Ship of Fools

Hoist a Sail to Sea

Proper 7B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side” (Mark 4:35). Four times in Mark’s gospel Jesus ordered the disciples into a boat. This time, they set out at night under a threatening sky. They sail into deep water and soon they’re in over their heads. “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” (Mark 4:37)

We often say Jesus is a bridge, not a wall, between us and those who are not us—especially including our enemies. Yet, today’s gospel reminds us, this doesn’t mean we can simply gloss over our differences, disagreements, our hurts, or ignore our pain. Art Garfunkel may be a “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but Jesus bids us travel over life’s stormy waters by boat.

A sailboat, in fact, with a large cross for a mast, is one of the earliest and most persistent symbols of the Church. The place where you are sitting now is called the “nave.” It comes from the Latin, navis, or “ship.” The terrible storm in the middle of the sea in today’s gospel reminds us of that first primal boat, Noah’s ark, that braved the great flood and preserved humanity and all the animals, two by two.

Here in Chicago, like people almost everywhere, we love living beside the lake. It’s cooler in summer and warmer in winter. We walk along the shore, play on the beaches, and swim in the cool water. From the lakeshore, the water is calming and peaceful. Yet it’s another thing entirely to be out on the water, especially, when the weather turns bad.

One day, when I was young, my dad and I were fishing in a small boat on the big reservoir near our home. I ran the outboard motor while my dad cast out in hopes of catching a large rainbow trout. Suddenly we were caught in a summer storm. The waves grew quickly. I was frightened. I thought my dad would take over control of the boat. I didn’t know what to do. He just said, “You can’t outrun the waves and you can’t take them side-ways, that’ll swamp us, just head straight into them.” I thought he was crazy. Watching his expression as we crested over three-foot waves and slammed down the other side, I think he might have thought he was crazy too. But he was right. Truth is, you and I can’t out-run life’s storms. As any good clinical therapist will tell you, ‘The only way out is through.’ Jesus has called us into this boat, into his church, to face into life’s storms.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why Mark, the shortest gospel, repeats itself so much between the 4th and 8th chapters, including our gospel today? We have two exorcisms (Mark 1:21-28 and Mark 5:1-20); two healing stories (Mark 5:22-43 and Mark 7:24-37); and two miraculous feedings of the multitudes (Mark 6:32-44 and Mark 8:1-10). The answer to this apparent riddle of redundancy is the sea, the Sea of Galilee. Each instance of these remarkably similar stories happens on opposite sides of the sea as Jesus and the disciples traverse back and forth four times by boat. One side of the sea was inhabited by people whose religious life was traditional and familiar to the disciples. On the other side, lived people who were viewed as alien and threatening.

In other words, it’s a safe bet there’s always going to be a storm when you cross the emotional boundaries between good guys and bad guys, the insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies. Jesus calls us into the boat. As Paul wrote, we have become ambassadors of reconciliation by our baptism into Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are called to traverse the dangerous boundaries between hostile peoples. We are called to journey into life’s storms. The only way out is through.
One beautiful example of this gospel truth came this week. On Thursday President Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, turning the oldest celebration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. into the country’s newest national holiday. “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” President Biden said, “… they embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away, they come to terms with the mistakes they’ve made. In remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Jesus has power to still the storm. Even the wind and waves obey him. We may feel afraid, that’s natural. Preacher William Willimon writes that “there are two kinds of fear: There’s the fear of the death-dealing storms of life. You get a bad report after your physical, you’re living through a pandemic, you hear about gun violence in the news. You see the water and the waves and cry out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we perish?” This is a Good Friday sort of fear. And Jesus rises, rebukes the wind and the waves, and it is calm. And that brings the second kind of fear (which is greater than the first) –Willimon calls it an Easter fear.”

Easter fear is the fear that rises up in our belly when we know that we are about to risk life and limb for the sake of the gospel. It is the fear the disciples no doubt felt when they realized that they really were going to have to confront their enemies, the Gentiles, and learn to call them siblings and friends. It is the fear you and I feel when we leave the safety of our homes and living rooms for the open sea of our streets and neighborhoods. It is the disbelief that we feel when Jesus doesn’t take over the controls of our ship when the weather gets rough –but counsels us–head straight into the waves –the only way out is through.

People of God, we are called to set out upon the turbulent waters of life and to live in the midst of insecurity, with Jesus at the helm. True faith, that which invites us to ever deeper levels of transformation and love, does not insist on “staying positive” and happy all the time, but rather, focuses on “staying true.” The peace that passes all understanding does not paper over differences or avert its gaze from what is wrong or what is hurting. No. We steer this ship of mercy with truth as our compass, knowing that the truth sometimes hurts, but the truth also heals. Speaking the truth as we know it, and giving voice to our anger and hurts, and by prayerfully listening to one another share their truth, the Holy Spirit leads us through the storm to that place of true safety and peace that we call shalom. May God our mother and our father, the Son, and Holy Spirit be praised.