Sermon - Year B

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Those who follow the European Football Championship have already heard a great selection of national anthems played before the kick-off and – most of the time – sung with great passion by the team’s supporters. In fact, the fans’ performance can be the sole impressive part of the game, as we saw at Scotland’s opening game against Germany. The peculiar thing about national anthems and flags is that they matter a great deal to a particular nation but very little to everyone else, apart from a respectful silence. The reason for such quirkiness is that the lyrics, combined with an arousing tune, encapsulate the essence of the nation: its history, struggles for survival or independence and so on – things virtually impenetrable to bystanders, even if we discount the language barrier.

While national anthems might be among the most outstanding examples of deeply rooted preconceptions, perceptions, traditions and customs of a specific culture, most of us use them instinctively, without a second thought. They are so natural that we might only realise their existence when confronted with significantly different or opposite customs in the same area. For example, in the West, we consider slurping to be a bad eating manner, but in Japan, the sounds of slurps tell the host that you’re enjoying your meal. You can easily upset or offend others if you slavishly stick to your “supposedly” superior manners.

We can easily make a similar error when we read and interpret the Bible from our 21st-century perspective, which is significantly different from that of the people who were its original audiences. Biblical stories appear improbable, fantastical, or absurd because we look at them the same way we read the newspapers or watch the news. Modern-day high-quality journalism rightly prides itself on double- and triple-checking the facts to provide the most accurate information. At the same time, we instinctively recognise that films and books are fiction and watch or read them without assuming their factual truthfulness.

People in the pre-newspaper era got news from travelling folk, merchants, and the like. The news was passed on by mouth. If you have ever played Chinese Whispers, you know what it does to the accuracy of such a transfer of information. Storytellers used rhetorical tricks to keep their audience interested and involved in the story. Dramatisation and embellishments were staples of storytelling, while those who listened could sift through it easily based on their own everyday experiences. It was the ancient equivalent of the modern-day tagline “based on a true story”.

The story in today’s gospel reading is a good example of engaging storytelling combined with the instinctive fear of the watery abyss common among the ancient inhabitants of the inland Middle East. Unlike the Phoenicians, their coastal neighbours, the Jews were not a maritime nation. The impenetrable depths of the sea, lakes or rivers filled them with terror and were a pictorial representation of the underworld. This is why we find in the Bible a number of stories when the powerful leader sent by God parted the waters, allowing the people of Israel to cross dryshod over the sea or river safely. They were essentially stories (“based on true events”) of God effectively conquering the hostile powers of darkness, death and so on.

What can we then take from this story? Life is rarely plain sailing (you see what I’m doing here?). Every now and again, we might be hit unexpectedly by a bolt from the blue. In such moments, we can automatically think, “Why me?” It can feel particularly unjust if we have tried to live our lives in line with the Christian moral code, subconsciously assuming nothing bad would happen to us. Our thoughts and words may be different, but essentially, it’s what Jesus’ disciples told him: “Master, do you not care? We are going down!” In the story, Jesus calmed the sea and wind; however, his words addressed to the disciples: “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?” could indicate that calming their hearts was no less important or perhaps, the only “real” miracle performed by Jesus. Such calming might have helped them to keep going against the odds and get to the safety of the shore. The Christian faith tells us that we never walk alone; Jesus is always by our side, even in the darkest moments. Some of us of a certain age have already come through challenging moments in our lives; we emerged from them stronger and more resilient.

Many national anthems are powerful at rousing the spirit because they refer not only to the past struggle but even more so to the success of it through perseverance. They bring hope that, as in the past, we can win against the odds again. Certainly, we will need such hope for tonight.

Image by jorono from Pixabay