Sleeping Through the Storm (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

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It was a nice, warm sunny day.  There were no clouds and no signs that it might rain.  So, I wasn’t expecting any kind of stormy weather.

But suddenly, the wind kicked up.  I heard it from inside the church and I went outside to get a better look at what was happening.  It was kind of hot, so the wind actually felt pretty good.  But as I looked out on the lake, the calm, placid waters had suddenly become choppy.  There were actually white caps starting to form!

It was October of 2019, and we were on our Holy Land trip visiting Capernaum, right on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.  And the lake was the same “sea” that Jesus and his disciples were on in today’s Gospel reading.

So I quickly pointed out to as many people in our group as were around me that this was a living example of the stories we read about.  Wind storms come seemingly out of nowhere.  They quickly make life very dangerous if you’re out on the lake in a small boat.  And, as that day, they suddenly end just as quickly as they began.

The disciples of Jesus knew these things.  Even people like Jesus who weren’t fishermen knew these things.  Even in warm, sunny weather, the lake could be treacherous.  And nobody on that day would have been surprised that a storm suddenly came upon them and began to swamp the boat.  They were all probably prepared for something like this to happen.

And yet, Jesus was sleeping in the midst of the storm.  And the disciples wake him up and ask him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?!”  It’s sort of a melodramatic question, and it often causes people reading the story to think that either:

  • The disciples expected Jesus to miraculously make the storm stop – which he does, but it’s clear that’s not what the disciples expected; or that
  • The disciples were literally in over their heads and needed Jesus to help them bail out the boat – but they had all been through this drill many times before, and were probably doing all that could be done; in fact, they even had spare time to wake Jesus up and complain…!

Instead, it seems like the real question they’re asking Jesus is: “How can you sleep through this storm?!”  How can you sleep at such a chaotic time as this?

Really – how can Jesus sleep during such a storm?  And then there’s the follow-up question that I always want to ask – “Can you teach me to do that, too?!”  I mean, really, Jesus in this story is the very model of “non-anxious presence.”  Everybody is upset that the world is falling apart around them, but Jesus is so calm in the midst of it all that he can continue to sleep.

How does he do it?  And can he teach us to be less anxious in the midst of the storms of our lives? 

At first, it doesn’t seem like Jesus answers that question.  But then, after calming the storm, Jesus asks the disciples why they’re afraid.  “Have you still no faith?” he asks.  And it’s clear that the “faith” that Jesus speaks of is NOT the belief that:

  • Nothing really bad will happen to you – this storm is actually pretty bad.  It’s happened to you before, and it’ll probably happen again.  No, this is not the faith Jesus speaks of;
  • If you have God in your life, everything will be easier – Jesus is physically present in the boat with them, and yet bailing is as hard as ever.  This is also not the faith Jesus speaks of;
  • Storms really aren’t bad if you’ve got the right spiritual perspective – this storm really is bad, and Jesus never tells them they should have ignored the storm and not bailed the boat.  This also is not the “faith” Jesus is speaking about.

So what is it about Jesus – about his “faith” – that allows him to be calm in the midst of the storm?  It seems to me that what made Jesus able to be a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of the storm was that Jesus was:

  • Secure in his connection to God – God was, literally, present in Jesus and Jesus was secure in God’s love and care.  That didn’t mean Jesus was having an easy life or that God didn’t send Jesus to do hard and difficult things.  But he was secure in God’s presence, love and care.  The disciples clearly weren’t sure. Even though they literally had the presence of God incarnate with them in the boat, they ask Jesus “don’t you care?” And partly, it’s this wondering if God notices or even cares what’s going on that makes the disciples unable to be calm in the midst of the storm…
  • Confident in God’s ability to work through the people and resources that God had surrounded him with – in one sense, Jesus can sleep because he knows the disciples know what to do.  They even have “other boats” full of people around them to help.  Jesus knows God is with him, but he also knows he’s not alone and God has provided other people and other boats to help him get through the storm.  The disciples seem to lose sight of this. It’s easy to feel alone in the midst of a storm, even when you’re surrounded by others.  And the disciples don’t seem to be looking for or recognizing God’s help in the midst of the community they’re with…
  • Certain that the storm would end – this doesn’t take divine knowledge to figure out.  The storms will always end, and on the Sea of Galilee they often end quickly.  The storm is not all there is, and even in the midst of it, Jesus can see beyond it.  The disciples don’t seem to be able to do that.  They panic and tell Jesus, “we’re all gonna die!”

And so Jesus does something they clearly don’t expect – he stops the storm.  He says, “Peace!  Be still!”  But I wonder if these words aren’t directed as much at the disciples as they are at the wind and waves.  After all, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples they should have awakened him sooner, or that they were right to panic.

Instead, I sometimes get the sense that Jesus thinks the disciples really were managing things quite well with the gifts and resources God gave them.  But he also realizes that unless he calms the storm, they won’t stop panicking and let him get back to sleep!

Now I always feel like I’m WAY more like the disciples than like Jesus when I’m living through storms in my life.  Maybe it’s like that for you, too.  But unlike the disciples, rather than just being awed by Jesus’ ability to calm the storm – and hoping that somehow Jesus will stop the storms in our lives, maybe we should work on deepening the faith that Jesus called the first disciples to grow into.

And the faith that Jesus calls us to is not the faith that the storms won’t happen to us, but rather the faith that helps us to be:

  • More secure in our relationship with God – that is, a deeper sense that God really is with us and is actively caring for us, especially in the midst of the storms of our lives; and often, that means finding ways to deepen our connection to God through whatever helps us to feel God’s presence – whether prayer, worship, Bible reading, or taking long walks that give God space to speak to our hearts …
  • Confident in God’s willingness and ability to work through people and resources around us to help us through our storms – like the disciples, it’s easy to feel alone when we’re in the midst of the storm even when we know intellectually that’s not true; and often, paying attention to the people and the opportunities that God places in our lives can be signs and vehicles of God’s help to get us through the storm…
  • Certain that whatever storm we’re in won’t last, and it won’t be the final word in our lives – Jesus’ death and Resurrection reminds us that even the storm that DOES kill us will not ultimately be the end of us; God’s promise of life wins out even over death, and no storm ultimately prevails; sometimes, the faith that helps us keep that perspective can help us stay grounded and calm no matter how bad the storm gets…

Like the first disciples, storms in our lives come and go.  Sometimes, they seem mild, and at other times they seem like they’re gonna kill us.

But whatever storm we find ourselves in, Jesus’ reminds us that God’s love, care and presence is always with us.  No matter what storm we find ourselves in, God is always working in and through others around us to help us deal with the storm.  And no matter what storm we find ourselves in, Jesus promises us that no storm will last forever, and that no storm will finally have the last word in our lives.