For a couple of years in the mid-2000’s I led youth group trips to Mississippi to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery. The first year we went was 2007. This was almost two years after the hurricane hit, and it must have been truly remarkable just how much damage was initially done. Because two years later we spent the week helping repair houses that had been unlivable since the hurricane. On the way to the house I spent the week working on we drove past an abandoned parking lot that still had people living in FEMA temporary trailers. Most o the work on the house was almost finished so we spent most of the week doing the finishing touches like painting. We worked on a house for an elderly woman and her middle aged son. I still remember his story. He chose to ignore the evacuation order. He was concerned about looters, and he thought the strength of the storm was being over-reported and that it was not going to be as bad as was being stated. He was wrong. Their house was on the northern edge of Biloxi, MS but it did not completely escape the storm surge. He ended up riding out the storm on the roof of the house while the rain pounded, the gale force winds blew and the water rose to over 10 feet all around him. It was a frightening story, and one I cannot imagine living through. In general we go out of our way to avoid mortal danger. Fortunately, it is rare to find ourselves in those kind of situations. It is hard to know what we would do in those kind of situations. If we were in a house about to be flooded by one of the worse hurricanes in history would we freeze with a panic attack or would we do what had to be done and ride Hurricane Katrina on top of the roof of a small two bed room house?
In time of uncertainty, one of the catch phrases that gets thrown around is “What would Jesus do?” So if Jesus was stranded in a hurricane, just what would he do? Well, if we base our answer off of this morning’s scripture the answer appears to be that Jesus would take a nap. When a terrible storm hits, our natural response is to panic or meet it with a stiff upper lip, yet Jesus seems to completely unbothered by the worst of mother nature. If we follow Jesus’ example in this then we too should not let any storm-real or metaphorical bother us.
While some of us probably do enjoy a weekend out on the lake, the majority of us can not properly appreciate the situation that the disciples and Jesus found themselves in. As a rule, we tend to go out on the water when we know it is going to be safe. If it is not going to be safe, then we stay out of the boat. We check the weather, we double check the weather, and if we see dark clouds forming we head back into the dock. For most lakes in Indiana, the entire time we are never that far from land and we have access to a life jacket just in case. These are all luxuries that the disciples did not have. If their boat sunk or capsized they did not have life jackets. The Sea of Galilee is 15 miles long and eight miles wide, so even if they could swim it would have probably been a 3-4 mile swim in bad weather, and they did not have access to satellite informed weather reports. Even if they did have a weather report, it would not have done much good.
Even today “a furious squall” can come up on the Sea of Galilee expectantly. Our former Bishop in Indiana Mike Coyner has firsthand experience with this. A couple of years ago I was on a boat in the sea of Galilee sitting next to the bishop, and he told me the last time he was on the water here, he was asked to lead a devotion and he did over this morning’s scripture. He explained the unique geography The Sea of Galilee, lies in a valley with interesting weather patterns. Several ravines, gorges and valleys function as a sort of weather funnel that allow weather from the Mediterranean sea to end up stuck over the sea of galilee fairly quickly. When he began reading the scripture it was a bright and sunny day, by the time he finished explaining the weather heavy clouds had rolled in almost on que and it began to rain as if to illustrate his point.
In this scripture the disciples found themselves in a similar predicament, only it was not a simple rain storm but a full blown thunder storm with winds strong enough to break waves over the simple fishing boat. I imagine being in the middle of a lake that is taking on so much water that it is swamped or full is about as panic inducing as riding out a hurricane. When the disciples were faced with this predicament, what did they do? They did buckle down and try to get the water out before it was too late or did they panic. Other than waking up Jesus, this morning’s scripture does not give us much insight into the way the disciples were acting, but I can only picture them in full out panic mode. In verse 38, when it states the disciples woke Jesus and said “Teacher don’t you care if we drown?” I can only picture that as a screamed shout of panic. Fear, panic, anxiousness, that is often how we respond to storms but that was not Jesus’ response.
And can we talk about Jesus response? He slept! The scripture states he was in the stern, which just means the back of the boat. This would have been a simple fishing boat, not a cruise ship. It is not like Jesus was safe and secure in some state room. He was sleeping with a pillow in the middle of a thunder storm, in a boat that was rapidly filling up with water. I am not sure I have ever been so tired in my life that I would sleep through that, but somehow Jesus managed it! One of the reasons why Jesus did not sweat it is because he knew that he had the power to essentially say “rain, rain go away” and the clouds would listen to him.
Hopefully, you have never been in mortal danger of drowning during a storm, but we all often face proverbial storms in our lives. We face times when it feels like when the hardships of life are dumping on us like buckets of rain, when we are pushed back by winds of tribulation, and when we think we are standing on solid ground it is actually a boat quickly filling with water. Calling these times of hardship the storms of life, is such an apt analogy because we all instinctively understand it. Nearly all of us have experienced it. When those proverbial storm clouds gather on the horizons of our life, I think we should take the words of Jesus from this scripture to heart, first “Quiet be still” and “Why are you so afraid?”
Jesus told the wind and the waves to quiet and be still, which is exactly what they did. As followers of Jesus, I think we can do the same thing. . .kind of. We may not be able to silence literal thunder clouds but we can quiet the storm inside of us. Do you know what I mean? Have you ever had that inner turmoil, the feeling of uncertainty, of dread, of worry that was strong that you could not sleep, you could not focus, and sometimes it may even feel hard to breathe? Those times when your inner thoughts feel so chaotic, so unbalanced, it can only be properly described as a storm raging inside you? That is the storm that we can be quiet, that is the storm that we can stay be still. However, I think to properly do that we need to turn to the 46th Psalm to finish the thought. Psalm 46:10 states: “Be still and know that I am God.” When we center ourselves on God, when we realize that Jesus has the power to calm any storm, to silence any thunder, and still any waves then we can also be still. We can claim the promise that God is bigger than the storms we face and feel. We can have a confident assurance that no matter what comes our way God will be with and that God works for the good of those who love Him. That is a powerful promise and I believe when we truly claim that promise and believe that promise in faith it can and will calm any storm in our heart.
Which brings us to Jesus second words, “Why are you so afraid?” If our trust is in God, what do we have to be afraid of? Now, I know that some of you are pragmatic realists. You are good at risk assessment, and you can generate quite the list of things we have to be afraid. Others of you might be prone to anxious thinking, and you also can jump straight to a laundry list of worst case scenarios. Despite those lists, Jesus still ask, “why are you so afraid?” Even if the worse case scenario happens, the eternal truths of the Christian message do not change. We are still loved by God, we are still saved by Jesus through faith, God’s love will still never fail us, and Christ will be with us to the end of the age. Nothing will ever, ever change that. So why are we still so afraid?
I think the answer is, of course, we are still afraid that the worse will happen; that despite believing that God is with us the worst possible scenario will still come to pass. There is a story of a Christian man that illustrates what we should do in the worst possible scenario. Father Thomas Byles was a well-loved Catholic priest serving the parish of Ongar, England. His brother had moved to New York, where he met the love of his life, and was set to be married. Father Byles was asked by his brother to do the ceremony and his brother even provided him passage aboard a state of the art ocean liner. The year was 1912 and the ship Father Byles boarded was the Titanic. When the ship met its fate and collided with the iceberg, Father Byles went to the steerage class where he was a non-anxious calming presence. He helped provide organize the poorest passengers and he was instrumental in getting some of them to safety. The priest continued to be a calming presence in the midst of a chaotic storm of fear and chaos. A survivor of the crash stated later that when people began to get excited and panicked all Father Byles had to do was raise his hand and calm returned as people loaded the life boats. Being a man of God, he was offered a seat on a life boat more than once. Each time, he turned it down so that another soul might take the spot he would have occupied. The priest continued to minister to the very end. He made his way to the stern of the ship where several people were stranded without hope of rescue, and as the Titanic went down he offered prayers of absolution, last rites, and he brought peace and stilled many trouble hearts while ensuring them there was no reason to be afraid.
In the midst of the worst possible case scenario Father Byles did not panic and he did not accept his fate with grim resolve. Instead he glorified God, he loved others, he had no fear, and an abundance of faith. When the storms of life come instead of giving into panic we should follow Father Byles example. Even if the rain does not go away, we can praise God in the midst of the storm.
If today your life feels like it is in turmoil, if you feel like the waves are coming over the side of the boat, then may you be still. Be still and know that God is with you. If the circumstances of life seems overwhelming may you not give into fear, but may you cling to a faith that is greater than whatever hardship you are facing. May you be a non-anxious presence, may you praise God in the storm, and may you know that even if the rain does not go away God does not change. God’s love does not fail, and the God that was with you in brighter days with you now, tomorrow, and forever more. No matter what.