Peacemakers Rock the Boat: Preaching Catherine of Siena

The story of Jesus' calming the stormy sea is one of the most endearing in scripture. We've taken it to mean that when swamped in the tempest of our own troubles and fear, faith in Christ restores calm and provides, as Paul so memorably described it, "peace that passes all understanding."

The only problem is that this story doesn't promise tranquil flatwater through faith in Christ at all. Jesus only quieted those savage surges because the disciples had no faith. As we read it, Jesus was sound asleep in the back of the boat, and would have peacefully slept through the whole squall had not his freaked-out disciples jerked him awake—squawking about how obviously he didn't give a rip if they drowned. Jesus stumbled from his slumber, rebuked the wind and waves for all of their caterwauling, but then rebuked his disciples too: "Why are you so afraid?" he asked, "Do you still have no faith?" Of all the sermons I've heard preached from this passage, my favorite was from a rector in a small beachfront Episcopal church. In her sermon, following the disciples' screaming, "Don't you care if we drown?" she imagined Jesus responding, "Well, I'm here in the boat with you aren't I?"

But admittedly, for most of us, simply having Jesus in the boat isn't enough. We want him to wake up and do something. If not soothe our turbulence into permanent tranquility, at least give us a little serenity now while our boats are still rocking. However, if you read your Bible closely, you quickly realize that when the Bible speaks of peace, it speaks primarily of ceasing hostilities between you and God, hostilities that arose due to your sin, your blatant rebellion against Him. That God would sacrifice Himself in Christ in order to achieve such peace—no wonder it passes all understanding. Having had your peace made with God by God, you're called to become peacemakers yourself, which means forgiving others as you have been forgiven and seeking reconciliation wherever division, injustice, conflict, and other evidence of non-peace abounds. Far from rocking your cradle, God's peace rocks your boat and even compels you to the rock the boats of others. Author Mark Galli elaborates,

Christian peace is not primarily a subjective state of quiescence but rather reconciliation with God above all, as well as peace between formerly alienated peoples. This new ontological peace, in turn, often unsettles the soul when it sees injustice rampant in the world—making us rightfully furious. Jesus was anything but undisturbed throughout his life. We see him irritated with his mother, impatient with his disciples, angry with the moneychangers (and even a fig tree), and incensed with the Pharisees. Paul is anxious about some of his congregations, irate with others. He weeps, he rejoices, he admits to despair. And when it comes to the saints in Christian history, Jerome was about as cantankerous as they come; Francis of Assisi scolded friars and preached judgment to the crowds; Theresa of Avila had little patience with church bureaucracy; and Catherine of Siena [the subject of this sermon] chastised popes; and on it goes . . . None of us likes to be whipped about by events and people, problems and vices, but might it be that a higher Christian virtue is that of entering in to life's evil and sufferings, subjecting ourselves to the vicissitudes of life, the ups and downs, the misery and the joys, and then trusting God throughout?

This was a rhetorical question for Catherine of Siena—a church mother and boat-rocking peacemaker if ever there was one.

Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347, reportedly the 23rd of 25 children to a wealthy Italian dyer in Siena. At the age of only six, she reported experiencing a vision of Christ in his glory, surrounded by a great cloud of saints and angels. It so affected her that from then on Catherine spent inordinate amounts of time in prayer and contemplation of Jesus—against the stern opposition of her parents who wanted her to be more normal, as well as her Sunday school teachers whom she completely intimidated.

When Catherine turned twelve, her mother, with Catherine's marriage in mind, began to urge her to pay more attention to her appearance. To honor her mother, Catherine dressed in bright gowns and jewels that were fashionable for young girls, but soon repented of this vanity, declaring with finality that she had been given the gift of singleness. When her parents persisted in their talk about finding her a husband, she hacked off her beautiful golden-brown hair. Seeing that they were never going to persuade her to join in the pursuits of other girls in her social class, Catherine's parents finally gave in. On her sixteenth birthday she joined the lay order of Saint Dominic. Subordinate to the Dominican monks and nuns, Catherine trained as a nurse, caring for patients with leprosy, advanced cancer, and plague—patients whom other nurses were loathed to treat.