Peace. Be Still.
25th Annual Jazz Worship
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Mark 4: 35-41
You know of my deep admiration and affection for Dr. White and the joy I feel for the musicians who join him every year. But what I didn’t fully expect of this annual tradition was to grow so deeply fond of you, the Mardi Gras congregation. You are a different and rare creature every year, just like our beloved Carnival season. This thing we create when we come here together on this one Sunday of the year doesn’t exist at any other time, even though I may think about you and wonder about you in June or October. We are neighbors and friends and strangers and family, we are devoutly Christian and quietly agnostic and nominally Jewish and boastfully atheist. We are, like our city, a mashup of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and all walks of life, gathering together for just a little while to honor something rare and set apart. It’s the music and the traditions of this city, yes, but there’s this other thing that happens when we are together. And it’s a pretty holy thing.
I wonder…How has the past year been for you? Has it been good? Have the kids grown? Did you get the promotion? Are you retiring soon? Have you moved? Have you buried ones that you loved? Do you have all of your ducks in a row? Have you lost your ducks and would settle for even just carrying them in a bag if you could find them all again? Have you gotten a divorce? Ended a friendship? Are you facing the diagnosis or in total denial? Have you worked hard on yourself and repaired something broken? Pushed past an old blockage? Are you watching the news and devouring Twitter or turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of it in hopes the chaos will be over soon? How has the past year been for you?
Mardi Gras Congregation, I think you are amazing and brave. The way you keep showing up for your life and showing up here. NINE A.M. on the last Sunday of Carnival! You have every right to be in bed right now or at least reaching for a second cup of coffee and maybe getting ready for a fabulous brunch. And yet, here you are, joining this beautiful collective that only exists one day a year.
As I thought of you and this day and wondered how your year had been, I figured there’s a good chance you’ve faced a storm or two. I certainly know I have. Whether the storm has passed or you’re still in it, I imagine this well-loved Jesus story may speak to you. We’re fans of Jesus here, obviously. We spend a fair amount of time reading these old stories of who he loved (to the chagrin of most people who now claim to be his followers, the answer is all kinds of people—the more unsavory the better), how he spent his time (healing, feeding, talking, teaching, walking, delighting in small moments and in time with open-hearted folks, resisting injustice in all its forms), and the movement of revolutionary love he was building with his disciples (again, some of the folks who claim to really be into Jesus seem to miss how fiercely against oppressive empire and toxic religion his whole movement was).
We come back to these stories again and again because they invite us to live mindfully in the name and way of Jesus. In this story I imagine myself among that bizarre cohort of wandering ministers, moving from feeding and teaching to a resting place, and when that storm comes up and shakes all hope and faith out of the disciples, well, I know how easy it is for storms to shake the hope and faith out of me, too.
This is one of those stories that repeats in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We call them the synoptic gospels because of the way you can view them together, side-by-side, and easily read the similarities and differences. When the three line up, that’s a great way to determine a story about Jesus was widely important because it mattered to all three of the writers. Let’s not get lost in questions of literalism this morning. Did this really happen? Can a storm be calmed with words? Unimportant. Really. Even altogether distracting from what the story is offering us. For these few moments we have, let’s hold this for what it is—a sacred story shared broadly across first century faith communities and handed down across thousands of years and continents, translated through languages from ancient to modern with a word for us today.
In Matthew and Luke, the stories are almost identical—Jesus and the disciples get in the boat, he falls asleep on a pillow almost immediately, an enormous storm comes out of nowhere, the disciples panic and wake him, he fusses at the wind and the storm and the disciples like an exhausted parent awakened from a nap by the shouting of children, and the disciples are afraid of and amazed by his power.
But it is in Mark’s gospel that Jesus says to the sea, “Peace! Be stilled!” Then the wind ceases into a dead calm, and Jesus turns to the disciples asking, “Why were you afraid?” The movement Jesus was building was purposefully facing storms, and the disciples needed to discover they had the capacity within them to stare those storms down whether Jesus was asleep or awake, with them in body or in spirit.
If we had more time, I’d take you through the gospels into all the moments when a holy someone says to an ordinary someone, “Don’t be afraid.” We don’t have time because it’s truly that many instances. Over and over again, “Do not fear. Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. I’ve called you by name. You are mine.”
If we had more time, I’d invite you to pick up that thread of peace and stillness and follow it from these gospel appearances all the way back to the beginning of things as God’s first and ultimate hope for us all—true, deep, comprehensive peace. We don’t have time because there are truly so many stories of God whispering peace and hovering peace and weeping peace over humanity. The great shalom of God is both an original Divine intention and an ultimate destination—deep, deep peace to you and for you and with you.
It may be a year until I see most of you again. I suspect there will be another storm or two—in our hearts, in our lives, in the story of the nation we call home. The storms may start softly and slowly and swell before dissipating or maybe they’ll just crash in the way the one did over that boat so long ago. When it happens, remember this day. Remember the day you were amazingly brave and gathered here with your people. Hold this moment in your heart, carry it around in your pocket. Do not be afraid. The very Christ we speak of today believes in your capacity to shout peace into the waves and is with you as you do. Peace. Be still. Peace. Be still. Peace. Be still.