12th Sunday Ordinary Time Mk 4:35-41
When I was about 12 years old, my father surprised us one day with the announcement that he had bought a sailboat. Now don’t get the wrong idea. We lived on a lake in upstate New York, and although there were some nice sailboats, most were small, not much more than 14-18 feet long. Well, the sailboat my Dad bought was a little 6-foot dinghy, with one sail, a rudder and a centerboard. It was as basic as you could get, and although utterly unimpressive, I was smitten. None of us knew a thing about sailing, and the first time we set off, just my Dad and me, the wind promptly pushed us backward down the lake, the sail flapping madly, as the whole family raced along the shore shouting unhelpful advice. A mile later, we pulled out the oars and rowed the boat all the way back to the beach, a bit embarrassed, but determined to figure it out. Which we did, sort of.
A few weeks later, I took the boat out on the lake by myself, feeling quite confident in my ability to master the elements. I was doing quite well, especially as the wind grew stronger in the late afternoon, and then I headed back toward the shore. What I didn’t realize is that the wind had shifted – it was now blowing directly from the shore out to the lake. As most of you know, I’m sure, you can’t sail a boat directly into the wind. The best you can do is to sail at a 45 degree angle, tacking back and forth as you make your way. I was too inexperienced to fully understand this technique, and as you can guess, in a very short while, I was quite frustrated and a little scared. I could see the family on shore, eating dinner, occasionally waving at me to come in, me waving back. But it was a good hour before someone on the shore finally figured out that I was in trouble.
I always think of that incident when I read today’s Gospel. Almost every commentator will focus on Jesus calming the sea and rebuking the wind, showing his divine mastery over the elements of nature. But to me, the key line in the reading is the plaintive question the apostles ask Jesus. Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? This is a nice translation. I’ll bet the question was a bit more pointed and panicky than that, something like, “Hey, I thought you loved us. This is a serious mess we’re in! Don’t you care?!” Do you hear the rebuke in that statement? It’s one of the most authentic and honest questions the apostles ask Jesus. And let’s face it, I’ll bet every one of us has had those same words come out of our mouth at some time in our life. If not, you will, believe me. Hey, God, it’s me. I’m in a real jam and I see no solution. Don’t you care?
As I drifted a half mile off the shore, my sail flapping ineffectively, a man set out from shore in his own little sailboat and headed in my direction. As he was sailing with the wind, it took him only a few minutes to reach me. At this point, tired, hungry and wet, I was ready to abandon ship and hop in his boat, but something held me back. He looked at me across the water, smiled, and said, “Follow me.” He set his sail, waited for me to mimic him, and off we went, not directly toward the shore, but at an angle. We zig- zagged in, getting closer with each tack, until finally we reached calm water and the shore. I was never happier to get off that boat and accept a welcoming hot dog.
Note what Jesus says to the apostles after he calms the storm. Why? Why are you afraid? Where’s your faith? These are embarrassing questions. Grace is like this. You can always tell when God gives us some unexpected grace – it usually hits us right in our ego. Have you ever pre-judged someone and thought, wow, there’s a real loser. Then, before you know it, someone else introduces you to that same person, and lo and behold, they’re actually pretty nice, and you have that sense of shame and dismay? That’s grace in action. People are deeper and more complex than we realize, and Jesus speaks through them to us over and over. It is typically through people that God tosses us that life line.
But let’s face it. Sometimes life does throw us for a loop. A careful plan, poof. A job we felt secure in – gone. A loved parent or grandparent – heart attack. A child, sick.
The worst of it is when something we’ve grown to rely on, something we take for granted, is suddenly taken away or is put in serious jeopardy. We’re bewildered and feel alone, and God seems miles away. Someone says something about God’s presence in our pain and we react angrily. Sure, where is God? I’ve been told he loves us, and yet, here I am in this big mess. He doesn’t really care. If he did, he’d fix this.
A man is walking along the edge of a cliff and the ground breaks away. Flailing his arms as he slips off the cliff, he somehow is able to grab a tree root and hang on for dear life. He cries for help and no one answers. Finally, in desperation, his arms weakening, he cries out, “God, if you’re up there, save me!” To his amazement, a voice comes down from the heavens. “It’s okay! Just let go! I’ll save you!” The man looks down, looks around, looks up, and calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”
The point, of course, is that help comes from unexpected directions and often pushes us into uncomfortable solutions, solutions that are so uncomfortable that we’d rather not follow through. So we complain some more. Just as my only path to the shore was by a zigzag route, which I simply couldn’t see how to do, maybe your solution is just as counterintuitive. Just as I needed someone to come out and say follow me, perhaps someone is saying that exact same thing to you right now. The only question is, do you have the faith?
The story of Job is a story of faith. Our first reading is taken from the end of that disturbing story. Job has experienced one crisis after another, each one more devastating than the last, until finally he is reduced to a shell of a human being, sitting on a heap of trash, insisting to his friends that he is not giving up on God. But even Job has his limits and he finally confronts God with words of anger and despair. And God gives it right back, as we read today, basically telling Job, “Who do you think I am? Do you control the universe? Were you there when it was all made?” You can hear the words of Jesus being echoed, “Where is your faith?” Having made his point, God immediately restores to Job his life and happiness, with more abundance than before.
This is the point of faith. God is always looking to better our life, not worsen it. But “better” is from God’s perspective, not ours. Faith is simply the trust that whatever this path, even if it appears to be crazy or impossible, will actually better our lives in a measurable way. Try saying yes next time. Even if our gut is crying out, “Is there anyone else up there?” Just say yes.
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach