Perfect Storm

Mk. 6:45-52

A number of years ago, my wife, Faye, and I were spending the month of August at our cottage in Old Saybrook. We had been having several days of rain and my wife commented that it was hurricane weather. She started coming to the cottage when it was built by her grandfather in l937. The next year was the hurricane of ‘38, which old timers still talk about. In the late 40’s there were several hurricanes, and Faye can remember leaning against the French doors in order to keep them from blowing open. At various street corners there are signs indicating high water and flood marks, which strikes me as strange, since the beach is a block away and about twenty feet below where we are. Having grown up in Kansas I understand tornadoes, but not hurricanes.

We were awoken one morning by a police car telling us to evacuate. Faye got up and checked the wind and rain, but I rolled over and went back to sleep. An hour later another patrol car came by repeating the evacuation message. So we gathered up some things and took Kelly, our Black Lab at the time, over to the High School, which was the emergency shelter. We were turned away, because no dogs were allowed. So Faye and I decided to drive up Route 9 to her mother’s house in West Hartford. The rain was horrendous. I was driving into a head wind and hydroplaning. It finally got to the point that I could not see the hood ornament or either side of the road. I could not stop for fear of being rearended but neither could I keep the car on the road, were I able to find the road. At this point Faye looked at me and cautioned, “Be careful!” Kelly licked the back of her neck and we inched along. I was praying like crazy. Suddenly the weather broke and we were out of the storm. We arrived at my mother-in-law’s, had dinner, spent the night and forgot about our travail. Don’t you often find that once the danger or need is past, you forget about it? Your anxiety before is always far more intense than your relief after a crisis. Yes, we are thankful much of the time, but very soon we forget about it. That is just the way we are. Perhaps it is a form of denial which enables the psyche and body to recoup, rather than continue to be flooded with adrenaline.

The same thing happened to the disciples. After Jesus rescued them, their hearts were hardened, just as they were following the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which averted a major hunger riot. It is interesting that in the Gospel stories which relate the great deeds of Christ and the disciples, the followers are often portrayed in a less than flattering way. Rather they are portrayed as being very human. These miracle stories, and others, betray an uncanny understanding of human nature. It is this exceptional catching of basic human emotions and behavior that gives the Gospel narratives their historicity. Many scholars argue for the artificiality of these stories. The walking on water is the transference of a Hellenistic Greek god story, which was retold by Hellenistic Jews, some say. Others argue that this story is a misplaced post-resurrection appearance, or an epiphany, or another transfiguration narrative, or it was a case of group delusion. Some scholars tell us that Jesus was walking on a sand bar or on stepping stones, or that the boat was pushed into shoals and Jesus just sprang in. All of those conjectures are possible. But the behavior of the people involved looks very genuine, making the story quite real.

Look at what happens when Jesus sends the disciples off on their own. They had done their 2×2 outings and reported back, all pumped up with their own importance from teaching and healing. The team piles into the family boat and takes off to meet Jesus elsewhere. Now what does every elementary school teacher know happens when you leave 12 boys alone? They get into trouble. Without a chaperone/scout leader, etc. things inevitably go awry. The disciples were not careful. They should have read the wind and clouds better and hugged the shore closer. Plus the fact is that it is always more dangerous to go out at night. A wind came up, as it often does at day break, and it was followed by “the perfect storm.” They cried out and they saw Jesus, who came to them and got into the boat. The storm abated, just as my storm did on Route 9. It happens.

We have mentioned some of the explanations as to how Jesus got to the boat. We’ll never know. It is certain, however, that the early Church believed that Jesus rescued his disciples when they were at sea. Perhaps a more significant question is, “why was this story remembered?” It seems to be in the three synoptics and to be very old. Probably it was remembered because it happened, was unexpected, and was exciting. It is also a good story. If nothing else the story functions as a powerful metaphor. The basic elements are there: water, vessel, storm. Water is a classic metaphor for chaos and primal strength and power. A boat represents shelter, community, a journey, and helplessness/rescue. Storms are always perceived to part of the primal force and chaos of life. I love storms. They pump up my adrenaline and challenge me to pit my nature against nature’s action. The chaos of storms is easily understood to mirror our inner chaos and tumult of emotions and the cross currents in our lives. The story is telling the reader/hearer that Jesus does not willingly abandon his followers in the time of chaos. He can be found in that chaos at the center where there is, and He brings, peace and resolution. His presence with His disciples in the time of chaos is a harbinger of His promise that He will not abandon the faithful during coming events. The story is also part of a progression. Jesus has been teaching and healing. Evil spirits have been repulsed. Food was found and given to those who were hungry. Now Jesus overcomes the violence of nature. He calms the storm and provides a calm center for and over nature. In the narrative Jesus has moved to being more than a prophet in which the presence of God is centered. He is more than one who does a great symbolic deed with water or bread. Now we have one who stands in the center of the forces of nature and of chaos and has a cosmological impact. He brings a restoration to the fundamental dislocation in the scheme of things. We have, now, heavy overtones of God-in-man, or of a man divine. These overtones are developed in the lives of believers and in the life of the Church.

Next time, when there is a storm, perfect or imperfect, take cover. Don’t challenge the elements. The message of today’s lesson is not that we be foolish in physical/social/psychological inner storms or that God will miraculously deliver everyone who steps into the face of danger. Rather the message is that God does not abandon us. He is with us. In His compassion He hears us and rides things out to the end - and even beyond. The cosmos, and nature “red in tooth and claw,” (1) is not churning out of control. Rather the cosmos and nature are constantly being worked and reworked, and existence, our existence, is returned to a safe port. This old, old story is a constant reminder to you and me that God is with us in the storms of life. We do not travel on our faith journeys alone. He will ultimately bring you and me to a safe shore.

A personal note. We celebrate this afternoon my 65th birthday. Like many of you I have been blessed with a wonderful voyage. Somehow God has been the captain and steered me and my family through rapids, shoals and deep waters. It has been one heck of a trip so far, as it probably has been for you in your sailing.

I pray that it will continue to be a good journey for you. Of this I am sure. Christ is with you and me, as witnessed by today’s story, as we journey on. Hopefully my heart will be seldom hardened and if it is, not for long. Nor may yours be. May your hearts always be open to the presence of God through the sacraments, through the love of Christ, and through the fellowship which constitutes our life in the Church. God bless you. Amen.

(1) Tennyson, In Memoriam, Part LVI, Stana 4