Sunday, July 05, 2009

Peril on the Sea: Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Because it is summer
and because I have recently been to my dad’s house at the shore
and because I grew up not just by the water but, essentially, in it,
and because I still define myself by my complete and utter love for the sea,
it’s important that I remind myself that this is not a story about the sea as I like to think about it:

a place for recreation, for vacation
a place for hanging out with friends and family
a place for joy, abandon, refreshment and sensual delight.
a—let’s face it—somewhat tame thing that bears little or no resemblance to what is meant when we speak of “peril on the sea.”

This story from Mark’s gospel bears no resemblance to all my instinctual understanding of the sea. Instead, Mark speaks of a place:

that is seen as a workplace—a dangerous one—for the fishing families who live on its shores.
that is capricious and terrifying: because it is large and shallow, the Sea of Galilee is prone to sudden and violent storms when the winds rise up, storms which disappear just as quickly when the winds die down.
that evokes, for the ancient people who inhabit Galilee, even more ancient creation stories in which the world arises out of chaos. The sea represents that chaos: powerful, primordial, untamable.

The sea as Mark sees it, as Jesus and his friends experience it, is not your typical summer vacation spot.
It is a force of almost supernatural magnitude.
It is something to be reckoned with.

Jesus and his friends are tired from a day of teaching.
In other words, it has not been a day of miracles—no demons have been cast out, no blind men have received back their sight, no little girls have been raised from the dead.
It’s more like… a day at the office. A fairly ordinary day.

But Jesus seems to have out-of-the ordinary plans for his friends.
At the end of a long day, everyone exhausted from rubbing elbows with the crowds, and pitching their voices loud enough to be heard a good distance away, and even just standing a long time, Jesus doesn’t say, Hey, let’s go get a burger.

He doesn’t say, Man, I am so beat… let’s go back to Peter’s house to catch up on our sleep.

He doesn’t even say, Where are some wounded and hurting people that I may heal them?

He says, Let us go across to the other side.

The other side of the sea, that is. The wild, capricious, untamable, terrifying sea.

Let us go out of the Jewish Palestinian world of Capernaum, the place where everybody knows our names, and across to the other side… the side where the Gerasenes live, the non-Jewish world, where there are no synagogues, but where there may well be, and probably are, people to be taught and healed just as well as here at home.

Let’s go across to the other side, Jesus says, and see what we can do there.

But Jesus decides to let his friends steer the boat. He curls up and falls asleep.

Years ago I attended Chautauqua Days at Local Church, on a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer.

It was a wonderful summer fair modeled on the great institute of learning and faith in Chautauqua, NY.

At one point I wandered into the church, really, to get out of the heat. As I walked down the center aisle I realized I was looking at a really unusual communion table… the entire thing was carved in the shape of a boat, and reclining, taking up about the bottom third, was Jesus, asleep.

It was beautiful. It took my breath away. But it also disturbed me.

There is something that seems wrong about the idea of Jesus being asleep.

How does that psalm go?

The one who keeps you will not slumber.
The one who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:3-4)

That’s how I prefer to think of Jesus. That’s how I prefer to think of God… not slumbering, not asleep on the job…

What if I really need Jesus and he’s… asleep?

This was a very real issue for those who first heard the gospel of Mark.

Remember, those who first heard this story preached as gospel, as good news, were living in that strange time after Jesus was out of their sight.

He had risen, yes.

He had given them instructions for how to live in his absence, yes.

But then… he had gone away, out of their sight. He might as well have been somewhere taking a nap, for all they knew.

What if we really need Jesus, and we just can’t seem to find him? What if it seems as if he’s not there? Or, worse, as if he’s asleep on the job?

Look up. Look up at the magnificent ceiling of this church.

The first time I ever saw this ceiling was on a September evening in 2003.

I came to St. Sociable so that our local governing body could examine me, so that the leaders of our church in this area could determine if they felt my understanding of our Christian faith was something that could be shared.

Could I teach the faith?

I walked into this sanctuary on a very warm September evening, and I looked up at the ceiling, what is called in church terms, the nave. Nave, as in navy. Nave, because it is traditional for the ceiling of a church to look very much like the bottom of a ship.

The church is a boat, it is a ship. And we are all in this boat together. The question for us is, do we still believe Jesus is in the boat with us?

That was the question for Jesus’ friends. If Jesus was asleep—if he was, in a sense, checked out—was he still in some way truly with them? Could they depend on his presence and his power?

You have Mark’s answer.

Mark says, yes.

The church is a ship, and it is moving as the wind directs it—the Holy Wind, Holy Spirit.

Even if it seems to have blown off course—which sometimes, it seems to do—we can trust that the Holy Wind will blow it back in the direction true which God intends for it.

The church is a ship, and we are all in it together.

The primordial, powerful, chaos that seems to reign all around us?

Jesus is still with us, in the ship.

The terrifying storms that blow up, as they so often do?

Jesus is still with us. We are not alone.

Even the workaday grind… the nets we cast and the cargo we haul and the dirt we have to wash off ourselves at the end of the day?

Jesus is there. Jesus is still with us.

In work and in rest. In recreation and in refreshment. In calm and in storm. In peril and in safety. At mealtime and at bedtime. In working week and in Sunday rest.

Jesus is there. Jesus is still with us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


The image above is "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn. It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. It has never been recovered.

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