(You can view the video of this sermon here)
Last weekend we had the opportunity to get out into Cascade mountains. One day we hiked to Hidden Lake, which is near Lake Wenatchee. It’s a beautiful little lake in the fir and the hemlock and spruce, nestled there in the mountains.
The lake is so magical that the water shimmers from within.
Literally: there’s mica suspended in the water, clouds of tiny crystal flakes that’ve sloughed off from the rocks.
So, you can see this glittery mineral movement to the flowing depths of the waters.
Our kid of course was playing in the mud right along the shore. She would pour water over this mud that was full of this mica and you could watch these shimmering patterns of turbulence unfurl as it flowed into the lake.
It was mesmerizing, and, as you could imagine, very calming.
Someone in one of our recovery groups at the church has told me about a tool she uses to help manage her addiction. It’s a bottle, a little clear bottle that she fills with water and a little dish detergent, and glitter. She keeps this with her.
When she’s feeling anxious or upset or angry and she notices that she’s gotten stirred up, she just takes that bottle out and shakes it up and sets it down. And she just takes some time to sit and watch the glitter settle. As the glitter settles, she settles. As the water clears, her mind clears, her heart clears.
You know, there’s the old saying, “Still Waters Run Deep.”
The more depth we allow in our souls, the more we open ourselves to the source of our being, the deep and inexhaustible Holy One, our God, the more we, by grace, receive an inner stillness.
Knowing this inner stillness doesn’t mean that there isn’t turbulence. Storms will come – storms in our own souls and storms from other people and from this often stormy world in which we get to experience what it’s like to be alive.
But if we know something of our depths as souls that flow from and return to the Eternal and Transcendent God, perhaps we can meet the storms that come without getting too terribly stirred up. Perhaps we can have enough stillness, curiosity, and strength and openness of heart to notice patterns in the turbulence, see what it has to teach us, name the reasons the storm has arisen, the wounds that give rise to the winds. Then we can respond in a clear and helpful way.
Now I for one can’t stand here and make it seem to you that this is something I’m very good at.
We need help in this, and grace – from each other, from our faith, from God.
Jesus, here, can be our teacher and our guide, our healer, our savior, whom we can call on as a force of stillness and depth to help us through the storms.
Jesus’ entire being was so open and unified with the great depths of the Source of All Being, that storms did not unsettle him in the least.
There’s the story about the storm on the Lake of Galilee.
Jesus was out with his disciples in boats crossing this large desert lake, when, suddenly, a terrible storm arose, suddenly. The Lake of Galilee has these sheer cliffs that can channel the fierce winds of desert storms into really devastating squalls across the water.
When this storm came up, the waves were threatening to swamp and sink the boats, and the disciples were desperate and panicked.
Jesus was so calm, he was asleep. They had to wake him up.
He stood up in the winds, clear and calm. He looked into the storm, into the flashing patterns of its tumult. And Jesus spoke into the heart of it: “Peace! Be still.”
The depths of this Christ-being just swallows the fury of the winds and the waves dissipate like minerals settling into the stillness of the deeps.
Jesus then turns to his disciples and says to them, “Why were you afraid? You obviously have yet to learn what it means to trust in God.”
What happens next makes it very clear that all this isn’t just nice sounding spiritual stuff.
According to the Gospel of Mark, immediately after the stilling of the storm is one of the most unsettling, and I think important, healing stories in the Gospels.
The way Mark tells it, Jesus stills the storm, the calm waters take the boat to the other side of the lake. And just as Jesus steps from the water to the shore, he encounters yet another storm, this time a storm of tremendous psychological, spiritual distress.
A man rushes out to meet Jesus. He has been living among the dead, we are told, in the tombs, howling, hitting himself with stones. He panics the people around him – the townspeople, we are told, are always trying to shackle him but he always breaks the chains. There is an untamable fury. But it doesn’t seem like he’s harming anyone but himself.
Jesus is calm and clear as he looks into the storm in this man’s soul. Jesus speaks into the storm, “Peace! Be still.” But it does not become still.
Instead Jesus must call on the demon to name itself. He must see and name the patterns of the psychic turmoil.
The answer is, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
Jesus now has the power to command that Legion of demons haunting this man to leave him and peace. He sends them into a herd of pigs – who for the Hebrew people represent what is unclean. These demon pigs then plunge off a cliff into the Lake of Galilee, where they die and settle and return to the eternal stillness of the deeps.
The storm has passed. The man is now returned to a state of stillness and sanity. Jesus has shared with him the peace that comes with knowing the depths of one’s being as a child of the living God.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here. More than just a sermon’s worth.
When I was in seminary I did a study of this healing story in terms of trauma due to violence, and how Jesus here is guiding this man through the process of recovering the wholeness of one’s sense of self that so often can get shattered with traumatic violence.
I’ve had some experience working with combat veterans, helping to set up opportunities for them to share their stories with young folks, and working with them on how they tell their stories. So, I’m inclined to hear this healing story as being about war trauma.
And the key here is “Legion” – this man is possessed by a multitude of demons who name themselves “Legion.” In Jesus’ in these regions around Galilee there was an attempted uprising against the Roman occupation. And Legions of Roman soldiers had marched through and did the kinds of things that made the Roman army notorious. And a lot of people were left scarred and scared and angry.
When I was working on this story in seminary, and really thinking about how we are a nation that has known a lot of war in our short history, I just happened to strike up a conversation with a young man. He turned out to be a lay leader in a church in Harlem. He told me how he was doing a study of this story with a men’s group at his church. I hadn’t even brought up that I was working on this story, we were just talking about, you know, how church is going. He was so excited about this story and how they, as a group of Black men in Harlem, were having all these revelations about how this story spoke to their experience, and to the struggles of their people with the collective traumas that Black folks in America carry.
There’s so much here, with the attempts to shackle this man and him breaking the chains, but still caught in cycles of violence; with the ways that “Legion” can name the collective forces of organized violence in our country and our history … but that’s not my story to tell.
I just love how the Gospel can speak to us – whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, when we approach the stories of Jesus in a sincere way, we can hear the ways they speak to our story, and speak a healing word.
So, please let me know how you hear these stories speak to you and how you hear them speaking to us.
We are passing through stormy times these days. We need divine help. And divine help is there, is here, to keep us connected to those still waters that run so deep, that peace that surpasses understanding, that can allow us to see within the storms the healing that we need.
For this I give thanks to God.
(Delivered July 12, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, with First Congregational United Church of Christ of Walla Walla)