(a sermon for July 3, 2016, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Luke 8:22-25 and Psalm 46)
Actually, it’s kind of amazing to me that the disciples didn’t see it coming.
I mean, they couldn’t have been all that surprised by the suddenness nor the intensity of the windstorm that swept across the Sea of Galilee that day! After all, most of them in that boat were seasoned fishermen, and having spent a fair amount of time on the water you know they’d experienced a storm or two; moreover, they knew this water: the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by a series of mountains and low valleys through which wind and weather is ever and always funneling down; and so this was, and is, a place where storms, often very violent storms, always happen! And yet, that day Jesus got into the boat and says, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake,” there’s no question at all on the part of the disciples as which way the wind might have been blowing, or where the clouds were on the horizon. Jesus simply says, let’s go, and immediately they’re raising up the sails and putting out across the water; and well… you know what happened next!
Who knows; maybe it really didn’t seem to them like a day when a storm was likely to hit; perhaps they figured they could make it across the lake before any rough weather hit (because remember, the “Sea” of Galilee is only about seven miles wide, which in terms of square miles makes it slightly smaller than Lake Winnipesauke!); or maybe it was just the fact that this was a day they were spending with Jesus, and why would you not want that to continue! And besides, you can’t stop a storm; storms are going to come, no matter what, and so you just get through them!
One of the things we discovered when our family lived out in Ohio was that there is a heightened awareness about tornadoes; much more so than in this part of the world. It was not something we experienced a lot while we were there, but it was nonetheless very real: the weather service often issued tornado warnings; there was this loud siren in the center of town that used to go off when the danger was particularly close; and there were a handful of times when a twister actually touched down nearby, causing an incredible amount of damage literally in an instant.
There was this elderly church member who lived in a new house on the rural outskirts of town; and visiting him one day I made a comment about just how beautiful his home was. He just smiled and said, “Well, thank you, but you should have seen my first house!” He went on to tell me about how this first home had been totally destroyed by a passing tornado a number of years before; describing in vivid detail how he and his family took cover in the storm cellar, and how he looked just up in time to see the terrifying sight of the entire roof of his house being torn away and sucked up into the tornado!
Now, they survived the storm, but they lost… everything; and as he’s telling me his story – and understand, I’m sitting on the very spot were all of this had taken place (!) – I’m thinking, why would you even stay here? I mean, this brand new house is nice and all, but if it were me I’d want to get as far away from “tornado alley” as possible; I would never want this kind of thing to ever happen to me again! But when I asked him about it, he simply replied, “This is my home; life goes on; you have to rebuild. And you know, there’s always going to be storms in this life, and you can’t stop a storm from coming.”
That’s certainly true, and in more ways than one. Think about it: everything’s going along just fine, but then suddenly the phone rings in the middle of the night, and the news is bad… very bad. You’re at the doctor’s office for a routine physical, but suddenly there’s this news of something they’ve found in the bloodwork. There’s this difficult job evaluation you didn’t see coming; the relationship you were assuming was solid is filled with more turmoil than you realized; or maybe it’s a simple (and as utterly complicated!) as a fender-bender out in the Market Basket parking lot (!), but the end result is immediately the placid waters of your existence start to get rough with what Craig Barnes has aptly called “the waves of adversity,” the sky becomes dark, the wind starts to blow, and now without you even having had any chance at all to prepare yourself, you find that you’re suddenly in the midst… of a storm! And the thing is, as much as you and I might work to avoid these kind of storms or at least try to manage them somehow, the fact is that there are always going to be such storms in our lives, and you can’t stop a storm from coming! So the only question is not if there’s going to be a storm, but rather what you’re going to do about it when it comes!
Well, if you’re the disciples, what you’re going to do is to scream out in terror!
Now, in fairness, as we read about it in this morning’s gospel, this storm must have been not only immediate but also torrential: we’re told that the waves were raging, “the boat was filling with water” and that they were all in imminent danger of losing their lives. So it’s bad; and what makes it even worse is that Jesus, as is pointed out a bit more directly in Mark’s version of this story, is in the stern of this boat, sound asleep! And so yes, and understandably so I might add, the disciples start crying out for the sake of their very lives!
However, here’s what’s interesting: in Mark’s version of this story, we get the disciples sort of angrily lashing out of Jesus, saying “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38) But in Luke it’s a little different; there, the disciples go and wake Jesus up, and they’re shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Actually, in the original Greek it’s “Kurie, soson, apoolumetha” which directly translates as “Lord, save! We perish.”) No less fear being expressed, to be sure; and you have to imagine there’s a whole lot of anguish and maybe even some desperation that comes through in the shouting, but inherent in that particular response is… dare we say it… a bit, albeit the tiniest of portions, of faith!
In Luke’s version of this story, you see, what we have is the disciple’s one and only correct response to the disciples’ having been caught in that storm; and that was to turn to Jesus! Trying to outrun the storm wasn’t going to work; the gusts of winds would surely have torn the sails to shreds. They could not possibly have bailed out the vessel before it was swamped, nor could they have safely swum ashore; and there was no one else who would have even heard their cries for help. There’s only Jesus; only Jesus who can be the “savior” of those who would perish. And somehow, in the midst of their terror, the disciples knew this and cried out to Jesus, and Jesus alone, to save them from death.
And well, you know the rest of the story: Jesus “woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased and there was a calm.” (“…he told the wind, ‘Silence!’ and the waves, ‘Quiet down!’ [And] they did it,” is how The Message describes it) And even as Jesus gently chides them by asking, “Where is your faith?” the disciples stand in amazement at this one who “commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” And an amazing thing it was: a massive storm had come upon them out there on the Galilean lake, so powerful and destructive that they’d nearly died! You can’t stop a storm from coming; storms come, they always come! And you certainly can’t stop a storm from doing its damage; but now here’s Jesus who stands up right in the worst that storm brings forth, and with just a couple of words… ends it; who brings forth “a calm.”
Did you notice, by the way, that it’s not “calm,” but “a calm” that Jesus brings forth? In other words, this is not merely about Jesus bringing the wind, waves and rain under control, but also about Jesus bringing an end to the disciples’ overwhelming fear and despair. This week I read a piece written by Sally Wile, who is Spiritual Care Coordinator at Seidman Cancer Center in Ohio; and in it she quotes another chaplain as saying that “perhaps our most important gift, especially in times of catastrophe and loss, is a presence that refuses to retreat.” I love that; for not only does that express what a care-giving ministry is all about, it also describes Jesus to a T! For when Jesus, our one and only Savior, is there standing in the boat with us in the midst of these inevitable storms that we face; when Jesus is for you and me that “presence that refuses to retreat” even when the rest of the world has long since abandoned ship; when Jesus offers us the kind of “holy grounding,” if you will, that will keep us strong, focused and faithful when everything else in the world is spinning out of control, then we will truly know what it is to have “a calm” in the midst of the storm.
Now, that does not mean that moving forward there will forever be glassy seas and smooth sailing ahead; storms do sometimes come in clusters; and that’s true of storms of every variety. That’s life; and besides, you can’t stop a storm. But the good news is that when Jesus is on board the vessel, “the calm” can remain. What were the words of the Psalm we shared this morning? “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam.” Indeed, when Jesus who is the Christ, this one who even the winds and the water obey, is with us in the midst of life’s many storms, we are assured that “the LORD of hosts is with us.”
And so…here we are nearly half-way through our summer day with Jesus; and it’s been warm, and good… we’ve seen a lot, and learned even more. But as so often is the case this time of year, it comes to mid-afternoon and we see some dark clouds on the horizon; maybe a rumble of thunder in the distance, a flash of lightning or two. There might just be an afternoon storm approaching; but the truth is whether this is a storm that’ll bring on the wind and rain, or if it’s the kind of storm that threatens with fear or despair or grief or regret or anger or conscience… whatever might be coming, rest assured we’re with Jesus, and so it’s nothing we can’t handle.
After all, life is full of storms, and we know where our faith is.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry