Today is the first Sunday after what the State of California calls a ‘full reopening’ after 15 months of restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And though this ‘full reopening’ has a little asterisk attached to it – there are still settings like healthcare facilities, any facility involving children, and mass transit, which will continue to operate under certain restrictions – this is a reason to rejoice. Finally, finally we seem to have reached the end of the tunnel. Hallelujah!
And may our prayer be that other parts of this world, where COVID-19 is still rampant, may get to a similar point in the near future as well. AND: may we never forget all those who lost their lives, their health, or their livelihood during the pandemic. May we continue to pray for all those affected by this horrendous pandemic.
Now as we are in this particular point in history, I see quite a few parallels to what the disciples go through in today’s gospel story. It’s been quite a turmoil. At least in this part of the world, we have pretty much weathered the storm. As a society, as a community, we’ve been battered, we’ve been bruised, we’ve been tossed about by the waves, we’ve had to mourn many losses – but here we are, in much calmer waters now. And Christ somehow was with us all the time.
Now as we look at today’s gospel, it is easy to focus on the storm, the waves, threatening forces of nature that overwhelm us, just as the disciples do. For haven’t we all experienced situations like that – through the pandemic and beyond? And: haven’t we also experienced that Christ was somehow there, guiding us through the storms of our lives, protecting us, giving us strength and courage?
But I’d like to focus on a much more inconspicuous sentence in today’s gospel story, a sentence that is easy to miss. We find this sentence right at the beginning of the story: “On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side’”.
On that day. What day, we may ask? Well, if we read the passage just before today’s gospel lesson, we learn that is was quite a successful day. Jesus was teaching the masses – who had followed him for quite a while now – in his home territory on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people hungrily feed on every word of hope and love and justice and the growth of the kingdom of God among them that Jesus shares with them. Jesus can’t go anywhere without the masses pressing in on him. It’s a ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ moment.
On that day, when evening had some, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’
This may sound innocent enough for us, but what is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee? Well, it’s foreign territory. A territory with many Greek settlements. Pagan country. The ancient name of this area was Gaulonitis and today is known as the Golan Heights. Still today, it’s a highly contested area. It’s not an area one easily or willingly crosses into.
Why in the world would Jesus go there? Why would he leave the adoring and supportive masses behind and take the risk of the unknown? And all that ‘when evening has come’, which is, as night and darkness are about to fall?
I am pretty certain most if not all of Jesus’ disciples were not thrilled to ‘go across to the other side’. And where Jesus is confident, open, curious, and at ease – so much at ease, in fact, that he can sleep like a baby on his pillow in the stern (isn’t that a lovely little detail of the story?) – the disciples most likely feel apprehensive, maybe even scared of the unknown. They have to navigate in the dark, find their way under these less than perfect circumstances. And maybe, maybe one or two among them secretly pray for a strong wind to blow them back to the safe and comfortable shores of Galilee.
One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to see how the storm and battering waves the disciples encounter are a reflection of the turmoil they most likely feel as they cross over. They promised to follow Jesus – but are not ready to go to the less desirable places he chooses to go. And so they are tossed about, conflicted, anxious.
We know how the story continues. At some point, the boat Jesus and his disciples are in is swamped. The disciples are horrified and fear for their lives. All the while, Jesus is asleep. At some point, the disciples can’t take it anymore. They wake up Jesus, panicking. Jesus, don’t you care? Don’t you care we are perishing?
Jesus, maybe still a little drowsy, takes care of the issue as he rebukes the sea with the following words, ‘Sea, be still!’ He then turns to his terrified – and at this moment also quite awestruck – followers, rebuking them, ‘Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
And it makes me wonder if Jesus refers not only to the external turmoil everyone went through, but the internal turmoil as well. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.
In many ways, we now are on our way ‘to the other side’. We’ve weathered the storm of the pandemic, we’ve been battered, we’ve been bruised, we’ve been tossed about by the waves. In our part of the world, the sea is much calmer now. But there seems to be great reluctance to explore that other side, the unknown. I get the feeling that most folks just want to return to the shores they are familiar and comfortable with– in fact, they already have turned back to their old ways: forgetting about all the suffering in this country and abroad, abandoning all caution, taking relationships and the communities that hold them up for granted, consuming mindlessly as if there were no future generations, as if there was no tomorrow.
We’ve already forgotten about all those strangely uplifting images we’ve seen soon after the world shut down: rivers and other waterways teeming with life that hadn’t been seen there in a long time. Cities that could breathe again as the smog lifted. Wildlife entering human neighborhoods that once were natural habitat. Creation taking a deep breath as human activity came to a temporary standstill. God showed us some possibilities for a new and different, ‘the other’ side – but it just seems too scary and mindboggling to bravely step into new territory and tackle the challenges we face together there.
We’ve already forgotten about the courage and dedication of our essential workers – many of them minorities -, who kept us going throughout the pandemic, often at a high risk to life and limb for themselves, often at a wage that isn’t enough to live on. God showed us their plight. Are we brave – and loving – enough to explore what ‘the other side’ might look for them, with fair wages, benefits like health care, and a level of appreciation they deserve? Or do we just fall back into old patterns, ‘Well, it is what it is. Social Darwinism rules this part of the world. What can we do about it, after all?’
Here we are, in calmer waters, we can see the other side – but we seek the old and familiar shores once more.
‘Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
Let me tell you what happens ‘on the other side’ of today’s gospel story. The moment Jesus and the disciples set foot on the foreign shores of Gaulonitis, they are accosted by a man who is possessed by a legion of demons. Jesus being Jesus, he heals this man by redirecting the demons into a herd of swine, which consequently drown themselves in the lake. Jesus is politely asked by the local people to leave. We don’t need you here, Jesus. Don’t mess with us and our lives.
But Jesus doesn’t listen. Probably to the dismay of his followers, he rebukes the folks who want him gone, and says, ‘Come on, people! You are witnessing something extraordinary here – the kingdom of God breaking in! This is good news! Tell others about it!’
Jesus then goes on to minister to the people in this pagan region. And though he may encounter rejection, and though he may not have the same successes as in his home region of Galilee, an important seed is planted that eventually germinates and grows and spreads – first into Syria (Damascus was the first major Christian mission after Jerusalem became too dangerous for the young Christian community), and from there into other parts of the known world.
No, it’s not easy ‘crossing over to the other side’ – and dealing with all the challenges we encounter there. There are demons on the other side – and they are mainly our own. Demons that need to be overcome. But Christ is calling us to face the challenges, to face our individual and societal demons – for God’s sake, and for the sake of the world. And we mustn’t forget that we don’t have to do it alone. As Christ has been with us through all the storms of our lives, he promises to be with us, always, until the end of times. Don’t be afraid. Have faith.
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