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Originally, Joel had asked me to preach on this Sunday because, at the time, there had been some hope that this might be the week we would be returning to in-person worship services. If that had been true, I’m not sure if this lectionary reading from Mark’s gospel would have been as much of a good fit for what I can only imagine would have been a big, celebratory occasion. Instead, we find ourselves still in this time of transition. We now have a clear date in mind and some concrete ideas on how to make that return to in-person happen in the safest way possible, but we are still in transition, figuring out what all needs to be done behind the scenes to get to that new place.
Maybe it is no surprise that we’re still in transition because in many ways the entire last year has felt like one transitory period after another. The initial shock of the pandemic required new ways of doing almost every aspect of life. And then each new season, each new scientific study being released, each new vaccine, and it seems sometimes, each new day brought new transitions our way. For some, these transitions were mostly pain free. Some of us may have even found new ways to thrive as we transitioned to working from home or online schooling. For others, the harm to mental, social, and financial wellbeing were extremely high, let alone the physical toll this pandemic has taken on so, so many.
Early on there was a rallying cry that kept getting thrown around: “We are all in this together!” You may have even heard that from me or others around here. As much as that may have been a comforting slogan to fall back on, I appreciated the voices who pointed out that we may all be in the same storm, but we are definitely not all in the same boat--or at least not the same kind of boat--trying to weather that storm.
So now, as the clouds seem to be thinning and many of us can begin to see traces of light poking through, we hear this story from Mark’s gospel and wonder what wisdom it offers us today. It’s a story about transitions and turbulence, a story about faith and fear, about the pleading of the disciples and the power of the divine.
We might miss how much this story is actually about transitions unless we pay attention to its context within Mark’s gospel. Sure, we can pick up that the group is moving from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other, which is no small thing, but this transition is more than simply geographic. Mark’s gospel opens with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river, and then nearly half of the rest of the book follows Jesus as he begins his ministry around the Sea of Galilee. He calls his first disciples from among the fishermen he met as he passed along the shore. He performs miracles and teaches in synagogues throughout the region of Galilee. Immediately before our passage for today, Jesus teaches a crowd of people so large that he has to do so from the deck of a boat.
The Sea of Galilee looms large in these first chapters where there were plenty of transitions from one area of Galilee to another, but this is the first time Jesus has led the disciples from the Eastern, Jewish side of the sea into the Western, Gentile territory. We can imagine that perhaps the disciples give each other a look when Jesus points in the direction they are headed, but maybe they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough that they just go with the flow and ready the boat.
After seeing the miracles that Jesus had performed so far and hearing his teachings, I can’t help but wonder what the disciples were expecting at this point. When the text says it was evening when they set out, I wonder whether the sky was a delightful red or whether it looked more like it did here in Columbus the other night with ominous yellows and dark grays. I wonder how much they knew about the “other side” of the sea, and whether they could have imagined that their first encounter would involve a man possessed by an evil spirit hanging out near the local tombs.
If the sky looked dark or the disciples had recalled hearing strange stories about this distant territory, would they have gotten in the boat so easily?
We can’t know what was going on in the minds of the disciples at this point, but we can ask ourselves whether we are willing to let the threats of turbulence keep us from transitioning to the places Jesus is calling us to go. Do we need to always have the most accurate, up-to-the-minute weather report and have done all our research on the local population before we even consider taking the first step, or can we recognize that we will never be able to remove every variable?
Now, many of you know that I am a detail oriented person who loves to get as much information as possible before I do anything, so I’m never going to be the one encouraging us to simply make rash decisions. But even I need to remember that life is most often lived in the improvisation that happens between the bullet points of the best of well-laid plans. The reality is that whether we are in the midst of a great storm or sailing easily on calm seas, life is always about transition because life is dynamic. Not only is the world constantly changing around us, we are constantly changing and growing and learning and adjusting. Each transition brings its own form of turbulence, which could be just another word for conflict.
Rather than trying to create a life that avoids conflict at all costs, how might we learn to get comfortable with it? To walk boldly forward knowing that the only way to overcome conflict is to do the work to transform it?
This short story is about transitions and turbulence but it’s also about faith and fear.
On a first read-through, it might seem like Jesus is insinuating that fear is the opposite of faith, but I do not believe that is the case. I had a conversation this last week with the Poetry Unwind small group about fear and was reminded of all the ways that fear can be a healthy, necessary response because there are certainly things of which we ought to be afraid. Without fear, who knows what kind of danger we might carelessly walk toward. And being out on a boat in the middle of a raging storm certainly would qualify as something worth being afraid of.
So when Jesus says to the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I think we need to put that in the light of what the disciples have just said to him. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I imagine that this must have stung Jesus a bit. When he says “Have you still no faith?” he might as well be asking “Do you really think that I do not care about you?” Fear is not the opposite of faith, but it can be an obstacle to faith if we allow fear to isolate us, to make us more insular rather than allowing us to foster deep connections with the world around us.
So often when we hear the word faith, we think it means something like cognitive assent, believing that this or that theological statement is true. A better way to read the word faith, however, is to interpret it as trust. The disciples’ fear is warranted and probably a healthy response to the situation, but they allow that fear to take over and cause them to question their trust that Jesus cares about them, to doubt the validity of their connection.
I find it interesting that what the disciples say to Jesus does not seem to question his ability to do something miraculous about the storm, but instead is an accusation about his lack of concern for them.
When turbulence sets in, the fear reaction is often not too far behind, whispering in our ear that the only way forward is to protect ourselves because we are on our own. A reaction built on faith holds fast to the truth that no matter what turbulence comes our way, God is there in the boat with us and we are loved.
If this is a story that is just about believing that Jesus could calm a storm, I don’t find it all that interesting. Instead, I think this is a story more about the disciples on a journey of learning to trust that Jesus truly does care about them. Fear can be healthy and keep us safe, but it can also cause us to question our relationships, to erode trust, and to keep us from believing that we are beloved.
This is a story about fear and faith, but it’s also about the pleading of the disciples and the power of the divine.
Even though they come to Jesus with stinging accusations as they plead for his help, I do want to cut the disciples a little bit of slack. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves frustrated at times in our lives when it feels like Jesus is asleep in the middle of our storms. When the world is in chaos for one reason or another, it is natural to feel like God has abandoned us. But God can handle our anger and any ranting we might need to do in God’s direction, so go ahead and let loose on God if that is what you need to do. If the entirety of the biblical record is to be believed, it might just be the most faithful thing to do because it walks toward the turbulence rather than giving up the relationship and walking away.
Working through the turbulence in our relationship with God may mean that we are in the middle of big transitions and we might just come out the other side with a completely new view. More often than not, I think these transitions are about wrestling with our understanding of the power of the divine, and I think this story is just part of the disciples’ own journey in understanding that power.
I happened to read something this last week that was seemingly unrelated but has deeply affected the way I think about this passage. In a collection of writings by the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil titled Gravity and Grace, she writes, “We are drawn toward a thing because we believe it is good. We end by being chained to it because it has become necessary.”
One after the other, the disciples were drawn to Jesus because they saw something in him, something good, and holy, and liberating. Yet when they approach Jesus in the middle of the storm seeming to demand a miracle, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve become chained to him, or at least chained to the power he represented. It was not that long ago that a good portion of these disciples were fishermen, and I have to imagine that they have seen their share of storms. Did they even try to utilize their own skills to make their way through, or did they rush to wake Jesus as soon as things looked rough? Had they become so dependent on Jesus to fix things that they had forgotten their own power?
This isn’t the only story of the disciples navigating a storm in Mark’s gospel. A few chapters later, the disciples once again find themselves straining against the wind and rain, but this time Jesus isn’t even in the boat because he sent them on ahead while he stayed on shore to pray. When he sees them struggling, however, Jesus begins to walk on the water out toward them. And then the text includes the most amazing detail when it says, “He intended to pass them by.” He sees them struggling as best they can, walks out close enough to make sure they’re ok, then decides to just keep going. The disciples see him and cry out, so he does eventually go to them and the winds die down once again.
The miraculous storm-calming kind of power is ultimately not the kind of power that Jesus came to show the world. He seems reluctant to use it here in these passages, and all throughout Mark’s gospel, he urges those who recognize him as the Messiah to keep it a secret. The power of God that Jesus most came to reveal to us is more about the power that becomes real when we come together to create a better world. Rather than a kind of completely external power that we become chained to out of necessity, the power of the divine is the kind of power that breaks chains by empowering us to walk into the turbulence together knowing that we are loved and that the struggle is worth what’s waiting on the other side.
A little further on in Gravity and Grace, Weil wrote, “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise.” Once again that caught me off guard and has affected the way I read this story. If our faith leaves us sitting around waiting on an external miracle to come fix what’s wrong, or if it leads us to insulate inside comfortable bubbles, it feels a bit like preferring an imaginary paradise. What would it mean to prefer the real hell? To let go of any imaginary paradise that keeps us from recognizing the new shores to which we are being called?
Because the truth is that for now, God is continuously calling us to further shores where greater love and justice are possible. This weekend, we celebrate two related yet distinct things: Pride and Juneteenth. In both instances, we can allow ourselves to celebrate the moments of liberation that have happened, but we must never let those celebrations turn into empty rituals or holidays that fail to make our future days more holy. We can celebrate the many miracles that have brought us this far, but we must continue to row toward even greater justice.
I searched Mark’s gospel hoping there might be a third scene with the disciples in a boat that would really cap off the progression from “Jesus snaps his fingers to calm the storm,” to “Jesus intends to pass them by,” to something that would really bring home the disciples journey to understand the power of God. I didn’t find one.
Instead, what I was reminded is that Mark’s gospel most likely ended in its oldest format with the women fleeing after finding the empty tomb. The boat has often been used as a symbol for the Church, so instead of a nice story about an actual boat on an actual lake, we find the disciples thrown into the middle of another big transition as they decide how they will steer this new metaphorical boat.
Will they move toward the turbulence in order to transition where God is calling them? Will they let fear paralyze them or will they have faith that God truly cares? Will they spend all their time pleading for a miracle or have they learned that the greatest power of the divine comes through building relationships of mercy and justice?
And so, my wish for us, is:
- That we would recognize that life is always in transition if we listen deeply enough to the new places God is calling us to go.
- That our fear would never lead us toward isolation but would help us fall back on the trust in God’s care for this world.
- And finally, that we would plead not to simply be delivered from whatever hell we find ourselves in but that we would find ourselves being empowered to make our world more like heaven.