Sermon Seeds: In the Boat Together
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 with Psalm 9:9-20 or
Job 38:1-11 with Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
In the Boat Together
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
In last week’s readings, the First Book of Samuel told the story of the youngest, smallest son being lifted up to lead the whole nation, and the Gospel of Mark recounted the parables of Jesus about the tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty tree. This week, the stories continue but seem to take a sudden turn, from quiet and promising to things much more disturbing and dramatic, with a measure of violence as well.
In First Samuel, little David defeats Goliath with an impressive confidence in God’s help that illustrates what faith truly is, that is, trust that God is, at all times, good and, always, near at hand: David believes that he has never faced anything alone. Matthew Skinner suggests that we include verses 24-26 in our reading to remind us that David could see the hand of God and the cluelessness of Goliath much better than his elder and stronger, but cowardly, companions could. David’s faithful courage, then, seems rooted not in his own physical prowess or skills or cunning but in his experience of God acting in his life, and he counts on God to act again in the same way; that is, not only that God could act for good, but that God would act for good. “Faith,” Skinner writes, “denotes a willingness to let God be God” (New Proclamation Year B 2006).
Boasting about God
If David is a hero who boasts, it’s God’s power that makes him boast, not his own. Even when he describes for Saul his killing of bears and lions (impressive for a young boy), he gives credit to God: “The Lord who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:37). David has confidence that God’s will is for goodness for him personally and for his whole people as well, for this is no ordinary army; this is the army “of the living God”!
Young David’s courage is in stark contrast to the disciples in the boat with Jesus, in the midst of a storm that frightens even these seasoned fishermen. In spite of the powerful things they have already seen Jesus do (after all, we’re only in the fourth chapter of the Gospel), they are certain that they’re headed for destruction. Their question, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” (v. 38) is ambiguous: it may indicate that they lack confidence that Jesus could act, but it may also indicate their concern about whether he would act in the midst of this crisis. “Don’t you care?” they ask. Instead of trusting Jesus, they “feared a great fear,” as verse 41 is more appropriately translated.
Meanwhile, Jesus sleeps in utter confidence that resembles David’s calm before the giant Philistine. Just as Goliath was a threat to God’s people, the storm is a great power that threatens the boatload of disciples. Perhaps the disciples even experience the storm as demonic; after all, when we watch Jesus “rebuke” the sea into submission, we remember the exorcism in the first chapter of Mark. And, indeed, for people in the time of Jesus, the sea represented overwhelming forces and even spirits that were chaotic and threatening to human beings who in its presence felt small and vulnerable and weak. Richard Swanson connects this chaos with the way Jesus has been stirring things up back on land: “He is already on the boat, on the sea, floating on chaos, which matches the implications of some of his teaching.” We remember, for example, that tiny mustard seed growing into the wild and uncontrollable weed (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).
The early church in stormy seas
This story of a storm at sea also recalls the memory of Jonah, who similarly slept through a violent storm and was also awakened by a panicked crew of sailors. In fact, Mark was writing for a first-century community that saw in Jonah, according to Megan McKenna, “a symbol for Jesus’ death and burial and resurrection,” and the phrase used here, “fearing a great fear,” appears only in these two places in Scripture. McKenna puts Mark’s writing in context, as he addressed a community that must have felt like the crew on a storm-tossed ship, facing persecution and feeling small against powerful and unfriendly forces (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross). Mark writes to strengthen the faith – the trust – of the early church in God’s goodness at work, beneath the surface of every storm and every trial.
It would be easy, of course, to reduce these readings to an assurance that nothing bad will ever happen to us or that God will deliver us if it does, but we know that is not true. One thinks of the people of Nepal who perished in recent earthquakes, or families broken by divorce or violence, the tragic accidents and purposeful deeds that bring heartache and loss. (The news this week shows a sorrowful line of hearses bringing the bodies of German students home for burial after their plane was flown into a mountainside.) The message in this story is much more about God’s presence with us in all circumstances and God’s ultimate will for us; nevertheless, we cannot reduce that presence to a warm, fuzzy comfort, either. Matthew Skinner recalls a 1928 sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that “suggested that the tenderness of the Incarnation has left people unable to [in Bonhoeffer’s words] ‘feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.'” There is undoubtedly much truth in Bonhoeffer’s sense that we have domesticated the reality of a God who “draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us'” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). How often do we hear the term “fear of the Lord” spoken in mainline churches? Do we understand its deepest meaning?
Fear and awe: not the same thing
Skinner suggests that we should ponder seriously the “fear” (not awe, as if Jesus’ actions were simply wonderful and impressive) that overtook the disciples when they realized that this man traveling with them had such power. Who indeed could he be? What might he require of them? How can they even survive being in such a presence? For the disciples, fear was as much a part of the experience after Jesus calmed the storm as before he did. One recalls the dramatic vocation story of Isaiah 6:1-8 that spoke of transcendence and the otherness of God, which ought to evoke more from comfortable, complacent Christians than simply a sense of our own security. According to Skinner, “When Christ quiets the forces that threaten chaos, makes the unclean clean, and restores the unacceptable to wholeness, these acts upend our cherished assumptions about order, security, autonomy, and fairness. When God comes so near, we cannot hide. Nor can we push God away” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). In a sense, God at work in our lives can “rock our boat,” too.
Who is this man?
Indeed, as much as we might like to make this passage simply a consoling story we can hold onto when we’re tossed on the stormy seas of life, there is still a big and important question at its heart. So important, in fact, that this is one of those stories that appears in all four Gospels: “There’s something so vital in this story that no Gospel could be complete without it,” writes Scott Hoezee. Reading it out of context reduces its impact; Jesus’ teachings (in word) are followed by a series of miracles that also teach in their own way. While Jesus himself preached the reign of God, the teachings and the miracles lead his disciples (then and today) to wrestle with the question of Jesus’ identity. Who is this person? The “messianic secret” and the slowness of the disciples to understand run as intertwined themes through the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus gets impatient at times with the disciples and the crowds and their bottomless need for “works.” Hoezee says that we miss the point if we concentrate on Jesus’ miracles and not his teachings, for the danger is that we may see him merely as “a cosmic Mr. Fixit, a Wizard of Oz kind of figure whose only purpose is to help you realize your heart’s desires” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Who can fault the disciples for being perplexed that someone so powerful that he can control the sea and the storm would walk the earth beside them, in the humblest of circumstances? Hoezee has written a lovely reflection on Jesus the Teacher, not the mighty military or political leader or (as we might say today) the celebrity, but a man preaching from a little old fishing boat to huge and hungry (in more ways than one) crowds on the shore, talking “about seeds and birds and trees, and most people went away scratching their heads and wondering when in the world they’d get to see one of those spine-tingling miracles they heard tell of” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Maybe, then, when we think we need a miracle, what we need most is to be fed by God’s Word. Or is God’s Word itself not the greatest miracle of all?
Fear is not the last word
And who can fault the disciples for being afraid, too? We know fear ourselves, from our personal dread of illness, suffering, death (our own and that of our loved ones), and the emotional suffering of loss and loneliness, to the shared anxiety we have about terrorism, war, environmental damage, and economic troubles. Preachers stand in the pulpit on this Sunday and talk about Jesus calming the storm, and they look out at congregations tossed on the stormy seas of job loss, the emotional devastation of broken relationships, health challenges, worries over their children and their elderly parents, fear of being alone, and death itself. They also face congregations that are worried about themselves as communities, just like that first-century church that Mark addressed.
Storms are buffeting the church today, individually and as a denomination, and as the Body of Christ, the whole church in the world. Longtime members fear the end of the story for their much-loved congregation and its familiar and inspiring story; church leaders worry about declines in membership and giving as our wider culture navigates its way through this deep economic crisis; church members struggle with whether to suppress or try to resolve conflicts that arise over issues that were unknown to the early church (overhead screens in the sanctuary – yes or no?). And yet the story that was important enough to be included in all four Gospels is at the heart of the Good News for us today, in every storm that makes us anxious, and once again we hear the words, “Do not be afraid.” Michael Lindvall calls these “the first and the last word of the gospel. It is the word the angels speak to the terrified shepherds and the word spoken at the tomb when the women discover it empty: ‘Do not be afraid.'” Lindvall acknowledges that our lives, too, have storms and dangers that cannot be denied, but the same God is with us, always, and these “real and fearsome things…need not own us, because we are not alone in the boat” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3).
Jesus the restless seeker
We might also focus on the journey itself: after Jesus has been teaching for awhile in familiar and at least somewhat safe territory, among his own people, he doesn’t go home for a good night’s sleep. Instead, he does that thing that restless seekers do: he sets out into the unfamiliar and the not-so-safe. We don’t know our geography so well today to recognize that Jesus is taking his disciples across the sea into Gentile territory, so we may miss the significance of this move, that the good news is for all, not just for us and our own. This will become more obvious in future stories about desperate Syro-Phoenician mothers and other foreigners helped by Jesus, but for this night, the disciples find themselves on the risky way to encountering “otherness,” and it’s no wonder they feel threatened. We are all afraid of those who are “other,” but Jesus calls us to get out of our comfort zones and move out into unfamiliar territory, confident that he will be with us all the way.
Frederick Buechner preached a beautiful sermon on this text that points us outward and onward, as Jesus commanded his followers long ago: “Go….Go for God’s sake, and for your own sake, too, and for the world’s sake. Climb into your little tub of a boat and keep going.” Buechner reassures us that Jesus will be with us: “Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and…in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we’re done, so that even in their midst we may find peace, find him” (Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
There is much to consider here, including the mysterious reality of God’s love and presence with us in every circumstance, as well as God’s awesome power and inexpressible majesty. Surely the storm and Goliath were far less fearsome than the experience of the presence of God. But we have faith nevertheless, that this power at the heart of the universe, at the heart of all reality, vibrates with love and goodness, and, in the end, will allow all things to unfold in justice and peace, making all things right, including our small but immeasurably precious lives. Is your church small, like David? Do you ever feel that your life, and the life of your church, are more like that boat, rocking on the stormy sea? Where do you ground your confidence? Do you feel small and powerful, or small and weak? Is your church or are you personally filled with power and security? In what do you ground your faith? Do you ever have hints of the awesome power of God, even when God seems near and tender and caring for you? What might this God require of you and your church?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.
David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.
Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
God is a stronghold
for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name
put their trust in you,
for you, O God, have not forsaken
those who seek you.
Sing praises to God,
who dwells in Zion.
Declare God’s deeds
among the peoples.
For God who avenges blood
is mindful of them;
God does not forget
the cry of the afflicted.
Be gracious to me,
See what I suffer
from those who hate me;
You are the one who lifts me up
from the gates of death,
so that I may recount all your praises,
and, in the gates of daughter Zion,
rejoice in your deliverance.
The nations have sunk in the pit
that they have made;
in the net that they hid
has their own foot been caught.
God has made God known,
God has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared
in the work of their own hands.
The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
For the needy
shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor
Rise up, O God!
Do not let mortals prevail;
let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear,
let the nations know
that they are only human.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? — when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
O give thanks to God,
for God is good;
for God’s steadfast love
Let the redeemed of God say so,
those whom God redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of God,
God’s wondrous works in the deep.
For God commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven,
they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away
in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to God
in their trouble,
and God brought them out
from their distress;
God made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad
because they had quiet,
and God brought them
to their desired haven.
Let them thank God
for God’s steadfast love,
for God’s wonderful works to humankind.
Let them extol God in the congregation
of the people,
and praise God
in the assembly of the elders.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return — I speak as to children — open wide your hearts also.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 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?”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.