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 8, 2017
Mark 4:35-41; Hebrews 6:17-19a GNT
As I have noted in other sermons recently, and as you are well aware, we are living in tumultuous times. Racial unrest. White Supremacist and hate group rallies. Random acts of violence and senseless killings in Charleston, Orlando, Charlottesville, Las Vegas, and other places. Tensions between the United States and North Korea, Iran, and other countries. And then there has been one natural disaster after another – hurricanes, massive flooding, wildfires, and earthquakes. We live in tumultuous times!
Sometimes we may feel like the disciples of Jesus as related in today’s gospel story. We sometimes may feel like we are in a small boat in the midst of a violent storm in the middle of a raging sea. The winds of adversity blow us around unmercifully. The violent waves of trouble wash over us and threaten to destroy us. We feel tossed about indiscriminately by life’s circumstances that are beyond our control.
This story of Jesus and his disciples in the storm-tossed boat is one of those stories that was cherished by the early Christians who were also living in tumultuous times. The story must have been central to the early Church, as it is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. Some scholars point out that this is one of the post-crucifixion, post-Easter stories that was colored by belief in the Christ of faith. The storm-tossed boat or ship for the early Christians served as a metaphor for the Church that felt threatened during times of persecution and trouble.
As those early followers of Jesus felt threatened by persecution from the Roman Empire – perhaps even fearing for their lives – they took great comfort in a story about Jesus and some of his disciples being in a small fishing boat in the midst of the Lake of Galilee when a storm came up, which could happen on a moment’s notice. And they took great comfort in believing that they were not alone in their troubles, not alone in facing their persecutions. They felt that in some way the Spirit of the Jesus they had known and chosen to follow was with them to keep them safe and would bring calm to the troubled waters of life that threatened them. The Jesus who they believed had calmed the waves for the disciples in the storm-tossed boat became Jesus who could calm the waves of trouble and persecution for those who believed in him now in the storm-tossed Church.
When we face tumultuous times, feeling like we are in a storm-tossed boat of life, we long for an anchor to hold us fast. The author of the book of Hebrews speaks of “hope as an anchor for our lives” (6:19 GNT). Such is what the early followers of Jesus sought to cling to, I am inclined to believe – the hope that the same Jesus who had accompanied the disciples in a storm-tossed boat would also accompany them in their trouble-tossed lives.
But in addition to hope, I have been thinking about how important are what I have termed “anchor texts for tumultuous times.” In other words, just as the early followers of Jesus took comfort and gained strength from the stories about Jesus that they circulated and shared again and again, for thousands of years the faithful have taken comfort and gained strength in biblical texts during those tumultuous, trying times of life.
For instance, one of the best-known, best-loved, and most-used passages in the Bible is Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” This psalm has been an anchor text, bringing comfort and strength to millions at the time of death and for funeral and memorial services; an anchor text for tumultuous times that brings a sense of comfort, assurance, and peace to many of us.
Psalm 46, which served as today’s responsive reading, is a passage that I have found to be an anchor text during those tumultuous, trouble-filled times of my life. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Think of the Jews who had to hide themselves from the Nazis, as chronicled by the movie about Corrie ten Boom and her family titled The Hiding Place. Those Jews who daily feared for their lives no doubt found Psalm 32 to be an anchor text for their tumultuous times. “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble” (Psalm 32:7).
Or think of prisoners of war, like Senator John McCain, who have spent years in confinement and found solace in reading or reciting from memory comforting passages from the scriptures or familiar liturgical prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer.
Another POW, Howard Rutledge, tells about his plane being shot down over Vietnam. He parachuted into a little village, where he was attacked, stripped naked and imprisoned. For the next seven years, he endured brutal treatment, sometimes shackled in excruciating positions and left for days in his own waste. Rats the size of cats crawled around his cell. Later, he wrote a book about his ordeal titled In the Presence of My Enemies and spoke of the importance of Scripture.
In solitary confinement, there was no minister or Bible for answers to the spiritual matters of life he had long neglected. So Rutledge thought back to his Sunday School days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and tried desperately to recall snatches of Scripture, sermons and hymns of his childhood. Rutledge and fellow POW’s, like Harry Jenkins in a nearby cell, struggled to rediscover their faith. They would often use priceless seconds of communication to help each other recall Scripture verses and Bible stories. He described how much time he spent trying to remember what he heard growing up in Sunday School and was amazed at what he did recall. Looking back, he realized the importance of memorizing verses from the Bible as a child.
“I never dreamed that I would spend almost seven years (five in solitary confinement) in a prison in North Vietnam or that thinking about one memorized verse could make the whole day bearable,” he relates. (Jan White, Internet article, adapted)
In trying situations such as these, and others, passages of scripture or familiar prayers become anchors for the soul, providing comfort, assurance, hope, and peace during tumultuous times.
But perhaps we could broaden the idea a bit, to include verses of poetry or beloved hymns that can also serve as anchors for the soul during trying times. For instance, just as the 23rd Psalm has been an anchor for millions of passings, funerals, and memorial services, so has the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” You may recall that when President Obama spoke and sought to bring comfort to the members of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, following their tragedy two years ago, he broke out in song by leading “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.” Other hymns that bring such comfort are “Be Still My Soul,” “Abide With Me,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and others.
But for some, poetry can serve as an anchor for the soul as well. Poems by John Donne, Alfred Tenneyson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and contemporary Mary Oliver can bring much-welcomed solace during those tumultuous times of life.
As we bring this thought closer to home, we are moved to ask ourselves, “What are my anchor texts for tumultuous times?” What passages of scripture, or beloved hymns, or verses of poetry, or selections from literature can I call forth to give a sense of comfort, assurance, hope or peace during life’s trying times? When I am wrestling with a problem for which there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; when I have received an unwanted and unsettling report from my doctor or medical tests; when I am lying awake in bed at 3 am in the morning with a troubled mind; what anchor text can I recall that will say to my mind or soul, like Jesus to the angry waves, “Peace. Be still!”?
Having such anchor texts is not a sign of weakness. We all need them and never know when we might need to draw from them. Maybe a worthwhile and highly-beneficial spiritual practice for all of us would be to begin collecting or writing down in a small journal a collection of personal anchor texts – scripture verses, hymn stanzas, verses of poetry, etc. – for these tumultuous times in which we now live. Think about it. Amen.