Sunday, June 24, 2018

“Emmanuel: In the Boat”

Mark 4:35-41
Sunday, June 24, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

To live in Kansas is to know a few things about storms. We know what it means when the temperature suddenly drops on a hot summer day. We can tell by looking at clouds whether we’re in for rain, lightning, or hail. We know which way the weather usually comes from and how to quickly scan the radar and figure out when it’s time to head for shelter. We know that different shades of gray in the sky mean different things...and that a green sky means something else altogether.

When I was little girl, my dad used to pull my leg by telling me this about watching for storms. He said, “If you’re watching out the window and a big storm is coming, just look at the leaves on the tree. When the leaves start to point up, that means it’s time to go to the basement.”

“Why, Daddy?” I’d ask.

“Because,” he’d say, laughing, “When the leaves are pointed straight up, it means that tree is coming out of the ground and you’d better run and hide!”

But all joking aside...storms are serious. We 21st century folks may have basements and interior closets and access to advanced forecasting technology, but we aren’t so unlike the ancient people that jump off the pages of scripture. Storms are a mighty reminder that we humans are fragile and vulnerable. Storms remind us that things can change in an instant. Storms are a reminder that there are so many things that are completely outside of our control.

And storms on the sea? Well, that’s a whole other level of scary. Because when you’re in the middle of a massive body of water, you’re vulnerable in new and frightening ways. When a storm comes at sea, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Storms can come up quickly, leaving you unable to get to a safe shore. Storm clouds make it difficult or impossible to use the sky to navigate in any meaningful way. It’s just you and a tiny boat against all the forces of nature. And a small boat is no match for a violently swirling sea. A small boat turns out to be a mere illusion of safety once the water is coming up over the sides. It’s no wonder that the ancients embodied chaos in their stories as Leviathan - a sea monster. Because the sea is a terrifying, chaotic place in the midst of a storm.

The Rev. Karoline Lewis says, of this morning’s passage from Mark:
There is no end to sermons on this story that allegorize the boat, and, for that matter, everything else in this sea passage tale.

You know how these sermons tend to go -- Jesus is in the boat with you.” “How many times does it feel like you are in a storm and Jesus is asleep?” “What boats are you in at this point in your life?” “What are the storms that are tossing your life around?” None of this is necessarily bad. It’s just that the boat becomes a metaphor for all kinds of things rather than simply what it is -- a traveling vessel. A means by which to get from one place to another. Maybe the boat is simply a boat. Maybe the point is that Jesus is just trying to get us to the other side.

At the risk of allegorizing too much for Rev. Lewis’s tastes, I would add, “Maybe the boat represents all manner of traveling vessels. All the ways we humans try to get safely from one place to another.”

Maybe the boat isn’t just a boat but is also a Greyhound bus where regular everyday people like you and me are traveling from one town to another. Lulled to sleep by the sounds of the tires on the pavement below them, they are safe and secure inside their small vessel. But the illusion of safety is shattered as ICE agents board their vessel and demand to see citizenship paperwork. [2]

Maybe the boat is also an airplane with a group of very young children on it. They have been taken from their parents and are traveling to God-knows-where….Michigan, New York, Topeka. The children are far from home. Far from shore. [3]

Maybe the boat is also a tiny raft floating on the Rio Grande river. A mother holds her five-year-old son tight, tight, tight. They have traveled thousands of miles to run from an abusive husband and father who has threatened to kill them. The are seeking another shore, but they aren’t there just yet. They had hoped to cross a bridge and declare themselves at a sanctioned port of entry, but the gate is closed, so they take their chances on the river and with this tiny raft. [4]

In all of these fragile vessels there are humans crying out alongside the disciples with those ancient words, “Jesus, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Do you not care that we are perishing?

This story from Mark’s gospel is usually categorized as a “miracle story.” Jesus is the one who turns water into wine, casts out the demons, revives the sick, feeds the masses, stills the storm. Can Jesus control the weather? Do we follow the One who can literally stop the winds from blowing and the waves from crashing?

If we read this story as a literal tale of a historic event, then it would seem so. But if we asked those who have begged and pleaded for Jesus to stop storms in their own lives, we might get a different answer. Sometimes the storm keeps coming. Sometimes the wind keeps wailing. Sometimes the children keep crying. Sometimes parents are begging to know where their children are and when they will see them again….and no answers come.

But there is a second miracle in this story. And maybe it seems so small that we miss it because of the larger, more dramatic elements. The second miracle in this story is that Jesus is in the boat. When the story begins, the people are on a journey across the water to the other shore. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Come, it’s time for you to take this long journey on your own.” Jesus says, “Come, let US go across to the other side.”

Jesus is IN the boat. Jesus is on the Greyhound bus. Jesus is on the flight at 30,000 feet. Jesus is on the small raft floating down the Rio Grande.

Jesus is in the converted old Walmart. Jesus is in the tent city. Jesus is in the group home. Jesus is in the courtrooms.

And Jesus will not leave. Not ever.

When we humans cry out in fear, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus arises, and says to the chaos, “Peace, be still.”

Jesus is in the boat. The one we call Emmanuel because his presence reminds us that God is with us.

And God hears the cries of her children, calling out in desperation from Guatemala and Honduras and Tornillo and Topeka and New York and in every other place. God is on each and every vessel, no matter how small or large, no matter whether it is seen or hidden. God is present in each breath, in each heartbeat, in each cry, in each and every place where his beloved children are in pain. God specializes in seeing those that no one else wants to see. God sees. God acknowledges. God loves. God will never leave.

The presence of Christ reminds us that God is fully present. I have a colleague, Gayle Engel, who closes his prayers by saying “we pray in the name of Jesus, who is the still point of the turning world.” Jesus - the one who rests peacefully on a storm-tossed ship. Jesus - the one we cry out to when we are perishing. Jesus - the Word who speaks and changes the world.

When we pray, we re-orient ourselves away from the chaos and towards the One who is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

When we pray, we turn towards our Teacher and we hear the words “Peace, be still” and realize Jesus is not only talking to the eternal elements….Jesus is also addressing the chaos that seeps into our hearts.

When we quiet ourselves and turn to God in prayer, we remember who. we. ARE.

And we remember who God is. And we remember our connection to every other part of creation - including the children who cry out in agony, the parents who are stunned into silence, and the regular everyday people who are committing these acts of violence because they’re just following orders.

Prayer is a place to find stillness and to ask the deeper questions. To nurture our understanding of our place in creation. To find unity with other human beings. To remember that we are always at home in God and God is always at home in us.

In a daily devotion earlier this week, Father Richard Rohr contemplated what it might look like if every person of faith had as their “set-point, baseline, and fundamental assumption about every single person” in the world that each and every person is sacred, holy, beloved by God. [5]

Friends, there is evil present in our world that is attempting to tell us one of the greatest lies that can be told - the lie that only some people matter. Jesus stood against this lie. The entirety of our scripture tells another story. We have to be on guard against this lie. We have to return, again and again, each and every day to the truth, which Father Rohr expresses like this, "Something infinite, immortal, mysterious, loving, and alive abides in me and it is from this light that I bow toward that which is infinite, immortal, mysterious, loving, and alive in you.” [6]

I invite you to join me as we orient ourselves towards that infinite, mysterious, loving, living force that abides in each and every part of creation. You may find it helpful to visualize a child who is alone and frightened. Or a parent who is waiting to learn where their child is and figure out how to be reunited. Or a person who is at work right now being asked to hurt other humans. As you visualize these people, you may want to find that small light inside of you and send it to connect with the light of God that you see within them.  

In this time of prayer, you may choose to keep silence, you may cry, you may sing (and if we know the song, we may join you), or you may find that you want to put words to your prayer.

Let us pray together….

(time for prayers)
….we pray in the name of Jesus, the still-point of the turning world. Emmanuel. The one in the boat with us all. Amen.

[4] Illustration inspired by this photo from CBS News:
[5] Read Fr. Rohr’s full devotion here.
[6] Ibid.

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