Reflection for Sunday – June 23, 2024

Readings: Job 38:1, 8-11; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41 
Preacher: Sonja Livingston

In spring of 1657, 12-year old orphan Françoise Nadreau boarded a ship in La Rochelle, France, and landed months later at the rugged outpost of Ville-Marie, which today we call Montreal. In 1855, 15-year old James Cass, body weak from famine, left a Tipperary workhouse for America. A few years earlier, Sophia Würtz, her husband Georg, and their eight children traded in the rolling hills of Sankt Wendel, Germany, for the fertile foothills of Perkinsville, New York. These are just a few of my ancestors. It’s likely yours have similar stories.

To get to the New World from Naples, Port-au-Prince or Glasgow, most of our ancestors had to face the sea. Their journeys were not brief jaunts but long stretches on crowded boats, surrounded by illness, trepidation and churning waves. Their only anchors were tattered luggage, family (if they were lucky enough to not travel alone) and memories of home. Many of them also clung to God. My friend Mary Engels’s mother traveled from Caltanissetta, Sicily, with a tiny statue of St. Joseph in her pocket.

None of them knew what to expect. Even if they survived the ocean crossing, they might succumb to starvation, violence or disease. Many traveled against their will—bound in chains, servitude or despair. Even those who journeyed with hope would have trembled as the old world slipped from view. But they came and they came and here we are. We are a result of so many ships and waves and pounding hearts years before we were born. We also face rough crossings of our own. No human being can avoid choppy waters for very long.

Today’s readings are filled with turbulent waters. Thankfully, they are accompanied by a holy conveyance of calm. “Their hearts melted away in their plight,” the Psalmist writes of sailors facing an onslaught of waves, but the Lord “hushed the storm to a gentle breeze” and brought them “to their desired haven.” “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus asks in Mark’s Gospel, startled that his disciples could forget that God has their backs. “Have you still no faith?”

The image of Jesus in the boat reminds me of the 6th century seafaring saint, Brendan the Navigator. According to legend, Brendan and his companions left Ireland in search of the “Isle of the Blessed.” Brendan had no map and his simple boat was fashioned of wood and leather. Along the way, they encountered wondrous visions, strange creatures, and violent storms. After seven years, they finally reached a paradise brimming with flowers and fruit and birdsong which, incidentally, some believe was North America. But before they arrived, the monks endured day after day and month after month of choppy waters and unknown monsters of the deep. A woodcut by Richard Gibbings depicts Brendan celebrating Mass as massive sea creatures swirl beneath the boat. Brendan’s crew waves their arms in distress but the saint bows his head and continues singing his prayers undisturbed. Whether St. Brendan’s journey was literal or allegorical, it describes reaching the Blessed Isle not by circumventing fear or trouble but by navigating tumultuous waters with faith.

This week’s readings invite us to consider our own tendencies when it comes to fear and faith. How do we respond when faced with sudden storms? What or who do we turn to in an attempt to calm the waters? Do we try to make our own way, or rely on God?

The image of a calm Jesus as a storm rages reminds us that we also have an enormous capacity for peace. In fact, we humans seem to be made to face the deep. Like Brendan, we are seafarers at heart. We prefer solid land, of course, but sometimes it slips away and we’re caught again at sea. How wonderful then that within each of us is a place of refuge. These havens are God-given but require tending by us. The more we nurture these holy spaces through prayer, solitude and acts of faith, the lusher and more alive our Blessed Islands grow.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we are tethered to and supported by God even when it appears otherwise. No matter how blustery the winds or how towering the waves, we are rooted in his care. Likewise, the faith of St. Brendan and our ancestors, along with those currently braving squalls of uncertainty, can inspire and show us the way. Together, they remind us that when we turn to our good God, even the wildest storms cannot touch us.

Sonja Livingston
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