Life for Jesus’ first disciples must have felt like a continual journey from the known into the unknown. We’re told that they left homes, left families, left livelihoods, left everything they had expected in life. All in order to trek behind an itinerant rabbi who continuously baffled them with his miracles and preaching.
Today’s scripture begins at the end of a day full of crowds and teaching. At evening he suggests that they all get in a boat and travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This crossing is yet another trip from the known to the unknown; Jesus is taking them from Galilee into a largely non-Jewish area known as the Decapolis. So the disciples, grumbling perhaps, tell the crowd to go away. They have Jesus come on to the boat “Just as he was.”
Tired. Weary. Without pretense or affectation.
The weary Jesus gets aboard and curls up in the stern to sleep as his followers hoist a sail to ease the labor of their rowing toward the opposite shore. They traveled across the sea. In the dark. Toward somewhere they didn’t know. At the behest of a man they did not comprehend.
It wasn’t an ideal circumstance to begin with, and then it got worse. The wind kicked up and a storm started. The waves began to swamp the boat. Jesus just slept, oblivious to the strain and labors of those around him. After a bit of this, they wake Jesus up, shouting. “How can you sleep! Don’t you even care about us!”
The men around Jesus want him to join them in their panic alarm upsetness.
That’s not unusual. We may also look for company in our misery and agitation. We want people to be upset and distressed about the same things we are upset about. Any of us who have ever said, “Why aren’t you upset!” know at least a little bit about how the disciples felt. And sometimes we may even want the Holy One to be upset about the same things we are.
So…the disciples try to suck Jesus into their emotional vortex. But they don’t get what they were looking for. Jesus wakes up, grumpy, and tells the wind and waves to shut up, basically. Then he reprimands his companions for being afraid. Some translations say he called them cowards, a harsh insult.
This scripture is often taken as a lesson of Jesus’ presence in the turmoil and chaos of our lives…as a reminder to stop stressing and straining at the oars and remember that Jesus is with us to calm the storm.
Or perhaps this scripture reminds us to wake up the presence of Christ each of us carries within us. It reminds us that we each carry an inner presence, an inner spirit that we can awaken to help us feel peaceful.
All of which is helpful and true to our faith.
A couple commentators I read this week, though, raised an entirely different point: What if the disciples were more frightened after the storm? Sure, they were terrified during the storm. But wouldn’t it also be frightening to be riding with someone who had just told the winds to shut up? Storms, at least, were familiar. But this? A commentator named David Lose suggests that the last line in this scripture has the disciples saying, “who the heck is this guy?”
Jesus had challenged the disciples’ basic understandings, and brought a new level of strangeness into life. A new kind of apprehension. A new aspect to their experience of living with Mystery. If they were confused before, they really didn’t know what they were dealing with, now.
More that 30 years ago, in a poem called “Maybe,” the poet Mary Oliver had a similar thought:
Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down
silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
But you know how it is
the threshold—the uncles
the women walk away,
the younger brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Oliver knows that we don’t welcome what we don’t understand. We don’t welcome what challenges us to new spiritual growth and understandings and ways of living. This happens because, she says: “Nobody knows what the soul is.”
And maybe nobody really wants to know. Because we will be changed.
Or maybe we will remember our souls, once in a while, “like a tremor of pure sunlight,” says Oliver. And we will conjure up the memory of Jesus:
Tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was—
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.
This scripture challenges us to consider how we will relate to the One who is with us as we navigate the unknown…as we journey into unknown places. It may be that the Jesus we have asked to be with us is not who we think he is…or is more than we think he is. Surely we can learn to be calm; the storms around us may even subside once in a while. And there is more than that…
…as we move through the unknowns of this time in our world, our communities, our lives it may be that the Holy One among us will move in ways that surprise and challenge…ways that frighten us and threaten what we think we know…ways that disrupt our perspectives and raise questions.
In the midst of that part of our sojourn, may we have hearts open to divine surprise and new revelation in the midst of not knowing exactly where we’re going, individually and collectively. The work of Christ among us sometimes disrupts, sometimes makes us wonder who or what is going on. Sometimes feels unwelcome and strange as it crosses the threshold into our lives. But always, Christ’s presence is among us “tender and luminous and challenging.” Let that be the One we invite to join us, just as he is.
–Rev. Ruth Moerdyk