O Say Can You See?

As part of my seminary training, I had the opportunity to sail on the Sea of Galilee ten years ago. We went on a tourist boat meant to recreate a voyage with Jesus. The Sea of Galilee is actually a large skinny lake, 13 miles long by 8 miles wide, and only 14 feet deep. The lake is amazingly heart-shaped and the water is very clear, allowing the fish and pebbles on the bottom to sparkle in the sunlight. On the lake, you are surrounded by landscapes that have been sacred to people for thousands of years with cities like Capernaum, Tiberias and Genesaret. The countryside varies from Florida-like palms and beaches to Virginia-like green hillsides. It was a beautiful, peaceful, warm day and we were reading passages from the gospels aloud on the deck, when the ship’s captain came on the loudspeaker. He announced in English that he had a very special surprise for the American seminary students—something we had never experienced before. He was right—within moments we were blasted by the full brass and drum version of the Star Spangled Banner, extra loud in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It felt alarming—like a fire engine driving into a church. While writing this sermon about the storm on the Galilee this week, I had a visceral memory of that shocking moment when Francis Scott Key unexpectedly shattered the calm of the day. The saving grace is that I will never forget that day because of that. It also brought home to me once again, that I think I know how my day will go. I plan a peaceful little trip on the Sea of Galilee, but my plans are shattered by a something over which I have no control.

Today we have the story of Jesus and the storm—or really the disciples in the storm, since they don’t involve Jesus until the very end when they are dying. Like my trip on the Galilee, the disciples think they know what will happen on their little boat ride. They’ve crossed the Galilee hundreds of times and come from generations of fishermen. But, stealing a line I heard from a speaker at the Mockingbird conference, we and the disciples are all in the Mike Tyson school of theology. The boxer said, “We all have a plan –until we get socked in the mouth.”

The disciples’ plan sounded simple. Jesus says, “Let’s go to the other side.” Sounds like a good idea, mainly because Jesus said it. But there are a few red flags—it is evening, which is known for squalls in that area, Jesus doesn’t say why they are going or what they will do when they get there, and they don’t seem to prepare for the trip. In fact, the narrative tells us, they took Jesus ‘just as He was.’ Sounds like my family getting ready to go somewhere when we’re late—“Just get in the car, we gotta go.” So they are on the way, sailing at night to the other side– actually to the graveyards where the Gerasene Demoniac lives—and Jesus sleeps. Somewhere between hopping into the boat and this passage, a very large storm not only pops up, but threatens their lives. These are seasoned fishermen who are not easily scared. This is their water, their home. But now they are reasonably terrified in a wooden boat on an angry sea.

As I looked at this passage, there seemed to be three broad themes:

  1. Who we are
  2. Who Jesus is
  3. What We Do

I really relate to this story of the disciples. They see the rain and think they can handle it. They don’t need Jesus. I do that, too. I think I can handle little bits of rain in my life on an everyday basis. Jesus is just for Sundays, right? The water gets a little choppy and the wind is blowing and just like the disciples, I say, “I got it. No problem. I’ve got it under control.” This is my family, my mental health, my dating life, my mother, my father, my siblings, my spouse, my children, my job, my checking account, my spending, my anger, my eating, my future, my program, my resentments, my sleep problem, my drinking, my time management, my obsessiveness. I can handle it. I just need to fix myself somehow and then it will all be better. I don’t need to bother God with my problems. God is busy. And the truth is, I don’t even think to pray. But the waves continue to rise and the wind picks up and I row harder, complain more, sleep less, shift the blame. Soon, the waves are threatening to swamp my little boat. I can’t run the tiller or the sail anymore by myself. Like the disciples I scream over the roar of my self-centered wind, “Jesus, can’t you see I’m perishing!” All my plans are falling down around me and I feel as if I am dying on the inside, about to be exposed for the inept person I am and Jesus doesn’t care.

This is where we discover Who We Are- at the end of our rope- when we are perishing. We are the very sinners the bible talks about—the sinners in need of saving by Christ. It is not someone else—it’s me. I am actually the person that Jesus is looking for—waiting for me to admit that I am not the captain of my own lifeboat. I need to be saved from myself, my own self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, self-propulsion. But I have wondered if I am I worth saving. Does Jesus care about my little life? I have found in my own experience, it is not the big things that take me down the road of self-sufficiency and away from God-sufficiency. The big things—like cancer, death in the family, divorce, losing a job, having church members shot in a church in Charleston—I seem to believe those are big enough for God to pay attention to and I pray for help. I pray from the heart—not the head—about those things. I cry and plead and ask for mercy and God loves and comforts me through the crisis, usually through the people God sends my way. God-with-skin-on. It’s the little things that I continually think are below Jesus’ pay grade, everyday frustrations that eat my spiritual lunch. Little things get the waves rolling and the wind blowing in my mind and soul.

None of these things are earth shattering but they are the drip-drip-drip that make up the waves that start the storm. The conflict in my life is 89% contained in the sea of my own mind, provoked by small events in my everyday life. Small events that I think are too little to pray about. Then the squeaky voice of fear we all know pipes up—“Liz would have done that so much better.” “I can’t believe I made that mistake. That was so stupid!” “Your children are going to be in therapy because of you.” “What have you done today? Nothing. You have nothing to show for living today.” “You are not a good person.” We all know that voice.

But there is more to us than the voice of the fearful self. We were made for more. This is what the disciples find out when they yell to Jesus, “Don’t you care that we are perishing? That we are at the end of our rope? That we have made a big mistake and everyone will know? That we don’t know how to handle this and we are failing?” We recognize that we do not have the power to save ourselves from the waves of ‘not enough,’ ‘gone wrong’ and ‘should have thought twice before sailing.’ We had a plan—then we got punched in the mouth. We are in desperate need of God’s love and forgiveness. As theologian David Lose says, “We are the confused and wayward sinners that God loves so much.” Sinners-R-Us. Thinking-about-ourselves-and ignoring-God- and-neighbor–R-Us. But we are also resurrection people. Our perishing or getting punched in the mouth means that grace has something to work with—the old Adam is dying again and we are being made new.

The most surprising bit of the storm story is finding out who Jesus Is. The disciples appear to be treating him like a carpenter who doesn’t know anything about boats, problems or dying. They put him into the boat like a child—‘the way he was.’ They let him sleep in the back of the boat on a cushion. The disciples handle everything by themselves until the bitter end, when they inform Christ that he will be dying with them. Their great fear has blinded them to his identity. Fear tells us we know how the story ends, and it is never good. After Christ stills the storm, the disciples then wonder with great fear, “Who then is this?” I believe they connect the scripture they know about God as creator with the man riding with them in the boat. Jesus speaks to the wind and the wind knows His voice. Only the creator could calm the created so Jesus is the Creator. The Creator is a man who they talk to and eat with and sleep with and do not understand at all. The carpenter who can heal people has morphed into the God of the Universe. Grace in Jesus is God coming to us even when we don’t understand. Jesus as theophany—which is the theological term for a visible manifestation of God on earth.

The disciples think like we do—that if you are with Jesus, God, the creator of the Universe, maker of all things, you should have a storm-free life. Christ must not be in our boat because there are still storms and waves and wind. If we believe, we shouldn’t have problems. The disciples question is still our question—Who is this? We know that we don’t have the power to calm the storms or even to see them coming. But we know the one who can. We don’t have the power, but we are loved by the God who has all power. We are powerless but God is not. We re fearful, Christ is not. We can trust God in all things- big and little, windy and calm.

What is this power that Christ has? The power is love and it is the most powerful force in the universe. When the disciples ask, “Who is this?” The answer is love. Love that created the universe with a loving word. Love that sleeps on a cushion in the boat. Christ’s love shows up unexpectedly in unlikely places at unlikely moments like boat trips. Someone I visited this week told me a story about experiencing God’s love in the hospital. This person was in a bad state and needing care and comfort. She was placed in a hospital bed that was curved up and she felt as if she was cradled by God’s loving hands and fell asleep. God showing up in love as a hospital bed. Another person I talked with spoke of being stuck in the snow with no cable and very reluctantly calling the cable company. The repair-man arrived and actually ministered to her, proving that we don’t know how God will show up with a loving word or touch. You think you’re going across the lake and you encounter the God of the Universe.

What I have learned is that Christ is in my boat, whether the Star Spangled Banner is blaring or not. Because we are often frightened, we don’t see God’s grace but God surrounds us with love and grace even so. God cares about every moment of your life—not just on Sunday but everyday, and not just in the big scary moments but in the drip-drip-drip ones. God aches to help us every day, every moment. Turn over the rudder of your boat and see where the grace-filled winds blow you.