Because Storms Happen

[special_heading title=”Because Storms Happen ” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]It’s happening. Things are re-opening. The All-Star game will pack Coors Field. Restaurants and bars are back to full capacity, masks no longer required. Red Rocks, the Mission Ballroom, and Fiddler’s Green are back with an array of shows. Yea!    Even last Sunday’s outdoor worship service and picnic had an almost giddy joy at being together in person!    So I have to say I was caught up short by the title of late night host and cultural commentator Trevor Noah’s comedy show touring this summer:  Back to Abnormal.

…but he’s right, of course. Just as we’re seeing fewer Covid cases, summer colds have returned with a vengeance. The stock market is sizzling, even as Metro Caring reports continued sky-high requests for food assistance. Despite some gains in the quest for racial reckoning, Black deaths at the hands of police officers are still happening with appalling regularity. So much has changed. So much has stayed the same.

I wonder:  as we emerge from the storm that has been this pandemic, who will we be?  What will we have learned?  What will we do now? Is it something different than simply returning to familiar ways and means?     The morning text could be a snapshot of the past 15 months. In pursuit of his mission, Jesus invites the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. Very quickly a violent storm encompasses their little boat and threatens to sink them. What happens next seems to be a meteorological miracle, one we couldn’t possibly reproduce. Or could we? A reading from the good news according to Mark in the fourth chapter, verses 35 through 41. Listen for God’s Word, friends…because storms happen. [Mark 4:35-41]

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 Jesus 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?” The Word of the Lord…thanks be to God!

On my office computer screen I’ve posted a saying I heard somewhere:  Sometimes Jesus calms the seas, and sometimes Jesus calms the sailors. Here in this text, Jesus does both, and the net effect is to confirm for his disciples that Jesus possesses power and authority greater than any other (including nature!). I wonder if it’s a little dig at the sea-deity popular in those ancient times:  yeah, our God is better than yours; he can overpower yours with a single sentence!

At the very least, we should not read this text as proof that God will intervene to calm the fiercest storm if our faith is strong enough. Every one of us has experienced the heartbreak of prayers for healing or a righteous outcome that seem not to make a difference. To imagine that it would have been different had we tried harder to dial up the faith-o-meter compounds grief, to say nothing of reducing God to a capricious judge:  just where is that line between “not enough” and “enough” faith to change the outcome?

No, friends, something else besides magic is at play in this text. Let’s step back and take a deeper look.

First, there’s Jesus undisturbed by the raging windstorm. His ability to sleep while the disciples sailed speaks of his basic trust in their experience and know-how. At least some of them were seasoned fishermen and sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee were common. Jesus willingly put his life into the hands of humans. Storms happen. Things don’t always go as planned. The unexpected arises. You got this, people. Christian faith never asks us to surrender human knowledge and skills; in fact, it draws upon them to do God’s work in the world. There are few things more beautiful than a person exercising her gifts, experience and training for good purposes.[callout_box title=”When we follow the power of Jesus rather than other authorities, we will cross boundaries and enter new territory and engage with our community in ways we couldn’t imagine. ” subtitle=””]But in those times when our skills or faith or knowledge or strength fail, Jesus doesn’t leave us. The flow of grace continues and holds us up. Divine love comes alongside us, no matter how afraid we get or how quickly we abandon our good intentions. And it is the most powerful force in the world. A little note in my study Bible says the phrase translated “Peace!  Be still!” is actually closer to “Shut up!  Stand down!”  There are stormy times when to stay the course is the best option, to keep sailing, bail water as needed, and work like crazy to keep the ship afloat. But sometimes–and I think this is one of them–to stay the course, to go “back to normal” is dangerous and defeating. Instead, these times, these storms call us to speak out with the voice and authority of Jesus and confront the raging demonic powers of injustice, a broken status quo, unacceptable realities, and unrelenting human suffering and say:  STOP! YOU ARE NOT OUR RULER!  GOD IS!  AND WE WILL NOT BE DESTROYED!

People who put their trust in the power of God exercised through love will never be defeated. They–may I say “We”?!–will not become immune to trouble. Storms happen. But we will have the power to get through them and come out on the other side.

…Because our destination is ahead, not backward. Not back to the safe harbor of a nostalgic past. But forward, moving toward a promised day of justice and peace and human flourishing. Jesus invited the disciples to go to the other side of the lake. But here’s the thing:   the “other side” of the lake was Gentile territory, home to the unwashed heathen. In other words, the last place a good law-abiding citizen would choose.

When we follow the power of Jesus rather than other authorities, we will cross boundaries and enter new territory and engage with our community in ways we couldn’t imagine. Perhaps this time of moving beyond pandemic and its necessary restrictions, masking, and isolation is an invitation to sail forward to the other side, what some are calling “a great emergence” into some new realities. Undoubtedly there are storms, ones we can predict, others still brewing on the horizon. But following Jesus’ call, let us set our sights on a world with more compassion and less judgment; more neighborliness and less racism; less greediness and more generosity; less environmental degradation and more earth-care. We can sail the ship with our family and community with confidence if not in our own ability, then because we are disciples of the One who even the wind and sea obey.

Don and Nadine Ross have been members of Central for more than half a century. Right now they’re experiencing their particular storm of health and mobility issues, figuring out how to stay in their home safely or what next steps they might pursue. I visited them last week in the physical rehab facility where Don is currently a patient. They told me they’d just celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary, and then the conversation had turned to their present difficulties. But I noticed as we talked, how Don’s hand went automatically to the arm of Nadine’s chair, and hers to the arm of Don’s wheelchair, touching, linked. Nadine was surprised when I called her later to say how touched I was by this simple gesture that revealed worlds. She was puzzled at first when I asked whether I could share it with you. She laughingly agreed that 68 years was a long time, and honestly acknowledged that they had experienced hills and valleys including their daughter’s death at age 40, health challenges, difficult transitions, family struggles. “We’ve gotten through because of love,” Nadine said— “…love and faith in God.”

That’s when I saw it. An impossibly tiny boat, bobbing on a wide rolling sea. A single figure, hand outstretched, beckoning to the multitudes on shore: Come with me, across to the other side.