Monday, June 15, 2015

Rough Seas (Mark 4:35-41)

This coming Sunday, I will be the guest preacher of the First Baptist Church of La Grange, Illinois. My wife and I are visiting the church's new pastor, Rev. Erica Van Brakle and her husband, Rev. David Van Brakle (pastor of the Community Church of Wilmette, IL).
It will be a delight to be with Erica (an old friend from Central Seminary days), David (a CRCDS graduate) and their two boys Ethan and William. What our beagle pup will make of attending church for the first time remains to be seen....

Erica's church is exploring a sermon series on water themes in the Bible. As it so happens, the Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday has a Gospel reading that is surely one of the most famous passages in the New Testament to deal with water and matters of faith.
Here's the sermon:

In his book The Greater Journey, the respected historian David McCullough traces the stories of several 19th century Americans who left the United States to explore France. Between 1830 and 1900, many celebrated artists and influential thinkers made this journey at a time when it was quite unique for U.S. citizens to consider leaving the still “new” feeling “New World” in favor of the Old World previous generations left behind. 

To get to France, the first challenge was braving the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. McCullough spends a chapter telling of the experiences at sea, drawing from the diaries or memoirs of these travelers. Some reported a relatively smooth crossing, taking just over three weeks to arrive at port. Others experienced incredibly harrowing conditions on the high seas. 

McCullough recalls it was not uncommon for a trans-Atlantic ship to be delayed or to disappear without a trace. Such stories weighed heavily on the minds of many making the long voyage. In the days leading up to departure, passengers wrote lengthy letters to loved ones and intimates, ensuring that they had some “closure” if their ship never made it across the ocean.

Particularly vivid are the reminiscences of educational pioneer and early feminist Emma Willard. Making the transatlantic crossing in 1830, Willard found the initial part of the voyage rather tame, until “the heavy weather struck.” The passengers found the “rough seas” unending. Most challenging were the daytime when winds blew and the waters became turbulent.

Emma Willard writes

Then the waters rise up in unequal masses, sometimes lifting the vessel as if to the heavens and again plunging her as if to the depths below, and sometimes [the waters] come foaming and dashing and breaking over the ship, striking the deck with a startling force.

If this was not frightening enough, then came the terrifying “night of mountainous seas breaking over the ship.” Willard writes,

Thus with the raging element above, beneath and around us; with nothing to divide us from it, but a bark whose masts were shaking, whose timbers were creaking and cracking, as they were about to divide; the feeling of the moment was, a ship was a vain thing for safety; that help was in God alone. Thoughts of ocean caverns—of what would be the consequence of one’s death, naturally rise in the mind at such a time. [All quotes taken from McCullough, The Greater Journey, p. 18].

Several centuries earlier, the disciples of Jesus feared for their very lives. The waters heaved in the midst of a storm, and the ship pitched to and fro in the winds. The disciples, holding on for dear life, could not understand why Jesus, their leader, was blissfully asleep on the pillow. The disciples feared they would not see dawn. Jesus was dreaming the night away.

The fright etched on their faces says it all: “We’re in a boat, shore nowhere in sight, and we’re about to go down with the ship!” The disciples wonder if Jesus has lost touch with reality. He snores peacefully while the ship timbers groan as if ready to break apart.

For today’s reader, when an airplane gets us to France in a matter of hours, the idea of taking three to six weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat sounds quaint and outmoded. Reading Mark’s story of first-century boat travel, we have even more reason to look askance at the disciples’ panic. They are only crossing a small sea, not an ocean!

Why should they get so fearful at crossing a lake that takes very little time? Why does Mark’s gospel play up this storm at sea in a way a 19th-century person writing about crossing an entire ocean sound so similar? Why does this story of a little boat appear so dramatic when the journey lasts overnight at the most?

In telling this story, the gospel writer calls upon the anxieties about boat travel common at the time. Most fishing happened within sight of the shoreline, the idea of “deep sea fishing” not remotely attractive an idea to the Israelites. Bodies of water, oceans and lakes alike, were thought to be symbols of chaos: the destructive, unpredictable, overwhelming forces well beyond human control. Such stories figure into the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the waters in turmoil until God stilled them) or times when the biblical narrative had a moment of great drama.

Consider the story of Jonah, the prophet who was told to go to Ninevah and promptly hopped on a boat heading the other way.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them.
Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’

Even the experienced sailors lost their nerve at such a storm. They tried everything: tossing over cargo, praying to any god who might be responsible for the storm, and even what happened next in the story: tossing Jonah overboard!

On one level, it’s the rather artful way God has of getting us back on track, even when we’re running the other way as fast as possible. Jonah spends three days and three nights inside a fish that swallowed him up (thus making generations of Sunday school children delighted with the image of a smiling whale who ate a grown-up!). On the other side of the story, we see the fear within anybody, old seadog or “landlubber” alike. In Jesus’ day, you got on a boat at your own risk, hoping, if so lucky, to be alive by the time you reach “the other side”.

When Jesus is finally awake, he does not enter into the moment with any trace of apprehension. Instead, he strongly orders the seas to calm and the storm to abate. Without question, the waters and the skies above turn tranquil, as if nothing happened.

This is no exaggeration. Reading Mark closely in the Greek, the extreme differences is just that “night and day” in its contrast. The storms rage until Jesus says, “Hush!” No prayers to God above are needed. Jesus evokes the same creative powers that formed the sky and the earth, the dry land and the waters. To those who listen carefully to Mark’s gospel, they hear not a bit of Jonah repeated. Instead, Genesis is recalled.

Yet the story is not necessarily about the miraculous stilling of the waters, the dismissing of the chaos. Jesus asks the disciples why they falter in their faith. Why do they struggle to believe?

Admittedly, this is the part of reading the gospel when we look up from the text and ask where we find ourselves in the story. We may not have been on a boat in rough seas, yet we know firsthand the ferocity and terror of the chaotic. How often do we see the destruction and brokenness in our lives, in our community, in our world?

Jesus calls to his followers to believe and trust in God, the one who is not aloof to the storms. Indeed, the gospel has a cross looming near its end, where God encounters the pain of the world in Jesus’ cry of abandonment at his death. It is up to us to decide if we can see a story that has a much different ending awaiting us, one brimming full of new life and hope. If so emboldened, the believer takes strength from the many stories of times past when chaos raged, yet in the end God overcomes that which threatens to unravel Creation.

As her ship felt near shaking apart on the rough seas, Emma Willard wrote, “the feeling of the moment was, a ship was a vain thing for safety; that help was in God alone.

Emma Willard strikes me as a person who knew something about trust. By this point in her life standing there on the deck of the storm-tossed ship, she had a reputation, with her efforts to improve women’s educational opportunities. 

First in Middlebury, Vermont, and then Troy, NY, Willard advocated for the academic advancement and equality of women. Such work is still in progress to this day, yet it is not as difficult as it would have been in the early 19th century when Willard’s efforts were disregarded and her graduates thought unsuitable for the professional careers. Traveling across the raging Atlantic was not the most difficult storm she had encountered.

In our own lives, we find ourselves more often at the railings, wondering when the ship will stop bucking or debating whether or not we had been better off not even getting on the boat to begin with. Confessing “help is in God alone” is much more difficult when you try living it out. Do we really live our lives as if God is bigger than the chaos of our own lives? Is our belief so thin that we cannot believe that Jesus will be there for us in our times of fear or struggle?

Consider this story and its contrast of faith faltering and Jesus persevering, of chaos threatening and God’s calming all things. Where do we see ourselves in this story? Can we trust that the gospel offers us a word we can believe in and live out?

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