Texts: Job 38: 1-18 and Mark 4: 35-41
Hurricane season started early this year, and we are currently under a Tropical Storm Warning with Tropical Storm Debby due south of us. Not a bad time to recall the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. But before we can appreciate what calm feels like, let’s recall the feel of a storm.
Tori Murden McClure knows more than most of us about storms at sea. In 1999, she became the first woman to row across an ocean. Yes. I said row. Without a motor. Without a sail. Without a companion. In a wooden row boat, she rowed across the Atlantic for over 3 months straight, 10 hours, 12 hours, sometimes 16 grueling hours a day, each and every day, except during the most violent of weather.
Tori had attempted this feat the previous year but had to be rescued some 900 miles shy of the coast of France after a 3-month voyage that included arduous exertion and deprivation, equipment failure and total isolation; injuries and narrow escapes from catastrophe; the failure of her long distance communication system and the assault of two hurricanes. In her memoir, A Pearl in the Storm,[i] Tori McClure describes her first realization that the storm (which she later learned was Hurricane Danielle) would be more fearsome than anything she’d previously endured:
“Sept. 5. The wind generated by the storm was stronger than anything I’d ever experienced, and the waves were bigger than anything I had imagined. I’d been through some nasty gales, and I considered anything over 25-feet really big. These waves went well beyond really big. They were the size of buildings. . . . Huddled in the dark, I reached for [and then spoke to] the video camera: “I’m in by far the most violent storm that I’ve been in so far. . . . I’m not sure I’m going to make it through this one’” (155).
By that time Tori was jammed into her coffin of a cabin. Only a few feet high, the cabin gave her barely enough room in which to lie down but not enough to sit upright. She could, however, close the hatch overhead to seal in oxygen for herself and to aid the little boat’s ability to right itself when capsized—which happened more than a dozen times over the next two days of violent weather.
Tori’s narrative continues: “By sunrise, the water in my cabin was several inches deep . . . The waves hit with so much force that pinhole leaks sprayed like fine water jets. Because I couldn’t sit upright, the water sloshed around my back and shoulders. . . My boat felt like a bathtub toy in the hands of an angry 2-year-old. As much as the earsplitting wail of wind terrified, the periodic silences were worse. The wind was quiet only when an approaching wave was tall enough to block it out. Like ghostly fingers, the quiet moments pointed to the walls of water that were about to hammer me. The lull never lasted more than a few seconds” (156).
“At around 7:00 am, I heard the rumble of an approaching breaker. An avalanche of white foam was followed by the slam of a wrecking ball. I clawed at the walls and ceiling trying to get a grip. The only things louder than the roar of that wave were the yelps of my pain. The boat rolled, and I flipped head over heels. The boat spun on its bottom and rolled again, tossing me heels over head. Wood, fiberglass, flesh, and bone interacted in unnatural ways. . . . The boat shook for a moment and then flipped upright so quickly I didn’t have time to think about landing. My body spun in the air, and my twisted torso landed on the floor with a harsh thwack. It was my first capsize of the day, and this was just the beginning” (157).
Soon McClure was a mess of blood, bruises, and broken bones. She wanted to set off the 406-megahertz international distress beacon by then—but she refused to put potential rescuers in harm’s way. So she rode out many more terrifying hours. At one point she again spoke into her video camera: “I have a strange sense of peace at this point. I don’t know what it means.’” More hours later, having gone into and out of and back into and out of the path of Danielle, the worst was over. But with the boat listing heavily toward starboard and nearly in pieces, Tori at last set off the distress signal. Rescue was finally on the way.
By comparison, the disciples of Jesus seem a little wimpy and a tad premature in setting off their “distress signal.” Of course, Mark’s terse Gospel relates few details about their ordeal at sea, so it’s hard to work up much sympathy for them.
Here’s what we are told. After teaching large crowds about the realm of God, parable by parable—including the parable of the mustard seed we read last Sunday—Jesus suggested to his disciples that they get away from the crowds by sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, some of the crowd followed in their boats. So maybe Jesus would not get much peace and quiet on the opposite shore either. And, as it turned out, the sea would not be peaceful either. As happens on the Sea of Galilee, a storm came up suddenly. Great waves were swamping the boat. Yet the distressed disciples found Jesus snoozing in the stern.
Biblical commentators don’t know what to make of this. Some speculate that Jesus sleeping through the storm signals how utterly depleted he was from the demands of the crowds. Some wonder if Jesus feigned sleep to test the disciples’ faith. Some think Jesus’s nap was not a factual detail but a literary device, specifically an allusion to Jonah, also discovered sleeping in the hull of a ship during a storm. You’ll recall that Jonah saved his traveling companions by volunteering to give himself up to the sea. In contrast, Jesus saved those in his boat by speaking the sea into calm. Further, the 3 days Jesus spent in the tomb have been compared to the 3 days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale. You’ll also recall God had told Jonah to bring good news to the Gentiles in Ninevah. In today’s story Jesus was sailing from primarily Jewish territory to the primarily Gentile territory on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee. Mark therefore may have added the detail of Jesus sleeping through the storm to remind us of Jonah, who may suggest to us that Jesus is that line of other prophets called to continue God’s universal care for all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
Of course, the disciples in the story interpreted Jesus’ sleep to mean he did not care a flip about them. But by now Mark’s readers should be skeptical of the disciples’ point of view. After all, the writer of Mark never misses a chance to show the disciples’ cluelessness. Therefore, careful readers of Mark suspect that it just seems to the disciples that Jesus doesn’t care. Maybe once again Jesus’ closest companions and leaders-in-training misperceive the situation or misperceive him. In fact, Mark’s Gospel is rhetorically successful in part because you and I are able to identify with the imperfect apostles who consistently misunderstand Jesus. In this instance, I suspect you and I can easily think of times in our own lives when it has indeed SEEMED that God didn’t care. We know how that feels. But now we have to wonder if our perspective was skewed. Might we—like Job—be limited in our ability to judge that which is ultimate and beyond human knowing? Might we—like the disciples—be misunderstanding Jesus?
After all, maybe we have embarked on this voyage with Jesus with expectations about the journey based on misunderstandings about the ways of God. Maybe like Job we assumed God was a superhero booming boasts from the whirlwind. Maybe like the disciples we have assumed that God works through might and magic. Maybe our expectations of Jesus are about as primitive as those who believed that lightning bolts are hurled down from the heavens by the gods above. So maybe this story tells us that the God we come to know in Jesus is not Thor or Zeus or even some biblical portraits of Yahweh.
It’s understandable that humans first conceived of God in those terms, of course. Most early cultures imaged a God of he thunder and lightning who was often the chief god in their pantheon. The Greeks had Zeus; the Scandinavians had Thor; the Hindus had Indra; the Lakotas, Haoka. Of course early people imagined that lightning was the superior weapon of the greatest god. Of course warrior cultures conceived of their gods as ruling by might and domination.
But Jesus’s power doesn't seem to work that way. Jesus’s upends our expectations. His power is of a different sort. He does not impose his will upon others. He does not use force. He does not exact homage. He does not demand tribute. Unlike most earthly rulers and mythological beings, Jesus wields power from love alone. Jesus’s power is nonviolent and noncoercive. Jesus’s power springs from and leads to peace. Jesus power is at the core of who he is.
If we interpret the story of Jesus calming the seas like the childish disciples, we may see Jesus working a magic trick and think the seas “obeyed” Jesus’s command. But if we can instead appreciate the love and faith Jesus lived and taught, we see this story as yet another parable, an enacted parable, about the kingdom of God. God’s way is revealed through a man who has such reservoirs of trust and love within him that calmness ripples out from his inner core like a quieting countercurrent against the waves of fear. Thus, he stills the hearts of the frightened. He sleeps undisturbed by the storms of life. He speaks words of peace—to human hearts and into creation’s chaos. This is the dramatized parable of one man so imperturbable that his sheer presence neutralized the anxiety striking his disciples like wave after wave threatening to overwhelm them. No thunderbolts needed. Jesus rescued his fearful followers by the sheer calm he carried within.
If Christian theology says anything it is this: that Jesus is the very picture and parable of God’s love. The God we know in Jesus—in this enacted parable on the raging seas or in the spoken parables he continually told the pressing crowds that would have threatened anyone else’s composure—this God is no hurler of thunderbolts, no zapper of sinners, nor manipulator of mortals. The disciples expected Jesus to outzap the storm gods, to DO something. Instead, Jesus WAS something. Jesus was a presence of Divine Compassion. We don’t have to grovel for that compassion; we don’t fight or strive for that calm. When we live in the oneness we call Christ, we are grounded in that which is unshakable. We carry it within us across the seas, stormy or calm.
Sometimes like Tori McClure we face terrors from which we think we won’t survive. Yet even in moments of despair we hear a voice saying, “Peace. Be still.” It is the sheer presence of Jesus with us that is the essence of divine power. Even within the storm we can experience, as Tori McLure said, “a strange sense of peace” even if we “don’t know what it means.”
PRAYER: God who quiets our hearts and stills our racing minds, we don’t know what it all means. Like Job, we want to challenge you. But we actually are challenging our feeble idea of you. Like the first disciples, we want you to smooth out all the rough seas that lie before us. But we actually need to find the calm within. In Christ Jesus, in whom we live and move and have our being, we find that resting place. But like the disciples we still wonder who Jesus is. Help us see how you work through love alone. Help us forsake the God of Power and Might for the God of Love and Peace. Amen
[i] Tori Murden McClure, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
See footage of McClure's voyage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jco6avrlfHc