In the Bible, the sea represents danger and the forces of chaos. That goes all the way back to the beginning, to Genesis, where God pushes the waters up above the firmament and then separates the sea and the dry land which is to say this: God pushes back the chaos. The flood story in Genesis is about more than steady rain for forty days and nights; it’s about the chaos breaking in again. I suspect this intuition is bigger than the Bible, however, and that the Bible is simply reflecting the human experience here. Even when we see the beauty in it (and there is nothing like a day at the beach to revive the soul) there is also nothing quite like being at sea in the midst of a storm when chaos seems to be unleashed. The power of water can be pretty scary.
So we need to get ourselves into that emotional place to hear what is happening in today’s gospel reading: being at sea in a boat that is tossing to and fro. If seasoned fishermen are scared, it’s a doozy. And the fact that it is nighttime when Jesus and the disciples get into a boat to “cross to the other side” only heightens that awareness of danger: it’s dark, too. In addition, the Sea of Galilee represents a boundary between Jew and Gentile: Jesus and his disciples are leaving the crowds of Jewish people behind in order to encounter “the other” as they cross uncharted waters.
So there is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading. In fact, Mark is hitting his readers over the head to make sure we don’t miss it. Storm at sea. Nighttime. At the boundary between us and them.
There are six boat trips in Mark’s Gospel, two of which are narrated at some length. The boat is a metaphor for the Church. Notice how well the metaphor works, even if it is at times a bit overused. It suggests that the Church is called to set out on an adventure by trusting the Holy Spirit, as we set sail, to blow us in the right direction. There are times when we will feel seasick and afraid: the Greek word used in the fourth chapter of Mark could in fact be translated as “timid.” It suggests that the disciples are tempted to be timid landlubbers who would rather hang around Galilee than head out on dangerous waters at night into unknown territory to encounter strangers.
Jesus is saying, however, in today’s gospel reading that the antidote to our timidity is to put our trust in Him as the One whom even the winds and the sea obey. Notice where Jesus is: he’s in the boat with the disciples. In their anxiety and timidity they cry out because it feels as if God isn’t paying attention. But the truth is that Christ is already present; he’s already right there in the boat with them. He simply refuses to join the disciples in their anxiety.
Sleeping peacefully is a metaphor for trust in God. Have you ever noticed how sometimes we toss and turn like the sea itself when we are anxious and worried about things we usually don’t have any control over anyway? Our kid is out past curfew with the car or the bills are late or our loved one keeps forgetting things. According to the Psalmist, the anxious and the guilty toss and turn at night. But those who can come to the end of the day and pray “what is done is done, what is not done is not done; let it be” can sleep like babies.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)
The key point in this narrative from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is that it makes a theological claim about Jesus: like God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, Jesus has power over the destructive forces of chaos that threaten to destroy the people of God. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The answer is that He is Jesus, the Son of God and He is worthy of our trust. We therefore need not be so timid! We need not be afraid. We don’t have to stay close to the shore. We don’t have to toss and turn all night. We can set out on new adventures and trust that God is with us.
The disciples no doubt remembered and told this story because it helped them to overcome their fears after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In those early years of the Church’s life together as they continued to cross new boundaries, I imagine that they remembered this story for the same reason we tell stories about those times when we were afraid and it all worked out: so that maybe the next time we are in a boat and the waters rage we will be a little less afraid. So that maybe next time we’ll have a little more faith and remember that even the wind and sea obey him. That “he’s got the whole world in his hands…”
Remember that none of the gospel writers claim to be eyewitnesses with clipboards in hand. They aren’t making a documentary about Jesus’ life. That’s not the genre of what a gospel is. Mark isn’t on the shore watching all this unfold so he can write it down exactly as it happened in order to report it to us. This is so fundamentally important for us to remember if we mean to make any sense at all of Scripture. Rather, like the whole of the gospel narratives, these stories got told and re-told orally over decades before they were written down, as the Church tried to find its way in the world, guided by the Holy Spirit. Mark is the earliest of the four gospels and he doesn’t write it down until forty years or so after the Resurrection. So already, by then, the story is laden with meaning. It has become quite literally “good news.” It’s a story that was told again and again and remembered as a word of hope. The stories get organized and shaped by communities that were facing their own boundary situations and their own challenges and fears. In the case of Mark’s community, most scholars think they lived in the very heart of the Roman Empire: a small, fledgling community of house churches in Rome. It must have felt to them at times that even if Jesus was in the boat with them that he was definitely sound asleep on some cushion in the stern. It must have felt to them at times as if somebody needed to wake Jesus up! Because as they tried to build communities that included both Jews and Gentiles, both slave and free, both male and female, it surely must have felt at times as if the boat would capsize under the conflicts that emerged.
Living into this new creation of Jesus isn’t easy. It requires courage and patience and incredible trust and its messy trying to get there. And so I imagine someone saying:
Remember that night when Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee at night and it felt scary to them? Remember how Jesus calmed the waters and stilled the winds and calmed their hearts and called them to fidelity and trust? I have this sense that he’s here, right now, with us—that it’s still true. That he’s alive and hasn’t deserted us at all; that he is here among us as a non-anxious presence among us. Maybe we will be alright too…
And so it goes, from generation to generation. Good news gets passed on as the wind and waters rage around us.
Now what I’ve done so far is called Biblical exegesis. Some teaching. Most congregations like this. They find it interesting. But the move to preaching sometimes looks like meddling and I’m about to make that move. I am a guest here so I don’t know what waters are raging around you in your personal lives right now. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Nevertheless, preaching must ask the question: what does this have to do with us?
Right now, our nation is polarized and preaching into that polarization is not easy. I think underneath our polarization, however, there is a lot of fear. People on the left and on the right and in the middle are afraid, even if we are afraid of different things. I think we need to try to get underneath the political talking points to that fear. At our own southern border we encounter some of the same challenges and opportunities that the disciples did on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We encounter our neighbors. And the Bible is clear: we are called to love our neighbor.
Immigration issues are complex and a fifteen-minute sermon isn’t going to develop a comprehensive immigration plan. That work lies beyond us and surely beyond me. But as the preacher today my job is to remind you all that we are people in the same boat, even if we get our news from different places and even when we disagree on political issues. We come here to remember that we are called to love God and to love our neighbor. We come here to remember what we learned in Sunday School, that Jesus loves the little children of the world. All the little children of the world; they are precious in His sight. Do you believe that? Perhaps in the midst of this storm we need to cry out: wake up Jesus, save us. Or at least remind us again you are with us in this boat.
If I were to ask you all today to take a 3x5 index card and write on it all the things you are afraid of right now for your congregation, I suspect the answers would not be that surprising to me. It’s always been hard to find and to afford good clergy but right not that’s a bigger challenge than it has been in a long time. What will happen next here? And how will it serve God’s mission? I wish I had a ready-made answer for you on that but I don’t. What I can say is that you need to be asking these questions together.
A lot of people in the world and in the church are afraid of a lot of things right now. And frightened, anxious people don’t tend to use their brains. They tend to be reactive. And also to act like functional atheists. What I mean by that is that we may feel like the boat is going down. But we forget that God is with us, already, in the boat. That is the heart of the Christian faith: that God is with us in Jesus; Emmanuel.
The opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s fear. This story, like so many in the Gospels, is about trust, and in particular it’s about where we put our trust. Whom do we call out to when we are scared? If we call out to Jesus, we may have to wake him up because he doesn’t share our anxiety. He’s relaxed. He’s calm.
Whatever comes next for Trinity and St. John’s and whatever comes next for this nation of ours will emerge from honest and difficult conversations that are rooted not in fear, but in trust. In knowing that God is with us. In knowing even the wind and the seas obey him. That is still good news from one generation to the next. It doesn’t make the journey easy. It doesn’t mean there won’t be storms that come along. It does mean that by the grace of God we can learn to be a little less afraid and from that place, when the winds die down and the sea is more still, we can listen to our better angels and act and speak from a place of faith, not fear.