A Sermon for 24 June 2018
A reading from the gospel of Mark 4:35-41. Listen for God’s word to us.
“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
A few years ago, I was on a boat. Growing up on Lake Michigan, I’d often been on our boat. Fishing with dad. Messing around summer afternoons with my sister as we rowed out beyond second sandbar. Relaxing with friends in the quiet offshore. Boats are nothing new to me – likely they’re not to some of you too. Canoes. House Boats. Ocean liners. I’ve pretty much experienced them all. The boat I was on in 2014 was not only unexpected. It ended up to be kinda ironic. I was on a pilgrimage as the culmination of my work for a Certificate in Christian Spiritual Formation through Columbia Seminary. We were in the Holy Land. Staying in a wonderful inn in the city of Tiberias. When we loaded the bus one morning, we drove north then east to the entrance of a boat launch. We walked through a museum housing the remains of a First Century fishing boat which at last was recovered from the sea in 1986. Finally, we got ourselves on board the much sturdier, modern tour boat. The captain powered up the motor. And away we went for a ride on the Sea of Galilee.
Never before had I been to the Holy Land. On the other side of the world. Reflecting with every step upon story after story I had known since I was young. It was amazingly eye-opening to actually see the places the stories mentioned: Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Jerusalem, and, of course, the Sea of Galilee around which Jesus spent so much of his ministry. I’ll never forget that Galilee boat ride. Because no sooner did we get out into the middle of what seemed to me to be a pretty small lake; after all, it’s nothing like Lake Michigan where all you see is sandy beaches and blue water the whole way to the horizon. But there we were. In the middle of that eight-mile-wide lake alongside Tiberias when the wind switched. Dark clouds rolled in. And a storm overtook the sea. Moments before my fellow pilgrims had been standing at the boat’s edge, looking to Tiberias on one end of the sea, Capernaum on another, the southern side of the lake from which the Jordan River flows, the eastern cliffs believed to be the spot the demon-possessed pigs jumped off into the sea. Then suddenly the wind whipped up. The waves thrashed about. The rain pounded down upon us and that little boat. The captain was panicked. Barking orders for us to sit down fast. He did a 180 to promptly cut our sea cruise short – worried not so much about our safety, but of the fate of his livelihood; his precious touring boat. Inching ever so slowly through the chopping water in hopes we’d make it safely back to shore, we were presented with a few moments to ponder just what it must have been like to be out there on a boat much smaller and more fragile than our captain’s sturdy vessel. According to the story as record in the gospel of Mark: in the middle of night. After a long day of hearing story upon story about God’s kingdom. Only to find Jesus – the charismatic teacher who had been inspiring his little ban of followers – snug in the stern. Asleep in the back of the boat!
Boats offer intriguing experiences, wouldn’t you say? What could be better than speeding across the water, skimming the wake, escaping the heat of summer – good friends and family all around? Boats offer the tranquility of lazily floating down a river. Or cruising a mighty ocean. Boats can be as simple as a single-person kayak, as tough as an industrial barge, or as sleek as an elegant yacht. It’s hard to escape others once you step foot upon a boat. From the steadiness needed by all in a little row boat to the teamwork it requires to sail one from shore to shore. Even the largest ship reminds we’re all in it together if suddenly something like an iceberg buckles the starboard side.
Almost from the beginning, boats have been a symbol of the church. Perhaps you’ve seen sanctuaries built to the glory of God with rugged vaulted ceilings made of exposed wooden beams, intentionally fashioned to resemble the reversed look of a boat’s keel. The architecture of many cathedrals contains what’s called transepts – the part of the building extending north to south like the horizontal beam of the cross. The transepts run between the parts of the building called the chancel area and the part of the building called the nave, from the Latin word navis. As in navy, naval. Ship. Some liturgies for baptism even include these words: “’Received into the ark of Christ’s Church . . . may’” (the baptized) “’so pass the waves of this troublesome world’ as finally to ‘come to the land of everlasting life.’ . . . It’s been written that “The nave, then, (represents) the Church into which God, in (God’s) love gathers us together in order to bring us in safety through the storms of life” (http://biblehub.com/library/regester/the_worship_of_the_church/symbolism_of_the_church_building.htm). Like Noah and the two-by-two animals that made their way into the big boat right before the rains began. The Church is the boat of God that holds us all. And like Noah and all the animals in the big boat, it’s important to remember. It might get a little stinky inside; but it sure beats drowning outside the ark alone in life’s flood waters. One source writes of the boat of the Church as “tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of human souls” (Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/ship.htm).
It’s been an interesting week to be reflecting upon the story of the boat that holds the sleeping Christ. How often do we feel like the battered little boat of disciples wishing Jesus would wake up to save us in the churning sea of today’s world? It might be helpful to know one commentator’s take on why Jesus was able to sleep through the storm on the boat. In Feasting on the Gospels, Thomas D. Stegman, writes: “Jesus’ untroubled sleep shows forth his deep, abiding trust in God’s power and protection. It also recalls the sleep of the farmer in the parable Jesus just told (4:26-29), the sleep that faithfully awaits God’s creative work of nurturing the growth of the field and bringing it to harvest” (Feasting on the Gospels: Mark; Westminster John Know Press, 2014. p. 143). Might we too be a little boat of disciples, holding the sleeping Christ? Untroubled, he is with us amid the storm. Awaiting God’s creative work.
It certainly seemed like it when I read this week of the work of the part of God’s boat called the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Perhaps you followed along too. As the biennial gathering of our national governing body, the General Assembly, met in St. Louis; I was in awe to see what the part of God’s boat called the PCUSA has been up to. Of course, the week included vigorous debate like that over whether or not to charge the Board of Pensions to stop investing pastor’s pensions in companies who knowingly are doing further harm to the environment. It also included money of the church being restricted to help repair Native American churches. And passing an overture about possibly adopting as a confession to be added to our Book of Confessions Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” At one point in the week, a young adult attender rose to tell the whole assembly how proud he is to be a part of a denomination that has been becoming more welcoming and affirming for all. Then, in the very next breath; he came out to everyone there only to be immediately swarmed by a huge group hug (https://marciglass.com/2018/06/21/proud-to-be-presbyterian/). The week also included something I’ve never before seen reported from GA. On Tuesday about 400 Presbyterians left the convention hall in St. Louis to march over to the Justice Center with an offering of $47,000. The money was raised to pay the bail of nearly 3 dozen non-violent offenders charged with things possession of marijuana and public disturbance. Some have been held for up to a year because they have not been able to scrape together the cash-only required bail needed to release them from jail. Presbyterians not only gathered to worship and study and debate. We gathered to serve, as did high schoolers of the Hands and Feet initiative who tagged along from their Presbyterian Churches in Kentucky and Arkansas to do mission work in Ferguson. The trip was planned in conjunction with the General Assembly gathering so Presbyterians intentionally would bring a positive impact to the St. Louis area (p. 5 of https://issuu.com/pcusa_oga/docs/ga223_news_day_6?e=33600028/62576572). We gathered to serve the underserved in a racially torn town and ensure the release of captives. We gathered to amend wrongs of the past and embrace a hopeful future for the least and lost among us. Somewhere I read of a charge from the General Assembly for all Presbyterians to “live up to the qualities reflected in the PCUSA’s acronym: Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving, and Alive” (p. 3 of https://issuu.com/pcusa_oga/docs/ga223_news_day_6?e=33600028/62576572). At work today! Members of God’s boat with a trusting Christ asleep among us. For he already sees in action God’s creative work!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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