Watching the Weather

Watching the Weather

August 10, 2014
Stina Pope

Our Hebrew Scripture reading starts off: This is the story of the family of Jacob.

So first, a language lesson: have you ever wondered why St. James is Santiago in Spanish? I did, so I started looking. If you pull “Santiago” apart, you get “Sant,” which is the “Saint” part, and “Iago.” In linguistics, we talk about “hard” and “soft” sounds, which means that you can say the same letter as hard and as soft. The letter is made in the same place in the mouth, just with more or less intensity. Try saying “k” softly, and you will end up with “g.” So now, if you look at “Iago” and make that “g” a little “harder,” you will end up with “Iako” or “Jacob,” or the original, “Iakov.” In Japanese, the Letter of James is “iakobu,” which is following the original. So where did James come from? Unfortunately, it was part of an anti-Semitic move, trying to separate Christianity from Judaism. Not only did Jacob become James, but Miriam became Mary, and so on. The most important name change is that Joshua (Yeshua) became Jesus. When you read the New Testament without those name changes, or rather with the names restored, it sounds very different to our ears!

Back to the story of the family of Jacob: Jacob settled in the land where his father had come to as an immigrant, this land called Canaan, now called Palestine or Israel. It goes all the way back to this time in antiquity, the claim that God gave this group of people this spot of land.

But let us look at this story, because it sets the framework, not just for claiming the land, but for the whole of Judaism.

So Jacob settles in the land – but note, he did not buy land and build a house. He simply became established in the land. He no longer considered himself an outsider. He was a rich man, with several wives, and twelve sons, at least twelve legitimate sons. His last two sons by his most beloved wife were Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob was a fool, and did not see that showing favor to this son was a mistake, that giving a younger child a special coat that signified authority might be the wrong thing to do, and of course, Joseph was a fool for getting his brothers in trouble, and for not keeping his dreams that foretold his lordship over his brothers to himself! Joseph, being little more than a child, might be excused for his stupidity. Jacob, not so much!

The sons of Jacob were out with the herds, and Jacob wanted to know how things were. So he sent Joseph out to see what was going on and told him to report back to him. The brothers saw him coming, and decided the time had come to get rid of this trouble-maker and dreamer. They decide to kill him and then to throw him in a pit. His brother Rueben persuaded them to just throw him in a pit, figuring that he coould sneak around later and retrieve him. However, along came some traders – and there is irony in here – the traders are Ishmaelites, that is, they are cousins. The brothers decided to make the deal better, they sold Joseph as a slave for 20 pieces of silver. Joseph was taken to Egypt. Of course the brothers took the long coat that Jacob had given him. They rolled it in some animal’s blood and brought it back to Jacob, who mourned the loss of his favorite child.

Joseph got to Egypt, and after a while managed to get himself out of slavery by interpreting the king’s dream. Remember, one of the things that drove his brothers crazy was his dreams. Why? Because these were not simple dreams, these were portents. He was what we would now call a “seer,” one who sees the truth and names it. As a result of interpreting the dreams, the king put Joseph in a powerful position, and Joseph was now in charge of preparing for getting through a famine time. He did a good job. There was plenty in the graneries, and the people did not go hungry.

When the famine hit Canaan, his brothers were sent to Egypt to buy grain. When they got there, Joseph recognized them – but they did not recognize him. He was an unbearded youth when they sold him, and now he was a powerful man. Although he had the power to kill them, he had pity and forgave them. Next week we will hear part of the end of this section of the story, where he told his brothers who he was, and there was restoration of relationship. However, this is the beginning of the story of the Israelites in Egypt that will eventually end with their total slavery, and with Moses bringing them out of Egypt and back to Canaan. There is a lot more to this story that is pretty good if you want to go look up Genesis 37 and following.

This story, that begins with Joseph going down to Egypt and then with Moses bringing the people back out of Egypt, this story of the people sliding into slavery, and then God “calling” the people out of slavery into freedom, this is the defining story of Judaism, and it begins with our reading this morning. These sons of Jacob are the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, and only two of them survive in the end, but the concept of “the twelve” keeps going – it is no accident that there are twelve disciples. Of course, there were not twelve disciples, there were twelve named disciples, just as there were twelve tribes.

So what can we learn from Jacob and Joseph, and what does this have to do with Jesus and Peter at the Sea of Galilee? Perhaps it all comes down to recognizing and acknowledging who is in charge.

When we look at the story of the family of Jacob, the lesson grows over time. God is in charge. The final challenge to God comes from Pharoah, and Pharoah also is forced to acknowledge that this God that Moses calls on is more powerful than even Pharoah. It must have been an especially bitter pill for a king who was also acknowledged as a god.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus wants time alone to pray. Lesson number one: if you are going to do major work, you need major recharge time. He has just fed the 5000. So Jesus leaves. The disciples are fishermen, they know what to do. It is night, they get into the boat to go fishing. However, the Sea of Galilee is a large body of water, not a small lake. Weather can change quickly, and it can get quite violent, and then you do not fish, you get off the lake! They are no longer fishing. Jesus has finished his time out with God, and comes walking toward them on the water. They, understandably, are terrified, but he calls to them to say he is not a ghost. And then Peter, who is kind of the “voice” for the rest of them, (and for us, don’t you think?) Peter says, “Jesus, if it really is you, call me to come to you!” Jesus is patient, so he simply says “Come!” Peter gets out of the boat, but then what happens? This is interesting! Peter does not say, how can I be walking on water, and then get afraid, and start sinking. No, he looks at the weather. He knows the weather is dangerous, and that makes him afraid, and then he starts sinking. Jesus grabs his hand, gets him back into the boat, and tells the storm to calm, and it does. If the disciples were terrified before, now they are totally awestruck. Who is this that can command the storm to calm? Only God can do that, and this man just did this, and therefore there is only one response. Fall down on your face and acknowledge the power. Even the emperor cannot control the weather, but this man just did. You can feel the fear and awe of the disciples. This is their leader, and look what he just did!

So here is the question for us: we are in the boat, and there is a storm, and the boat is small, and we are afraid. And Jesus comes to us, in the most improbable way, and we gather our courage, and say “Jesus, it that you? Are you really being God with us?” And Jesus says “yes, and if you will get out of the boat, you can walk freely with me!” And maybe we get really crazy, and get out of the boat. And then, like Peter, we look at the weather, and we remember to be afraid, and we start sinking. Jesus helps us get back in the boat, sighing deeply.

Where are the fears that push you around? There are two big ones that have me by the toes right now. One is the ISIS faction that is killing Christians and others that they don’t agree with in Iraq, and we have already been warned that it will not stop there. The other is global warming, and the kind of impact it is having. It seems to me that we have to step back and ask, is there anything I can do about these things that cause me such fear? And if so, what is it that I can do?

When I think about the ISIS issue, I immediately want to say that I can do nothing, and that is not true. I can pray. I can pray for these men who are so wrong, and I can pray for the victims of their madness. Prayer is not a small thing, it is not a passive thing, and it does work miracles. We can pray, and we can pray without investment, that is, without demanding a specific response from God, but with expectation of some response.

When I think about global warming, there are many things I can do. I can lower my consumption of electricity and water and gas. I can walk to the Safeway instead of driving. I can use my dishwater to water my garden. There are lots of things, and I can encourage my friends to join me. I can call on politicians and demand change.

I can get out of the boat and start walking, in spite of the weather, because Jesus is already out there, walking on the water, and when I get worried, I have a choice. I can either look at the weather and get worried and start sinking into the morass of depression, or I can look at Jesus and keep going.

One of the magazines I read is called the Intelligent Optimist. It is important for me to read, because each month they highlight things that people, ordinary people, are doing. This week they highlighted a man who planted a jungle. It is larger than the Central Park in NYC. It used to be a desert area, and he started planting trees. There is now enough jungle that elephants have returned, and other large animals, as well as the smaller ones, and the birds. He did this by starting with a few trees, and then a few more, and each week a few more. He tended the trees until they were sturdy enough to grow on their own, and then paid attention to just the new ones. He is doing this to stop the erosion, and to reverse global warming, in this one small place. He is calling on others to do the same. Start planting trees. It will change the climate back. A woman in Africa did the same thing. She taught other women how to plant trees when the government agriculturalists said it could not be done. Now she is famous, but she still asks each person, how many trees have you planted?

Where are you sinking? Are you looking at the terrible weather, or at Jesus? Can we hold hands together, and look at him, and walk forward together?