“Riding the Storm Out”
July 1, 2012
Occasionally a visitor—or even a long-time member—will ask me, “What’s the reason for the anchor on the pulpit and the ship on the lectern?” It’s a good question. After all, in Iowa we’re more familiar with plows than anchors; we’re more familiar with tractors than ships. The sea we know best is the sea of grass. Why all the sailing imagery?
The sea and ship and anchor provided powerful symbols for the early Christians. The top part of an anchor shaped like a cross pointed to Jesus, the sure anchor in the midst of peril. The ship is shown on stormy waves, reminding the followers of Jesus that they were afloat together in difficult waters.
In our own time, the logo for the World Council of Churches continues to depict the church as a boat on a storm tossed sea with a cross for a mast.
The symbols might seem a little out of place in Iowa, but they recall for us the experience of both early and contemporary followers of Jesus. All of us have experienced the waves beating up against the boat. We have felt the wind blowing cold on our faces.
Sometimes we are given warning that rough weather is approaching. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” as the saying goes.
Red skies of growing alcohol abuse or difficult times at work signal some greater danger ahead. We see on the horizon deteriorating health or a collapsing marriage. With advance notice there is time, perhaps, to take warning and also take some action to avoid disaster—or at least to prepare for the worst.
While at times we are warned, we are often caught unprepared.
To this day, even when the sky is perfectly clear, the usually calm waters of the Sea of Galilee can be suddenly and violently disrupted by the winds that are caught and compressed by the ravines on its shore.
So too, out of the blue, an injury occurs that changes the way in which we live. Out of the blue you find the drugs your teenager has been using. Out of the blue a spouse says: “The marriage is over,” or a loved one dies.
We might be able to predict the weather, but we can’t control it. Forewarned or not, storms arrive.
We have all discovered that life, including the life of faith, is not smooth sailing. The assurance that God will wipe away our tears assumes that we will be crying. There are storms, sometimes very violent ones, in our lives. There are storms in all of our lives.
Storms are scary. Remember the fear as a small child when the sky turned black and the thunder roared. We sought protection in our mother’s arms or behind our father. And often we cried.
Today we still run from bad weather in our lives. We still cry when the death of someone thunders through our life or when the sirens of family strife are sounding. Along with our tears comes the question asked by the disciples and still voiced by us today: “Do you not care?”
“Do you not care?”
Do you, God, whom we worship and serve, not care if we perish?
A teenager in a confirmation class I once led wrote: “They say God will always be with me, but is God really there? God was always supposed to help me in my life and be there for me when I fall. Along the way I have realized that God is not always there for you.”
Do you not care if we perish?
Some would say that these are words of doubt, indicating a suspicion that God either isn’t there or doesn’t care. Others would hear these words as a pathetic attempt to awaken God to our plight.
But even more, the cry, “Do you not care if we perish?” is a prayer from our hearts. It is said that we can only love something that can be threatened, endangered, or which could cease to exist altogether. This prayer, then, is a prayer of love, spoken in the face of life’s frightening fragility.
In the teenager who asks, “Does anyone care?” we can hear the message that life—their life, all life—should have meaning and the fear that it doesn’t.
The person facing cutbacks at work who asks, “Does it matter if I perish?” is loving what is threatened and looking for more.
So, too, is the person whose work is stifling or whose marriage seems so threatened.
We are frightened by the difficult and demanding situations that we face because we do care. We are frightened because we do love our neighbors and our relatives; because we do love life itself. When what we love is threatened or ceases to exist or dies, we are scared. No wonder we cry out! For children—and for adults—storms are scary.
We know, too, from hard experience, that there are often no quick or easy ways through the storms of life. How we would like to get through all this rough weather as soon as possible! How we long to hear the “all clear” signal without much pain or difficulty!
I guess the easy way through all of this is to say that Jesus will handle it all, that he calmed the storms of Galilee and can calm the storms in our lives as well. That’s often what I want to say when I preach from this text. And as a result, I’ve no doubt left people sitting in the pews listening and feeling guilty or inadequate, felling like those of little faith, because they just can’t see Jesus taking care of things.
Perhaps you’ve felt this way yourself—as though your faith just isn’t strong enough.
Maybe someone’s sat across from you at your kitchen table or come up after worship and suggested that you just need more “faith” to get you through a trying time. “Don’t worry, just let God take care of it.” Oh, they mean well. And there is something of value in that advice. The trouble is, we often feel as though God is doing nothing.
And for many, the whole premise is rather shaky. It’s based on this story of a miracle—of Jesus rebuking the wind and saying to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And, we are told, the wind ceased and there was a great calm. Many would prefer simply to discount such an event altogether—dismissing reports of miracles as impossible fabrications.
A contemporary scientific outlook, however, can accept many strange, unexplained circumstances because such events, while extremely unlikely, are not impossible in principle. But it is not the unusual nature of the event that makes it a miracle. An event is a miracle only if God speaks to us through it. An event that was extremely unlikely—such as the calming of a storm, or the healing of someone for whom there was scarcely any hope—does not really provide any proof of God’s action.
It does, however, pose the question about God more urgently than other events.
Occasionally God has to wave a flag in our faces to make us sit up and take notice. This story is given to us simply as the testimony of one follower of Christ. Mark vouches for that which cannot be proved. He can only bear witness.
In this event God is addressing us and seeking our faith, even today.
In seeking our faith, God is not asking that we have patience while our lives are miserable. The God who created us desires that our lives be abundantly full. God is seeking partnership with us in both the storms and the clear weather of life. We are offered a relationship that will carry us through the hard times that come our way—which is what we need.
This story of the calming of the storm is told to us who still live in or threatened by bad weather. We are not asked to believe something we might find difficult. Instead, we are invited to consider again just who is in charge, to consider again who is the final authority.
That last question asked by the disciples, that question asked among themselves—not posed to Jesus—is the important one. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Who then is this?
Mark does not present Jesus as one who must appeal to God to calm the storm. Rather, it is Jesus who speaks with the authority of the very Creator of the universe in saying “Peace! Be still!”
Jesus is God in the boat with us, riding the storm out. The storm is calmed as a reminder of who is in charge, not as a promise that things will always be dealt with in this way. But we are never alone. Christ is present and is at work.
In faith we dare to state the Jesus Christ is in charge, though the waters roar and foam. Christ is the One who calmed the sea, who loved all humankind even to the cross. Christ is also the One who is with us in the face of grief from the past, present strife, and fear of tomorrow.
Christians have known this all along. Persecution, harassment, and trial continue to be the marks of the church in the world. Troubled lives are still the signs of individual Christians living their faith.
It becomes obvious then that we can’t live as Christians in isolation. We recognize this especially as members of the United Church of Christ, emphasizing the importance of the life of faith lived together. We join together to witness to God’s love and to work for peace in the world. We join together to support each other, to offer encouragement. We find ourselves in the boat not only with one another but also with the One whom we follow, Christ who is in charge.
How else but together as Christ’s church can we expect to make any difference in the world? Because we know that we sail the stormy seas together, from time to time each of us is able to forget his or her own troubles and reach out in real love to someone else.
We forget about how our own houses look and work with Habitat for Humanity to provide decent housing for others.
We put on hold what we want and make sure that the hungry have food first.
We set aside our own hurt so that we can hear someone else—and discover the deep bond that is possible if we listen.
In the midst of our own grief, we remember the bond shared with victims of the storm in Joplin and find our hearts more generous even if still heavy with sorrow.
What seemed impossible alone in the storm becomes, in our best moments, a way of life filled with the grace of God and love shared with other men, women, youth and children.
We sail together. At times the waves seem awfully high. At times the wind is very strong. But our mast is the cross. It points always to Christ who sails with us.
We brave the wind and waves, knowing that we are not alone as we ride out the storm.