In the Boat Together

Sunday, June 24
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Focus Theme
In the Boat Together

Weekly Prayer
Keeper of our lives, you know the hardness and gentleness of human hearts. You call your people to faithful living. Through the storms of life that bring suffering and fear, joy and laughter, teach us to turn to you for all we need, so that we may come to know your presence even in the midst of the trials that surround us. Amen.

Focus Reading
Mark 4:35-41

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?”

All Readings For This Sunday
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 Psalm 9:9-20 or
Job 38:1-11 Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Focus Questions
Kate Huey

1. What does it mean to you to (as Skinner says) “let God be God”?

2. When has God “rocked the boat” of your safe assumptions?

3. Do you feel small and powerful, or small and weak?

4. In what do you ground your faith?

5. In what ways might you feel fear when you hear the call of God?

by Kate Huey

In last week’s readings, the First Book of Samuel (15:34-16:13) 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 at all times, God is good, and 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. 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.”

If David is a hero who boasts, it’s the power of God 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 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 accurately 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.

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, writes 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. 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 New Orleans who watched a mighty storm crush their homes and flood their city, bringing death and destruction, or those who perished or lost loved ones in the tsunamis of recent years. 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. There is a tension between the comfort and the challenge of the gospel.

Fear and Awe: not the same thing

According to Skinner, 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? 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.” In a sense, God at work in our lives can “rock our boat,” too. 

Who is this person?

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. Reading it out of context reduces its impact; Jesus’ teachings (in word) are followed by a series of miracles (in action) that also teach in their own way. While Jesus himself preached the reign of God, the teachings and the miracles lead Jesus’ disciples (then and today) to wrestle with the question of his identity. Who is this person? The “messianic secret” and the cluelessness of the disciples 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.” Scott Hoezee says that we miss the point if we concentrate on Jesus’ miracles and not his teachings about “humility, self-sacrifice, a life of quiet service to the glory of God,” even if it means dying. Instead, we run the risk of reducing Jesus to “a cosmic Mr. Fixit, a Wizard of Oz kind of figure whose only purpose is to help you realize your heart’s desires.” Challenging words for contemporary Christians!

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 famous star, but a man preaching from a little old fishing boat to huge and hungry (in more ways than one) crowds on the shore: “From this little boat in the middle of a modest lake in a quiet corner of Palestine, Jesus talked 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.” 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. On this Sunday of Jesus calming the storm, our own lives are full of people (sometimes including us) who are 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. Our congregations, too, are worried about themselves as communities, just like that first-century church that Mark addressed. Storms are buffeting the church today, individually and as denominations, 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.

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: Michael Lindvall recalls the many times we hear the words “Do not be afraid” in the Bible, and calls that phrase “the first and the last word of the gospel.” From shepherds on a hillside to women beside an empty tomb and even to us today, the word is that God is near, that we need not fear the storm, Lindvall writes, “because we are not alone in the boat.”

Jesus the restless seeker

One thing we have not addressed so far is 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 our own people. This will become more obvious in future stories about Syro-Phoenician women 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. And yet Jesus keeps telling them and us not to stay home, not to stay safe, but to go out into the world and share the good news, and to trust that God will be with us every step of the way.

There is much to consider here, including the mysterious reality of Godís 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.
For further reflection

African Proverb
Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.

Dean Smith, 20th century
If you treat every situation as a life and death matter, you’ll die a lot of times.

Woody Allen, 20th century
I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. 

Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Louisa May Alcott, 19th century
I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.

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