June 21, 2015
When I first read that this story from Mark was the text this morning, I thought how closely we can relate to the crashing of a terrible storm. We’ve endured a lot of storms in the past weeks. We’ve endured crashing, terrible storms many times. So I chose the title, “Swamped,” thinking I would focus on what it means to be swamped with too much rain, too much water, too much wind, etc. But then the news about the Wednesday night massacre in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston broke. The word, swamped, seemed to mean something far more sinister and oppressive than even the most terrifying excess of water.
Thursday evening, Brent and I watched the unfolding news about this horrific tragedy. One of the news shows on MSNBC had panelists from different news and social policy agencies discussing the larger implications of this latest mass murder. In discussing President Obama’s address to the nation, they ran a series of clips from every time he has had to speak to the country after this kind of evil has occurred. I lost count. I lost count of the different times our president has had to put into words the collective heartbreak and outrage we feel when innocent people are gunned down senselessly. I lost count. He spoke about the mass killing in a movie theater in Colorado, in an elementary school in Connecticut, and others. And now he spoke after nine people were gunned down in a church during a Wednesday evening Bible study.
I won’t say that in each clip the president looked more defeated, nor did he seem resigned to the reality of gun violence in our culture. But I realized that with each address he looked more and more swamped. That’s how I feel: swamped. I feel swamped in such horrible sadness over nine more people whose lives were ended, so tragically and senselessly. I feel swamped in helplessness and in despair at the depth of hatred we humans can feel for other human beings. I feel swamped.
The definition of the word swamped is both literal and figurative. The literal is the one that we here in Oklahoma know so well. To be swamped is to be overwhelmed with a flood or a deluge of water. We finally got past the storms and flooding that the month of May brought, only to be hit again with water from Tropical Storm Bill. Being swamped with too much water? We get it.
We also are well aware of the other definition of swamped. To be swamped is to be overwhelmed with an excess of work or need or pain. We can feel swamped with workloads or duties or emotions. As I said, President Obama looked more and more swamped with each national address he made. I know I feel swamped and mired in despair at the seemingly unending violence running rampant in our nation. I feel swamped.
The disciples knew what it meant to be swamped. They were swamped in that boat, literally. I’ve read this story so many times, but I’m not sure that I’ve really taken the time to picture what they were going through. It’s easy to write off the disciples as being unnecessarily afraid. Jesus was with them. What was the problem? But these were not novices out on a boat for a little watery R and R. They were experienced fishermen. This wasn’t their first boat trip. Storms with that much violence could capsize a boat in a heartbeat, drowning every single person aboard. Think about the storms we have witnessed; the roiling clouds in the blackening sky. If you can, imagine the roaring sound the waves must have made as they lashed against the boat again and again and again. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination for me to feel the sharp sting of the rain that must have hurt when it hit their faces and bodies. The disciples were soaked; so wet the feeling of dry seemed just a memory. They were probably shouting directions to one another, and trying to stay steady on their feet; trying to keep the boat upright and themselves from being pitched into the raging water. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos and noise, rain and storm, Jesus lay sleeping on a cushion in the stern. I don’t know how he could have stayed dry; perhaps he wasn’t. But it didn’t seem to be bothering him. It didn’t seem to rouse him. He just slept a peaceful and tranquil sleep.
Maybe Jesus could sleep, but the disciples must have been wide awake. They were battling the storm. They were trying to save the boat and their own skins. I don’t believe it is an exaggeration on my part to assert that a storm like this one was life threating. I suspect that their cry to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” was born from their fear and anger that he slept while they fought to stay alive. Jesus may have been sleeping peacefully, perhaps unaware that such a fierce storm raged around them. But when he woke, it only took three words to stop it all. “Peace! Be still.”
“Peace! Be still.” The storm ended. The waves ceased their crashing and roaring. The sky cleared. Everything dropped to a dead calm. Three words and the storm ended. Jesus merely had to speak and the waves and wind obeyed his command. Mark described the disciples as being “filled with great awe.” I’m sure they were filled with great awe. I’m sure they were, because they were being swamped, but now peace had returned.
The disciples were swamped in that boat, literally and figuratively. They were swamped by the water, but I also think they were swamped by their fear. As awful as it is to be swamped with flooding water, I think that it is worse to be swamped with fear, with helplessness and hopelessness. I feel swamped like that today. I feel swamped at the violence and evil perpetrated in Charleston this week. I feel swamped by the violence and evil that is perpetrated in our country on an ongoing basis. I feel swamped in sorrow and despair at just how broken we are and how broken our world is. I feel swamped by conflicts in my own life and in my own family. I feel swamped in the face of the challenges that we face as a congregation. I feel swamped by what feels like my inability to make a difference, to effect change. I feel swamped. Maybe you feel swamped too. Feeling swamped like this, I echo the disciples’ cry to Jesus. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Don’t you care?
How often have I cried out those words? Don’t you care, God, that we are killing one another? Don’t you care, Jesus, that we are swamped and drowning in violence and hatred? Don’t you care that your children are dying for no reason other than they are of a different skin color, a different religion or creed or nationality? Don’t you care? You calmed that storm on the sea, why can’t you calm the storm that rages all around us? Don’t you care?
Yet as helpless and as hopeless as I so often feel, I do believe that God cares. I do believe that Jesus is in the boat with us. It is not a naïve hope and belief on my part, but it seems to me that God isn’t the one who causes us to kill one another, we kill one another. God doesn’t foster hatred and fear at the differences of others in our hearts. We do. We use God’s name to justify all of the above, but that doesn’t mean that God is the cause. We are. Still Jesus is in the boat with us. Still Jesus is riding out the storm with us. Still Jesus is with us.
I remember reading many years ago about the formation of the World Council of Churches after the horrors of World War II. This communion of churches was created to show the unity of Christ’s church in the world. It was to be the ecumenical body of Christ, serving a world that is broken and in pain. The logo that was designed for the WCC was a boat on the sea. The mast of the boat is a cross. The stories of Jesus’ calling his disciples by the Sea of Galilee informed the creation of this particular logo. But so did the story we have before us today. Jesus stilled the storming, raging sea. Jesus saved the disciples who were being swamped with water and swamped with fear. Jesus was in the boat with them. Jesus is in the boat with us.
I still feel swamped. I still cry out to God, wondering if God cares. But the good news is that the flicker of hope still beats within me, within all of us, because we climbed into this boat trusting that Jesus was there too.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.