Message preached on
June 24, 2018
Shortly after the end of the second world war, a Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, and five companions set sail from the shores of Peru on a vessel that was little more than a raft. He did so to test his theory that before Christopher Columbus supposedly “discovered” the new world, people from South America could have settled the islands of the South Pacific. For 101 days, this raft traveled over 4,300 miles across the largest ocean on this planet before crashing onto a reef in the French Polynesian archipelago, with these six explorers steeping ashore on August 7, 1947. The name Heyerdahl gave his raft, as well as the book he wrote the next year, was “Kon Tiki.”
I can’t quite imagine having the cojones, the courage to embark on such a long, dangerous voyage upon so fragile a vessel. Doing so would require more than the mustard seed size faith (Mark 4:30-32) I too often rely upon. … You? … Now, I know that this morning’s gospel story involves a much smaller sea and a larger boat. But when Jesus, after a day of teaching on the shore, called his disciples to pull up anchor and “go across to the other side,” I wonder if any of his followers were paying attention to how far it was to that distant shore, or to the weather ahead. Rough waters lay between here and there, as we heard from gospel storyteller Mark.
Did any of you earlier in worship draw a sea picture as part of our Summer Sunday School Activity? If so, glance at your bulletin insert. Was the scene you portrayed a serene one, like the sunset photo on the bulletin cover of a sailboat on a placid sea? Or, in keeping with the Psalmist’s song (107:23-32) we read, did you draw “towering waves” with a small boat shooting “high in the sky, then the bottom dropped out”? How turbulent was this sea in your mind’s eye as you tried to put pencil to paper?
As we receive this story of Jesus, we are invited to picture a storm that filled his disciples with fear. Please note, most of these followers were not landlubbers unfamiliar with the sea. Peter, James, John, Andrew – they were used to the rigors of fishing, as well as to the potential dangers of a small boat on a large body of water. Wouldn’t they have been scanning the sky for signs of what might be coming? That was how they had made their livelihood on this side of the sea of Galilee. If you don’t pay attention to the weather, you pay the price with your life.
But Jesus said, “let’s go across to the other side.” I wonder if any of them had ever been on the other side. That was, after all, another country. It wasn’t just the danger of the sea to fear. “Over there” was the unknown. Stranger danger. Why did Jesus want to go over there, anyway? This gospel sea story is told by Matthew and Luke also, in addition to Mark. And all three speak of what happened on the other side, how they encountered there a man in a cemetery struggling with who knows what. His eyes were wild, as were his actions. No one could subdue him, apparently. He was bound by chains, but even these were ineffective. He wandered among the tombs howling and hurting himself with stones.
He ran to Jesus and fell at his feet. I might be a tad fearful if I saw someone in chains racing at breakneck speed toward me. Jesus simply told whatever “unclean spirit” seemed to be plaguing this wild man to “come out” of him. As Mark tells it, this man then “shouted at the top of his voice” (excuse me, but I have to read it like is says) “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” That would have shaken me up a bit. You? Have you read that story? Do you recall what happened next? A herd of pigs were feeding not far away. The “Legion” of unclean spirits (there were many of them disturbing this man, it says) asked Jesus to send them into the pigs. “So he gave them permission.” That’s what it says. “Okay, go ahead.” And they did, and the herd of them promptly ran off a seaside cliff and drowned.
Needless to say, this did not create a receptive audience among the townsfolk who owned the pigs. They were not overjoyed at seeing this man they had chained up - now in his right mind. Apparently, they valued their pigs more than him. Or they were just plain scared, for they begged Jesus to leave. So, he and his disciples climbed back in the boat, leaving behind one newfound friend who then discovered in himself a gift for public speaking, believe it or not. That’s what follows this gospel sea story (Mark 5:1-20), what happened “on the other side.”
But let’s return to that boat out on the sea, heading toward new territory. A storm arose. Can you see it in your minds eye? This was no raft like Kon Tiki, but it also wasn’t one built for rough seas. More like a rowboat with a sail, far from the shore. They were battered by the wind, and the waves were starting to swamp the boat. Where was Jesus amid all of this? He was asleep on a cushion. That’s what it says. How does one sleep in the middle of a storm? When finally fear had gotten the best of them, they shook him awake. “Rabbi, don’t you care that we are about to drown?”
You don’t have to be in a boat on a raging sea to wonder that. There are days when every one of us question whether God really cares about the storms we or others face. We have little idea of what lies on the other side of what we fear. And because “God” is the name we give to the unknown, we can’t think any bigger, we are filled – we say – with the fear of God. Doesn’t scripture say that this is the beginning of wisdom? When we reach the end of what we know, we come to that place where we can release our death-grip on being so sure of ourselves and what we think, and simply admit, “I don’t know.” This is where wisdom resides. “Welcome,” says God.
“But don’t you care?” we wonder of the Almighty, “or aren’t you almighty enough to actually do something?” Therein lies our crisis of faith. The book of Job is built upon the question of why bad things happen – these storms we face upon the sea of life. If you’ve read that book, you know there is no good answer, just a God who, in the end, speaks much larger questions in the middle of the whirlwind (Job 38:1-11).
There in that little boat on the raging sea, with Jesus asleep in the stern, they asked, “Rabbi, don’t you care that we are about to perish?” It says that he awoke and calmed the storm. “Peace!” he said, “Be still!” And the wind ceased and the sea became smooth as glass – like the picture on the front of your bulletin. “Why are you afraid?” he then asked. “What about your faith?” At this they were, it says, “filled with great” (in Greek) “phobon” (from which we derive “phobia”) “fear.” Of course, we also can translate that word as “awe.” The boundary between fear and awe can be hair thin. That was the response of his disciples on the sea. Perhaps this was the moment they began to realize they weren’t in Galilee anymore, and that this man was more than they knew. Maybe they had just crossed a sea larger than the Pacific. Fear is the beginning of wisdom. And faith is what helps us face into it.
Well, as you know, my brother-in-law, Ed, died this month. A week ago, Saturday, we (just his immediate family) traveled to the little cemetery in the small town of Great Cacapon, WV. There we took turns, those who could, digging two holes - one for his ashes, the other for the ashes of his father, Jim, who died seven years ago. After we were finished, Melanie’s dad sang the Lord’s Prayer. Then, Ed’s son, Jack, read a “little whatever-it-is” (that’s what he called it) that he wrote for the occasion. I thought it was so good that I asked his permission to share it with you today. Listen.
And Jesus says, “Peace! Be still!” ... Amen?