I recently attended a virtual retreat led by Brother James Koester of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. Normally I like to find a quiet place to be on retreat. But with COVID-19, bringing Brother James into our living room through the power of Zoom was the next best thing. The theme of the retreat was “Praying in the Dark: Awaiting the Dawn” which seemed particularly appropriate as we journey through Lent in the midst of a pandemic!
One of the Scripture texts offered for reflection by Brother James was the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). Remember the richness of this story as it is recounted in three Gospels. Jesus and his disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. A storm swelled up that was so violent that the boat was almost swamped by the waves, and the disciples were terrified. Yet Jesus was somehow asleep at the back of the boat. The disciples woke Jesus with the cry, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He responded, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to the elements: “Peace! Be still!”, and there was suddenly a dead calm. And the disciples asked themselves in amazement, “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
This familiar story is beautifully depicted by Rembrandt in his painting from 1633 entitled, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” (You’ll have to settle for viewing the painting online because the actual piece was stolen from a museum in Boston in 1990 and has never been recovered.) If you google it, you’ll see the vivid portrayal of the panic-stricken disciples trying desperately to control the boat which is being tossed in the waves. One of them even looks like he is about to lose his lunch over the side! All the while, Jesus is reclining serenely on a cushion in the stern. No wonder the disciples were distraught!
For me, this story begs the question, “What are the storms raging around and within us?” Certainly, this year-long storm of COVID-19 shows little signs of abating. Sure, there are vaccines on the way and the reopening of the economy is now taking place. But it may be a long time before the clouds part and the sun shines through once again. Or what about the storm of systemic racism that continues to beat down on our Church and society? Here too, the forces around us and within are heaving us into places that are tumultuous and unsettling. Fear, dread and uncertainty are well-known emotions for all of us at times.
But here’s the thing: just as the disciples in the midst of the storm cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save us!”, so must we. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves” (BCP, Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent), but “God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (BAS, Prayer After Communion). Our salvation is in God alone. Only Christ can rebuke the raging forces with which we contend every day. Only Christ can bring us to a place of true peace.
The image of a boat has long been used to describe the Church. The term “nave” – the part of the church building where most people sit – comes to us from the Latin word for “ship,” and if you look up in many of our churches, you may be reminded of an overturned boat. The Church is able to move through the storms of life to the peace that is promised in God’s love because Jesus accompanies us and prevails over all things.
This Lent, may we listen for the voice of the one whom even the wind and the sea obey: Peace! Be still! May we place our trust in the one who lived, and died, and rose again, that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
I wish you a holy Lent and the gift of God’s deep and abiding peace.