Ridin’ the Storm Out

Mark 4:35-41

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who hears us.  Amen.

My good friend Dave is somewhere near the town of Cairo, Missouri  today.  He set out on his journey at the beginning of May, a solo kayak trip from Lake Itasca, all the way into the Gulf of Mexico.  Dave is an ELCA pastor, and a college professor in Seattle, Washington.  When he came through the Twin Cities, he spent a few nights at our home, doing laundry, reloading on calories and getting some good sleep.

Our family has been tracking his journey and praying for him as he goes.  I invite you to do the same.  He keeps a daily blog, the address to which I have posted on the inserts sheet in your bulletin.  It’s really quite fascinating to watch his progress.

Dave told me about his experience on Lake Winnibigoshish, the widest spot in the river, over 7 miles across.  This was back in the middle of May.  Do you remember what it was like in the middle of May?  Lots of rain.  Lots of storms.

From Lake Itasca to the Twin Cities, Dave was traveling with a friend, Jim.  Jim is an experienced paddler who had made this long trek before.  So the two of them are on one side of the lake, and have to get to the other side of the lake, 7 miles of big water, to get to their campsite.  So they pushed off.

Then, the storm came up.  “Should we turn back?”  asked Dave?  “Never turn back” shouted Jim, and so they pressed on.  There was rain, and there was wind.  Then there was driving rain.  Then there was big wind.  Dave said that it wasn’t long before the waves grew.  “I didn’t know that lakes could develop 6 to 8-foot swells”, he said.  But Lake Winnie did.  The wind was to their back, so Dave said it was like riding a roller coaster.  The kayak would drop into the swell, and then ride up the next one.  The water was so high that Dave could only see his destination, the campsite, when he crested the top of the wave before he dropped into the next one.

It was nerve wracking…it was exhilarating…it was fun.  And after 2 ½ hours of paddling through the storm, they reached their destination.  They were exhausted, but were laughing and celebrating when they landed, and they high-fived.  Dave said “I wasn’t really freaked out until Jim, the veteran smiled and said ‘Wow.  That was really stupid.  We never should have tried that.’  Dave froze, looked out at the giant waves, and then replied.  ‘Good to know…now…’”

This has been a stormy season for us.  We’ve had more than our share of rain, thunder and lightning.  Generally, I like storms.  I like to fall asleep to the sound of rain and thunder.  But of course, I’m doing that from the safety of my own home.  I don’t recall ever being in a storm where I really felt scared.  I don’t recall a situation where I felt like my own life was in jeopardy.

Many of the disciples in our Gospel lesson today, however, had grown up in fishing families.  They knew the sea…and they knew storms.  And I’m guessing that they were a little perplexed when in the evening, Jesus said “Let us go to the other side.”  “The other side of what?”  “The sea.”  “Seriously?  I mean really, every good fisherman of the time would know that you don’t just take off on a little night sail.  It’ just not smart.  And over there…that’s Galilee.  Galilee is where the Gentiles live, and they’re not always friendly people.  Shouldn’t we just stay here, with our people, where it’s safe?”  “Nope.  Let’s load up the boat boys.”

And so the reluctant disciples probably weren’t surprised by the fact that a storm came up.  But clearly, there were two things that did surprise them:

  1. The intensity of the storm, a furious storm with waves crashing over the boat, threatening to swamp them, and;
  2. the fact that Jesus was curled up on a cushion in the back of the boat, sleeping through the whole thing.

So I can imagine a great deal of fear in their voice, and probably a little frustration too, when they tapped Jesus on the shoulder and said “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  Jesus, awakens, and is not impressed with their concerns, or their sarcasm.  He hops up, looks out of the boat, raises his arms and says “quiet!  Be still!” and the wind dies and the sea calms.  Then, irritated, he looks at the disciples and asks them a simple  question, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”

This familiar miracle story is interesting, I think, as much because of what is not said as it is for what is said.

First, notice that Jesus did not minimize the threat of the storm or the disciple’s fear.  He didn’t say “hey, that wasn’t a big deal!  You’re all overreacting.”  Not at all.  Jesus looked around and saw the strength and ferocity of the storm.  He recognized the fear in the faces of these experienced fishermen, he knew that they were all at risk, and then he reached out his arm and calmed the storm.

Second, while it is pretty clear that Jesus was frustrated with his disciples, it appears to me that Jesus was most upset because they asked him the wrong question.  Remember, the disciples question?   “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  They were making an assumption that they were going to die.  They were relying on their experience as fishermen to come to terms with the fact that the boat was going to swamp and they would drown.  The question they should have asked was simply:  “Jesus, Help!”  Jesus was upset because it never occurred to the disciples to simply ask for help.  Because of their experience as fishermen, they assumed that the power of the storm was greater than the power of Jesus.  The disciples didn’t yet really know who Jesus was, or what he was capable of.  Even though they had lived with him, worked with him, eaten with him, laughed with him, they still didn’t really understand him.  Jesus was upset because they didn’t have faith in who he was.

So let’s think for a second about storms.  And here, I’m not necessarily talking about the meteorological variety.

Every person in this room experiences storms in life; moments, or events that bring darkness and sometimes destruction to our lives.  Sometimes the storms develop slowly, and we can see them coming.  Other times they happen immediately, without warning.  The storms often come with a word:  a word from a doctor; or a boss; or a spouse; or a child’s teacher; or a banker.

Storms often bring change for us; change that is not welcomed.  Often times as we navigate a storm, we need to find a new normal for ourselves, and our families.  This is always difficult, and sometimes painful.

A woman and her husband who have 2 young children came by church last week to meet, and to pray, quite literally between doctor’s appointments.  There had been a diagnosis.  There was cancer.  It was a painful word to hear.  And it brought danger, fear, uncertainty and change.   It felt like a sudden storm that had come into their lives without warning.

We have all experienced these moments in life when a storm blows in.  So this story from the Gospel of Mark that we often take for granted (as in:  “oh, isn’t that nice…Jesus calms the storm”) can take on a new meaning for us if we think of it in terms of life’s storms.

When a storm like this hits, our natural inclination is to look at what is happening through the lens of fear.  And then we wonder “why is God letting this happen to me, or to my family?”  We go through a spiral of emotions including anger, frustration and denial.  And we wonder about our faith, and where it’s gotten us if this is the result.  And so we often tap God on the shoulder and ask “are you just going to watch me go down here, overwhelmed by the storm?”

That’s a natural reaction.  And it’s completely understandable.  We are people who live in the tension of experiencing the storms of life while at the same time trying to maintain some semblance of control of our lives.  And life’s storms, and our own control, cannot co-exist.  In fact, what is the most difficult for us is that the storms remind us that in no way, shape or form are we in control!

So this question we ask of God, the question the disciples asked:  “Are you just going to watch us go down?  Do you care?” is actually the wrong question.

When the storm hits, it is time to surrender control; and to simply ask Jesus for help.

Help.  I can’t do this anymore.  Help.  I can’t do this alone.  Help.  I need to be rescued.  Help.  Jesus.  I need you.  To ask for help is not weakness.

It is in Jesus that we put our faith.  Jesus doesn’t minimize the storms in our life.  He doesn’t say “it’s not a big deal.”  It is a big deal.  And it is hard for us to ask for help.  We are raised to be self-reliant; to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But do you know what happens to a self-reliant person, stuck in a boat in the middle of a terrible storm?  They drown.

Asking for help is a confession of faith in the One that can help us.  To ask for help is to trust.

Jesus wants us to put our faith in him, and to ask for help.  Help will come.  It may not always look like we want it to look…and it may not bring the result that we seek, because Jesus is not within our control, and he isn’t a vending machine that just gives us what we want.  Jesus may not always give us the help we want; but he does give us the help we need.

When I was studying at the seminary, I had to do a chaplaincy rotation at Mercy and Unity hospitals.  One day I was called into a pre-op room, to do a routine prayer before surgery.  It was an older woman who was having heart surgery.  We talked for a little while, I read a psalm, and I prayed.  I said all the right things…I used the prayers out of my little green prayer book…it was all theologically correct.  And then I asked if she would like to pray.  A small tear appeared at the corner of her eye, and she squeezed my hands, and said in the most quiet, sincere, heartfelt voice:  “Help me, Jesus.  Amen.”  It took my breath away.

Jesus asks you to call to him in your time of need.  When the storm comes, and it will, Jesus promises to be with you.  Put your faith in him.

At the end of our Gospel, it says that the disciples were filled with “Great Awe.”  And they said “Who then is this, that even the sea and the wind obey him?”  Even the disciples, Jesus’ followers, were just now beginning to get a sense of who they were really dealing with.  This miracle goes way beyond just healing a few folks and driving out an impure spirit or two.

This Jesus, the disciples are now beginning to realize, has power over nature…over all of creation.  This event on the Sea of Galilee is not a minor weather event.  This Jesus has power over the storms.  And in the upcoming chapters of Mark, the miracles keep ratcheting up, and the full nature of Jesus is revealed to the disciples, and to us.  Jesus has power over nature.  Jesus has power the power to bring someone back from the dead.  Jesus has the power to drive out demons.  And ultimately, through his own death and resurrection, Jesus has power to break the barrier between death and life.

We all experience storms.  Some are minor.  Some are life-changers.  Some of you are in the midst of a storm today.  I don’t know the nature of your storm.  But I do know this:  the all-powerful Jesus, the Son of God, the savior of the universe, he rides the storm with us; and what does he ask of us?  That when the storms come, when life is dark, when there is great fear, for us to place our faith in him, to tap into his ever-pesent grace, to call out, and to ask for Jesus’ help.  He is there for you.

Amen.

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