I officiated a wedding not long ago and as the couple recited those familiar vows: “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death do us part” the thought flashed through my mind, “Oh, you sweet young things! You have no idea what storms are ahead for you. You are crossing into uncharted waters.”
Isn’t it wonderful that we can’t know the whole story of our lives? I think it was Erma Bombeck who said: “If a woman could see in one snapshot all the dishes she’d wash in her life, she’d just fall down dead.” Life’s journeys must be experienced and faced in stages or we’d be too paralyzed.
Jesus proposed a journey to his disciples: “Let us go across to the other side of the sea.” He was ready to leave the crowd behind and venture into new territory.
Jesus asked experienced fishermen to take him there. Fishing after all was what they did for their living. Surely they knew what they were doing and where they were heading. Their grandfathers and fathers most likely fished that sea.
In 2009, we who traveled to the Holy Land visited the Sea of Galilee and visited the museum that holds the Jesus Boat, a well-preserved ancient fishing boat that was recovered in 1986 from the sea bottom. It was found by two brothers who themselves were fishermen. The boat authentically dates back to the first century around the time of Jesus. It very well could have been the type and size of boat described in this gospel story. The Jesus Boat is quite a marvel, and I am delighted that we saw because it allows us to imagine that 27 x 7.5 foot boat into this story.
Jesus’ friends took him, the carpenter-teacher, into the boat, “just as he was.” What an interesting little detail. How “was” he? Well, if Jesus fell into a heavy sleep in the back of a fishing boat that was only about 27 x 7.5 feet in size, in the middle of a raging storm, I’d say, he was exhausted! And why was he exhausted? Because he had been hounded by the crowds day in and day out teaching and healing. The sleeping Jesus was a very human Jesus. He was dog-tired.
The storm whipped up unexpectedly and beat against the boat so hard that the waves were filling the boat with water. Not even experienced fishermen were able to fight against that storm. They finally cried out to the sleeping carpenter-teacher and asked him accusingly, Don’t you care that we are dying?! How can you sleep?! This trip was your idea! We didn’t even want to go to the other side.
It’s pretty easy to feel sympathetic for those guys. Their anger. Their fear. Their blame of Jesus for getting them into the wild mess. Their frustration and disgust that he was fast asleep. Personally, I like seeing the human side of the disciples.
Once awake, Jesus reminds them, “I’ve got this.” He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, Peace. Be still. In Greek, the two imperative verbs can be summed up into one big, “Shut Up!” Maybe it was actually the disciples he was commanding to shut up, but it was the wind and sea that obeyed him. They obeyed him into a dead calm.
In good rabbinical fashion, Jesus transformed that moment of calm into a teaching moment. A transformative opportunity. He asked them two questions:
Why am you afraid?
Have you still no faith?
Jesus was not trying to scold them or shame them. Just like the parables he told, his questions had no obvious answers. His questions were provocative, pushing us to delve deeper into our own hearts to ask the hard questions. So, the story asks us:
Why am I afraid?
Have I still no faith?
It’s perfectly human to be frightened in literal and figurative storms. There is a wild-ness about a storm. There’s nothing solid to hold onto in a storm. What appears as solid and helpful might end up being as useful to us as a rock or an iceberg is to a boat.
Tim owned an old motorboat when we lived in St. Pete, FL, and, WHEN and if it was running, and WHEN and if my faith in God’s protection was strong, we would take the boat out on the Gulf. One too many times we got too close for comfort being further out than we should have been when the weather was prone to change quickly. I know that many of you are experienced sailors. And I know that even the most experienced sailors have stories about the challenges of surprising and threatening weather coming upon them.
I’ve never heard anyone pray for a storm to come to shake up his or her monotonous life. Life has a way of presenting challenges and struggles on its own; we don’t need to go looking for trouble. Most people know what it’s like to have their lives buffeted by wind and rain, to feel like their life’s boat is getting swamped, and that they are helpless against the elements.
This week alone I have seen or heard about people being buffeted: the raging fires in Colorado, destruction by storms in FL, war in Afghanistan that wages on, killings in Syria, sudden death to a young man we know, folks having heart attacks, strokes, taking unexpected falls, cancer diagnosis, divorce, job loss, and plain old heartache. I kept hearing Willie Nelson in my head, singing the old hymn, “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.”
The raging storms in our lives call on us to spend all the faith we invested in our faith-account during the calm times. It’s during the difficult times that we draw on our reserves.
When the storms of life are raging, we pray for calm; we pray for stillness. We pray for God’s hand to put out fires and to quell the turbulence.
But even in the midst of calm, we can find ourselves worrying about when the other shoe might drop. We might start feeling restless and anxious.
We aren’t good at either accepting difficult times or receiving good times with gratitude. We seem to have a pathological need to get away from where we are in the now, in the moment. No wonder Jesus says, “Peace. Be still.” A Proverb says: “Let this day take care of itself for tomorrow there will be trouble of its own.” That’s not cynical, just descriptive.
There are other aspects of storms that we have to acknowledge, and, first, what is our strange attraction to them. What about “storm chasers” – those people who go stay in their homes as long as they can in the face of 130 mph winds and rising tides and crashing tides. We watch those crazy people who follow tornadoes. (I always love the video clip when it captures that moment the other guy starts begging, OK, OK, OK! Enough! Let’s goooo!)
Second, sometimes storms are good things. There are people I call “storm stirrers.” Have you heard about the Nuns on a Bus? A group of Roman Catholic nuns are currently road-tripping across American in a big bus to speak out and stand up for the poor. The nuns are stirring up both political parties with their indictments on how both sides treat the poor in this country. They are stirring up the church. The nuns are trying to stir people of faith into people of action. They are stirring up all sorts of responses. In one article (from the Huffing Post), a person responded to the nuns like this: “They’re women of courage…in the Old Testament they talked about prophets. A prophet is somebody who speaks for God and these are the things that God talked about – injustice, the poor, the marginalized, women. Jesus was the greatest prophet when he went out and he shook things up a lot….” The nuns on the bus are stirring up the waters.
What crossing are you making in your life right now? Where might Jesus be leading you? Will it be a new job, a new relationship, a change of direction in your life, a new attitude or a shift in your beliefs?
Is this a stormy time in your crossing? Or might you be in a dead calm?
Are you afraid? And if so, why?
Do you have faith enough to take you to the other side?
Faith does not guarantee us immunity from the hard stuff of life.
Faith is not a good luck charm nor fire insurance.
Like the wedding couple, faith is more like God making vows to us: “To have and to hold, in stillness and in storm.”
“Come what may,” God says, “I will not leave you.”
As the Psalmist proclaimed, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for God’s steadfast love never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.”
Thanks be to God.