At the Helm – March 25th

Luke 8:22-25 One day Jesus and his disciples boarded a boat. He said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” So they set sail. While they were sailing, he fell asleep. Gale-force winds swept down on the lake. The boat was filling up with water and they were in danger. So they went and woke Jesus, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” But he got up and gave orders to the wind and the violent waves. The storm died down and it was calm.

We’re not quite sure what to do with stories like this: The disciples in a boat in a storm, Jesus asleep, Jesus ordering the storm to be still. One of my suspicions is that the average person hears a story like this and at some level simply stops listening. “Things like that don’t happen. There’s nothing anyone can say that will make the storms stop.”

It raises questions. Can God intercede in natural processes? Is that what God’s sovereignty means, and if so, why doesn’t God do it more consistently? Or did God set it all up and then sit back to watch stuff happen, the wonderful, marvelous, tragic, and terrible? It’s a big issue, but for now let’s think about those friends of Jesus in their boat in that storm.

A little wooden boat in the middle of a raging storm, hard-working, blue collar folks who know about physical challenges, who aren’t afraid of much in life, but at the moment they’re scared to death. They think they’re going to die. Some are furiously rowing, some are bailing because the sea is coming over the top each time they head into a wave, and some are tugging at the sail, which is now almost useless. Someone still has the rudder, and they’re all thinking about their families and friends. They think this is it.

And Jesus is asleep. How in the world does anybody sleep in the middle of something like that? So they shake him awake. “Don’t you care that we’re about to go down? How about helping out a little bit, doing what you can?” And he does. Jesus says, “Peace! Be still!”

So what is in this story? Well, for one thing, in that world, 2,000 years ago, the water the little boat was floating on was the abode of demons, “the enemies of all that is good and right.” Water means chaos and threat. “In the beginning,” the Bible says, “the earth was a formless void” and it was all water and God created by bringing order, by separating the water. The psalmists write of Leviathan, the sea great monster that lurks in the deep. When Moses leads the people to freedom, it is by separating the water and leading them through the sea.

But we don’t believe there are demons in the water anymore so we miss that in this story, that layer of deeper fear. But if they aren’t in the water, where are they? I suggest that our demons are located where our fears are. Fear is the demon, the enemy of all that is good and right and hopeful. Fear of scarcity can cause us to pull in our generosity. Fear of insecurity can make us suspicious and even cruel. Fear of what might happen can cause us to lower our sights, pull in our hopes, and live a fraction of the life to which we are called.

The early church loved this story. In fact, one of the earliest symbols of the Christian church is a ship heading into a storm. The early church knew what it meant to be in a little boat in a stormy sea. Small, insignificant, a tiny minority in every city, and then tormented, persecuted, hunted down, arrested, tortured, executed by the most powerful entity in the world, the Roman Empire, the early church loved this story of the disciples in the boat and Jesus calming the storm. In it hey heard that they weren’t alone. They had each other and they had Christ, who was very much in the boat with them and whose commitment to them produced calm and comfort and peace even in the midst of the most violent of storms.

Thinking about this story caused me to remember a little book I read years ago, First You Have to Row a Little Boat by Richard Bode. It’s about the author’s lifelong love of sailing and what it has taught him about life and ultimate things. Bode says that sailing taught him about the relationships between himself and the elements over which he has no control. You have to use whatever the weather gives you. You can’t control it.
We live with the illusion that we are in control until the hurricane, the sudden squall, the death, the accident, the pandemic…

One of the most significant sources of the unhealthy stress is the reality that we aren’t in control of very much. Our spring winds are starting to kick up and we can’t anything but complain. There isn’t a bag of flour to be found in the stores and no one can make one magically appear. It is the wisest and kindest thing to isolate ourselves which means we don’t get to gather to worship, or chat, or simply sit together. We know well what it’s like to be in a little boat in a big storm. Sometimes storms come, like the one swirling around us now.

We’re all in the boat, aren’t we? Some of us are rowing, some are bailing, some are pulling at the sail, some are praying. We can whistle and sing. We can give pep talks to each other… But you know what? There’s somebody else in the boat with us, back there in the stern, not far from the tiller actually, quiet but present with all the strength and courage and peace of God in him.

And the truth of this story is that there is no storm, no threat, no chaos that can undo us or negate us or destroy us because he is there with us. The truth is that the Lord of the universe, Almighty God, is in this boat and therefore, no matter what is going on, we are ultimately safe; although all hell is breaking loose, we are safe in his love.

There is a verse credited to St. Francis: “All my life thou hast been at the helm though very secretly.”

That is the truth of this little story.