Sermon: In the Boat

Jesus lulls a storm – Mark 4:35-41

Mark 4:35-41

Years ago, my friend Becky and her husband Jon were sailing on a large lake in New Mexico. Jon was an experienced sailor, and when they began their day, it was sunny and hot and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. No rain was in the forecast. It was a very typical New Mexico day. 

And then, just that suddenly, the winds began. High winds. Winds that rocked the boat, tipping it over onto its sides. Jon said, “We’ve got to head in.” They immediately sprang into action, manning and womaning the sails, trying to use the winds to steer their boat into shore. The winds got worse and became chaotic, blowing in different directions. “Let’s put the sails down,” said Jon. Still, the winds buffeted them, and the boat swamped and capsized. They fell into the water, holding onto the boat. Still, the winds. “It got really scary,” Becky told me. But, someone in another boat, battling the storm themself, came over and rescued them.

I could tell you so many stories like this. I could tell you a story involving a friend of mine were people weren’t saved, where they capsized and drowned. I could tell you a story of being on our little motorboat on the very big Bay, of swells and waves that seem to come from nowhere, of one close call we had with Patrick, while he was swimming and we were on the boat, that still gives Jerome nightmares. 

The sea is big. It is unpredictable. And it can kill you. Those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in small boats on large bodies of water can forget this pretty easily.

The people of Jesus’ time could not have forgotten this. They lived close to both the Mediterranean Sea and inland seas like the Sea of Galilee. They intimately knew the sea as a place  that “represented life and livelihood as well as ever-present danger,” in the words of scripture scholar Mark Davis. “Everybody knew somebody who set out to sail one day but never returned. Everybody knew the deadly potential of a sudden wind or a heavy storm.”

So it’s not surprising, then, that the sea — especially a stormy sea — comes to represent the forces of chaos in the Scriptures. The sea is often portrayed as the threatening deep, the place from which chaos emerges, the abode of demons. We heard that imagery in our call to worship, which is based on Psalm 107. It’s why this image of a God who can calm the chaos of the waters is used so often in Scriptures. It’s why the story of Jesus calming a storm on the sea is told not once but twice in the Gospel of Mark.

So, imagine with me being in a small boat on a large sea: (start moving) “Everything is in flux,” Davis says. “The ground beneath one’s feet is moving… the stern in which one might hide is moving… and in the fury of the winds and waves the boat creaks and cracks, giving voice to the real possibility that it may splinter at any point.” These winds drive the waves into the boat, and you may or may not be able to scoop the water out fast enough. The water seems to be everywhere, at your feet, in your mouth as you yell to your boat mates, slopping over the side into the small boat. And still, you are moving.

As Davis writes, so eloquently: “This is chaos. Everything is caught up in it, nothing is secure, and those tools or practices that allow (you) to exploit the elements to (your) advantage are now rendered useless or worse. People in chaos are not in control. They are along for the ride, hanging on for dear life, hoping against hope to keep it together until the storm is passed.” 

That sort of sounds like the last few years, doesn’t it?  I’ve been alive 59 years, and I have never lived through a time like this. (This is a sign of my privilege, of course. Other people have not been shielded from chaos.) We are in an era of political chaos. We are in an era of pandemic chaos. We are in an era of climate chaos. Just five years ago, I can’t remember ever being worried about wildfires. Now, like many of us, I’m bracing myself for wildfire season. In Tuesday’s paper, I read about a wildfire now burning in Oregon that is so big it’s changing the weather. A headline from a few days before said, “No one is safe. Extreme weather battles the wealthy world.”

Like our time, Mark’s gospel was written at a time of societal chaos also — for them, around the time the occupying Roman forces destroyed the temple in 70 A.D. The Roman Empire had, by this point, already conquered most of Europe and parts of the Middle East and Africa. It was the most dominating military power the world had ever known to that point. And now it was threatening to obliterate the seat of Jewish religious and political identity. So we misread this story if we see it as a simple — but hard-to-believe — story of Jesus having command over the chaotic elements of nature. We have to read this text politically. Says Davis, “The true chaos in this story (from Mark) is Rome’s seemingly irresistible power. There was no safe footing, no place to hold, no place to hide, because everything was caught up in Rome’s driving wind and angry waves. Even the temple — the house of prayer, the holy place where God’s presence was most palpable, the last foothold of refuge in times of distress — (even the temple) was imperiled by the storm.”

Helpless people trapped in a small boat on a big chaotic sea is a perfect symbol for the actual reality Mark’s community finds themself in. And over this abode of demonic chaos, Jesus rises to command wind and wave, rebuking them as he has rebuked other demons, saying, “Peace. Be still.”  This is the good news of this story and of most of the stories in Mark:  In the struggle against the destructive demonic powers of his day, Jesus wins. Jesus liberates people from those forces that seek to destroy them.

As Scripture scholar William Loader says, “Mark’s world seems remote, its demonology foreign, until we recognize that Mark is giving us a structure of thought which can connect strikingly to our own times. (Mark’s) pattern is to identify the powers that destroy and distort and endanger and then to see salvation as the overcoming, the liberation from such powers.”

I could do a whole sermon on the demonic powers that destroy and distort and endanger us. We talk about them a lot — systemic racism, a global capitalism so hellbent on perpetual growth that it is killing the planet, patriarchy and homophobia, this weird idea that we are somehow separate individuals seeking our own self-interest in competition with everyone else rather than an integrated part of a web of interrelationship and mutual dependency with human and non-human beings. The way these powers seep into us, into our minds and bodies and worldviews and emotions and distort our deepest desires and longings. 

But I don’t want to talk about that.  I want to talk about what happens in the boat. I want to talk about liberation.

Boats are an ancient symbol of the church. I didn’t know this, but think about it. Churches often call their main section a “nave.” Live: Navy. Naval. A “nave” refers to a ship. The ceilings of many church buildings look like the bottom of a wooden boat. Even the ceiling at the synagogue kinds of looks like the bottom of a boat. (Insight from here.) 

I wonder if you also noticed, at the beginning of our story, that it says, “And leaving the crowd behind, (the disciples) took (Jesus) with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.” I didn’t catch that detail the first or third I read this story. The disciples in the boat aren’t alone on the chaotic sea. There are other boats in the water. Even if theirs gets swamped and sinks, there are other boats around to rescue them — just like my friend Jon and Becky.

And then, of course, there’s Jesus. He’s in the boat. He’s not on the shore, telling the wind and waves what to do from a remote place. He’s right there in the boat with them, experiencing what they are experiencing. And he’s so unconcerned about the storm that he sleeps through it. The drastic movement of the boat (do it), the winds, the creaking and cracking, the water spilling in — they don’t phase him.  He knows that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life is stronger than the demonic, chaotic spirits that seek to destroy. 

What does this mean for us? Does this mean that all storms, whether personal or societal, will be stilled, that our boat will never go down? I don’t think that’s what Mark meant, and I don’t think that’s what Matthew or Luke meant when they included this story in their gospels. I mean, the Roman Empire did destroy the temple in Jerusalem. Things fell apart. And things fall apart, in our life and in the world.

So, here’s what this story means to me. And I think each of you will have to determine what this story might mean for you. For me, it means that I am never alone. I am being held by the boat — by this church and other communities that have held me in my life — and there are always people in the boat with me. If we go down, at least we go down together. It means there are other boats in the water, too, so even if me and my boat mates are struggling, there’s others out there that have our backs.  

And it means that the Spirit of Life — which is my word for Divine Power — the Spirit of Life is right there with me and us in the boat, and the Spirit of Life always wins. Life is always stronger than death. The Life force is always stronger than the forces of chaos. I’ve seen that too many times to not believe it. I saw it when my mother was peacefully dying from a horrible disease that had taken everything from her over the last months except for what matters — which is love, the love we gave her and the love she gave to us, and her faith that a Loving Presence far bigger than her was holding her that entire time.

I see that Life Force in every one of you who gets buffeted by the winds and feels helpless and out of control and like you’re just about to go under — and then just tenaciously keeps on keeping on.

I see it in my friend, Sarah, who has been as oppressed as just about anybody I know, and who has turned that shame and pain into a ferocious passion for justice for some of the most marginalized people in the world. I see it in the many many people — including you here — who together are mending what mending what needs to be mended, restoring what needs to be restored, resisting what needs to be resisted, protecting what needs to be protected, caring for who and what needs to be cared for, who just keep persisting. All the “little” people, all around the world, who — as poet Adrienne Rich says — “age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

I see in creation. In the weed that somehow finds this tiny crack between our house and the concrete and grows up through it, and we hack it back, and it comes up again and again, and it will never stop.  I see in it how quickly ecosystems begin to regenerate when we just leave them alone. I see it in the unstoppableness of creation no matter how polluted or abused it is by us.  And I know, if we end up making this planet uninhabitable for many forms of life, in another few thousand millennia, this planet will heal itself and life will start up again. I see it in this amazing, mind-bending universe that is constantly expanding and that might actually just be one universe among many universes.

The Spirit that made all this life — that Spirit that is in all this life — that Spirit is stronger than any other force in the universe. And that Spirit is in the boat with us and in us and with us and will be until the end of time.