August 28, 2020
It seems fitting that we talk about a violent storm this week.
- People in Iowa continue their recovery efforts after intense storms hit the area earlier this month.
- Wildfires have been raging in California and Colorado.
- Last Sunday Jacob Blake was shot by police officers in Kenosha, WI; people have gathered there to protest yet another shooting of a black man by police; some protesters have damaged property and on Tuesday a young white man shot and killed two protesters.
- Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana Friday morning, killing at least four people and leaving extensive property damage in its wake.
- As we get closer to November’s elections, the political climate gets more and more toxic.
- And, of course, there’s COVID 19—which apparently doesn’t pair well with schools starting back up.
In his commentary on the portion of Acts we heard today, Willie James Jennings writes: “Even in our time no one’s feet are on solid ground. This is not an allegory but reality. We are always on this ship.” (Acts, p. 238)
I suppose we always are in the midst of some sort of storm, but right now it feels like the winds are particularly violent and the waves are unrelenting.
So, what do we do about the storm? Of course we can’t stop an actual storm. (I mean, we could help matters by not heating up the planet so much, but still, storms will come.) What we can do is control where we place ourselves in relation to the storm and what we do in the midst of the storm.
Earlier this week, in a small coastal town of Louisiana, Greg Lewis’ wife went inland to a hotel, but Greg decided to stay at home. He rode out the storm crouched behind his brick steps and says the winds were “the noisiest I’ve ever heard in my life.” He told NPR that he now regrets his decision to stay. “I won’t do it again,” he says.
Paul, it seems, had the foresight of Lewis’s wife. He knew better than to put himself right in the middle of a storm’s path. Backing up just a few verses before the part of the story we read today, we realize that Paul knows a storm is coming. As the crew of the ship plans to leave Fair Havens (never leave a port called “Fair Havens”) Paul says: “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” Paul urges them to stay in port until the weather clears. But ultimately, the centurion, who is in charge, takes the advice of the pilot and the owner of the ship over what Paul says.
And remember, it’s not like Paul has booked an ocean-view cabin on a cruise ship here. He’s still a prisoner. He may not act much like it, but he is. If the ship is sailing, Paul will be on it, heading into the storm with the centurion, the pilot, the ship owner, the crew, and the other prisoners.
I feel—and I imagine many of you feel—some affinity with Paul at this point. You probably know what it feels like when you try to get people to make good decisions, but they insist on making poor decisions—and then you have to suffer the consequences right along with them.
Considering this storm that is 2020—if we could have, we would have made different decisions. Right? Different decisions about which people to put in charge. Different decisions about how to handle COVID. Different decisions about how agents of the state use violent force against citizens. But, ultimately, we didn’t get to make those decisions. And here we are. Being pounded by waves and driven by a relentless northeaster.
So, I guess sometimes we can control where we place ourselves in relation to a storm and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we are the wise Ms. Lewis, hightailing it for a hotel no matter what her husband thinks about the situation; and sometimes we are the frustrated Paul, forced onto the boat we know is headed right into the storm.
It is good, I think, to try to protect ourselves and others from the storms altogether. It is good to work for healthy communities, just systems, helpful policies. But sometimes our advice isn’t heeded, often our efforts are insufficient, and we find ourselves in a storm anyway.
Then we must make choices about how to respond.
On the ship, in the midst of the storm and its aftermath, Paul does three helpful things. Well, the first thing he does is say, “I told you so.” But that’s not especially helpful. Tempting, but not helpful.
After “I told you so,” though, Paul shares with the others on the boat about a vision he has seen from God. And that is a lesson for us in our storm as well: to keep paying attention to where God is and what God is doing and what God is saying. It’s easy to focus all of our attention on the storm—because it is so immediate and dramatic. But God is still here, too. And we need to pay attention.
Paul says God sent an angel to speak directly to him, which would be nice. But even if we’re not hearing angels, we can still be listening for God. I think this listening will look different for different people. Prayer—however you pray—is part of it. And connecting with the people around you. And spending time paying attention to God’s creation. Maybe writing or painting or making music or baking. And probably turning off the news once in a while. These are ways we can listen for God in the midst of the storm.
Paul then uses the word he receives from God as a way to encourage others. “Keep up your courage!” says Paul. “We will all survive.” (I mean, the ship will be pummeled to bits. But we won’t die.–He’s encouraging, but not naïve.)
I know that when the world is literally and figuratively on fire, sending a card may not feel like much. “So sorry things are terrible and we might all die soon and everyone is awful—but here’s a little piece of cardboard with a pretty picture on it.” . . . But, for the person who gets that little piece of cardboard—or email or phone call or Facebook message or dozen cookies—the world feels a little less terrible and a little more hopeful.
Encouragement is important for survival. And I believe it is one of the best gifts the church can give—to each other and to the world—right now. Not an empty, “don’t worry, be happy” encouragement. But the kind of encouragement that Paul gives. The kind that comes from listening to God and then sharing what we hear: God loves us. And Gods love will, ultimately, prevail.
And finally, Paul gives his shipmates something more tangible than encouragement: food. Apparently people on the ship haven’t eaten for fourteen days. Which sounds crazy. But it’s amazing the basic things you sometimes neglect when you’re experiencing trauma. With the collective trauma of COVID, there may be times we have to remind ourselves to eat—or stop eating; to sleep—or to get out of bed.
Fortunately, Paul is not only paying attention to God, but is also paying attention to the people around him. He notices that they haven’t been eating and he gives them some food. There may have been a line in today’s reading that sounded familiar: “He took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat.”
These are the words of institution that we speak when we celebrate communion. These are the actions of Jesus in the upper room with his disciples before he is arrested. And I don’t think this echo is an accident. I believe the writer of Acts wants to remind us of Jesus and link Paul’s actions to those of Jesus.
When we feed people in the midst of a storm, we also echo the life of Jesus.
“We are always on this ship,” writes Willie James Jennings. The storms we face may shift and change, but we’re still on the ship. And those steering the ship don’t always take our wise advice about which way to go and when to stay in port.
Fortunately, God is on the ship—in the storm—with us. That’s the heart of the Good News Paul preached: in Jesus, God has been through the storm with us and remains with us no matter how high the waves get.
And fortunately, we are also on the ship with each other. To encourage each other and to feed and care for each other and to weather the storms together.