The Rev. Dr. Jon M. Walton
A PERFECT STORM
A few weeks ago I went to the movies to see George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in the summer blockbuster The Perfect Storm. I had read the book and was interested to see how they could make a movie of that incredible combination of nature’s deadly forces. Hurricane Grace meeting a low-pressure system from the Great Lakes, fed by a cold high-pressure system coming down from Canada.
I sat down in my theater seat fully equipped with a large coke, a medium popcorn and one or two Dramamine as needed. In the real storm, winds blasted the ocean to make waves peaking at 100 feet, about the height of the piers at the crossing in the Cathedral. In the theater, you got at least a Hollywood sense of the overwhelming odds that those Gloucester fishermen faced against the awesome power of nature.
Looking at those waves, it was no wonder that the Andrea Gail went down, all 72 feet of her with her crew of six. Because when the sea is against you, there is not much you can do. How does that saying go? O Lord, the sea is so great, and my boat is so small.
This was a fact not lost on the disciples huddled into that small fishing boat headed for Bethsaida the night the wind grew strong. It had been a busy day for Jesus and the disciples. It began with an attempt at a retreat.
“Many were coming and going,” Mark tells us, “and they had no leisure even to eat.” So they went by boat into seclusion, to a deserted place. But when the people on land saw where they were headed, they went by foot and met Jesus and the others as they came ashore, no doubt as welcome a sight to the disciples as a mother-in-law on a honeymoon!
But our Lord was not one to turn people away. So Jesus provided for them that day, everything that they needed. He taught them, and the hours got away from them, until finally it was suppertime and they were hungry. It was then that Jesus took five loaves and two fish, and with just that little and just that much he fed 5,000 hungry souls.
After they had eaten, as the day ended, Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him saying, “You all go on to Bethsaida and I will come along later.” So the disciples got into the boat and started rowing while Jesus stayed behind to pray.
Of course, we all know what happened next. The wind came up, and the more the disciples rowed, the more exhausted they became. The stronger the wind, the higher the waves. The higher the waves, the greater their fear. It went on long enough that even Jesus back on shore could see their distress and hear their cries. Until at dawn he came to them walking on the water.
At first he almost passed by them, so eerie and spirit-like was his presence in the midst of the wind and the mist. They cried out and were terrified, and Jesus said, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” And then he got into the boat with them. He got into the boat, and the storm quieted.
Now this was not the first time something like this had happened to them. Two chapters earlier in Mark’s Gospel, there is a similar story of the disciples out on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a great storm.
On that occasion Jesus was in the boat taking a nap, in the midst of the worst the sea could do. And the disciples awakened him and asked pointedly, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And with that, Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and it was calm.
In both stories of storms at sea the disciples seem clueless at interpreting what they have seen. In the first account they asked, “Who is this that even winds and the waves obey him?” And in the story today they are astounded and cannot understand what has happened to them.
So what is this fascination with storms at sea that appear in Mark’s Gospel? Well, the sea for Mark is a place where lessons are taught and faith is born. We should have noticed that from the moment in the fourth chapter of the Gospel when the crowds were gathered about Jesus and he got into a boat and taught them from off shore. It’s quite a picture that comes to mind.
We usually think of Jesus teaching on a hillside or out in a field, and we think of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, his teaching about the lilies of the field.
But in Mark’s Gospel Jesus teaches on the water as well. And this is not just any sailing school that he is running. This is teaching that is so strategically placed that it will carry like sound across the water not only into the ears of those who listened to his voice by the Sea of Galilee so long ago but also echo in the post-resurrection church as well and in the church today.
There they were–the disciples out there trying to best that perfect storm, rowing as hard as they could on those oars, heaving and breathless, pulling and straining to keep their heads above water, fighting the elements and crying out his name in terror. “Jesus, where are you now that we need you?”
You know, you don’t have to be a sailor to be in a storm. Haven’t we all cried out to God for help like that at some time in our life?
You get a call in the middle of the night. It is your worst nightmare confirmed. Your son is at the hospital. There has been an accident. The car is totaled. “Come right away,” they say. And when you ask how he is doing they only tell you to hurry. And you strain against the oars and the water seems to be rising, and you cry out in fear and despair, “Jesus where are you now that we need you?”
You move to a new city and you have taken a new job, and it’s not going well. What had seemed so promising from the long distance of Wichita is not quite so great in the heat of July in Washington. And you have left your friends behind and the security of a job and a town you liked, and they are not so happy with your work in the new office. The old depression that you thought you had left behind, the one that was diagnosed and treated before, seems to be rising again like water in the hull. And lately you have been wondering whether a reasonable person can consider suicide under such circumstances. As you strain against the oars and the water rises, and you cry out in fear and despair, “Jesus where are you now that I need you?”
I am thinking about a teenage girl in my congregation. Her parents are divorced, and her mother is an alcoholic. It is role reversal at her house. She gets up every morning and makes her mother breakfast. She goes off to school with her cell phone in her gym bag so that she can call her mother and remind her what has to be done at home that day. She cleans the house. She irons the clothes. She takes out the trash. She scolds her older brother when he lies around the house all day and does nothing productive. I have asked her what it is like to raise a mother and an older brother at the age of sixteen and she says, “Somebody has to make things work.” Once recently she asked me, “Do you think God really cares about our family the way I do?” Every day she strains against the oars and sometimes wonders to herself where Jesus is now that she needs him every day.
Then there was that couple that I knew who were as devoted and in love as any two people I have ever known. It was a number of years ago now that one of them developed AIDS. How it did knit their lives together. That last year they honored each other’s birthdays and celebrated Valentine’s Day and Easter and their anniversary and that last Christmas. Every occasion, so precious. It was as moving an experience for me to see as anything I have ever seen.
The church did not know of their suffering, of the pain that they went through, the night sweats, the lymphoma that developed, the diarrhea, the wasting syndrome, the catheters, the morphine. And I was there when he died, so quietly, in the arms of the one who to him was life itself.
Last month, my denomination voted not to support committed relationships between people like that. In May, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church upheld a similar ban. And the Episcopal Church found itself unable to agree on blessing same sex unions but did offer the only denominational voice of grace and compassion to gay and lesbian people in the church when it took action to recognize both married couples and other couples living in “life-long committed relationships” characterized by fidelity and monogamy. It only takes that much of a lifeline sometimes to give hope to drowning souls seeking Christ’s presence in the storms of their lives.
Whether it be in the storms of our personal lives and trials or in the struggle for justice for all of God’s people, we sometimes find ourselves straining at the oars, fearful that we are going under, crying out for that One who alone can calm the seas and commandeer the waves.
It’s interesting that in that story of Jesus coming to the disciples on the water, Mark makes an editorial comment that somehow opens up this whole thing. You might miss it; it is said so quickly, except that it hangs there like a hook with bait on it, too tantalizing to leave alone. Mark tells us the reason the disciples thought Jesus a ghost and were filled with fear and terror was because they did not understand about the loaves, and their hearts were hardened.
Fear can do that. When you think that all you’ve got is the strength of your own arms to strain against the oars.
When all you’ve got is your own courage to face the storm.
When you think that all you have to bring to bear are your own resources to face everything that life will throw at you, it’s no wonder that you feel overwhelmed.
Our arms weary, soaked to the bone, eyes burning from the salty water, hearts hardened from trying to do everything ourselves. Including save ourselves. We forget, as did the disciples, that we are not alone.
God means to come to us on the water, meeting us where we are, to bring us comfort and strength for the journey in those storms at sea that we must endure. And God is able to bring the peace that is needed, too, to quiet the winds so that we can go on.
You know there is no way that we can live a life without storms to try our souls. They come to everyone. Christianity is not an insurance policy against the trials of life. It was St. Augustine who said that Christians are not distinguished from others by the trials they suffer but by the way they suffer their trials.
We forget that in Jesus Christ God has come to us in the midst of the inevitable storms that we must endure. God comes to us as our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, our hope in the night, our joy in the morning.
Sometimes I wonder if the winds and the waves are not more perfect than we first thought, the place where we learn the most about our utter reliance upon God’s grace and help. Maybe we have gotten things all turned around. Just suppose that these imperfect storms that catch us by surprise are in fact the means by which God’s care for us is made most evident. Maybe the winds and the waves have much to teach us.
I will sound very old for saying it this way, but somehow the years have taught me that for all the straining at the oars, all of the crying out in the storm, all of the fear that I have felt, and the shaking of my fist at the heavens, God has so often caught me by surprise–nearer than the breath in my lungs, more steady than the beating of my heart, closer to me than the arms on my shoulders–if I will only have the wit to pay attention. But like everybody else, I forget about the loaves and my heart is hardened.
Then I remember: God feeds us at the table in flesh and blood, in body and spirit, broken and poured out for our sake. Bread for the journey. God with us, made manifest in the loaves.
Christ is present in the world and with us today, coming to us on the water, as he comes to us at this table. He has met us at that font. He has given his life for our sake at the cross. And he comes to us still in the midst of the storm to help us endure the winds and the waves.
“Lo, I am with you always,” he said, “even to the end of the age.” And so he is.
In Jesus Christ, God has come into the boat with us, and joined us in these imperfect storms that are our lives, and given us a perfect love. Somehow with him there in the boat with us, it seems there is nothing we cannot endure, because it is his strength that saves us and not our own.
For eyes attuned to seeing such things and hearts receptive enough to receive him, he is with us now. Coming to us on the water. “It is I,” he says as soaked as we are. “Do not be afraid.”