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When the Storms Come and the Water Rises – Storm Sunday

September 18, 2019


A Sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 15, 2019

We have two scripture readings on Storm Sunday. The first is Psalm 29, an absolutely marvelous poem depicting the glory of God as experienced in a storm. It envisions the heavenly host gathered together around God, chanting “Glory.” And the community of God’s people on earth, gathered in the temple, chant “Glory.” Heaven and Earth united in praise.

I should also say that at the time the song was written, the Canaanite god Baal was known as the ‘god who rides upon the storm.’ Psalm 29 is an assertion that it is rather Yahweh, the god of Ancient Israel, the creator of heaven and earth, our maker, who is the true ‘Lord of the storm.’ So I will be reading the name of God as revealed to Moses in the burning bush, Yahweh, in place of the English word Lord.

[Psalm 29, inclusive version]

Our Gospel reading according to the Gospel of Luke describes an encounter of Jesus and his disciples in a small boat upon the Sea of Galilee when Jesus exercises authority over the storm.[i]

[Luke 8:22-25, Inclusive Version]

When I was a child, I used to love rainstorms. I looked forward to them. I would lay in the large west-facing bay window of our home at 1723 Tina Lane, Flossmoor, Illinois. And wait for the storms to come. We were in the mid-west so, you know, you could feel them coming as the air changed. You could smell them coming. I would wait for the air to cool, and then that growing rumble of thunder that would eventually break out into great sky-rending cracks, and the sky would split with jagged bolts of lightning. And I was mesmerized by the different kinds of rain, the soft gentle pattering, the rhythmic rainfall, the thundering downpours that sounded like waterfall and looked like falling oceans. Lighting transfixed me. Counting … 1-100, 2-100, 3-100, 4-100 … how far away is the storm?

We lived along a kind of tornado corridor in Illinois. Tornadoes generally moved about ten miles south of us, but were not unknown near us. I was quite aware that ten miles to the south were my grandparents, and lying in the bay window watching a storm pass by I was aware both how far and how close they were – that lightning over their home ten miles away could easily strike in my neighborhood.[ii]

I would stay in the window unless there was an official tornado warning and the horns would sound and we would go into the basement and climb under the steel desk to wait it out. My favorite part of a storm was the calm that followed. I would lie near the windows, which were always cracked as a precaution against tornado, and I would smell the ozone, the electrically charged air. I know it’s no good for you, but I loved the small of ozone after a storm.

I get that same feeling of large places united by the awesome power of storm when I visit with my mom in Florida. My mom lives in Naples, on the Gulf Coast. On my most recent visit with her I would go out into the Everglades during the day. Warm water in the Everglades evaporates with the heat of the day, which would rise and move west out over the Gulf, where cool air would push it back toward land and it would fall in great sheets in the afternoon back along the coast. We took one day to watch the entire cycle by taking an airboat ride in Everglades National Park the morning, a hike in the afternoon, and then watching the rain come down in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge at sunset. Thus the water system is continually refreshed. Water lifting up in the morning and coming back down in the afternoon, creation alive and in motion.[iii]

Psalm 29 is a marvelous Psalm, but it is easy to miss what the poet is describing. It is the movement of a storm, a single storm system. It pictures a life of a storm as it moves from North to South. It first forms in the West, out over the waters of the Mediterranean. It takes shape as thunderclouds rumble toward the coast. It moves inland and makes land in Lebanon. It comes in over the mountains, whipping and lashing the trees as it turns south along the land. It begins to rain. Hail begins to fall. That is what the image of ‘Lebanon skipping like a calf’ is about – it is the bouncing balls of ice, bouncing wildly up and down like so many Ping-Pong balls, making the land look alive. The rain falls as the storm moves south until it burns itself out as it enters the dessert sands of the Negev, 100 miles south of Jerusalem. But what follows in the Psalm is the water rushing down from the mountains, all the accumulated rainfall that gives strength to the people and makes possible peace. It is the rain that makes the thirsty land productive, gives drink to the wild animals, that is the basis for peace among God’s people. The human worshippers in the Temple respond to all of this awesome drama with the simple word “Glory!” which echoes the song of the heavenly host.


lightning over the Mediterranean and seen from modern Beirut
by Lebanese photographer Karem Bachara

The “Ancient Israelites believed that ‘the earth belongs to God’ (Psalm 24:1) – [it is] not ours and not that of some evil power. Therefore it is appropriate for us to find a sense of the glory and majesty of God in the forces of nature and in the handiwork of creation.”[iv]

Do you know how often God’s prophets have had to remind kings and ruler that they do not control or call the weather? I’ve been thinking about it this week, for obvious reasons. I’m not trying to score a political point by bringing up the whole twitter-storm initiated by our president when he offhandedly and inexplicably spoke about how Hurricane Dorian would effect not only Florida, South Carolina and Georgia but also Alabama, and how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in Alabama responded that it would not effect Alabama at all, and then the President directing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to fire top scientists at NOAA for ‘falsely’ claiming that rain would not fall where it was obviously not going to fall, for daring to insist that science is science and not subject to direction by the President. I’ve been reading through biblical encounters this week of prophets reminding kings and rulers that they do no call or control the weather, because ‘the earth belongs to God, and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24:1).

The entire story that formed the basis of our summer sermon series, the story of Elijah verses King Ahab and his prophets was about a three year conflict over who controls the weather – Yahweh, the God of liberation and Life, the God of Israel, or Baal, the god who authorizes injustice, oppression and inequity. The prophet Jeremiah called out the Pharaoh in Egypt who believed that Nile belonged to him and he call forth the floods in due season and for the waters to recede at command. The prophet Amos spoke also to kings who thought they controlled the weather. As I said, I don’t bring this up to score a political point but to keep track, in worship,

  • that this conflict is old, and that the arrogance of the powerful is endless and must be accountable;
  • that accurately understanding the weather is a matter of life an death, for human and non-human alike; and
  • to attend to this here in worship so we may rightly worship the God to whom the earth belongs.

There is a really interesting irony in Trump’s tempest-in-a-teacup, and that is that those who have for so long denied the reality of climate change did so with the sanction of churches who made the seemingly orthodox claim that ‘only God controls the weather; we humans certainly cannot be changing earth’s climate.’ But now our denier-in-chief thinks he’s calling the shots on the weather, directing scientists to ignore data and conform to his claims. And it is the scientists today who are playing the role of biblical prophets – describing for us what is plainly happening in our world and the consequences of ignoring it.



There’s a Global Climate Strike happening this coming Friday, which we will be taking part on right here with an event of our own. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old student from Sweden has come all the way across the ocean to speak before the United Nation, and stand with students in front of the United Nations, and her message is simple, “Listen to the scientists.”

This moment of climate crisis reminds us that we cannot be naïve about the way our weather has changed. We are no longer in the place where we can sing easily with the poet that God rides upon the storm; that God is to be found even in the winds and floods; that nature works benevolently, if sometimes destructively, so that all creation can thrive. We are increasingly in an environment out of control, turned against itself, less and less conducive to life.[v]

I find sanction for both of these perspectives in scripture. It was Job, in his encounter with God, who found the divine presence in the whirlwind, the cyclone, in the storm. He could hear the voice of God sounding, rather than speaking, “Glory.” Wild, uncontrolled, beyond comprehension, yet full of wisdom nonetheless. But it was Elijah the Tishbite who did not find God in the storm, but rather in the pregnant silence of God’s people listening, expectant, for what would come next.

It would be very easy in this moment of climate crisis to feel the despair that so many experience, to believe that Jesus has fallen asleep in the bottom of the boat; that he is unconcerned for us, abandoning us to our fears and to the danger of rising water that will overwhelm us. Climate despair, or eco-nihilism, is a real thing.[vi] There is no doubt that the Gospel of Luke intends us to understand, like the disciples in the story, that in meeting Jesus we have met that great and mysterious and glory-filled God who rides upon the storms, who oversees the working of creation. But I would ask you to look again at the encounter between Jesus and the disciples. “Jesus, it is true, initiates the voyage across the [sea] (v 22). But, once [he is] in the sphere where the fishermen disciples are competent and he is a mere passenger, he leaves them to it and, in a very human way, simply falls asleep.”[vii]

This is what they do – the disciples as fishermen navigate boats through the waters. But in this crisis they panic and turn to Jesus and ask him to save them. But as he does so he asks them, “Where is your faith?” Where is your confidence? Where is your trust in yourselves? The point is made poignantly in the gospel of Mark where the disciples attempt to cross the sea twice: the first time with Jesus, this encounter, and the second time when Jesus puts them in a boat and Jesus stays on the shore and simply says “Go. Make the crossing by yourselves. Wake yourselves up and get through the storm.”

Jesus in this story does not need to save us from, but strengthen us for, the storms in our lives.

In just a moment we’re going to sing “How Firm a Foundation,” which comes with this promise.

Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed;
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Jesus rides with us through the storms in life, not to fix them or solve them or take them away, but to strengthen us, comfort us, and help us to stand through them Let us sing our affirmation of trust in this God as we sing hymn 463, “How Firm a Foundation.”




[i] Their is humor in this story. The travel writer, Pamela Olson, records her first visit to Galilee this way: “The next morning we drove tot eh Sea of Galilee and had breakfast at a cafe near the water. The ‘sea’ is technically a lake, ten miles wide and still as a millpond, with the yellow-green hills of the Golan Heights towering solidly above it. I said to Dan, ‘This was seriously where the disciples thought they were going to drown in a giant storm?’ / He laughed. ‘I know. I always thought it was like the Black Sea or something. But it’s just this little lake.’ He shook his head. Nothing was what it seemed here.” In Pamela J. Olson, Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland. (Sea Press, 2013). p. 41.

[ii] Though Illinois was on the edge of Tornado Alley, climate change in my lifetime has been driving tornadoes increasingly North. See “Illinois is now in ‘Tornado Alley,’ study finds.” Daily Herald: Suburban Chicago’s Information Source. April 30, 2014.

[iii] For a fascinating land quirky look at weather systems, see Lauren Redniss, Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (Random House, 2015). For the everglades, see the National Park Service Junior Ranger booklet for The Verglades National Park.

[iv] Marshall D. Johnson, Psalms through the Year: Spiritual Exercises for Every Day. (Augsburg Books, 2007). p. 62.

[v] See Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) and David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2017).

[vi] Climate Despair is a real and frightening thing, as numerous recent studies are showing. See, for example, Mike Pearl, ‘Climate Despair’ is Making People Give Up on Life.” VOX, July 11, 2019. See also both books listed in note v.

[vii] Brendan Byrne, S.J. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (2015).

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