Fourth Sunday after Pentecost 2021, Year B—20 June 2021
Rev'd Martin Johnson
Job 38:1-11, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41
Ongoing revelations about the conduct of our troops in Afghanistan continues to make the news and to be the subject of commentary. There are clearly issues and complexities that few of us can begin to imagine, but looking beyond the matters of ethics and law in warfare, it is my hope that the current raft of enquiries will make recommendations on training, selection and deployment and that some good will come from whatever findings are handed down, particularly a better understanding of the human response to violence and trauma.
The predominant philosophical approach to military training is that of Stoicism and on one level I think it is probably the right one, but is also problematic. When I was involved in recruit training, the most common complaint was the unfairness of it all. ‘Padre, don’t you care that I have been treated so unfairly!’ was often heard. When counselling young folk I would agree with them that military training is seemingly devoid of fairness, but there was a purpose and that was help discover those inner resources to come to terms with injustice and unfairness and importantly to better understand your response. Because as a soldier they will be present in spades in some of the situations you will encounter. This is classical stoicism.
The problems arise later when notions of stoicism become understood in terms of macho culture and the over simplistic stoic doctrines of strength and honour - think Russell Crowe’s character Maximus in the movie Gladiator. It is this kind of thinking that can potentially lead to atrocities and from there to the various kinds of psychological trauma we see in veterans.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, The Handbook, possibly the first self-help book in history. Interestingly, it survives because it was frequently copied by early Christian monks. The monks treated it as a kind of ‘Monasticism 101’, and novices were taught to follow its guidance in the early years of ascetic training. Epictetus asks his readers first to pay particular attention to the reactions that they have to the most trivial events of the everyday. He would teach in the Stoa, hence Stoic, the perimeter of marketplace and so his teaching would reflect what he saw around him.
Imagine you’ve joined the queue because the cabbages are on offer at half price, Epictetus suggests. You wait your turn, only to find that, just as you reach the front of the queue, the half-price cabbages run out. The seller informs you that the cabbages are now full-price because they were picked this morning, not yesterday. A good Stoic seizes such moments. They are opportunities to learn something about yourself. Do you become angry? Or disappointed? Or distressed — feeling that such bad luck haunts you all the time, or overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all?
Stoicism finds a home in our scriptures, many would claim Job is a great stoic text, and yes it hard to deny his legendary patience in the face of terrible suffering and unfairness. Paul too was no doubt influenced by Stoic thought. This morning he rehearses a great list of trials and tribulations that have beset him and which he has overcome. And even Jesus, this morning in the stern of the boat battered by the waves, chastising the disciples: ‘Why are you afraid?
Stoicism finds a home in our spirituality, but there must be more and a journey with our readings this morning helps us to understand what that more is and its development. The Book of Job is a notoriously difficult text to understand, whether you are a theologian, a Hebraist, a literary scholar. In it Job endures extraordinary trials, and the book deals with the question of why the good should suffer. At the last Job is humbled, humiliated even. ‘Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!’ The God of Job is on one level is capricious, sarcastic. But what is important is that Job’s issues are placed in the wider context of God’s creation. The stoics may like to see in Job extraordinary patience in the face of unfairness, but ultimately it is not a matter of ‘stiff upper lip’ and gung-ho ‘can do.’ It is about the humility to know that in God we encounter the mystery at the heart of everything and that there is much beyond our understanding. Theologically, Paul takes us further, he speaks to the Corinthians about his trials; but eventually says – ‘I speak to you as children,’ his too is a call to humility.
In today’s gospel Jesus leads a flotilla of vessels to ‘the other side.’ We learn later that this is the land of Gerasenes. It is clearly a place beyond ‘the black stump.’ Jewish folk would not normally go to such a place. There would have been great apprehension and then of course a storm blows up on the lake. We know that some of the disciples are fishermen they would be accustomed to these squalls, and yet they are terrified. This is what happens when you go to other side, ‘don’t you care!’ Jesus’ response is a call to humility and trust, but the disciples are struggling to understand. We know, of course, the answer to their question: ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ We have taken a major theological leap.
It’s not for nothing that Prince Harry’s ‘Invictus Games’ are so named, given the poem of the same name by the stoic William Henley which concludes ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ Perhaps Harry wants to reinvent himself as the Prince of ‘Self help!’ But it is here that Stoicism and Christianity part company. We are neither master nor captain. Difficulties, disappointments, unfairness are a part of a full life. Many of these things lie beyond our control. It is important that we understand our reaction to these issues, whether we are on the Battlefield or in the queue for cabbages; Jesus, after all, teaches an awareness of the interior life – the law says this, but I say this.
Ultimately this awareness should be a call to humility and this needs to find its way into military training too. Not the humiliation and sarcasm of the God of Job who sounds more like a Sergeant-major, but the sense of being a child and more again the sense of God being with us and within us. It is the humility that says ‘it’s not all about me’ it is about the God whose Spirit rests in mine. This is classic stoicism but with a deep sense of the incarnation. St Paul speaking to the Stoics at the Areopagus quoted one of their phrases reminding them of the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being.’ This is the God of Jesus, whose life we live, the very source of our existence, the very ground of our being and our hope. It is God’s life that here in the Eucharist we nurture and tend and from here strive to reflect in everything we do, particularly in our responses when we confront injustice or unfairness, when we are fearful or frustrated. This is our vocation and call, this is our challenge. Amen.