Several summers ago, the Times newspaper carried the following story:
A young girl who was blown out to sea on a set of inflatable teeth was rescued by a man on an inflatable lobster. A coastguard spokesman commented 'this sort of thing is all too common.'
Given the gospel reading, this story conjured up some very odd images in my mind as I contemplated the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea...watching all sorts of odd inflatable objects - teeth and lobsters included - pass them by.
I used to sail a lot when I lived in Australia, but thankfully never encountered the kind of storm that the disciples were hit with when crossing the Sea of Galilee. And what is really striking in the story is that these were tough men, several of whom were experienced sailors, fishermen who made their living from the sea. And they were terrified... which just emphasises the absolute severity of the storm that they were faced with.
The other striking thing about the story?
In the midst of the raging storm, the howling gale, the lashing of the waves and the boat being thrown about like a wee matchbox...
is that at the other end of the boat Jesus is sound asleep, totally oblivious to what's going on. While physically he's there with them, in every way that counts it seems that he's not.
It had all been so very different just hours earlier. Jesus and the disciples had been surrounded by eager crowds - so many in fact that Jesus had hopped in the boat and was teaching from it. He told them parables: stories about a sower sowing seed, lamps and bushels, mustard seeds. The crowd was receptive, it had been a good day and as day had crept into evening, he said to the disciples 'let's cross over to the other side.' They sailed away from the shore, from the crowds, and, as Jesus - exhausted from his teaching, exhausted from the crowd's demands - sailed into the land of Nod, the boat sailed into a sudden and unexpected storm.
Within the space of a few hours, it felt as if the disciples' world had turned upside-down. They had been happily chuntering along, things had been going along nicely, smoothly and now... quite literally, they felt swamped and all at sea and scared.
And so, they woke Jesus up... Jesus who had managed to sleep so soundly in the midst of the turmoil that it made the disciples feel even more afraid and abandoned and alone.
They woke him up, and you can almost hear them yelling at him in their fear:
'Teacher, don't you care? Don't you care that we're about to die?!'
They'd done everything that they knew how to do to weather the storm. They were at the end of the resources; at the end of their rope. They'd learned, as they had walked with Jesus, that he had extraordinary powers and abilities. They'd seen his heart of caring compassion. And here, on what felt like the worst night of their lives, they looked to the person they exptected to help them...
and Jesus was sound asleep.
'Don't you care that we're about to die?'
Sometimes in our own lives we find ourselves chuntering on quite happily in the normal, cheery, humdrum routine of our lives. And then something out of the ordinary happens that completely shakes our very lives to their foundations:
the job we thought secure disappears because of the credit crunch;
a sudden illness occurs;
a relationship or friendship founders through a misunderstanding, or because of some ill-judged words;
we grieve the death of someone we love....
So many unexpected things that come like storms in our lives, creating chaos, causing confusion... and like the disciples we can feel scared, and abandoned, and alone... as if Jesus is asleep at the back of the boat, while we're in turmoil.
And in the same way that the disciples did, we find ourselves almost yelling:
'don't you care Lord?'
and we might add:
'are you so indifferent to all this mess, this stress, this pain, that you can sleep right through it?'
And yet, while the disciples felt - and while we might feel abandoned by God's seeming indifference...
we ... are... not.
We cry out 'don't you care, Lord?' and perhaps find the answer to our question, our heart's cry as we remember parables:
the parable of the mustard seed and resting in the shelter of God;
the parable of the sower and God's abundant, extravagant love...
We're reminded that God loves us beyond our wildest imaginings, that God's love is everywhere, ever-present - even in the midst of the worst of storms.
And... it's absolutely okay to cry out to God - and even shake our fist.
Like the disciples, when we cry out to God, we're doing exactly the right thing. In fact, God invites us to cry out:
we're told to ask, to seek, to knock... to pound on the door of heaven.
Paradoxically, even though Jesus rebukes the disciples for lack of faith, the very act of crying out demonstrates that somewhere, deep in the core of those who cry out is enough faith to know that they - that we - will be listened to.
I wonder if underlying the rebuke is more a question of:
'why didn't you ask me first?'
'why did you try to do everything you could under your own strength... and only when everything else had failed, call me? Last...!'
You can almost see the disciples as the waves break in and the storm is furious. They do the one thing that is left to do.
They'd done everything else...
they finally get Jesus involved - they cry out.
And we cry out... and sometimes I wonder if that sense of abandonment by God is more due to our own habit of just getting on with things, and forgetting to ask God in the first place... not quite seeing that God's in the boat?
As the disciples, and as we find ourselves in the places of storm and tempest we cry out to God: 'don't you care, Lord?'
And as we do, we find out that the God who we thought was absent, or asleep, has actually been there with us all along,
right in the midst of the storm,
right there in our boat, wide awake,
right there hearing our cries,
right there feeling our pain...
and even though he knows we're sometimes so very slow to understand just who he is, and that his love is both abundant and ever-present...
in the midst of the turmoil, in the midst of the storm,
Jesus, the storm-stiller, the peace-bringer, brings us to a place of calm and gets us through the storm and across to the other side.
The disciples woke Jesus saying 'don't you care that we're about to die?'
And in response, Jesus got up and said three things:
to the wind: 'be quiet'...
to the waves: 'be still'...
and then, to the disciples: 'why are you frightened? Have you still no faith?'
And then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
And the result?
They were all relieved, had a good laugh, and sailed to the other side singing a cheerful song....
Well, that's what might have happened if the story had been re-written as a Hollywood movie - but we know that's not what happened.
The result, according to our writer, is that the disciples were still terrified, but now not of the storm. The disciples were terrified and they asked each other:
'Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him.'
Having cried out to Jesus and expected him to do something, Jesus indeed does do something:
something so utterly unexpected, so utterly astonishing, that they are forced once again in their journey to think again about this man they are following.
Much of the turmoil in our lives isn't simply the turmoil from outer circumstances, it's the turmoil that churns within us, tearing us apart. We cry out to God and then, to our astonishment, we discover that God comes. In fact, that God is already here. God is not absent, but present, and God speaks to the storm that is within our turbulent and tossed spirits.
God, who knows our cry, knows what it means to be in a boat swamped by the storm, and yet has the power to give peace and strength and help even in the midst of such incredibly difficult, very scary circumstances. The disciples cried out for peace and God, made flesh in Jesus, met them at their point of need.
And as we cry out to God, God meets us at our point of need as well, because God is right here in the middle of all our need, our despair, our pain, our chaos, our fear.
The disciples - who knew what a storm was like - watched Jesus answer their cry... and knew that they were in way over their heads.
'Who is this?'
And it was to be a question they would find themselves asking again and again and again as they journeyed with him... thinking they knew him, thinking they had his measure, until something extraordinary would happen along the way to teach them that they were on a life-journey of discovering who this Jesus was.
Again and again, as the disciples, and as we, continure to follow Jesus, part of the ongoing, unfolding discovery is that we are following no ordinary man.
And in a post-script to the story, thinking about that earlier story from the Times - in my mind's eye I can almost see the small boat sailing across the now becalmed sea, to the other side, and Jesus quietly smiling to himself, as he watches various inflatable teeth and lobsters floating gently by....