Of Bats and Boats
A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash
June 24, 2018
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.
4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.
4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
I have two questions for us today. Who’s in the boat with you? And who are you going to get in the boat with?
But before the boat, a bat.
Imagine, friends, what you might do if a bat was flying around your living room.
I can tell you what I did.
I decompensated. Completely.
I managed only to croak BAHH!, to point wildly, and to lift my laptop up over my head in a desperate attempt to protect my scalp from the critter that I surely thought wanted to land on me.
John was somewhat calmer.
Our cat stayed asleep on the sofa.
Eventually John and I, with blankets over our heads and shoulders, followed the bat through house, trapped it under a cookie tin and released it off of our deck.
By John and I, I mean John.
I’ll tell you who was in the boat with me. It was John.
Jesus has called his disciples – several of them fishermen who work this very lake. He has preached and taught. He has crossed religious boundaries by healing on the Sabbath. The power of his words and his touch have brought the crowds to him.
The crowds are so eager to be with him that he has to preach from a boat near shore. And at the end of the day….
Some say he is so tired that he asks the disciples to go across to the other side so he can retreat from the crowds. But, where is the other side? The other side of the sea is full of symbolism that the community of Mark’s gospel would pick up on.
The Sea of Galilee – technically a lake but Mark wants you to think other great sea crossings – is calm one moment and stormy the next. Jesus has not asked them to set out on a peaceful contemplative evening pleasure cruise. And these fishermen know it. Match this up with Hebrew Bible stories of sea monsters for further dramatic effect.
The Other Side – On this side of the sea, they are in familiar territory. On the Other Side, they are at the Decapolis, in Pagan religious territory, even deeper into Roman occupation. On the Other Side, their very first encounter is with demons as Jesus exorcises the Gerasene man.
The Boat that they are all on is also a symbol. Since the earliest decades after Jesus – when this gospel was written – boats were symbols of the Church. (The boat is still today the symbol of the World Council of Churches. Christians would pass the secret symbol of the fish to each other to identify their faith. The boat identified the whole church.)
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
On that day, after hours and hours of ministering to excited and anxious crowds, Jesus says, let’s get in the boat – church, let us head out into unpredictable waters, let us go to a place of great danger.
The disciples have had some kind of transformative experience with their teacher already because they launch the boat. At which point Jesus falls asleep.
A storm comes up and they panic. Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?? They cry.
Here’s the thing. They are fishermen. He’s a carpenter. Maybe he could have built the boat but they are the masters of the sea. Maybe they wake him up simply to have another person to bail the water out. Maybe they are just confused that anyone could sleep through that storm. Maybe they just suddenly feel very very alone.
But they are not alone. Jesus is in the boat with them. The whole time.
Don’t you know I’m here, he asks them? Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
I hear a more impatient echo of Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
It’s a good thing that our faith does not have to be perfect for Jesus to show up and call Peace!
Friends, this is the good news: we are never in the boat alone. Jesus is in the boat with us. Sometimes he’s more readily apparent than others. Sometimes he’s in the boat in the form of the body of Christ, the people who are Christ’s hands and feet in this time and place, those who say, let me be as Christ to you.
Ginny Robinson told me something Bill told her, that came back to her this week as she’s grieving for him. Back when he was a Bible teacher in east Tennessee, his first wife died in an accident. It was that college community, including freshmen just back from World War II, who took care of him. They were in the boat with him, in the middle of the storm. (Shared with permission.)
This is church.
Let me be as Christ to you…
If your boat is caught in a storm, don’t panic. We are all in the same boat. Look around and ask yourself, who is in the boat with you?
Who is in the boat with you, when the waters rise? When your family is hurting? When you are sore afraid? A word of advice: if you don’t think someone’s in the boat with you, call out. Call out. Someone’s gonna answer.
But I told you I had two questions, and the second one is this: who will you get in the boat with?
He said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
Jesus says, let’s get in the boat – church, let us head out into unpredictable waters, let us go to a place of great danger.
It’s a metaphor for this exact moment. Right now, Jesus is calling us to get in the boat with our neighbors, to weather extraordinary storms for the sake of God’s beloved children, to be brave, to go to the other side, to the borders, to offer healing and hope grounded in the power of his words of justice and mercy. Jesus is calling us to get in the boat – to let no one navigate the sea alone.
When Jesus calms the storm, it is a rare moment when his power is used for the benefit of his closest followers. They need to know that his power will strengthen and uphold them when they get to the other side. They need faith in him to have courage when they reach the land of demons and empire. The community of Mark’s gospel needs Jesus’ power even more: they “live in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.” (Sharon Ringe) These folks need to know that whatever challenge Jesus is calling them toward, his words and his power are there. “He speaks, and the eternal word is present, greater than our fear of conflict, greater than our drive for power and dominion, greater than sin, greater than death.” (Kate Layzer)
And now we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. Now, he is calling us into the boat. Now he is calling us go across to the other side. Now he is calling us to calm the storm. Now he is calling us to speak words of peace and justice against storms of injustice: family separation, poverty. Now he is calling us to stand against literal storms, the storms of climate change. Now he is calling us into the boat.
Let me close with the words of Willie Dwayne Francois III, written about this passage, this week:
“The world needs Jesus-people to awake from our violent slumber…and speak with the unimpeachable authority of our teacher. While all the world loses its head, we can shut up the forces of chaos if we dare open our mouths and speak.” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/conversations-chaos-mark-435-41)
So this is my second question:
Who are you going to get in the boat with?
Benediction: from Charles Tindley’s Hymn, The Storm is Passing Over
Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!