First a disclaimer: I spent the last 6 days more or less in the wilderness, so I only heard about the horrible shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME Church last night. Had I known earlier, this sermon would have looked quite different. But as it is, I happened to write this sermon last week Saturday already – my son had just graduated from High School, school is now over for many, and I was in a summery and more lighthearted mood. I could not anticipate the darkness of the news this past week. So I will begin this sermon by talking about summer camp.
At my last congregation, where I had a decent number of confirmation students, and I took take the students to Rock ‘N Water, a Christian Adventure Camp in the Sierra Foothills, two years in a row. It was an amazing opportunity for teambuilding and having talks about faith with many other young kids from all over. One of the highlights of attending that camp was two days of whitewater rafting on the American River.
Now the two stretches we did were considered class 3, with the occasional 3+ category rapids among them, so nothing too serious, but definitely exciting. Of course we were not sent onto the river by ourselves. No, we had a guide who would sit in the stern, steering us and giving us directions what to do. Otherwise we probably would have gotten ourselves into big trouble. Because that’s what you get when you put a bunch of amateurs onto a raft who have no real clue what to pay attention to and who might have trouble working together.
What do you think such a guide in a raft is like?
Well, you hope it’s someone who’s trained, knowledgeable, cautious, responsible etc. Because, let’s face it, you trust such a person with your life. When we went the first year, we had such a guide, who impersonated all those qualities. But the second year, our guide was Colin, a 20 year old guy who quickly earned the nickname “Crazy Colin”. You get the picture, right? Now Colin, as we would find out quickly, liked to add a little zest and excitement to the already exciting experience of white water rafting. Colin is the kind of guy who steers you purposely into boulders and bridges, just for the fun of it, you know, everyone being bounced out of their seats and tossed around in the raft.
I have to tell you, I preferred the guide our group had the first year. After all, I wasn’t 13 anymore, and my tolerance for adventure is limited.
My experience with crazy Colin was: you have to trust that the guide in the stern of the boat knows what he’s doing, that he will get you safely through the turbulences, otherwise you go insane. And I have to admit it wasn’t so much an issue for me the first year, when we had this responsible, even-keeled guide. The second year, it took a lot of extra trust and faith to surrender myself to crazy Colin. But you know what? I quickly learned that Colin was only going crazy with us a) because most of the group liked it (except for myself, I believe), and b) only in situations that were considerably harmless. I was amazed when I realized that, whenever we hit a rapid, the goofing around was over, he steered us with experience and skill, and, I have to say, that year nobody fell out of the boat. We had a few close calls, but, no. The first year, however, with the responsible and even-keeled guide, we actually lost my daughter in one of the rapids.
The situation on the Sea of Galilee was a different one, of course. The disciples didn’t get into the boat to have fun, but because Jesus told them so, and to ‘get to the other side’, which literally means crossing over into a different territory – Gentile territory, where Jesus was about to continue his ministry. This alone probably was scary for the disciples – to face the unknown, the strangers, people who were so different in their customs and life choices from the Jews.
And while Jesus seems to be totally at peace with the circumstances and falls asleep, the disciples don’t only have to face their feeling of discomfort and maybe even fear of crossing over into strange territory, but they are hit by a violent storm. Winds howling, waves crashing into the boat, chaos, bodies drenched and flung about, men trying to keep the boat afloat with all their strength – I think it’s easy to see why they panic at some point. And you have to remember that not all of Jesus’ disciples were timid tax collectors who had no clue about maneuvering a boat, but many of them were seasoned fishermen. But even they panic at some point, overwhelmed by the forces of nature and chaos and their fear. They give up, it seems, they think they are doomed, and at some point they wake Jesus and say: what? Do you remember?
It’s quite interesting: they don’t say, Jesus, save us, but they say, Jesus, don’t you care we’re dying here? How can you be so aloof, so calm?
Maybe if they had asked Jesus to save them, Jesus’ response wouldn’t have been so harsh: Guys, you still have no faith? Because the plea to save them from the perils of the raging waters would have shown that those disciples have faith in Jesus, that they trust him, that they realize that Jesus has the power to get them out of this mess. But all they do is to say, Jesus, commiserate with us, since you are going down with us.
I think we all know people like that, people who don’t really reach out for help, but try to pull us down into their misery with them, as if they wanted to say, if I suffer, I want you to have part in that suffering, too. Do you know such people?
And so, when Jesus sighs about the unbelief of his disciples and rebukes the wind, of course the disciples are amazed – because they don’t anticipate that Jesus, indeed, has the power to calm the storms; their trust and faith in Jesus isn’t that strong yet.
I chose this gospel from Mark as the sermon text for my ordination here at St. Matthew’s 13 years ago. I had worked so hard to get to the point of getting ordained as a minister in God’s church, I had dealt with frustrations and many failures up to that point, and though I had the sense of having reached a certain goal, I also knew: it wasn’t over. I was merely crossing over into some unknown and unchartered territory, anticipating that being and ordained minister wouldn’t always be smooth sailing, but often rough, chaotic, maybe even threatening – at least threatening my comfort zone. And I was praying that day that I would never forget that somewhere, Jesus is in the same boat, and though storms may rage at times, I’d never be abandoned. Of course, like Jesus’ first disciples, I am not perfect and sometimes forget that Jesus is somewhere, or I think Jesus doesn’t care and is inactive, and I sometimes only see chaos around me and go crazy, instead of just taking a deep breath, saying a prayer, and dealing with the issue. But so far, I have always been reminded at the right time that, indeed, God is present, even in the stormiest and darkest hours of ministry – and life.
And here I would like to insert some thoughts on ‘getting to the other side’, as Jesus and his disciples do in today’s gospel. This country has come a long way since the 60s and the days of the Civil Rights movement. I don’t even want to imagine what life for people of color must have been in those days. Some may think we already have reached the other side, and racism is a thing of the past. However, the events in Charleston and recent incidents of unnecessary violence against people of color show that we are not there yet. We may see the other shore and think, see, we’ve made it. Don’t we have an African-American president, after all? But we fool ourselves if we think we’ve gotten where we need to be – and where God wants us to be: in a place where all of God’s beloved children, regardless of color, sexuality, or gender identity, are treated with respect and dignity. After all, we are all created in the image of God.
And so I would like to urge us not to stop where we are at. Yes, the other side may be unknown territory, and scary, because we don’t know what to expect. As we are on our way, it will not be an easy ride, but storms are likely to shake us up. However, we mustn’t forget that Jesus is with us on this journey also – giving us guidance and comfort, if we just ask for it. We mustn’t give up, no matter, how hard things seems to be. Never.
Whenever storms hit you in your life – and there tend to be quite a few, as we all probably can agree – the first reaction is to worry, and possibly to panic. That just seems to be how we are wired, fight or flight. However, my wish is that you may find that Jesus never abandons ship; that Jesus is there with you, with us, in the same boat, maybe just waiting to be called upon and to be asked for help. And maybe just the reassurance that he, indeed, is there with us in all chaotic and threatening life situation will help our unbelief, our lack of trust, and help us maneuver unchartered waters and discover unknown and maybe even scary territories on the other side.