Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Ten knots of steady breeze, no waves, slightly overcast (less likely to burn), a willing crew, skipper in a good mood, and worthy adversaries on the racecourse. Is that too much to ask?

Sadly, we rarely get the race we want. We sail on what is affectionately known as “Slumber Bay,” notorious for evenings without wind. And when you do get the wind you want, it can disappear in the face of something called the summer inversion, somehow related to a city filled with hot air.

And then there is the wave action, amplified by travelling across the lake, and prone to strange behavior as it approaches the shore. It tends to reflect off the lee shore, meaning your trip in and out of the basin can induce something the French like to call the “mal de mare.”

At least Humber Bay doesn’t have sharks. I recently learned that I will soon live 25 minutes from the shark bite capital of the world, a rather sobering thought. Add pythons and alligators, and I suppose you’ll find me indoors. Also, Humber Bay has no whales, which I truly appreciate after reading last week’s updated Jonah story.

A lobster diver was working off the coast of Cape Cod when he felt a large bump. Everything went dark, and he assumed he was losing consciousness after a shark bite. Not so! He was, in fact, in the mouth of a humpback whale. What followed was likely the longest and most terrifying 30 seconds of his life, until the whale thought better of the snack, surfaced, and spit him out. Clearly, we need to reconsider how we view some Bible stories.

And this got me thinking. Every year we hear about a certain storm on the Sea of Galilee, usually in summer, and we look at it as a stand-alone miracle story. We talk about faith and trust, and Jesus’ unusual relationship with the natural world—as a stand-alone miracle story. But what about other stories—storm stories—found in the pages of scripture? What can we learn when we take these stories together? I’m thinking of two others, beginning with a certain prophet fleeing to Tarshish (not Cape Cod) and then our old friend St. Paul, who also had an adventure on the sea.

The thing about Jonah is we tend to get so caught up in the digestive part of the story we neglect what came before. And since I’m a huge fan of how the story of Jonah is told, I’m going to share the good bits in the middle:

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

Notice the sudden nature of the storm, just like the Sea of Galilee, and the fact that our protagonist finds the whole thing rather soothing. But the sailors see the peril here, just like the disciples, and begin to make a plan. First they wake up Jonah and suggest his God lend a hand. Then they cast lots to discover who is responsible—not in a malicious way—but to understand the nature of the threat. When they discover it’s Jonah, they pepper him with questions, and soon understand the problem.

We tend to forget that it’s Jonah who suggests he be thrown overboard, something the sailors refuse to do. First, it would be rude, and second it’s bad luck to throw someone overboard, and finally, racers can be disqualified if they do it. Odd that they need a specific rule for that.

So hold that story in your mind while we look at a third “storm at sea” passage, this one from Paul’s journey to Rome found in Acts 27. Paul has been arrested, and claimed his right—as a Roman citizen—to appeal the charge before Caesar. Naturally, he would go by sea, except that winter had begun. Yet Paul was determined to get to Rome.

Again, I’m going to share a short passage, mostly because it proves to me that the author (Luke) was both a physician and a sailor:

13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, 17 so the men hoisted it aboard.

His reference to a specific point of sail (“head into the wind”) and the leeward passage near Cauda tells me all I need to know about Luke the sailor.

So the journey continues with Paul having second thoughts—not about going to Rome—but about putting the crew at risk for the sake of this passage. I encourage you to read all of Acts 27—a true adventure story. It ends with an intentional shipwreck, at Paul’s suggestion, to ensure all their lives be saved.

So three storms for three very different reasons. The first is an effort to stop Jonah, the second is an effort to stop the unbelief of the twelve, and the third is just a storm—a Nor’easter, to be precise. In the first, God makes the storm, in the second God (in Jesus) unmakes the storm, and in the third, the storm is just a storm. Or is it?

Maybe the storm is a test of character, for Paul, and for the crew of this vessel. Again, it’s a longer story, but the sailors show strength of character but not casting Paul adrift, by trusting his assurances about God’s protection, and by trusting his suggestion for a controlled shipwreck. They passed the test.

Likewise, the story of Jesus and the twelve is a test of character, but not the one that’s obvious. If the test is having faith in the face of the storm, we see the outcome. But if the test is showing awe in the face deliverance, then they mostly pass. “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Even asking the question takes them a step closer to accepting that this is God’s doing—God’s endless desire to save.

And finally back to poor Jonah, the reluctant prophet, and the ultimate inside man. He also seems to fail the test of character, running in the exact opposite direction from this appointed destination, but he still goes to Nineveh. Humbled, smelly, even forsaken by the hungry monster, but he still goes to Nineveh. He might be the ultimate victim of the mal de mare (for the whale), but he still goes to Nineveh.

And this is all God asks of us. If your life is a shipwreck, try to save others on the way. If the storms of life have you in a panic, accept that Jesus is in the same boat. And if you’re swallowed up by all that life sends you, and feeling trapped inside, trust that you too will land in a better place, with God to guide you.


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