Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sermon: "Life On the High Seas", Psalm 107:23-32/Mark 4:35-41 (June 27, 2021)


Earlier this week, the Treasure Valley had an intense (albeit, relatively brief) windstorm. Some people reported retrieving their garbage cans amid unrelenting gusts of wind that blew dust in their mouths; others ran outside to move their cars to places of shelter for fear that they’d be damaged. Many southwestern Idahoans lost power.

The largest casualty at my house was an inflatable wading pool, recently purchased in anticipation of the 100+ degree days looming this week, that flew into the blackberry bushes and is now sadly no more. 

The pool in question

I sat in my living room on Tuesday night, watching the tree branches and hammock whipping around violently and wondering how much actual damage this storm would cause when all was said and done. I was grateful to be in the relative safety of my home, but even though I knew I’d probably be fine, it was scary to watch the storm wreak havoc outside. I could only imagine how it would feel to be somewhere that I couldn’t escape the storm’s wrath, where I couldn’t even rely on the ground beneath my feet to remain steady, like the disciples in the gospel reading.

It’s easy to criticize them for their “lack of faith” during the storm in Mark 4, but I don’t know if that’s fair. No matter how much faith you have, it’s hard not to feel panicked when your own mortality is starting you in the face and the person you believe is your best hope of rescue is napping. I expect that the disciples could have better related to my pool’s experience of this week’s storm than to mine. It’s tough for me to really understand such a traumatic seafaring experience from the comfort of my couch.

This has a lot to do with the way I mentally approach different types of scripture. Like many Christians, I tend to take the gospel accounts more or less at face value: the stories are what they are, and while they contain valuable lessons for me, I internalize this information through the lens of the story’s characters (for example, “Don’t be like the disciples”) rather than necessarily seeing myself in the narrative. After all, first century Palestinian life was dramatically different than anything I’ve ever known.

But I’m in the habit of reading the psalms more allegorically. As poetry, they offer more latitude for broad and symbolic interpretation, with multiple layers of meaning that can be unpacked over time. Although these two passages tell very similar stories, I find myself able to hear the one in Psalm 107 a little bit differently. It helps me to see myself in the story, and to have a little more empathy for the disciples

Through this psalm, I don’t hear a lack of faith in the sailors. I hear a terrifying situation over which they have no control. I hear brave, strong people encountering circumstances beyond their ability. And, unlike the gospel reading, where I imagine myself passively watching Peter, John, James, and the others, I hear myself directly in this story. I hear all of us in this story. Not in literal storms at sea, but in the metaphorical storms that we find ourselves caught in every day.

I hear our own prayers to God, crying out, “Lord, I know I have the skills to cope with this, but I feel like I’m in over my head. I may look calm, but inside me there’s a storm raging, with unrelenting waves crashing down on me, again and again. I’m drowning, Lord. My courage is failing; please, please, please grant me a moment of rest to catch my breath.” I’m confident that we’ve all prayed this prayer at one time or another, because this is the nature of life (even here in landlocked Idaho).

Every challenge that we face as human beings is like a voyage at sea, and no journey is smooth sailing 100% of the time. It’s inevitable that we’ll eventually find ourselves caught in a terrible storm. Every time we choose to deal with a problem or confront an issue in our lives instead of avoiding or ignoring it, we’re setting sail “to the other side of the lake.” The lake isn’t always stormy, but regardless, it’s always a much more difficult route than just going the long way on land.

When we choose to follow Jesus, we’re choosing to make our living on the high seas, crossing lakes every single day. Standing up for what’s right and good and just is a constant challenge. For some of us, the lake that Jesus calls us to cross might be confronting family and friends who cling to dehumanizing and hurtful opinions. For others, it might be cutting the ties of an abusive relationship. For still others, it might be navigating a sense of safety in a still-not-quite-post-COVID world, or battling addiction, or making hard decisions in caring for a loved one.

We know as well as Jesus does that these are places that we need to go, but that the way there to the other side is likely to be treacherous. It’s tempting to try and follow a different path, or even just to stay where we are. But we already made the choice when we first said “yes” to God, and we renew that choice every single week when we affirm our faith: the choice to follow Jesus to all the difficult places that he leads us. We can’t turn back. This is the life we’ve chosen.

Since we’ve committed to a life of following Jesus on the high seas, pursuing righteousness and justice on every shore, it’s reasonable to wonder why we always seem to wind up on such difficult journeys. After all, if we’ve placed our faith in God (unlike those fickle, faithless disciples), shouldn’t we be rewarded with a stormless route? Isn’t that WHY we follow Jesus in the first place?

The short answer is no. We don’t follow Jesus for an easy life. He makes this clear in scripture. We follow Jesus for healing and wholeness, in pursuit of a world built on justice and peace for all creation. And make no mistake; this objective does NOT come easy in our fallen and sinful world. There is no way to arrive at wholeness and healing, peace and justice—God’s Kindom—without encountering storm after storm along the way. It’s not a divine punishment. It’s not a test. It’s not for God’s perverse amusement. It’s simply the unavoidable consequence of pursuing the way of love in a world that resists it. The psalm tells us, “God spoke and stirred up a storm,” because when God proclaims divine truth, that which is not of God fights it, protesting and lashing out. And when we make the choice to side with God, we wind up in the middle of the resulting storm.

That’s the bad news. But there IS good news (there’s always good news). God doesn’t abandon us to the storm. We may feel like Jesus doesn’t care that we’re drowning, but we only think that way when we forget that Jesus is right there with us in the middle of the storm. He knows what’s going on. He knows how terrifying it is. In fact, being fully human, he’s probably scared, too. Jesus reminds us that we’re not alone in these storms, and that no matter the outcome, God is there, upholding us, comforting us, and giving us strength. Remember, we’re only in the storm in the first place because we’re determined to pursue the good at all costs. God would never, ever abandon us in this endeavor.

But that’s not the only thing we need to remember in life’s storms. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you frightened?” he’s not reprimanding them for forgetting who he is. After all, they’ve obviously come to him for help; they know PERFECTLY WELL who Jesus is. Instead, he’s challenging their idea of what faith looks like in the middle of a typhoon. Having faith doesn’t mean ignoring the crisis or pretending it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t mean doing nothing. I don’t think Jesus expects his disciples to sit down to a nice breakfast while the storm rages around them. In awakening from his nap, Jesus reminds us that sometimes, having faith means needing to practice self-care.

The gospels tell us that Jesus is a huge proponent of naps and alone time. This isn’t a strategy to demonstrate the ease with which he performs miracles or indifference to what’s happening around him. It’s time that he’s set aside to gather what he needs—including physical energy, spiritual fortitude, and emotional strength—to do what needs to be done. To borrow a modern colloquialism, he’s putting his oxygen mask on first, not because he’s more important than others, but because he needs to call on all the resources at his disposal in order to confront the storm. In being honest about the limitations of our humanity and caring for ourselves in the storm, we actually place tremendous faith in God—faith that our self-compassion doesn’t undermine God’s plans. And certainly, we don’t think we’re more essential than Jesus, do we?

We’ve all been through a lot this past year…and that’s not counting the storms of “normal life” that have continued raging amidst an almost-once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. You are not an infinite well of strength and energy. You are not God, and life on the high seas is enough to exhaust even Jesus. These waves have been, and continue to be, unrelenting and destructive. You shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to fight them without being worn down. It’s okay to need a nap. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to lean on others. It’s even okay to break down and rail against God in desperation.

What’s NOT okay is to avoid life on the high seas out of fear. To remain stuck in place because it’s easier. To live with the status quo in the hopes of avoiding a storm. That’s not what we commit to when we proclaim, “I believe in God the Father…and in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son…and in the Holy Spirit.” We can’t claim to believe without being willing to follow. There’s a reason Jesus is calling to us to “cross over to the other side of the lake.” There’s something over there that’s worth pursuing—for yourself, for the sake of those you love, and for the sake of the world.

There is risk; there will be struggle; there may even be destruction and loss. The forces opposing God are powerful. But NONE are more powerful than God—even a god that naps. We are never alone in the boat, and God will always lead us through the storm to the security of a harbor, one way or another….whether it’s the harbor we expect or the one God’s had in mind for us all along.

Life on the high seas is rarely easy. Even when we’ve made it safely through a typhoon, there will ALWAYS be another one. And another one. And another. But every time we come through on the other side—battered and bruised, but still here—we’re one step closer to the kindom of God that we’ve vowed to pursue. Learn from every storm you come through so that you can be better prepared for the next, and remember that no matter what, God is always right there in the boat with you. Let us thank the Lord for God’s faithful love and God’s wondrous works for all people. And may every voyage we undertake—stormy or otherwise—be a faithful response to Christ’s call. Amen.

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