(a sermon for June 20, 2021, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 4:35-41)
I’ll be honest here: in the story we just shared of Jesus and the disciples in the midst of that storm on the Galilean Sea, I totally get why the disciples panicked and lashed out at Jesus! Because so often in the midst of the storm like that, you simply don’t know what else to do!
At the beginning of his book Six Hours One Friday, Max Lucado tells the story of how, as a young man, he lived for a time with some friends on a rustic and somewhat leaky houseboat on the Miami River in South Florida, an experience he described as “part adventure and part bargain.”
However, Labor Day Weekend in 1979 provided far more adventure than he’d bargained for, because that was the weekend that all of Florida was watching and waiting as Hurricane David was whirling through the Caribbean, headed toward the Florida coastline. And as you might imagine, Lucado was trying to figure out what to do: “I had owned the boat for three monthly payments,” he wrote, “and now I was about to have to sacrifice her to the hurricane. I was desperate. Tie her down! was all that I could think.”
And so Lucado and his boatmates went out and bought enough rope to, in his words, “tie up the Queen Mary.” And they proceeded to tie up their houseboat: to trees, to moorings, to anything they could find that seemed solid. By the time they were finished, their little craft looked like she’d been caught up in a spider’s web! But then, Lucado wrote, just when “I was reaching the end of my rope, in more ways than one… Phil showed up. Now Phil knew boats. He even looked boat-wise. He spoke the lingo and knew the knots, [yes, but] he also knew hurricanes. Word on the river had it that he had ridden one out for three days in a 10-foot sailboat.” So that pretty much made him out to be a living legend!
Well, Phil felt sorry for these kids, so he came to give them some advice… and it was “sailor sound. ‘Tie her to land and you’ll regret it,’ he said. ‘Those trees are gonna get eaten by the ‘cane. Your only hope is to anchor deep. Place four different anchors in four different locations, leave the rope slack, and pray for the best.’”
Anchor deep. Actually, even as a mere lake sailor, I can vouch for the fact that that’s very good advice. With the boat anchored deep and the ropes slack, the boat is free to move with the wind, the waves and swell of the tide, without drifting too far away in the process. Tie the boat too tightly or too securely and either it will be destroyed by the force of wind and water, or it’ll be done in by falling trees or other debris. To anchor deep doesn’t mean the storm won’t be dangerous; but it does mean that the chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to ride out the storm until it passes.
As it turned out, Hurricane David never hit Miami; thirty minutes off the coast the storm decided to veer off to the north. “The worst damage my boat suffered,” Lucado wrote, “were some rope burns inflicted by her overzealous crew! But the sailor’s advice stuck with him – “Anchor deep, say a prayer, and hold on” – because the truth is that not every hurricane is going to miss you!
In fact, we all face hurricanes, and not just of the tropical variety. Some hurricanes come in the form of unexpected and sweeping life changes; others are the result of on-going and ever-increasing day to day struggles. Sometimes they hit suddenly and without warning; other times they build up, gradually, until finally they reach a gale forced wind that threatens to destroy you. Sure, sometimes good fortune prevails and they either miss us or blow themselves out before they get too close or become too threatening; but unfortunately, none of us can ever avoid them completely, because these storms are simply a part of life as we know it!
There’s something called the Holmes/Rehe scale that I’ve long used as a tool for counseling, particularly with couples wanting to be married. Basically, this is a scale in which a series of life events are each given a score, ranging from one to a hundred, indicating the level of stress that each of these events will bring to a person. The death of a spouse is at the top of the list with 100 points, followed closely by divorce, marital separation, a jail term and the death or illness of a close family member. The idea here is that the more of these kinds of things are happening to you, perhaps all at once (!), the more severely stress is impacting your life and the more susceptible you are to the dangers that too much stress brings about: illness, psychological trauma, risky behavior and so on.
But get this: not all of the so-called “stressful” events on this list are all that severe or even negative. And I’m not being the least bit snarky when I tell you that getting married is also right up there at the top of the list! So is retirement, taking out a mortgage and changing jobs. Going on a diet… taking a vacation… Christmas! There is, in fact, a certain level of stress in most everything we do; and eventually, all of these – good, bad and in-between – might well add up to the point where we find ourselves facing a hurricane. The real issue, then, is not whether we’ll have to deal with the storms of life but rather it’s how we deal with them when they come.
And the old sailor’s advice still seems to apply: anchor deep, say a prayer, and hold on.
Our text for this morning from Mark’s gospel actually begins at the end of a long day in which Jesus had been teaching along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As night began to fall, Jesus suggested to his disciples that they cross to the other side of this body of water; and so, they set out in their boats, taking Jesus with them… and interestingly, Mark makes a point of telling us Jesus came with them “just as he was.”
Just as he was; which, of course, raises the question, how was Jesus? Actually, I would imagine that Jesus was like any of us might have been at the end of a long day: bone tired, hungry, talked out, perhaps feeling as though not enough had been accomplished even if clearly it was time to rest and to move on. That is, after all, one of the big problems with stress… it literally exhausts you; and it doesn’t automatically go away at the end of the day. It’s understandable, and not at all unusual, that Jesus immediately went to the stern of this fishing boat, rested his head on a cushion lying there and promptly fell asleep!
But then, of course, the storm arose: one minute the water’s quietly lapping against the hull of their boats and the next they’re in the midst of a storm so violent as to threaten their very lives! The boats were taking on water and already close to being swamped; all at once their situation was moving from serious to crucial as their hearts began to beat in terror. And it’s just about this moment that they looked up in the stern… and realized that Jesus was still there, and still asleep.
Like I said before, what happened next was understandable; when in the worst of what life could dish out, fear becomes anger. What else could they do in that moment but cry out to their seemingly indifferent master up in the stern of that storm-laden, sinking ship, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
The interesting thing is that all it took was a moment – a split second, really – for Jesus to wake up and say, simply, “Peace. Be Still.” Or as The Message aptly translates it, “He told the wind to pipe down and said to the sea, ‘Quiet! Settle down!’” And “the wind ran out of breath.” The wind died, the sea was “dead calm,” and all was silent once again save for the sound of water droplets running down the hull of the boat and dripping into the sea. And it doesn’t say exactly, but I have to imagine that at first the disciples dared not even speak, so stunned were they at what they’d just seen happen. Appropriate that it’s only Jesus who speaks, and what he says breaks the silence as surely as the storm broke the night: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Now, you and I hear this story, and it’s all too easy for us to pass judgment on this band of disciples with faith so small as to accuse Jesus, of all people, of not caring; but the truth, friends, is that Jesus’ words have a way of rebuking us in the same way they did the disciples. Because it’s not simply that we panicked in the midst of some crazy storm tossing us about; it’s because the truth of our lives is that we tend to do it over and over again.
The fact is, with every new storm in our lives, so often our first response is to tie ourselves to anything and everything we think we’ll hold us; you name it: money, position, power, other people, even whatever manner of philosophy or psychology seems appealing at that particular moment. We bargain that such things will hold us safe and secure when life is at its worst; but then, when it doesn’t work, in our panic we lash out and lay blame at others, at ourselves, and most especially at God. This is what happened with the disciples, friends; and the thing is, I would wager a guess that even after the storm had been silenced, even as they were filled with great awe at what Jesus had done, by the time the next storm came along they were likely just as filled with fear and panic as they were before. The gospels bear this out; and as it was true for the disciples, so it is for you and me.
But the good news in this text is, as the saying goes, that faith is a journey, not a destination. Moreover, it’s an ongoing journey; it’s gradual, and the truth is that faith, yours and mine, is built and remade again and again along the way as life unfolds, storms and all. The late Sister Macrina Widerkehr wrote that “one of the great lies of our day is that conversion is instant, like fast food… one of the great truths of our day is that conversion is ongoing. Conversion is the process in which we are given opportunity upon opportunity to accept the free gift of salvation. A deep and lasting conversion is a process, an unfolding, a slow turning and turning again.
That, I think, is what “anchoring deep” is all about.
It’s about tying yourself, and learning to trust yourself, to something solid; something that’ll keep you safe each and every time the uncertainties of this life move you back and forth, up and down when panic and fear seems the first and best option.
Learning to trust in where you’re anchored, you see, is the challenge… but it’s also where life’s greatest blessing is to be found.
So often like those fear-filled disciples before us, we’re untrusting and even unaware of the anchor points that are securing us. So often we convince ourselves that somehow the storms of our lives must be our fault, and if not ours, then it must be God’s; and does God even care about us at all? Well, the truth is that yes, storms are real and horrible things do happen in this life; but the greatest truth of this life is that in the midst of all of it, God is there with us and does care. God is there to help us ride out the storms of our lives; to aid us as we rise and fall with the tide and the swell, to face gale force winds with confidence that clearing skies are on the horizon.
We need not fear, you see, because anchored deep in our souls is the knowledge that all will be well because of the presence of God in Jesus Christ, the one “that even the wind and the sea obey.”
Perhaps today you’re feeling stormed tossed; maybe this morning you’re feeling besieged not only with stress and struggle, but also that lingering sense of fear and doubt. If that’s the case for you – and if not today, the time will come when it probably will be – just know that the “wild and restless seas” that are churning inside of us do respond to the voice of Christ as quickly and as surely as did the wind and waves of Galilee.
Christ comes to us in our need; Christ comes to us as the master of the wind and sea; Christ comes to us as the Lord of our lives; Christ comes to us saying, “Peace. Be still.”
So don’t be afraid. Don’t panic. You are safe in the mercy of God who sent Jesus to save you.
And may our thanks be unto that God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.