Mark 4: 35-41
Sometimes our culture hears sayings so often that people treat them as gospel. One is “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Tell that to the people who once were filled with faith and lost it over the death of a child. Tell that to people who prayed for protection from storms and received disasters instead. Tell that to the grieving friends of the physical therapist who jumped from the St. Pete/Tampa Skyway bridge to his death this week. “God never gives us more than we can handle.” No; that saying is not helpful. The helpful saying, that is biblical and that will be our theme verse for Vacation Bible School in two weeks is from Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God and the people of God are with you in times that start to overwhelm you: that matters. It makes a difference. And it rings true. The Bible is filled with metaphors: that is, comparing current reality with what the Kingdom of God is like. As we examine Mark chapter 4 and a situation that happened ages ago on a small body of water called the Sea of Galilee-the time Jesus took disciples in a small boat and began crossing over to the other side—we can learn from it on a number of levels. This event can teach us even today.
There is a popular Christian book written by Evangelical Pastor John Ortberg. It has one of those catchy titles that is making its way into the American lexicon. It is: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. Some of you have read it; some perhaps have that saying on their nightstand or on a bookmark. All of that is fine. But that book has a completely different message from what our text today proposes. Today, the message is: “If You Want the Comfort of Jesus, Stay in the Boat.” Again: “If You Want the Comfort of Jesus, Stay in the Boat.” Outside of the boat, there are storms; and crises; and waves. Even when they are hitting us, smart people huddle close to Jesus. Let’s unpack this idea.
What is a storm you are facing? One that I have faced since the death of my father is not catastrophic, but it has shaken the world of mother and my siblings. I now join my two sisters and brother in monthly rotation regularly going to St. Louis to comfort and be with my mother. She is doing much better now; but a new storm has been brewing: arranging for an estate sale long distance for the belongings in the 4-bedroom house where we lived for fifty years. See? It isn’t Hurricane Matthew stormy, or people without food stormy, or border issues stormy, but storms take many forms. We are now preparing to sell the house we called home for half a century. The storm is sorrow, and uncertainty; it is distance, and throwing away belongings that hold memories. In this analogy that I’m building, the boat is a good congregation like ours. A good boat has a good person in charge. That person is Jesus. In the story, you might have dismissed Jesus because he was in the stern: the back of the boat. But if you know anything about small craft, you know it is from the stern that one steers, or directs the boat! That is the position that a pilot or captain takes in order to steer a small boat! So Jesus was not checked out. He was in the key place to know the boat, steer it, and feel whether or not it was about to swamp. My son-in-law Brian, Jenny’s husband, is a boat captain. I love ships, but I don’t know much about small boats. On Brian’s boat, he is the captain. And no matter how rough the waves are in the channels where he sails, or even as we sail into parts of the Gulf of Mexico, when he takes us there in his small boat, he is the captain, and I trust that we will all be safe, through wind or waves. The waves are outside of the boat! The boat is our life raft. The captain has his reputation on the line and his skills at the ready. With loved ones all in the boat, including his son and his wife, I put my trust in him.
Another storm: when family members on land, sea, or air are in harm’s way. When that happens mothers pray; fathers pray; families hope. Some among us are in that situation; and they by their choice are in this boat; this boat called Westminster, calls on the captain Jesus to protect those in peril and to comfort them. We receive shelter from life’s storms by staying in our boat—connected with Christ—who is the firm foundation. I have presided over hundreds of funerals; I have noticed something significant: people of faith are sad when they say goodbye to a loved one, but they often stay grounded and find new connections if they have stayed anchored to Jesus and his church family. Those who don’t have a boat—a good church home—almost drown in the storms of sorrow at funerals. They lift up and hug the lifeless body; they wail; and they refuse the leave the funeral home chapel. They seem to be without hope, because hope or faith has not been part of their spiritual diet; they get swamped by the storms of life. But you; you and I can know that fellow travelers, sitting in the seats we call pews in our boat, also have had storms of life to weather: medical storms; divorce storms; death storms. Those near you today might have prayed for you, as you might have prayed for others. We’ve learned how to lean on each other, and on the everlasting arms of Jesus, as he pilots us through the storms.
Some winds start to create other storms: issues with a child in school; severe illnesses, failing health, or addictions. The opioid addiction is a storm of catastrophic proportions. Westminster By-The-Sea has sent out life boats and life rafts to the outreach ministry called Solutions By-The-Sea. Our own Tobias Caskey, with Jesus at the wheel, navigates that troubled waters of addictions and incarcerations. Just this week he presided over another funeral. The storms are all around us.
Did you notice in today’s Mark 4 passage that Jesus said: “Let us go across to the other side.” In some communities even today, that would be like saying “Let’s drive over to the other side of the tracks,” an action that would indicate differences in incomes, or religions, or cultures. It would not be something many people would do lightly. But Jesus deliberately decided to leave a town he knew to go visit one he did not. What kind of storm might have awaited him there? He sets the example: those in the boat with Jesus, (like us today) witness the Savior who is not rattled by a storm; a man who saw a new town as an experience to be welcomed, not avoided. He is the picture of an “un-anxious presence.”
Outside of the boat, I’ve witnessed apathy, bitterness, anger, and hurt. The church, which is the boat, seeks to equip you with instinctive reactions to cope with unexpected sorrows. Singers and trainers talk about “muscle memory.” A trainer might automatically teach you to tighten your core and straighten your back and lift with you legs to pick up a heavy object. Those without good muscle memory might try the same task and hurt themselves. With singers, muscle memory tells them to open their mouths to sing with a relaxed face, and an open sound that is projected out through the mask of the face with a strong diaphragm. With people of faith, instinctive responses include knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart, having your pastors or church friends just a phone call away, having a diet of faith, hope, and love, and praying regularly so that when there is a crisis, you do not have to come to Jesus feeling like a stranger. These things help you face tomorrow.
I’ve told this story before but it fits perfectly to be told again. Years ago on ocean liners they had a dedicated playroom for children that was much less elaborate than they are on today’s cruise ships. As a liner was on a crossing, the waves of the North Atlantic became more menacing, and they tossed the bow of the ship under and back on top of the waves. In the dining room, service carts rolled and crashed; and plates fell to the floors. Passengers were holding onto handrails—that is, those who were trying to move about the ship. Others perhaps retired to their cabins. One man was making his way back to his cabin when he encountered a young girl playing with toys and looking at books in the children’s playroom. She seemed unfazed by all the turbulence. “Young lady,” the man said to her, “There’s quite a storm outside! Aren’t you frightened?” he asked her. “No.” she said matter-of-factly. The man was quite taken aback and asked, “How can you not be frightened in a storm like this?” And she looked up at him and said, “Because my father’s the captain.”
Learn to stay in the boat—in a good congregation—rather than just using a church for a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. Stay in the boat nurturing your faith, encouraging hope, leaning on the everlasting arms, and trusting Jesus as the captain who can “give you shelter from the storm.”
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 24, 2018