Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (20 June 2021)
JoAnn A. Post
On that day, when evening had come, he 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?”
There is a lot wrong with this story. There are a lot more questions than answers in this story. There are a lot of evidentiary holes in this story. There is a lot about which to be concerned in this story. And Mark, the gospel writer, meant for it to be that way.
We come away from this story knowing a lot less than we did before we read it. And I think that’s the point.
Try these questions on for size:
Why would you go for a long sail at night?
What was waiting on the other side of the sea?
Who was in those “other boats” and did they nearly drown, as well?
What does it mean, they took Jesus “just as he was?”
If the storm was so immense, how could Jesus sleep?
I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee. It’s a stunning place, nestled in a ring of mountains and high hills, 12 miles long, 8 miles wide. The sea itself is 700 feet below sea level; the highest hill is 1400 feet above sea level. The sea lies in a basin, like milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl. On a still day, there is not enough wind to ruffle a Kleenex, let alone sail a ship. But on a whim, a cool wind blowing across the hills makes contact with the warm sea water, and ferocious storms erupt in a matter of minutes. Rocking side-to-side like, well like milk in a cereal bowl.
I’m sure that now, in the 21st century, it is possible to predict a shifting wind, and avoid the catastrophe that befell Jesus and his companions. But Tom Skilling hadn’t been born yet; there was no early morning pinpoint Doppler radar. Sailors on the Sea of Galilee were at the mercy of the wind and waves, which had minds of their own.
So, knowing all of this, the questions are more troubling. Why, after a long day of teaching on the beach, would Jesus pour himself into the stern of a boat and set sail for a foreign country, with a flotilla escorting him, no provisions, in the dark? If I didn’t know better, I would think Jesus was an adrenalin addict, itching for the next adventure, no matter the risk. But that is not the case.
In a few verses we will learn the reason for Jesus’ midnight cruise. But now, as Jesus snores and the disciples bail and the ships list dangerously port to starboard, we have to ask, “Jesus, what were you thinking?”
I imagine, if you have been following Jesus around as long as I have, you have asked that question before. “Jesus? Really? What were you thinking?”
Think of the storms in our own lives, in the world around us. The pandemic alone created enough storms to sink a whole navy’s worth of ships. Loss of every kind. Anxiety. Sleeplessness. Listlessness. Loneliness. Confusion. Anger. Sorrow. Fear. And that was just the first week.
If there had been a way to mutiny the Good Ship Coronavirus, we would have gladly done so. But we were forced, individually and collectively, to ride it to the other shore. This shore. This post-pandemic shore. Somehow, I had imagined it would be a relief to reach this distant, almost-virus-free beach, but instead I find as much anger and confusion and listlessness and loss on this side of the storm as before.
Maybe, as on the Sea of Galilee, there will always be storms in our lives, emerging suddenly and without warning. It might be that rather than seeking that illusory, always-calm sea, we need to befriend not only Jesus, but also the turbulence that accompanies him everywhere he goes.
Anyway. I digress. Where were we?
Oh, yes, rockin’ and rollin’ on the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus slept like a baby. And this must have been some storm. Remember, most of the disciples were professional fishers. They had been out in all kinds of weather on the Sea of Galilee, plying their trade. That they were afraid tells you something about the ferocity of the gale.
The ordinarily-rock solid, suddenly gelatinous disciples roused Jesus from his nap with an accusation, “You never loved us. You don’t care if we die.” To which Jesus opened first one droopy eye, then another, rolled them both and emerged from his nest.
Without even acknowledging his whiny, whimpering disciples, Jesus shouted at the sea, roared at the wind. “Stop! Shut up!” And they did. Like that. And what had been a roaring sea was suddenly a dead calm pond.
“Did you think I didn’t know what was happening to you,” Jesus asked. “Did you think I was going to let you drown?”
Casting a frustrated, judgmental eye all around, he plopped back down in the stern. He looked up at the torn sail and splintered mast, and said, “You got what you wanted. I stopped the storm. We would have gotten there faster if you had let the wind carry us. But no. You didn’t trust me. So, start rowing—it’s only another 10 miles or so.” And promptly went back to sleep.
Now we add another question to the list. Did Jesus know something they didn’t? Did Jesus know they would have gotten safely to the other side, in spite of, or perhaps because of the wind and waves? We’ll never know. Their fear precluded any other possible outcome.
As Jesus slept and the disciples rowed (we’re not talking about a canoe here, but a fishing vessel 30 feet long, 8 feet wide, solid cedar, with a shallow draft and low sides—it was an enormous floating bathtub), they realized their fear had been misplaced. It wasn’t wind and sea that threatened their lives, it was Jesus and his. The translators of this particular version of the story indicate that the disciples were “filled with great awe.” An earlier translation is more raw, “They were filled with abject terror.”
Of Jesus. Master of sea and storm. Ruler of life and death. Impatient with their misplaced fear. And ours.
Jesus, what were you thinking? And where are you taking us? And should we be afraid? Of you?
On the last day of second grade, as we were emptying our desks for the summer, suddenly, the tornado siren outside our school house window erupted with an ear-splitting wail. We were well-trained, always obedient farm kids, who always excelled at both fire and tornado drills. But even at that young age, we could tell a drill from the real thing. On drill days, our teachers would be watching the clock, keeping their desks tidy, giving us simple assignments, knowing that their lessons would be interrupted by a practice run out the back door or a practice duck under our desks.
But this time was different. This time my teacher, Mrs. Nelson, jumped as though she’d been shot. She looked out the window. She looked at us. She said, in a trembling voice, “Children, that’s the tornado siren. You know what to do.” But before we could duck under our desks, the principal came to our door and said, “Follow me.” Like trusting little ducks, we waddled down the hall, down the stairs, down more stairs, to a basement room I’d not seen before. It was filled with all the other students—grades kindergarten through 12. We had never had a drill like this before.
The room was filled with quiet chatter, muffled giggles, discussion among the seniors about graduation plans. And then we heard it. Overhead. Outside. All around. Wind like I’d never heard before.
And then the principal’s voice over the loud speaker, “Children. It’s just wind. There’s no reason to be afraid.” And that’s when the weeping really began.
We knew that we would not be told to be unafraid, if there was, in fact, nothing to fear. Who says, “Don’t be afraid,” when you’re about to get a pony for your birthday or win the lottery?
“Don’t be afraid.” Those words should strike fear in the heart of school children and adults everywhere.
It was true in Iowa five decades ago. It was true in a pandemic 15 months ago. It was true on the Sea of Galilee 2000 years ago. In fact, the gospel writers use the word “afraid” 34 times in their story-telling, and 30 times they use the word, “fear.” Clearly, there was, there is a lot of which to be afraid.
But, apparently, not the usual suspects. Apparently, there had been no reason to fear the surging sea and raging storm. After Jesus righted the ship and settled back into his seat, he didn’t say, “Don’t be afraid.” He said, “Why were you afraid?”
Jesus was honestly mystified that they were afraid of wind and wave. After all, he was in their boat.
And his confusion opened a whole new world of things to fear. Him. The disciples began to realize that Jesus was more than a healer, a preacher, a teacher, an exorcist—as if that isn’t enough. The disciples began to realize that Jesus was master of all creation—water below and sky above, earth and all its creatures, master of their lives. And their deaths.
A story that began with a lot of unanswered questions, ends in the same way.
What would have happened if the disciples had taken Jesus’ lead, and let out the sails, rode the wind, allowed themselves to be propelled by the waves?
What would have happened if the disciples had taken Jesus’ lead, and rested through the night, knowing that the next day, that distant shore would bring challenges of its own?
What would happen if we followed Jesus’ lead? What if, rather than sniping at each other, second-guessing our leaders, burnishing the past and fearing the future, putting the brakes on anything unfamiliar, we let out the sails? What if we rode the wind? What if we allowed the waves to throw us forward? What if we trusted Jesus to be more powerful than any force in our lives, in the world?
What would happen then?
One of my earliest questions had to do with what lay on the other side of the sea. What was the emergency, the urgency that had Jesus and his disciples out on the sea in the middle of the night in a storm? (Mark 5.1-20) A man. A single, solitary man. A single, solitary, demon-possessed man whom no one loved. It was for his sake that Jesus set sail. And once Jesus and the man met, once Jesus cast the demons out, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go home. I did what I came to do.”
For one person. Jesus risked all their lives for one nameless demon-possessed person. Jesus, what were you thinking?
You’re probably wondering what happened to second-grade me and my classmates. Clearly, I survived the storm.
Within minutes of the power going out and wind passing over, amid the sniffles of children and sobbing cries of “I want my Mom,” we experienced a dead calm. Like the calm on the Sea of Galilee, the wind ceased, the sun came out, the storm had passed. We stepped out of the school basement into a brilliant afternoon, branches and twigs strewn across the lawn and street, school buses parked on the curb ready to take us home one last time that school year. There had been no reason to fear. We were in good hands.
Like disciples of every age, in every era, whether on land or sea, Jesus’ disciples know that sometimes the fastest way to the other side is straight through the storm. And if it seems like Jesus is sleeping, we would be wrong. He is so confident of our safety, so bent on his mission there is nothing to fear.
So we let out the sails, buck the waves, ride the storm.
Jesus, what were you thinking?
That’s easy, he says. I’m thinking we have work to do. And no time to be afraid.