Stories in Storms
A sermon on Mark 4:35-41
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash.]
Before I begin, I need to offer a content warning, because I know that stories can trigger traumatic memories and I am going to be sharing a story about a near drowning. If that might be too distressing to hear, feel free to mute the first two minutes of this sermon (or all of it, if you need to. Spend the time meditating on our gospel and letting the apostle Mark preach to you).
My story comes from when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, and the near-drowning was mine.
My family was visiting my aunt in Northern California, and we were playing at her community pool. I did not yet know how to swim, but I loved the water, and (without asking for permission) I decided to check-out the deep end of the pool by pulling myself along the side. This was working fine… until my hands slipped.
It happened incredibly fast. I remember scooting along, and then – suddenly – I was under the water looking up at the surface. I have a clear visual memory of seeing my hands above my head, hands that had been my anchor point, but now had nothing to grab onto…
Until – just as suddenly - my aunt’s arm shot down into the water and grabbed my wrist, pulling me out of the pool and onto solid ground in one smooth motion.
Almost before I had time to realize what had happened, my mom was holding me tight, and brushing wet hair out of my face, and checking to make sure I had not breathed in any water.
Even though I was quite young when all of this happened, I have surprisingly clear memories of the experience, but there is one odd thing about these memories: they are not scary.
Thinking back on the incident, I now know how easily it could have ended my life.
And as a mother, I can imagine the terror my own mother must have felt as she held me close after this near-tragedy.
But mymemories do not hold any of that fear.
I was not afraid when my head slipped under the water.
I felt no panic.
I did not flail my limbs trying to swim.
I experienced the water all around me, and then I experienced a saving arm reaching out for me, and that arm is what stands out so clearly in my memory.
I nearly drowned, but I was not afraid because, as an innocent young child, I trusted I would be taken care of.
This memory resurfaced for me this week as I read our gospel story of the disciples being nearly drowned.
I want to be careful in this comparison, because my naïve fearlessness as a child was not a personal virtue, and the disciples’ reasonable fear was not a moral failing. Not only were they old enough to have lost the childish trust that we will always be protected (because that just is not true), they also had much more time to contemplate their danger.
They had time to watch the storm rising, and to realize they were too far out to sea to make it to safety. Their bodies had time to register and respond to the chaos of the elements around them. The howl of the wind filled their ears as the waves washed over the sides, taking their feet out from under them.
Whereas I lost my grip on security for only a few seconds, their whole world was destabilized, and there was nothing solid for which they could even reach… except, maybe, for Jesus.
And so, they woke him with the question that I never had to ask: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
As I contemplated the difference between this near-drowning story and my own, it occurred to me that the key difference between what it was like to experience these two stories was that question: “do you not care?”
Even though the water never closed over the disciples’ heads as it did over mine, they were terrified where I was not, because they didn’t know if they had a protector who would save them from danger.
Again, I don’t think this uncertainty was a moral failing on their part. They had legitimate reasons to be terrified.
The evidence of their danger was all around them, and they knew how real that danger was. As fishermen, and members of coastal communities, they would have doubtless known people who had been lost in the sudden squalls that could come out of nowhere on the Sea of Galilee.
And although they had seen Jesus perform miracles, they had no guarantee that Jesus could or would calm the life-threatening storm.
And layered on top of all that uncertainty, while their bodies were pumping with fight or flight adrenaline, Jesus lay sleeping on a cushion– seemingly unconcerned about the chaos all around them.
In that situation, who wouldn’t roughly shake Jesus awake with a question that is really more an accusation?
“Don’t you care, Jesus?” They asked. “We are all about to die, can’t you even be bothered to wake up?”
I wonder if the gospel writer was intentionally foreshadowing Jesus’s question to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Can’t you stay awake for one hour?” When any of us, even Jesus himself, face our most desperate hour, it’s instinctive to see betrayal in the apparent indifference of our friends.
So, no. I don’t blame the disciples for their fear, or even for their question. I don’t think the point of this story is about blame.
But I do think this story opens our eyes to the compounding trauma we experience when fear takes over.
In her commentary on this story Debie Thomas observes that, “the problem isn’t fear; the problem is where fear leads.”
For anyone who has lived enough of life to be truly hurt, fear in the face of danger is unavoidable. Our bodies are wired for it, and our minds can use it to make snap-decisions to protect ourselves in situations of peril.
But those same instincts can also hurt us.
On a physical level, doctors warn us about the chronic, debilitating impacts of toxic stress. When the danger we face is emotional rather than physical, or on-going rather than temporary – the physical stress response can do us more harm than good.
And on a spiritual level the impact can be just as profound, tensing us in a permanent state of fight or flight, where trust – even trust in God –becomes dangerous and our instinct is accusation.
“The problem isn’t the fear; the problem is where fear leads.”
The problem is looking for evidence of betrayal, rather than evidence of concern.
The problem is lashing out in anger, rather than reaching out for help.
The problem is seeing Jesus not acting as fast as we think he should, and assuming that means he doesn’t care.
Researcher-story-teller Brene Brown has described this dynamic of “where fear leads us” as “the stories we tell ourselves.”
She explains that “Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we're in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it. This story doesn't have to be based on any real information…. If we feel exposed or hurt, we find someone to blame, or blame ourselves before anyone else can, or pretend we don't care.”
In the storm on the Sea of Galilee the disciples made up a story about how Jesus didn’t care about their danger.
It wasn’t an accurate story, or even a helpful one, but it offered them some sense of order in the total chaos in the storm, because it gave them an explanation of why he was so inexplicably asleep, an explanation that let them be angry. And anger is a much easier emotion to hold than fear.
From the comfort of dry land, we can see that the story they were telling themselves only added to their trauma.
To their fear of the storm, they had only added the pain of betrayal and abandonment, and the suspicion that they had put their trust in someone who didn’t value their lives.
But the point of this sermon is not to diagnose their errors, but to encourage us all that we have a better story to tell. A story not of abandonment, but of salvation. A story not of fear and anger, but of grace.
And that story is here in our gospel as well. It’s in the order of what Jesus did in response to their accusing question.
He woke up. And he rebuked the chaos of the storm. And only then did he call them to question the story they had been telling themselves.
He showed that he DID care, even when accused him of the opposite. He showed them by stilling the storm before it did any more than scare them. And he showed them by calling them to learn from this experience.
In calling the disciples to ponder why they were afraid, Debie Thomas sees an act of care. She writes, “I don’t read his question as an accusation. I read it as an invitation to take stock, to reflect, to learn, to grow. Why are we afraid as Christians? What false assumptions do we harbor about the character of God? What damaging lessons have we learned about the relationship between chaos and care that we need to jettison? Are we more interested in God being with us, or doing things for us?”
The truth of this story is that Jesus was there, with them, in the storm all the time.
He did not abandon them. He did care about them. He saved them from the storm and once the crisis was past, he did one more thing: he called them to think about the story they had told themselves.
None of us can probably face the inevitable storms of our lives with the innocent trust that I experienced in my near-drowning as a child. We’ve all seen too much. We know all the reasons to fear.
When the storms hit, we will all feel fear because we know that we cannot save ourselves from the storm. None of us can rebuke the wind. None of us can command the sea to be still. We will have to reckon with our vulnerability and our inability to control the dangers that threaten us.
The only thing we can control, is the stories we tell ourselves. And there we have good news. Because our story is always that Jesus is with us in the storm. He may not save us on our timetable, but neither will he abandon us.
Because the truth is, that he DOES care.
Thanks be to God.