A long time ago, we got on a boat. We were not really sure what was going to happen while we were out to sea, but we got on the boat because we were curious. We had an experience, or maybe multiple experiences with a man named Jesus, and something about those experiences compelled us to get on the boat. Maybe the experience happened as early as Sunday School, maybe the experience happened when we were confirmed, or maybe the experience happened as an adult. We may not even be able to articulate the reason why we got on the boat. But all of us, at some point, step onto the boat, however tentatively or boldly, and we sail with Jesus to the other side.
The disciples have that same experience in today’s gospel lesson from Mark. After a long day of preaching and teaching, during which Jesus pulls them aside and explains parables to them, Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side.” Now if the disciples had been smart, they would have asked some questions: “What is on the other side? What if a storm comes? Can’t we just stay here and get a good night’s rest? This place is familiar and comfortable.” And they should have asked questions. The “other side” of that body of water is exactly that – other. The other side is Gentile territory, the land of the Gerasenes. Jesus is taking his first journey into what might be considered dangerous, and even inappropriate. Jesus is beginning a ministry beyond just the Jews.[i] “Let us go across to the other side,” is no “Hey, let’s mix things up this year and go to Cabo.” Yes, the disciples should have asked a lot more questions.[ii]
But they do not. Something about this Jesus compels them forward, stepping on and manning that boat without question. That’s the funny thing about Jesus. We too got on a boat because of him, probably having no idea what we were getting into. Suddenly we find ourselves cooking casseroles, watering gardens, and bringing in men’s undergarments for our needy neighbors. Suddenly we find ourselves getting asked by the Rector to serve on some committee. Suddenly we find the news of the day is not so simple when we remember all those words we said in our baptismal covenant about seeking and serving Christ, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and sharing the Good News. We really should have asked more questions before we got on that boat to follow Jesus.
I have been thinking about that boat a lot this week. You see, some of our fellow disciples were murdered this week – nine to be exact, in Charleston, South Carolina. They were praying and reading Holy Scripture – just like we do every Thursday. They even welcomed in a stranger that night – like Jesus always tells us to do. That very stranger turned out to be crazy, filled with racist rage, and willing to kill nine people before fleeing. At least that was how I saw the episode at first. At first, this was another instance of a crazy person, senselessly killing other people. But then the prophets of our time began to speak. The prophets reminded me that violence proliferates in our society. The prophets reminded me that because we cannot agree on a reasonable gun policy, more and more people die in our backyards. The prophets reminded me that our African-American brothers and sisters in this country experience very fragile and virtually non-existent safety – they cannot even be safe in church. There was a part of me that wanted to stay on the shore this week and say, “Oh, Jesus, that was just an isolated event by a crazy kid with extremist views.” But I had already gotten on the boat. It was too late. And a storm began to rage.
That storm for me was the storm of our time: a storm of violence, racism, and suffering. No longer could I contain each story: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Sandy Hook, Baltimore, Columbine, Selma, Charleston. One story bled into another, and as I was reminded of each one, I felt the buckets of water dousing my face. As I thought about every conversation I have had about how racism is not dead, I felt the water creeping up to my waist. As I thought about the historical shadow of the oppression of others in our country, I wanted to cry out to God. And all I could think about was Jesus on that stupid boat, asleep on a cushion in the stern. Who can sleep at a time like this? Doesn’t Jesus care about us at all? Why couldn’t we have just stayed on the shore in that comfortable, familiar place instead of getting on the God-forsaken boat with a man who does not seem in the least bit bothered by our suffering?
The disciples know that feeling. They are experienced at life on a boat. At least when they get on the boat, they knew how to manage a boat. They know the dangers and the perils, and have learned to navigate them for the necessity of survival. But even these experienced fishermen are scared. They have tried to control the boat, they have scooped out as much water as they can, and they know they have met their match. And so they go to their last resort. They wake up Jesus and shout, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?!?” When they got on that boat, this is not what they were expecting. They were expecting the fulfillment of a promise – the fulfillment of a different life and a different world: the kingdom of God here on earth. Instead they were going down fast with a man who could not even stay awake and fight the good fight with them.
I shouted those words this week too. Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Maybe we brought all this violence on ourselves, but surely you care? Surely you did not lure me onto this boat – into this relationship with you – only to watch us perish? Though I wanted more than anything to think this was an isolated event of a crazy person doing something ungodly, I could not ignore the storm swirling around.
I struggled to find hope today in our gospel lesson. All I saw was Jesus scolding the disciples for their fear and their lack of faith. And then I saw disciples even more afraid than before – which is saying something given the awfulness of that storm. Straining for some strand of hope – some glimmer of redemption – I came back to that invitation from Jesus, “Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus does not tell the disciples to go to the other side alone. Jesus does not say, “Go to the other side without me.” Jesus says, “Let us go to the other side.”[iii] Whether the disciples felt like Jesus was with them during that storm or not, Jesus was with them. That may not seem like much, but that may be the biggest miracle of all in this story. As one scholar writes, “God’s power isn’t in the control of creation or of people, but in being in covenant and relationship with them. [God’s power] isn’t in imposing the divine will or insisting on its own way but in sojourning with us as we fumble around and make our way in the world. God’s power is not in miraculous interventions, pre-emptive strikes in the cosmic war against suffering and evil, but in inviting us to build a kingdom out of love, peace, and justice with God. God’s power is not in the obliterating of what is bad in the world, but in empowering us to build something good in this world.”[iv]
A long time ago, we got on a boat. We did not know where we were going, what we would see, or who we would encounter. All we knew was that Jesus was inviting us into a different life, and we felt compelled by this passionate, nonsensical man. Oh, we had clues. We knew that the “other side,” was not a place we wanted to go. We knew that going there might change us, and change our entire worldview. We knew that getting on that boat would mean stepping away from the familiar, comfortable coastline, and sailing into something different and scary.[v] But Jesus said he would go with us. Jesus invited us on a journey with him and something deep inside us, despite the little devil on our shoulder telling us to stay put, told us to step onto that boat.
I am still scared of the storm. In fact, I am a little afraid of Jesus too. But what brings me comfort this week is that Jesus is with us. Jesus does not invite us onto a boat and let us sail alone. And though Jesus may have an ability to sleep through a storm, with complete confidence in the direction of God, I also know that Jesus will wake up and respond to me when I call out his name. He may not say what I want to hear. He may leave me feeling more uncomfortable than getting soaked in a storm. But he is here. Jesus is here on our boat, and can make things right. We just have to be prepared to go to the other side. Amen.
[i] Beverly Zink-Sawyer, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 165.
[ii] This train of thought comes from Karoline Lewis’ writing “The Other Side,” June 14, 2015 as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3645 on June 18, 2015.
[iv] David R. Henson, “When God Sleeps through Storms (Lectionary Reflection for Mark 4:35-41),” June 15, 2015 as found at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/06/1804/ on June 18, 2015.