There you are, making a familiar journey, doing a regular task, engaged in ordinary life and suddenly a storm engulfs you. The doctor calls because your annual test has revealed something concerning. There’s a phone call in the middle of the night. The governor locks down the state because of a strange new threat called COVID 19. Someone close to you asks, “Can we talk.”
Suddenly you are on high alert. All but the essentials seem unimportant. You rearrange your schedule. Make time for things when you thought you had no time. Change completely the way you have been functioning. All your energy is focused on coping with the terror of the unknown and the fear that engulfs you.
That’s what happened as Jesus and his closest followers were crossing the Sea of Galilee. It’s a trip they had taken countless times before and takes a few hours. In daylight you can across the lake to the far shore. It’s quicker to take the boat across than it is to walk around. Many of the disciples lived beside the lakeshore and made their living fishing on its surface. They often fished at night so it made sense that they would make their journey back in the evening. Jesus had been teaching and healing all day and would be called upon for more the next day. It was no big deal. They’d be back before morning.
Out of nowhere the wind increased. A great wind on a fairly small lake can cause a great deal of havoc. A calm, quiet, evening journey home was suddenly a chaotic, dangerous and possibly deadly event. All the boats were swamping. The psalmist describes a similar event:
“A stormy wind arose, which tossed high the waves of the sea. They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths, their hearts melted because of their peril. They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end.”
Scary things happen on bodies of water. It’s why so many are fascinated by the show, “The Deadliest Catch” about fishing in Alaska. We’ve heard too many stories about drownings in lakes, sneaker waves carrying people out to sea, and this past week about a diver being caught up in the mouth of a humpback whale! If you’re not a bit on edge and alert when out on the water, you’re not paying enough attention.
So it’s really upsetting to the disciples that Jesus is sleeping through this crisis. How is that even possible? They had to literally wake him up! He’s either oblivious, or he doesn’t care, or both. They’re scared and their fear turns to blame. He isn’t paying attention. He doesn’t sympathize with how difficult things are for them. He’s not fixing the problem. He’s distant, disengaged, an absent Messiah. Their fear pushes out their faith and they can no longer recognize Jesus for who he truly is. They accuse him of not caring.
It takes only three words for Jesus to calm the storm and bring a dead calm. Can you imagine it? All that chaos and noise and motion simply ends in an instant. No more bailing or clinging to the side of the boat or screaming. As suddenly as the crisis sprang up, it now is over.
That’s when the reckoning and reflection begin. I can imagine them sitting there stunned, soaking wet, their hearts still pounding, but now with amazement. Their fear of the storm has transitioned to a fear and awe towards Jesus. Who is this? He’s been with us this whole time but maybe we haven’t really recognized him. He got us through the worse we can imagine. Why did we doubt?
Of course that’s Jesus’s question too. “Have you still no faith?” It sounds like an accusation, but maybe it’s offered as an opportunity for reflection, a chance to deepen and strengthen faith for the many tests and trials that lie ahead. After all, these same disciples don’t realize it but the storm isn’t the worst thing that will happen to them. Ahead of them is the cross with all the pain, suffering, shame and rejection that this world can dish out. Even with Jesus present in their lives, none of them will escape tribulation and the great sorrow of death.
This continues to be true for us as well. As the nation celebrates Juneteenth and the end to slavery, we know that the trauma and damage is not over. The most authentic celebrations have been happening for years in the Black community and include prayer, the reading of the emancipation proclamation and the powerful witness of a community that will not forget and will continue to work for the full promise of equality in every aspect of our society.
On June 5 we remembered the 40 year anniversary of the first diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS. It hit like a storm, devastating first the gay community and then continuing its deadly spread into communities of color and around the globe. For far too long, those most affected were left alone in the boat without rescue, assistance or compassion. Fear isolated people from one another. Fear and prejudice even claimed that HIV/AIDS was punishment for the sin of homosexuality.
And now as we begin to emerge from the fear and isolation that COVID has brought, none of us are untouched. We have been anxious and traumatized. Some of us have been sick and others have died. Our lives have been suddenly disrupted.
In these difficult circumstances, it is natural for us to ask, “Jesus, do you not care that we are perishing?” God may seem distant, disengaged, powerless, a mirage. We lose touch with Jesus. It becomes harder to hear his words, “Peace, be still” and to move forward trusting that God will never leave or abandon us. God will never stop caring for and loving us. God will be with us in the calm after the storm to bring us through to the other side.
In the aftermath, these experiences can help to move us from fear into courage. The strength of the Black community to resist the dehumanizing and oppressive forms of racism that continue to this day is worth celebrating. The determination and insistence of the LGBTQ community to stand up for their worth and for full inclusion in spite of rejection and discrimination is worth celebrating. And one day, when COVID is under control and there are no more outbreaks of infection and death, we will remember what it took to come through to the other side and what we hold as most precious.
As James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson wrote in the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray