The Perfect Storm was a movie released in late June of 2000. Based on a non-fictional book by the same name, the story gave a harrowing account of New England fishing fleets’ encounter with the `storm of the century.’ In October, 1991, a rare combination of atmospheric factors converged to create, what meteorologists called “the perfect storm,” with hurricane force winds and waves cresting 100 feet high. It came without warning, and the story tells about those boats that made it to safe harbor and those that did not, the heroic rescues by the Coast Guard, and detailed accounts of what it’s like to be on a small boat, in this case the Andrea Gail, in the middle of a devastating storm.
It is a discomforting movie to watch. The Andrea Gail goes down in the end, her skipper looking up through a porthole as it disappears in the watery gloom. In the last scene, the captain’s brave first mate, donning a life-preserver, is seen drifting alone in a vast sea, bobbing up and down amidst towering, windblown breakers.
I’ve only watched that movie once; but the final scene is one that tends to stick with you. Although, I must confess, I prefer movies with happy endings; where, despite challenges and obstacles, everything turns out alright in the end.
This was an important story to the early church; it’s recorded in three of the four Gospels.
In Matthew’s version, when the disciples saw Jesus walking toward them across the stormy seas, at first they thought he was a ghost. Jesus says, “It’s me.” And Peter says, “If it’s really you, then call me to come to you. And so Jesus calls Peter to walk on the water with him. And Peter starts to sink because of lack of faith.
But today’s story is not about Jesus calling us to step out of the boat in faith.
Mark’s Gospel tells a story about Jesus being asleep in the boat as they cross the sea together and a storm comes up and the disciples are panicking and say, “Don’t you care that we’re sinking, Lord? And Jesus says, “Peace, be still!” And the waves and the wind immediately become still. And Jesus says, “Why were you afraid? Have you no faith?”
But this story is not about Jesus calming the storm.
Today’s story in John is about something else.
It’s about Jesus coming to us mysteriously in the midst of the storm and being in the boat with us in the very eye of the storm.
In his book First You Have to Row a Little Boat, author and master sailor Richard Bode wrote about – what sailors call – “the presumption of dominion”: “We believe we own the world, that it belongs to us, that we have it under our firm control . . .” But the sailor knows all too well the fallacy of this view.
“The hurricane, the typhoon, the sudden squall are all sharp reminders of the puniness of man when measured against the momentous forces of nature. We are not in total charge of our fate. We are subject to death, accident, disease. We can, without warning, lose love, work, home” (p.24)
And, in fact, that’s just what happened to Richard Bode. In a relatively short amount of time his parents both died; then his thirty-year marriage suddenly ended. Bode reflects on something a kindly old Sunday school teacher taught him, “that there was a grand design, that an all-knowing deity ruled heaven and earth with a purpose in mind. I wanted to believe her,” wrote Bode, “it was a comfort to think that what she said was true. But the more I sailed the more convinced I became that she deluded herself, that life was a lot more confused and chaotic than she dared to admit” (p. 90).
The longer we live, the more life experience we gain, the more we, perhaps, realize that `the presumption of dominion’ is largely an illusion. The vast percentage of things which happen in life are beyond our control.
A couple picks up stakes and moves to begin a new job in another state, buys a house, spends weeks fixing it up, finally moves in to be informed a week later that the job was `down-sized.’
At the end of a routine physical, the doctor says, “I’m admitting you to the hospital. You need by-pass surgery tomorrow.”
A child comes home for summer vacation and announces, “Mom, dad, I’m dropping out of college to play in rock band.”
During a Wednesday night Bible study, a young, crazed, hate-filled gunman suddenly opens fire at Emmanuel AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people of faith.
While, on that same day the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, a Christian built by Palestinians on the banks of the Galilean Sea near the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is torched by Israeli settlers and burns to the ground.
Life is sailing along just fine, and suddenly a squall brews up out of nowhere and life changes dramatically. And we discover that the only thing we’re really completely in control of is how we respond to life’s unexpected events.
Those fishermen turned disciples knew what it was like to be in a small boat on a stormy sea. Such a possibility was an occupational hazard. But also because in those early days of the church, Christian disciples represented a small, relatively insignificant minority in every city. And, as such, they were tormented, persecuted, hunted down, arrested, tortured and executed by the most powerful entity the world had ever know: the Roman Empire.
Such possibilities were occupational hazards for those early disciples.
The early church loved this story because it reminded them that – in the midst of all the turmoil and the struggle – they were not alone in the boat. They had each other. And, most importantly, they had Jesus Christ with them in the boat.
“We are all in the [same] boat,” says Fred Craddock. “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 each other pep talks, “We can make it. We can make it,” which, Craddock says, can actually help a lot; because we are all in the boat together. We can’t control the weather. We cannot fix the world.
“We aren’t in charge,” as Richard Bode writes. “But we can decide how we respond to the storms life throws our way.”
With all due respect to Richard Bode’s reflection on Sunday school lessons, I do belief that God has a grand purpose. Not that storms won’t arise in life; and sometimes with devastating effect. But I do believe that, in the midst of all that chaos and disorder that we encounter in this world, God, is somehow still present.
Emmanuel: God with us. That’s his name. Jesus Christ.
I guess I just still have to believe that God has a happy ending in store for us all. That somehow, often in ways beyond our comprehension, Christ will bring us safely through the storm. And it’s my faith in that very promise that ultimately determines how I do respond to the unexpected squalls that come up.
Many are saying that we, in America, have found ourselves suddenly caught up in the `perfect storm.’ That all the critical socio-political conditions have converged to create a cultural tempest the likes of which this country has –rarely, if ever – seen. One which – some would forecast – threatens to capsize the structures, institutions and principles upon which this great nation was launched. So many today feel as though they are drifting helplessly in a sea of chaos and confusion.
And yet, in this menacing national sea-change, the stabilizing ballast for Jesus’ disciples remains the knowledge that he is still in the boat with us. And for John’s Gospel, that very knowledge is power; because it’s a knowledge that refuses to be objectified or undermined or distorted or controlled. It is not knowledge that seeks to individualize or tribalize or relativize reality; but rather one which reveals a reality that is relational and that is buoyed by compassion, love and unity.
This nation – which is great and has always been great – will remain so because its people remember that its greatness is not the product of one person or one party; but rather is the result of us – all of us – being in unifying relationship with each other and holding forth those things which promote the greater good for us all: liberty, freedom, equality, justice.
Several years ago, there was a story widely reported about a ten year old boy in Massachusetts with leukemia. During the course of his chemotherapy, he lost all of his hair. His parents said he had been very anxious about being embarrassed going back to school completely bald. The day came for him to return to his elementary school; a day he had been dreading. But when he walked into the school that day, he encountered his principle, his teacher, and every one of his classmates with their heads completely shaved; bald just like him.
When he was dying from bonecancer, the late John Carmody, (at the time Professor of Religion at Santa Clara University, CA) wrote a book entitled Psalms for Times of Trouble. In the introduction Carmody wrote: “Trouble is everywhere. You can have completely healthy bones and still suffer severe pain, physical or emotional. You can face huge problems that threaten to plow you under. Though you avoid alcohol and drugs, you can lose your job, or suffer a heart attack. Though you do your job conscientiously and say your prayers at night, you can find yourself the victim of gossip or aching loneliness. Teenagers can be desperately unhappy, but so can old people. Women can worry themselves sick, but so do men. Trouble spares no one.” (p. 5)
Then Carmody, in one of the first psalms of his book affirms:
“O God, incline unto my aid
Lord, make haste to help me
In the dead of night
I hear the furies howl
Without your support, I fall down and down
But you, my God, can stop my falling . . .” (p.15)
When the doctor bears bad news, when the body betrays, when the marriage fails, when the company abandons, when the economy crashes, when violence overcomes; in the dead of night, in the greatest of turmoil, in the midst of the whirlwind, in Jesus Christ, God promises to be with us, to help us through whatever storms in life we are facing.
(Grateful acknowledgement to John Buchanan for much inspiration and some content in developing this sermon.)