In 1989 I visited the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. It was a field trip for a course on Art and Education that I was doing at Boston College in Massachusetts. The Museum is a private collection that has been open to the public for over 100 years and has been run by a trust since the death of Isabella Gardner, the museums collector. When I visited the gallery, the centrepiece of the collection was Rembrandts painting of Jesus asleep in the boat while the desperate disciples held on for dear life. The painting is called Jesus calms the Storm and was painted in 1603. There is a picture of it on the front of todays Order of Service. The copy you have in front of you does a disservice to the original. The original is about three metres high and two metres wide and is alive with both action and terror in the eyes of the disciples in the boat. In true Rembrandt style the painting was big, bold and beautiful and controversially he painted himself into the boat as one of the terrified crew. In fact, when you look closely which you cant see on the picture before you, his expression is somewhat quizzical as if he is not sure what he is doing in this painting. Interestingly he didnt paint himself as one of the disciples as one of the twelve apostles. There are fourteen men in the boat; Jesus is at the stern being woken by a few of the twelve disciples and Rembrandt gazes out of the picture looking toward you the viewer.
A few of us in the group stood in front of the painting for quite some time. I suppose we were trying to remember the Biblical story of the wind whipped Galilean lake. The story that Shirley read earlier with the strong words, "Rabbi, dont you care that we are perishing?" is well conveyed in this extraordinary work of art. And of course the narrative takes on a mythic quality that gives Jesus power even over the natural world, "For even the wind and the sea obey him".
Just to go back to the painting at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston for a moment. I think I was in Boston for the course in September 1989. Then about six months later I read in a Toronto newspaper that on the morning of March 18, 1990, thieves disguised as police officers broke into the museum and stole this painting of Rembrandts, Jesus calms the Storm, and twelve other works. Its still considered the biggest art theft in US history and remains unsolved. The authorities have never found any of the paintings. I later discovered that the museum still displays the empty frames in their original locations.
In the Boat with Jesus
The easy interpretation of this story is that when the storms of life are about to swamp you, call out to Jesus and he will rescue you. Or the notion that Jesus power was so great that he had control over the uncontrollable, power over the forces of the natural world and would exercise it to save the terrified disciples. But I want to take another route in understanding this story. Yes the narrative does give a picture of the natural elements complying with Jesus command and rebuke to be still and at peace. But I want to suggest that it is more a metaphor directed to the disciples and, by implication, to us. In fact, its all about the disciples and maybe, here in the first written gospel, it is saying that it is also all about the reader about us!
Fear and the Storm Within
And Jesus said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
I think it is significant the Rembrandt paints himself into that boat not as one of the disciples, but as himself. I sense there may have been some shock among the pious that he included himself in the Biblical narrative. But isnt that what makes faith and religion come alive? I think it is sometimes a problem in our Christianity that we dont do enough to re-imagine ourselves into the story. There can be too much theologizing and not enough religious experiencing. What I mean to say is that theology is really talk about God, but religious or spiritual experience is the encounter with the holy, with the sacred, with the divine, and into God. Theology and doctrine and even confessions and creeds are second-hand experiences and can be objects to be studied and believed. Encounter, on the other hand, is subjective and therefore both difficult to communicate and even more difficult to put into a system. I sometimes think that we should have departments in our theological colleges called 'the department of un-systematic theology,' rather than systematic theology. "Yes, Im the professor of unsystematic theology, may I confuse you with the many contradictions in life?"
We have to be in the boat with Jesus and the disciples and not just innocent bystanders. The winds of life are wild and the storm is unabating. Fear rises up within us. The fear that we will drown because the power without is greater than the power within. "Why are you afraid, dont you have any trust any faith?" Why? Because the power outside of ourselves is stronger than the power that is within us
Really? Is that really true? Isnt the greatest power we know the power of the human spirit? And thats why we have to be in the boat. This story is not about believing that Jesus can still the storm, it is about the experiences of life that form and shape us so that we find the truth within us that the power of the Spirit of Jesus is within us. Perhaps that is what the author of the second letter to the ecclesia at Corinth was saying:
dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
The power within is stronger than the power without!
Being the Spirit of Jesus Today
As I was writing this sermon I couldnt stop thinking about the deaths of those refugees; those women, children and men who drowned last Friday in the sea two hundred kilometres from Christmas Island. The fear they must have felt; the horror of losing those whom they love: friends and family members. The power of the ocean is even greater than that of Lake Galilee. Do we care that they are perishing? Arent we the Body of Christ in the world today? Doesnt the spirit of Jesus dwell within us? So isnt it up to us to answer their prayers to be saved from drowning?
I know the solution is complex, but they are perishing and the first-hand encounter that we have had with that living presence of the Spirit, can empower us to rebuke the storm that causes people to fearfully flee their homeland in search of a place that is named by the words of Jesus, "Peace, and be still".
You see we are in the boat with them. They are not just foreigners or queue jumpers but they are us. And when we have encountered the spirit, or the life that Jesus lived, rather than just knowing about it, then we reach out to others not only because of duty or moral or ethical concerns, which are all fine; we reach out because we are all in the boat together.
It has taken me a long to come to the conclusion that the transformation we really need in our world is not primarily the changes that come through the political systems we have invented, but the need for the transformation of the human heart. When Václav Havel, the past president of Czechoslovakia, was invited to speak to the United States Congress he said "The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart". I think he was calling us to paint ourselves into the picture. Be in the storm. So that one can also be the stillness and seek the centre of power within for that is where we find the very source of life we all long for.