Scripture: Mark 4
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
Weathering the Storms of Life
My youngest daughter, Kiran, has a unique talent, which we discovered when she was very young. We were enjoying ourselves at my brother’s wedding reception, with all the usual noise and activity such a celebration includes. People were eating, talking, dancing, the band was singing and playing, the air was filled with celebratory joy and fun. Kiran, at a year and a half, was getting tired, and so we put two chairs end to end and invited her to lie down for a little while, to rest. Well, in the midst of all the gala activities, right in front of the blaring band, she not only rested, but she fell sound asleep! She is, to this day, the talk of many a wedding reception memories, because she demonstrated this remarkable ability to fall asleep in the midst of activity and noise at more than one wedding. And she has since honed this talent to near perfection - being able to sleep through just about anything!
Now, there are probably many of you who are not particularly impressed by this skill of hers. And, if that’s the case, you’d be in good company. The disciples in our scripture reading this morning were also not exactly impressed by Jesus’ ability to sleep through chaos and noise either. In fact, they were pretty agitated and angry when he slept through the storm on the lake. At this point in their journey with Jesus, his followers were still trying to figure out just who he was.
They had seen him preach, heard him teach, and witnessed him proclaiming forgiveness of sin. They had observed him angering religious authorities by healing on the Sabbath, and by breaking rules of purity in associating with people deemed unclean. These disciples were privy to the reactions of people from Jesus’ hometown, who thought he was out of his mind. In the short time since they had begun to follow him, they had learned that he was no ordinary rabbi. Rather, he was someone who was not afraid to stand up against the religious leaders, someone who had miraculous healing powers, and who could teach with authority. He wasn’t afraid to cross boundaries, and cause storms of protests.
But this crossing and this storm they encountered was different. While they were with him that night, crossing the lake in their boat, a real, life-threatening storm arose. Four of the disciples who were in the boat with him had made their living as fishermen. Their fear of perishing in this storm shows us how severe this tempest indeed was. Even the expert fishermen had no idea what to do to save themselves.
And so, they woke up Jesus. But it seems that their purpose for waking Jesus was not so that he would do something. After all, they had no reason to believe that he could. They were the experts; he just was a carpenter by trade, and now a teacher, healer and leader. Sure, he’d done some miracles, but those were healings of people. The disciples were desperate, frightened and angry, and they wanted to draw him into their anxiety. The fact that he was sleeping during all of this seemed to prove to them that he didn’t even care. Notice they did not ask him to help them or to pray with them. Their words to him were, “Do you not care that we are perishing?!”
Maybe you know some people like those disciples, those who, when they’re in situations they can’t control, expect others to share in their panic and distress to prove they care. Perhaps you have a colleague at work, who, no matter what happens, always thinks the worst: the company’s going under, we’re all going to lose our jobs. Or perhaps someone you know frets whenever someone they call doesn’t answer their phone or email, or doesn’t arrive when they’re supposed to. They imagine the worst case scenarios, and feels like others don’t care if they don’t get anxious as well. Or maybe you have a friend who catastrophizes every minor ache and pain, sure they have a life-threatening disease. And if you don’t buy into that diagnosis, then you are accused of not caring about their suffering.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to others when they’re worried about something. People need to be able to express their fears and their anxieties in a safe place, and know that they are listened to. But there is a big difference between being present to people in their times of distress, and being pulled into the storm of their anxiety with them.
One of the greatest gifts we can give to someone who is anxious over an uncontrollable situation is that of not participating in their fear. While we may not be able to perform the miracle that Jesus did to make their storm disappear, we can follow the advice: “Don’t just do something – Stand there!” When we stand beside someone as a non-anxious presence, one who listens attentively, who prays, and then responds in a quiet, caring way, we may indeed be able to calm many a storm.
There are times, of course, when storms arise and we need to do something. Our journeys, like those of the disciples, are not always smooth sailing. Often we encounter situations in which some kind of action is called for. When it is, the most prudent thing we can do is to pray for the wisdom and the courage to act. Because storms can actually be made worse if we take action without first taking the time to pause, pray and reflect.
But why is it that so often when a crisis comes along, it’s easy to forget to take a moment to pause and pray? We just want to get in there and do something. Maybe we can take a cue from the British Navy, which has this custom: If there is a sudden disaster aboard ship, a whistle is blown. This whistle is very appropriately called the "still". It reminds the crew and all those aboard to take a moment of silence in a time of crisis in order to prepare to do the wise thing. Observers of this system note that the moment of calm has helped avert many a catastrophe and has prevented many scatterbrained actions.1
That is what we all need in life, don’t we? A still. How often is it that when we are in trouble, or scared, that the last thing we remember to do is to take a moment, and turn to Jesus? Why is prayer so often our last resort? Wouldn’t it be great to have a “still” that would sound in your head to remind you to pray before you act, to remind you that you’re not alone, that Jesus is with you? I would pay really good money to have one of those!
Perhaps there is a way we can get this still. Just as seafarers prepare for the possibility of storms by learning about safety, carrying life vests, practicing rescue procedures, so we too can prepare ahead of time for tempests in our lives. The best way, it seems to me, is to practice finding calm and connecting with God in everyday situations, in times when our life is not so stressful or in crisis. Our faith assures us that God is with us in every situation, ready and willing to guide us through. The challenge is remembering that in the midst of the storm. If we make a habit of praying, of remembering that God is with us always, then when the crisis comes, it would be our natural reaction to pray before taking action. And when there is a storm beyond our control, a storm where we cannot take any action to avert it, we can also pray, for comfort, and for the sense and assurance of Jesus’ presence with us.
In his book “Letters to a Man in a Fire,” cancer survivor Reynolds Price has a story of an 87-year-old woman. She wrote to him about one of those moments in which the clouds scatter, the darkness lifts, and we see Jesus. She was facing her own time of difficulty as she was going through exhausting medical tests in preparation for surgery. One day she had a kind of vision. "I went out along the Galilee hills and came to a crowd gathered around a man, and I stood on the outskirts intending to listen. But he looked over the crowd at me and then said, 'What do you want?' And I said, 'Could you send someone to come with me and help me stand up after the tests because I can't manage alone?' He [Jesus] thought for a moment and then said, 'How would it be if I came?'" 2 (Letter to a Man in a Fire, 30-31)
How would it be if I came? Jesus did come, and he continues to come. He comes to us in prayer, in the presence of a caring relative, a call from a friend, a delivery of a meal or flowers from a church member. In fact, one of the ways Jesus’ presence is made most tangible is through the church, the community which is the Body of Christ. A friend of mine posted on a link on facebook recently, which contained an article about church written by Reverend Ann Russ. She says: “I’ve just seen one too many articles on why people aren’t coming to church. Admittedly, there are some good reasons. But I’d like to share my top 10 reasons why you should be coming to church.” Two of those reasons are appropriate to today’s reading. The first is: bad stuff is going to happen in your life. It just is. A church community cannot be everything to everyone in times of crisis, but when the bottom falls out of your world, it’s great to have a community to lift you back up.
The second is: Bad stuff is going to happen in your life, part two. The time to build a relationship with God is not when life turns ugly, and you’ve run out of all other options. Attending worship regularly helps build a relationship with God and others that will give you a solid foundation when the winds blow and the storms come. 3
Personally, I have found these to be two of the best reasons I come to Federated church. I have found tremendous support here for those times I’ve been buffeted by life’s storms. And I pray that we, who are Christ’s followers, will accept his invitation to be tangible signs of his presence, of his peace to one another.
We are called to trust in our Savior, who calms the storms, and to remind each other not to be afraid, because his presence abides with us always. In this world, where fears abound, where anxiety runs rampant, we are called to be agents of peace, messengers of hope and prophets of the promise that God loves us now and forever, unconditionally. Now, and always, may we put our trust in Jesus, and join our voices with his, proclaiming his peace, his presence and his saving love. Amen.
1Rev Stephanie Wiener. “In Over Our Heads” Day 1 - June 22, 2003
2Price, Reynolds Letters to a Man in a Fire, pp 30-31