Sunday worship, Pentecost 4, June 20, 2021
Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, June 20, 2021
“Let Us Go Across”
Mark chapter four begins with Jesus teaching a very large crowd of people beside the sea. In fact, the crowd got so big that Jesus got into a boat on the sea and taught them from there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.
And Jesus taught them in parables. Wonderful little stories about lamps that shouldn’t be covered up, and seeds that grow in surprising and wonderful ways. Stories that have one meaning on the surface, with a deeper layer of meaning underneath about God’s Word, and love and justice coming into the world in Jesus and growing among those who follow him.
So, last Sunday I preached about the Parable of the Mustard seed, and then I pointed out some metaphorical “seeds” being planted through the church’s ministry and mission, as well as some signs of “growth” as love and justice and inclusion bring us closer to the Kingdom of God reality that is coming in the world.
But after teaching the crowd with parables, on that same day when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” He meant that they should row to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Technically, it’s a big, shallow lake – Lake Gennesaret. But it’s a dangerous lake that is prone to sudden and violent storms when the wind hits it, especially when you’re out on the water at night. And that’s exactly what happens when the disciples get out into the middle of it.
So, we’ve moved in this chapter from considering parables – made-up stories with a deeper meaning that teach us about God and ourselves, and life and the kingdom – to a historical narrative – a story about something that happened to Jesus and his disciples.
But as much as something like this probably did take place in history, many commentators also suggest that we try to think of this story as a parable too. It is not just another miracle story, they tell us. But it has deeper levels of meaning that teach us about who Jesus is, what his life was all about, and how his disciples (then and now) are called to participate in Jesus’ ministry with faith and courage.
Understanding the story as a parable, “the stilling of the storm” would have spoken to the early Christians who first read it in Mark’s community as they were experiencing their own metaphorical “storm.” Around the year 70 CE when this Gospel account was written, Mark’s church was living in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
As one commentator describes it, “There are storms and there are storms. But this one is huge! The centre of worship is destroyed; the cultural and religious centre of the people no longer holds. Identities among Jewish Christians and other Jewish groups are all in play – and at a time when the tide of gentiles is rising.” In the midst of all this chaos when the world-as-known is ending, this story reveals Jesus as present, and powerful, and able to overcome all the powers of evil with a simple, commanding word.
And isn’t that also the message that we need to hear and hold on to as we continue to struggle through the chaos of our present time? When we are concerned about conflict between cultures and peoples, when we are worried by terrorism and violence, and when we become afraid for the future because of our own personal challenges of health, finance, work, or relationships, this parable might give us courage to endure.
Early in the Covid-19 Pandemic, I remember hearing people commenting that although the situation was dire, at least “we’re all in the same boat.” They noted that “Covid-19 does not discriminate” and we were all susceptible to it. The boat in a storm on the sea was functioning as a metaphor for our pandemic experience. And perhaps for Christians, we might have even had the thought that Jesus might be with us in the boat.
However, we soon realized that in fact we weren’t all in the same boat. We may have been in the same storm, but some of us were privileged to have access to good health care, opportunities to work from home, technology to stay connected with our loved ones, and eventually the chance to get vaccinated before many others.
If we put ourselves in the place of the disciples in the boat with Jesus, we could notice that they only seemed to be worried about their own boat and how Jesus might help them to keep it from being swamped. Although the narrator mentions that there are other boats out there on the sea with them, the disciples don’t pay any attention to them or even ask Jesus to still the storm and save them all.
Like many of you, I was privileged to receive my second dose of the Covid-19 Vaccine this week. This time around, I had to work pretty hard to get it. I checked the drive-through and walk-in options, and there weren’t many open for 2nd doses. I put my name on the waiting lists for five or six pharmacies in my area, but wasn’t hearing anything from them. I tried the online booking system, and after hours of it showing no appointments in Regina at all, I finally got one booked for June 30th.
But I wasn’t patient enough to wait until then. On Friday, I went to the one walk-in clinic that was open for 2nd doses in Regina. It took two and half hours of standing in line, but it was worth it to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
Although the pandemic has felt like a storm to me, and trying to get my 2nd vaccine dose felt a little like frantically bailing the water out of my boat, today’s story reminds me that there are other boats out here on the sea and in the storm with us. And although my boat is in pretty good shape, others are still in danger of being swamped. There are lots of people even in Canada who need encouragement and help to get even their first doses, and there are people in many parts of the world where vaccines are hardly even available.
We’ve been told by the experts that none of us will get through this pandemic unless all of us get through it, as uncontrolled outbreaks in various places will lead to new variants and the likelihood of more waves affecting the whole world. I guess that would be the selfish reason for caring about the well-being of our global neighbours, whom we should love and care for just because they are God’s children too and they are out in a storm in a rickety boat.
But the Presbyterian Church in Canada has participated in advocating for vaccine equity and sharing around the world by encouraging the Canadian government to do more and give away all the extra doses that we have already purchased.
And we’ve encouraged individual Canadians to take part in the “Love my Neighbour” project through UNICEF to give the gift of vaccines to people who would not otherwise get them. Nick and I gave to the project as an offering of gratitude for our vaccine shots, and I certainly encourage you to consider doing the same if you are able.
Now, I have to say that there’s a lot more in this Gospel story that we could learn from and apply to our lives, especially when we start to think of it as a parable. But there’s just one other thing that I want to point out today. It’s the fact that Jesus sent the disciples out onto the lake that night.
Of course, he went with them. He didn’t send them into danger totally unprotected. But it seems to me that they could have avoided going out into that risky and dangerous situation. It wasn’t a surprise that a storm would come up. It was entirely predictable, but Jesus wanted them to go anyway.
Remember that he said, “Let us go across to the other side” because he had a mission to do over there. Crossing the lake will take them into Gentile territory, where they will be met immediately by a man possessed by a legion of demons rushing at them from the tombs. Then the next crossing will take them into encounters with the silent desperation of a hemorrhaging woman and the chaotic grief of a household in which a little girl has died.
It would be safer and easier to stay put. But Jesus’ mission, and the mission he is calling his disciples to take up, involves crossing boundaries, taking risks, and going ahead even into danger. The story reminds us that we’re in good company if we get nervous about the stressful, uncertain, and risky ministries into which Jesus calls us. When we make ourselves vulnerable by reaching out to and loving another person, when we invest our time and effort into a project without knowing if it will be successful, when we give generously from what we have with no guarantees of the impact.
And I think it’s entirely reasonable that the disciples were afraid. So long as their fear didn’t stop them from going ahead with the mission that Jesus had for them. After all, they had answered the call to follow Jesus. And he was the one who taught that “those who wish to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
I like the way Meda Stamper describes what being a disciple involves, as revealed in this story. She writes, “Leaving the crowd behind and following Jesus does not guarantee us, as individuals or a as a church, a storm-free life, and we, like the disciples… may sometimes find ourselves crying out, ‘Wake up! Do you not care?’ Even when we make it through the storms, following Jesus may well take us straight into encounters with the worst pain and suffering of the world, the places where Jesus’ powerful touch is most needed.
“Even for us, who know the end of the story, which the disciples in their storms do not, crossing to the other side at Jesus’ command may try our faith, but it also puts us in a position to experience the stilling of our storms, the restoration of the broken and marginalized, and the transformation of death to life.”
What a privilege to be there with Jesus when he speaks and rebukes the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Imagine looking out towards those other boats, each one floating calmly on the water, exhausted sailors uttering sighs of relief, resting happily in their boats, perhaps calling out to one another with shouts of joy because they have all been saved.
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It is Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, and we are his followers. Take a breath now in this moment of calm, as he’ll soon be sending us onward, and undoubtedly, there will be some storms.