The 2020 Olympic Games were hosted in Tokyo, Japan. That week, a typhoon threatened the area. Athletes worried about the impact this storm might have on their competition. After all their disciplined training, would it be for nothing? The COVID virus had already robbed the world of much of the usual excitement by restricting visitors. Now the Olympic Village was abuzz about a typhoon, a word seldom spoken in our country.
One of the athletes, Carissa Moore, was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on the day of the storm. A native of Hawaii, she grew up near the water! She was the Women’s World Tour Champion for the first time in 2011 when she was 19 years old. She was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. By the time she competed in the 2020 Olympics, she was at the top of her game.
Guthrie asked the surfer how she felt about the storm that brought much more challenging surfing conditions. Moore said with a smile, “Well, we were actually praying for a typhoon heading into the competition. I really wanted some waves to perform. But the conditions were actually quite challenging today. There was a lot of water moving and there wasn’t one defined peak. It was a lot of adapting and moving around and going with the flow. It was hard but happy to figure it out and find a couple[waves].” Carissa won the gold medal in surfing that day!
For this pro surfer, the weather condition that others hoped to avoid was what she prayed for. She anticipated the thrill of water, wave, wind, and wonder as she stayed upright, navigating one of the great forces of nature. She practically lived in the water so that she could thrive in increasingly challenging expressions of ocean life. To ride the crest of a wave or crouch underneath a curl of saltwater was the stuff of her dreams. She embraced the opportunity to navigate several peaks at once as an Olympic gold medal hung in the balance. After all the hours she spent in disciplined practice, she had no desire to simply paddle around in calm waters!
Jesus’ experience in Capernaum was wildly successful, according to His disciples. Peter was impressed and grateful that Jesus was able to bring healing to his ailing mother-in-law. Some of the sickly people in the village lined up, hoping for a piece of Jesus’ spiritual action. The whole town was astonished at the signs of power that Jesus demonstrated. For many of the disciples, newly accepting of the call to follow Jesus, Capernaum was familiar territory. If Jesus kept wowing crowds in their home territory, they would be regarded as local celebrities. They reasoned that it made no sense to move on. If this was the base of operations for Jesus, why not put down some roots and do a mighty ministry right there, in place?
But Jesus was not willing to settle for such a confined mission field. He knew that His time was short and that He had been sent to make disciples of all nations. He was the Son of God sent not just to Capernaum, where the disciples felt at ease. Jesus’ ministry was not just for those who lived along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He wasn’t even limited to offering salvation just to His people, the Jews. Jesus knew He was sent for a greater purpose and had prepared His whole life for this evangelistic crusade. He knew the thrill of what lay ahead: people would meet God through Him. His mission was to introduce God‘s Realm to weary folks whose noses were to the grindstone and whose hope had diminished to barely a flicker. Starting with twelve men and miraculous signs in several small villages, Jesus began to catch some waves as His life‘s ministry commenced.
In the Ancient Near East, healing encompassed two dimensions of daily life. It had to do with bodily relief. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it had to do with restoring individuals to their social setting. To be sick was to be isolated. To be diseased was to be an outcast. We certainly understand that from our COVID experiences. To be weakened was to be limited in daily activities. Loading the dishwasher is an impossible task when sick. Getting your kids dressed for school when sick with COVID is too much. Sitting in front of a computer for a Zoom meeting when we don’t feel well is exhausting! Jesus healed not just the body but the social being. He brought them back into their communities, fully restored in stature. He did this through the power of the Holy Spirit which gave them access to God’s love in mighty ways. These miracles converted the healed individuals and their support circles to belief in Jesus.
In our western world, as we try to keep upright on the treadmill of daily responsibilities, we place such an emphasis on doing. Am I doing enough? I don’t know what to do for this person. What will I do when I grow up or after I retire? Jesus’ ministry was about being. His invitation was to follow Him so as to understand God‘s calling on our life. We are human beings. He invited His followers to understand themselves in relation to a God who created and loved them. Just as He calmed a storm, Jesus was able to bring peace to those who labored for earthly success but who were increasingly emptied from the Spirit of God. He fed their souls.
Most of us find it very difficult to simply be. We had a taste of that during the quarantine. We were directed to clear our schedules and felt grateful that someone mandated us to stay home and diminish our workload. For a brief time, we had a chance to be with our loved ones, to be with ourselves, to pursue hobbies and interests that sat dormant for longer than we could remember. But we have quickly picked up the mantle of responsibility and are scurrying around with newfound skills to be able to connect even when we are apart from each other. There are gifts that have come from the last two years of separation. I am certain that those who zoom into my Bible Study on Wednesday nights would find it difficult to drive in for a class on a snowy evening. Folks on boards can join in on their meeting even as they sit in their Florida condo because of the technology we’ve mastered. But, the eagerness with which we have jumped back into full schedules shows how unsettling it is for us to be still with others for any length of time. For how long are we willing to be with ourselves, to sit in stillness with our God? Jesus’ ministry invited folks into His peace, which propelled them into the world as His missionaries.
Jesus’ pre-ordained mission was to travel the back roads and small towns of Galilee to launch a movement of spiritual awakening. 175 years ago that wave of faith rolled into Rockford, Michigan, birthing our congregation! Jesus gave people an intimate glimpse of God. His ministry would require self-sacrifice and more sacrifice than His disciples ever could have known when they agreed to follow Him. He would not stay put and adopt a domestic lifestyle in Capernaum. He would go to where people lived, rely on their hospitality, tolerate their cruelty, eat their food and hang out with the local rejects. He would ride the wave of evangelistic outreach as long as He could, knowing there would be a violent culmination to that storm that would ultimately overtake Him. To be obedient to this calling, Jesus first spent time alone in prayer before launching out into the deep with His disciples, leaving Capernaum in the rearview mirror.
Jesus wants us to take risks for His sake. I wonder how willing we are to step out into churning waters, trusting in God’s steadying hand. I wonder what societal or relationship healings are needed in our community? Do we invite Jesus to heal us in body, mind and spirit? Two congregations in our area were recently honored by the denomination for sponsoring Afghan families who have taken refuge in our country. How can we bridge gaps in our communities and world, going out on a limb to showcase God’s sacrificial love?
In rural Galilee, we witness Jesus doing battle with the forces of evil and triumphing over whatever stands in opposition to God’s will. Demons can be anything which becomes our idol, separating us from God and controlling our lives. Anything that prevents us from being the individuals or community that God desires is demonic. Jesus modeled how to tend to the needs of the “untouchables” in our midst, to actively preach our faith? St. Francis is attributed with having said, “Preach at all times. When necessary, use words.” Jesus compassionately healed those who came to Him for relief. In this story, we see that He also placed great importance on preaching. Through His preaching, He introduced the saving power of God.
We’ve been amazed to see how our grandson is learning to talk. In fact, he talks non-stop. We often have to turn to his parents for an interpretation, but he’s adding to his vocabulary and obviously understanding what we are saying. How does this happen? His parents are not professors of the English language. We are humbly reminded that what we say molds, influences, and teaches other. How we preach about Jesus, through words and actions, has the power to transform those around us.
Jesus refused to get to comfy and to sit still. He walked across water and stilled the storm. He marched into the Temple and overturned the tables of the merchants who took advantage of the pious. He stirred up a storm to defend those who came to worship God. Jesus experienced the glory of God and refused to settle for singing Kumbaya around a campfire with a handful of followers. He was on the move and invites us to a deeper conversation.
At one of my lectionary study group sessions we talked about prayer in worship. One of my colleagues joked that we violate the Hippa oath each week as we name people and ailments. I wonder what percentage of our prayers relate to our frail bodies? We see in this passage that people get sick. A mob of Capernaum townsfolks camped outside Peter’s family compound to seek healing from various forms of illness. Their physical healing may have given a temporary respite from their woes. But Jesus hoped, from the beginning of His evangelistic crusade, that His followers would develop a concern for much more than just their own physical well-being. Healing in the ancient world meant being restored to life amidst community.
Who is waiting to be invited, embraced, forgiven? When have we restored someone to a valued state of being after having been sidelined? Even Jesus did not escape suffering and death. He completed the healing work He began on the cross. While I certainly understand our preoccupation with illness when our bodies fail us, I wonder if there is a “bigger” prayer that will powerfully impact us after the COVID virus lifts or the surgical site heals? I wonder what it would sound like for us to pray for the big waves, like Corissa Moore, so that she could be pushed beyond her usual well-trained limits? When a virus is not just ending lives but causing discord between family members and friends, what is our deeper prayer? When our daily circumstances lead to a depression that enshrouds us, what kind of healing do we desire? Physical? Sure. Are we also hoping to be restored into circles of friends and into the arms of family members who have tired of our struggle? Yes! What is the deeper prayer that we dare not speak or completely miss because we stay close to the shore?
Are we willing to paddle out into the water, praying to be swept up in the biggest wave we’ve ever faced? Or will we play it safe and stick close to home? God invites us into this uncomfortably deep level of prayer!