The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 24, 2018
“We’re all in the same boat.”
A sermon preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
by the Reverend Donna J. Larson, Interim Priest
Introductory note: Our English word Boat is derived from the Latin word “navis.” Here are a few words derived from navis: nave, navy, navigate. Travel by boat or ship was one of the essential means of travel in the First Century of the Common Era. The architecture of our church and of many Christian churches intentionally resembles an inverted boat.
Well, I think we’re all in the same boat the disciples find themselves in this morning; not literally, of course, because the disciples are in a real boat, on a real body of water on a journey from one shore to another. We are gathered in an upside-down boat we call our church, seemingly headed nowhere. What are we to make of that? Well, like so many of the stories in scripture what we heard this morning in our gospel lesson has a much greater meaning for the church. It seems to me Jesus wants believers like us, who come to this nave regularly, to see ourselves on our own journey through this world in a boat, moving across the seas of our life until we arrive on the other side. And our Gospel lesson today shows us what we already know about this journey: Our life in this boat can be a pretty nice ride when the winds are gentle and the water smooth. But it can get pretty nasty—even deadly—when the clouds darken, the winds pick up and we find ourselves tossed about by the storms we encounter on our own journey through life; buffeted by winds of change around by waves of chance which bruise us and batter us and cause us much pain and suffering along the way.
I think of young people trying to navigate the changes in their life with drugs and alcohol; I think of young adults, now on their own, trying to navigate an adult world without the guarantees of smooth sailing provided by their parents. Or how about the journeys we take called marriage, children, divorce, retirement and the like. And today we are reminded of the journeys of our ancestors, immigrants, so desperate to land on shores of safety and opportunity, they were willing to risk every kind of human suffering and loss to find refuge. All of us, at various times in our journey through this world journey will find ourselves on such unpredictable seas, trying to navigate our way through the storms of our life to a hopeful and desirable end.
This is how we might look at the story in our gospel lesson today. And, yes, the disciples are in a real boat during a real storm, but this is clearly not the real purpose of this story. After all, these disciples are skilled fishermen who have undoubtedly braved many storms which occur quite regularly on these seas. They have obviously made it back to shore every time, a little shaken, perhaps, a little battered and bruised, but alive and well. And they don’t seem at all anxious or fearful about getting in this boat one more time when Jesus asks them to take him across the sea to the other shore.
So why do Jesus’ disciples seem so anxious about this storm? Why do they berate Jesus for falling asleep so soundly? Why do they accuse him of not caring that they might perish? Why? Because this story is more than just another day in the life of fishermen who happen to be caught in a storm. Jesus wants to show us something about how we navigate our own boats through the stormy seas of our life. Moreover, Jesus wants to show us something about the awesome power of his presence with us in those storms.
What I particularly appreciate about this story is that we see Jesus being so completely human, then becoming so completely divine in a matter of seconds. When Jesus gets in that boat with his disciples his human self is thoroughly exhausted from his long day of teaching. He needs to get away from the crowds of people who have zapped all his energy. He needs to go to a quiet place where he can find rest and renewal. Like the rest of us humans, Jesus needs a mini-retreat; a weekend getaway from the world. But more immediately, he needs to get some sleep. So, when Jesus lies down in the stern of that boat he quickly falls asleep, trusting God and his disciples to get him safely to the other shore. But as the wind howls and the sea rages, Jesus’ disciples become more than a little annoyed that Jesus would sleep through this dangerous storm; annoyed that he is oblivious to their need for help and moral support as they try to navigate these raging waters. They wonder if he even cares that they could all perish?
Well, Jesus’ disciples soon find out how much he cares. When they awaken Jesus, he commands the wind to stop blowing and the sea to be still until there is “dead calm.” But we soon realize that Jesus has performed this awesome miracle, not so much to answer their complaint, or solve their immediate problem—he wants to make a point about their lack of faith in God and trust in him. This Jesus who has shown us so completely how human he is, now shows us how completely divine he is. By the power of his command Jesus stills the most feared and dreaded forces of the ancient world; the wind and the water, forces which even the pagan gods were not able to control. And now this very human man demonstrates the power of his God to show us that, in the end, his disciples fear something much greater than the storm; they fear that they are truly in the presence of God. Not a pagan god. This is their God. The God who is Jesus. Our scripture lesson tells us that at this moment the disciples are filled with “awe.” And the word “awe,” translated from its original Greek source (phobon—our word phobia, meaning “frantic fear” also comes from phobos), means “terror.” So Jesus’ disciples are terrified by his power to save them.
As people of faith ourselves, it’s helpful to know what causes these disciples to become so terrified by this miracle. Helpful in explaining the reasons for our own sense of awe when we recognize God’s power and presence in our own trials and tribulations. High winds and rough seas were the biggest fear and greatest dread for people navigating the seas in the ancient world. The wind was bad enough by itself, but when it joined forces with the sea, the combination could be deadly. The wind could throw a boat off course, where it could become lost or destroyed by the elements of nature. The sea itself was thought to contain monsters and demons who threatened to harm those whose boats were capsized by rough waves. Those of you who remember reading Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey in high school or college might recall how Odysseus cannot depend on capricious and powerless pagan gods to save him as he suffers through many terrorizing trials at sea in his journey home from the Trojan war. In fact, such gods often make sport of those who call on their help. Such gods are not to be trusted.
So, we should not be surprised, then, that Jesus’ disciples are terrified by his power to calm the wind and the sea. Jesus has only been known to them as their teacher. And we all know teachers just don’t have that kind of power. In fact, the disciples awaken Jesus by calling him “teacher.” They begin to ask each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” But what they seem to fear even more than the storm itself is the ANSWER to their question. “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey?” And if you think it strange that they should have such fear of being in the presence of God, I would ask each of us to imagine how we might react if Jesus walked through that door this moment. How would you react? We might think that finding Jesus in the midst of us might be the most wonderful thing that could happen. After all, we are always asking Jesus in our prayers to be present with us, especially in worship. But what if he really came through that door right now? What if he told you to stop daydreaming and listen to this sermon? What if Jesus he joined the celebrant at this communion table for the Great Thanksgiving? And what if it was Jesus who gave you his body to eat and his blood to drink. How would you respond to the real presence of Jesus?
If we learn anything from the response of Jesus’ disciples today, we learn that we would also be awe-struck to find Jesus is in our midst, terrified to know that we are truly in the presence of God. And here’s why. Because when we become aware that God is present with us—present in our life, in our church, in our community, and when we become present and open to God’s power by his presence with us, all things are possible. Miracles can happen. Everything can change. All things can become new. Even more, storms of our life not only seem manageable, we begin to accept them as an important, even sacred part of our journey through this world. But not unless we are able to go there with Jesus, face our storms, admit our doubts and fears, trust in God, and do our work to navigate through them. Because, truth be told, the kind of calm, and change, and growth and well-being Jesus can bring to our life—and to our world—can be so scary we want to deny and reject them. It is easier to curse the storms of our life than to ask Jesus to help us calm them. It is easier to live in the anxiety of our problems and the fear of their outcomes than it is to have faith in God’s power to redeem us in them. Even scarier when we realize that God’s greater purpose for us in is not so much to change the conditions of our stormy lives, but to change us. So, we can BE the change we need to make as we move on in our journey to God. God may ask us to do things we might not be willing to do, and God may ask us to become people we are afraid to become. This is why we are afraid of God’s presence. When we come face to face with God we see ourselves for who we are, and we see ourselves for what we might become, that takes us out of our comfort zone, (as wonderful or miserable as it might be) And that’s scary!
This is the point Jesus makes by calming the seas that day. Awake or asleep, Jesus is present with his disciples in that boat. There is no reason for them to be anxious about the high wind or surging waves; there is no reason to be afraid of the storm. And there is no reason for his disciples to be annoyed with Jesus because he is able to sleep through it all. No amount of annoyance, or anxiety, or fear will get them where they need to go. What they need is faith; faith in God’s presence with them. They need to do the work God has given them to do in navigating their boat through their stormy trial. Most of all they need to trust that God will take them to the place they are meant to go.
And so it is for each of us, for our churches, and for the communities we belong to. No amount of annoyance or distrust, no amount of anxiety or fear will serve God’s purpose for the life God has given us to live. So, I say, we’d better be careful what we pray for. Because just as Jesus was awakened by the cries of his disciples, God can be awakened in us by the cries of our prayers when we are being tossed about by the storms in our life. And we will always know when God’s presence begins to awaken in us. A great calm will come over us; and then we WILL feel a kind of terror in it. That feeling of terror might calm us to the point of paralysis us for a time. We know what we can and should do, but we cannot act. However, it is in this place of calm where God is preparing us for the new life he is giving us to live, and the new ways he is calling us to live it.
So, I ask you one more time, Trinity Church to look up at the boat we are in; the boat we call our church. And remember we are all in this boat together. Trust God, then, to take you where you need to go on your own journey of faith as you navigate your future and offer your ministries to a world that so desperately needs the church to witness to God’s love by the same mercy, compassion and hope he wants for all his children. Especially at this moment in time as we remember the children of immigrants who have lost the security of their families as they as they have been taken from parents to live apart from them, afloat on a sea of fear, loneliness, pain and despair.
I hope we will join with the churches from all faith traditions who have been witnessing to the mercy, compassion, and hope Jesus would have us offer to these children and their families. And I trust our boat will be one of many who are stepping up to navigate these troubled waters to meet their need. So, I would like to end this sermon by calling your attention to this issue by reading the insert in your bulletin. You will see some of the ways we might calm their fears of God’s children and restore their faith in the human family God created for our common good.