On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Welcome back! Welcome back to the world! Welcome back to gathering together! Welcome back to seeing each other’s faces without masks—well in most cases anyway. Welcome back to church in church! Welcome back to life as almost normal. Almost.
I think today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is a good one for us to think about as we sail into a new reality. And let’s face it, we’re not going to simply sail back into our old reality. Too much has changed in the past 15 months.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples set out in the evening, of all things, to sail across the Sea of Galilee. A great windstorm blows up and the boat is being swamped. We know it’s a serious storm because even the fishermen who are out on this water all the time are frightened. Through all of this, Jesus is sleeping soundly on a cushion in the stern of the boat. Finally, the disciples cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?!?” At that point, Jesus gets up, rebukes the storm, the sea becomes dead calm, and the disciples are left wondering just who Jesus is, now that they’ve seen this new dimension of his power and abilities.
When we read or hear these stories, these episodes from the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s natural for us to ask ourselves, “Okay, what does that mean for me or for us?” Yes, we’re also supposed to try hear it in its original context if we’re able, but we also hope there’s something in the story that we can take home with us, some lesson that fits our lives right here and right now. That’s why we do this little exercise with the Gospel every week.
With this particular story, it has been far too tempting for far too long to personalize it a little too much. And I confess I’ve been as guilty as any preacher out there in doing this. That message goes something like this: “When storms arise in your life, just remember that Jesus is in the boat with you…even if he’s taking a nap at the moment. He has the power to quiet the storm. Maybe he’s asking you, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ Muster up some courage. Maybe it’s your turn to stand up and tell your storm, ‘Peace! Be still.’” I have preached that sermon.
Listen, there are probably worse ways to go with this story. We’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve wanted to join the disciples in yelling, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?!?” I know I’ve been there a few times. But the fact is, there is something greater at stake in this story than a bromide to help us face our fears. There is something greater at stake here not just for them in their time, but for us in our time. But to know what that is, we have to range beyond the boundaries of these six verses.
From the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been announcing that the Kingdom of God is imminent. Actually, imminent is not quite the right word. The Greek word is engikken. It’s often translated as “has come near,” but there is an even greater sense of immediacy in the word. Think of it as a train coming into the station. It’s not all the way into the station yet but the engine has already reached the edge of the platform. That’s the sense of it. The kingdom of God’s engine has already reached the platform. Get ready to board.
Everything Jesus says and does in the Gospel of Mark is said and done to demonstrate the power and presence of this new reality he calls the kingdom of God. He is not just telling people about the kingdom, he is showing them what it looks like and how it acts. When Jesus calls the disciples, he is recruiting them to build a new community, a Beloved Community, based on the ideals and principles of “The Way,” which is another name Mark uses for the kingdom of God.
Another thing to understand about the Gospel of Mark is that everything that happens in the Gospel is heavily weighted with myth and symbolism. That’s not to say that the events in the Gospel didn’t happen, but that it is important to pay attention to how Mark is describing and using them as he tells the story of Jesus, and what kind of language he is using. We need to ask questions. What other scriptural connections does he make—or expect us to be making? What apocalyptic expectations and understandings are at work in their culture? What mythic stories are at work in the background as he tells the story of Jesus? What cultural boundaries and expectations are being crossed? If we don’t catch all these clues, then we might not get the point Mark is trying to make. We’ll get some other point instead.
When we see the disciples and Jesus set off from the shore in a boat in the evening, Mark wants us to be nervous. We’re supposed to remember that in their mythic understanding the sea is the home of Chaos and Destruction. Dread, unpredictable, cosmic forces hide in its depths and the only thing that could tame it at creation was the Spirit of God hovering over it. That they are setting out as night falls with the intention of crossing all the way to the other side—well, if we were Mark’s first readers or listeners we would know they’re heading for trouble.
As the story unfolds, Mark assumes that somewhere in the back of our minds we are maybe remembering Psalm 107: “Some went down into the sea in boats…then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves were hushed.” (107:23,39) When we read that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, Mark wants us to remember how Jonah slept as his boat was about to break up in a mighty tempest. (Jonah 1:4, 10). Mark puts all these things together so that we will understand that this storm that the disciples face out there on the sea of Chaos is not just a metaphor for the troubles of life. This is a Cosmic storm. They are pitted against cosmic forces. Some great elemental power wants very much to keep them from getting to the other side of the lake. But what? And why?
To understand that, it’s important to understand why Jesus wanted to cross the lake in the first place.
The Sea of Galilee, was also called Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias. It depended on who was talking about it. It served as a clear geographic boundary between the territories of Philip and Agrippa in the tetrarchy when the Emperor Augustus divided up the region between the sons of Herod the Great, and it continued to serve as a clear social boundary between the Jews of Galilee on the south side and the Hellenized Jews and Gentiles of various nationalities of the Decapolis on the north side.
Why did Jesus want to go to the other side of the lake? Quite simply because that’s where the gentiles were.
Jesus was fighting racism. He wanted his new kingdom community to embrace everyone—Jew, Gentile, people of all nationalities and types. People who had differences in how they worshipped. So he took his mission of healing and exorcism and teaching across the sea to invite them to be part of “the way.” He also wanted to teach his disciples that in the kingdom of God there simply is no room for such nonsense as racial division or historical division or anything like that. In the kingdom of God no one can call anyone else “unclean.”
That storm that rose up against them was symbolic of all the storms that rise up to resist our attempts at reconciliation and renewal. It was the elemental, cosmic something in our world that wants to resist healing and unifying humanity. And I want you to notice something here. The words that Jesus speaks to that storm are the words of exorcism. Most of our translations make those words prettier than they actually are, but they are the same words that Jesus speaks when he casts out the demon in Mark 1:25. “Peace. Be still.” Sure. But the full force of the words is more like “Silence! Shut up! I muzzle you!”
Maybe this is how we need to speak to racism. Maybe this is how we need to speak to the forces that try to dissuade and discourage us from reaching out to each other to make new bonds of friendship. Maybe this is how we need to speak to those voices who keep dragging up tradition and history as reasons to preserve symbols of hatred and violence in public display. Maybe this is the plain kind of speech we need to use with those who continue to pursue paths that have done nothing but separate us and poison us against each other. Maybe instead of trying to be reasonable and persuasive against such divisive winds it’s time to simply say, “Silence! I muzzle you. I will not let you speak hate. I will not let you keep us from getting to the other shore. I will not let you stop us from building the Beloved Community.”
We have had fifteen months to sit apart and consider all the things that are dividing us. We have had fifteen months to witness as 600,000 people have died from a disease that could have been curtailed much more easily and much earlier if we had been more unified. We have had 15 months to watch as unreasonable political forces have assaulted the foundations of our democracy and truth, itself. We have had 15 months to see racial tensions repeatedly exacerbated by hate and violence and unfortunate systemic conditioning. We have had fifteen months to sit apart in our homes and miss each other and think about what it means to be friends, to be church, to be disciples of Jesus, to be people of The Way.
And now the doors are open. We’re back together. We get to be “us” again. But there are people “not like us” across the road, across town, across the lake. And Jesus is saying, “Let’s go across to the other side.” So how about it? Shall we take this boat out for a ride?