In this morning’s All Age Worship we talked a bit about a buzz word that seems to be all over the education world at the moment – the word “mastery”. It’s no longer enough, if you want your school to get an outstanding grade, to teach children simply information or skills, you have to get them to the level of mastery of those skills and information, so that they can use them in all sorts of different ways. Mastery is about having that knowledge deep inside yourself, so that it is almost second nature and you hardly have to think about it.
We thought about some of the skills we might have mastered in our lives; the ability to read and write, knitting, cooking, music and so on. We thought about the Medieval master masons and master carpenters who built this church, without power tools or sophisticated computer models. You couldn’t just call yourself a master craftsman in those days. It was a title you earned from your peers in your trade guild after serving a long apprenticeship and demonstrating that you had the skills you needed. You’d have to make something to show what you could do. This was literally your “master piece”. If it was good enough, you earned the right to the title of Master.
In our Gospel reading we meet a bunch people who might today be called Master Mariners. People who had grown up in and around boats, who were deeply familiar with them, able to handle them, knowing the waters of the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands. It’s no surprise that when they see how tired Jesus is after a long day’s preaching and healing they feel completely confident in taking him into their boat – and that’s what they story said “They took him with them” – it is their initiative, their responsibility. They don’t expect him to do anything. This is their area of expertise. They may not be able to heal or preach, but they can sail, so Jesus can, for once literally sit back and relax. And that’s what he does. For some reason there is a cushion in the boat – this puzzles me for a working boat, so maybe it is an improvised cushion made out of cloaks simply to give Jesus a more comfortable sleep.
He can switch off completely – or at least that is the plan.
But then, as we hear, the wind gets up. Presumably the fishermen do what they would normally do under these circumstances – reef the sails, start baling and so on. But none of the tricks they use works. So they wake Jesus. Why? What do they think he can do? What use is a carpenter, even one who has a good sideline in teaching and healing, going to be? It just feels like he doesn’t care, though, and that seems to be what they want reassurance about. But with just a few words – not addressed to them, but to the storm itself – Jesus does far more than any of them could imagine. In Greek, the words he says are “Siopa, pefimoso” – literally “Shh, shut up”. And that’s what the storm does.
It’s not so much the fact that the storm has been stilled which astonishes them, as who it is that has done this. In the Jewish scriptures, the sea was a symbol of chaos. In the beginning of the book of Genesis, God’s Spirit hovered over the water, bringing order out of the formlessness of the primeval ocean. God was the one who set bounds beyond which the water couldn’t pass, and who removed those boundaries when the flood swept the world away, all except Noah and his precious cargo. In the Psalm we heard, it is God alone who “stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea,” God alone who ultimately brings us “to the harbour we are bound for.” Those Galilean fishermen knew their Psalms, and they would have picked up the allusion. If Jesus too could still a storm with a whisper” – siopa pefimoso – then who can he be? Paul wrote to the Colossians that “in him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell.” This is not just a carpenter, or just a healer or teacher, the story tells us, but the one who has mastery over the sea, like God himself, who can bring order out of chaos, peace in the midst of a storm.
The early Christians knew quite well that that didn’t mean he would make all the bad things go away. He went through death on the cross himself after all, and many of them were persecuted and killed for their faith. But this story reminded them that whatever storms raged about them, at the heart of their lives, if they were centred on Christ, there could be a peace that nothing could destroy.
We are – all of us – people of skill and ability, people who can do extraordinary things. But our mastery of the world and of ourselves is always going to be limited and partial. We all, at some point come up against storms which fling all our self-assurance back in our faces. Far too often we beat ourselves up when we come to the end of what we can do, as if, if we only tried harder or were cleverer we could get it sorted. The truth is, though, that these are the times when we need to remember that Christ is there in the boat with us, the one who is master of even the wind and the waves, and who can speak the words that still the storms and bring us to the harbour we are bound for.