Trinity 3 2021
“Wake up and help us bale out!” would be much more appropriate. In a situation of danger, this isn’t a sensible time to launch into a discussion about Jesus’ feelings for his disciples.
But this Gospel story isn’t a chapter in a sailing manual, any more than those movies are about buildings, volcanoes or bomb disposal techniques. They are about human beings, human hearts, how we relate to one another and, in this case, to God. The disaster, the crisis, is just being used to reveal what’s happening under the surface.
Everything had seemed fine when the disciples first set out on their voyage. Jesus was exhausted after a long day preaching. His friends probably encouraged him to go to sleep. After all, many of them were experienced fishermen. They’d been sailing these waters all their lives. They knew how to handle a boat, and maybe they felt proud that they could do something for their friend at last, rather than just following him around asking dumb questions. “You get your head down, Jesus. We’ve got this!”
But as the storm worsens, they realise that they haven’t got it after all. They may have always coped before, but they can’t cope now. They remember just how dangerous this lake is. People drown here all the time, and tonight it looks like it’s their turn. But Jesus is still asleep. On a cushion, we’re told, as if to rub in just how comfortable he is, while they struggle on, terrified and alone.
Suddenly they realise that they do need him, not for any sailing expertise he might have, but for himself. They need him to see their plight, to hear their cries, and most of all, to care. Even if they’re going to sink, they’d rather sink knowing they are loved, than feeling abandoned.
It’s the same for Job, in our Old Testament reading. The book of Job tells a story which is probably based on an existing Middle Eastern folk tale, but transformed into an extended meditation on suffering and how we deal with it. Job is a righteous and successful man, but suddenly his life hits the rocks. His children all die, his flocks are stolen, his house falls down, and he himself is afflicted with dreadful diseases. But why? And what will he do about it? Will he reject God?
His so-called friends come and offer well-meaning advice, but it turns out to be useless, and sometimes offensively damaging. It really must be his fault, they tell him. Everything happens for a reason, they tell him. He must have done something wrong, even if no one, including him, knows what it is… But Job stands his ground. He may not be perfect, but he’s a good man and he doesn’t deserve this.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ok with what is happening. He rails at God, and demands that God explain himself, and eventually, in the passage we heard, God does. His explanation might not sound very satisfactory – basically that God is God, and Job is not – but it’s the only explanation that Job is going to be able to grasp. We are all stuck in the moment, only seeing a tiny sliver of reality, a tiny slice of time. Bad things do happen to good people, and good things to bad, and it doesn’t seem fair, because it isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that God’s punishing us, or that what is, always will be.
That’s enough for Job, and as the story ends, his fortunes are restored - and we like to hope his friends have learned a lesson. It’s always tempting to try to explain away messy and perplexing situations, as they do, however far-fetched our explanations are. It’s always tempting to try to do something – anything - rather than accepting that there’s nothing we can do, even if we make things worse in the process. It gives us the illusion of being in control. That’s how superstitions start. Avoiding black cats or touching wood won’t keep us safe, because life is inherently dangerous, and ultimately always ends in death, but faced with that terrifying reality, we’ll seize at anything that might convince us we have some power. Even blaming ourselves is easier than accepting that there is no way we can avoid it.
Ultimately, as Job discovers, what gets us through difficult times, whether we live or die, succeed or fail in worldly terms, is knowing we aren’t alone, that someone sees us, hears us and cares for us. God, the creator of the universe, turns up to talk to Job, and even if he didn’t understand any more at the end than at the beginning, he knows he matters enough to God for him to do this.
The poet Raymond Carver, who struggled most of his life with alcoholism, which caused immense pain to him and those around him, eventually managed to stop drinking and find some measure of peace and wholeness late in his short life - he died at the age of 50. But the epitaph he wrote for his gravestone, the final poem, Late Fragment, in his final collection, says this.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Over this past year or so, we’ve all been discovering what we’ve “wanted from this life”, what really matters to us, and how we cope in the face of trouble. We’ve realised the value of the little things we once took for granted, the touch of a hand, a shared song, the presence of friends and family, things which help us to “feel ourselves beloved on the earth”.
Many people have found themselves reaching out for strength beyond their own, too. Like the disciples in that storm-tossed boat, we now know, even if we didn’t before, that we can’t do this alone. People have connected with churches, including this one, in much larger numbers than before, looking for sustenance, comfort and a sense of belonging, and some at least have found what they were looking for. I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over, what sort of ‘normal’ we will find ourselves in, but I hope we’ll remember the raging of this storm, and the moments when we cried out to God “don’t you care that we are perishing?”, and the moments, even if they were just moments, when we heard his voice replying “peace, be still,” in the depths of our hearts, in the words of the Bible, in the glory of nature, in the kindness of others, in new discoveries about ourselves. Because the good news is that the God who’s with us in the storms is with us always, calling us to discover life in all its fulness in the good times as well as the bad.