A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

By: David H. May, Rector

We are just beginning the long, green season of the Sundays after the Day of Pentecost. In the season of Pentecost, we hear – Sunday by Sunday – the details of the day to day life of Jesus and his ministry and we hear about those who came to follow him in the Way of Jesus. Mark will tell the story for us this year. And in Mark’s hands, this call to follow in Jesus’s Way is not a gentle invitation. Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel is more demanding, less patient with us because there is a world of hurt that needs healing, now. Matthew will remember Jesus saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In Mark, Jesus call is a bracing, ‘Let’s go!’ Follow me! If you’re afraid, fine. Carry your fear with you as you go. But don’t become your fear.

Fear and what we’re supposed to do about that is a major theme in Mark’s gospel. And as Mark tells it, fear isn’t something we can or should avoid and it’s not something we should pretend we don’t have. And it’s certainly not something we should let paralyze us. One commentator put Mark’s view of human fear beautifully, writing, “We do want our kids to be afraid of crossing the street without looking first for oncoming cars. But we don’t want them to be so afraid that they won’t cross the street at all.”

The gospel reading this morning is a story of crossing over with Jesus. Jesus has spent the entire day with his disciples beside the Sea of Galilee teaching the growing crowd. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” “The kingdom of God is as if someone should plant seeds.” The crowds grow and grow through the day til Jesus is literally pushed back to the water’s edge. Someone brings up a boat for him to stand in to continue teaching.

As the day is ending, Jesus says, “Let us cross over to the other side of the sea”. Which for those who were there that day with him might’ve caused the first whisperings of fear in them. But not because they were putting out onto the water at night. A number of Jesus’ disciples were fisherman who’d spent plenty of time on the water at night fishing. What might’ve given them pause is that they were crossing from the west side of the Sea of Galilee to the east. The west side of the Sea was home, Jewish territory, a familiar place – why not stay there, I probably would have suggested. The east side of the Sea was the home of Gentiles with strange beliefs and ways of life, a place where it was unfamiliar and foreign. But that’s where Jesus says they’re going, so they go.

And on the way, out on the water in the dark of night, a sudden storm explodes on them and they start taking on water so they are in danger of sinking. Jesus is dead asleep in the stern, on a cushion, we are told as the storm rages. Now it’s possible that this odd detail might ring a bell in you, like, ‘wait, haven’t I heard this somewhere before?’ Well, yes you have. Someone whom Jesus himself will name as a way to describe his own ministry, Jonah, also spent time in the hull of a ship, asleep, while a storm raged all around him. Jonah was on his own journey, crossing over from his own clear cut hatred of strange, alien Ninevites to becoming God’s vessel for their deliverance. There will always be stormy waters, apparently, crossing over with from one side to another – from what I know to what God wants me to know. Maybe I don’t want deliverance for the Ninevites, for example, but God does.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but during the storm, the disciples completely freak out. They lose it. They are fearful, of course, but they are also terribly angry with Jesus. They rouse him off his cushion where he is sleeping and shout, “don’t you care if we die?!” Jesus stands and faces the wind and the waves and says to them, “Hush! Be still!” And the wind drops and the waters flattens out to a dead calm. And then he turns and says to the disciples, “Why are you such cowards? Are you still without faith?”

And believe it or not, this story became and remains one of the central symbols of the Church. You’d think the Church might’ve picked something a little more, I don’t know, inspiring; where the heroes of the faith look more like heroes and a little less like rats getting ready to jump off a sinking ship. But no. One of the first images of the Church, for those who follow the Way of Jesus, is a boat, crossing over in stormy waters. It’s found in ancient iconography and mosaics, including the cross hoisted up as a mast, which became the symbol for the World Council of Churches. But it’s also found right here today too, in this place, right where you’re sitting.

Some of you may have already raced ahead and already know the punchline. If not, here it is. The place where you are sitting is called the nave. And that word comes from the Latin, ‘navus’, which means, ship or boat. We are sitting right here in the boat with Jesus, with his same imperative command to cross over from what we know or thought we knew to what God wants us to know on the other side, where God will use us to bring deliverance.

I think we’re feeling this sense of ‘crossing over’ acutely these days as we emerge from more than 15 months of, gosh, what would you call it! – the shut down of the whole world and life as we knew it? The familiar shore is far behind us. I’m not sure we could find our way back there even though there’s a part of me that longs for it. So if the way back is uncertain or even impossible, what do we know about this time of crossing over? First, and always, please remember that these stormy months have shown what is in us that we carry as God’s gift to us that is beautiful and whole and that reveals the unmistakable image of God we bear. I think about a young person in this boat who decided to gather food and money from us to feed hungry people. And a little girl – also a passenger in this boat – saw that and said I want to do that too. And she did.

But these stormy waters have also shown us ‘unfinished business’ about ourselves and the price of leaving it unfinished. There is much about this that makes people fearful, fearful enough to get frozen in place. But again that commentators example is instructive, “we do want our kids to be afraid of crossing the street without looking for cars coming. But we don’t want them to be so afraid that they won’t cross the street at all.”

To the disciples credit who, on that stormy night were afraid and stayed that way, they didn’t turn back. They crossed over. They stayed on the Way of Jesus. They carried their fear with them instead of becoming it.
Here we all are in the boat with Jesus with us, at his command, on a journey of his choosing not ours, crossing over from what we know to what God want us to know, called to commit ourselves to in trust to him so that we do not become our fears. Which is hard. Which is the way of the Cross.

And as I think about it, maybe this central image of the Church of the boat on stormy waters without one inspiring hero in sight, but only people like us who get afraid, is really the perfect symbol of the church. Because who else would be in the boat with Jesus? People who are fearful of leaving the familiar shore but who do so anyway because they are following the Way of Jesus, and through such imperfect, fearful vessels as we, on the other side, we will know what God wants us to know, and God himself will bring deliverance. Amen.