Sermon on Mark 6:45-52 for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 02, 2015
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
I remember the first time someone drew my attention to Jesus’ personal spiritual life, I wondered why so little had been said about it. When I thought of Jesus’ prayer life I would think of him on the night of his arrest, praying intensely in the garden of Gethsemane as the disciples slept. But of course you do not get to be a person who can pray like that, at a time like that, without a whole life spent in spiritual practices, including prayer.
But anyway, this text is one of the reasons Jesus’ personal spirituality gets overlooked. His whole night of prayer gets one sentence. But that sentence is overwhelmed immediately by the story of the disciples in the boat fighting an adverse wind, and Jesus walking on the water. By the time you get to the part where they see him in terror, you forget all about his prayer life that evening.
You also forget that the reason they are in that boat that night, crossing the lake is that Jesus required them to. Mark tells us that Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat” using a word that means “compel” or even “force”. It is such a strong word that when John tells this story, he drops it.
Resistance to Following
These details are here for a reason, and they are important, and we will look at them. But I must pause right here. We often speak of ourselves as followers of Jesus. I hope we all consider ourselves followers of Jesus. The question is, what do we do when he leads to places we do not want to go?
I just had a conversation with some people who told about a bible study they had been in on the topic of the Good Samaritan parable. The whole point of the parable is that our responsibility to care for the real needs of our neighbors is profound, limited only by the extent that our hearts have been broken open by human suffering.
But instead of getting that essential, fundamental point, the group started grousing about the costs of medical care. Instead of a conversation about compassion it ended up being about how to keep their money in their own pockets. I guess the guy lying half dead on the side of the road would just have to stay there. Anyway, it is bizarre that people could read Jesus’ teaching and turn from it completely. He was leading where they had no intention of going. Is Jesus that optional?
Well, the way Mark tells the story of Jesus, being a disciple means feeling compelled to follow where Jesus leads. If he says get in the boat and cross over, then you do, even if you do not want to. The assumption is that he knows what he is doing. There is a purpose. He is training these people to live life, not according to the status quo world, but to live lives transformed by an alternative vision, inspired and empowered by the Spirit. So, sometimes the training cuts against the grain; put us in places of awkwardness or discomfort – even pain.
So, back to the story. Jesus spent the whole night in prayer. By the time we get to the walking on the water part, it is morning. What happens when people pray like that? I hope no one thinks Jesus was making requests all night. Probably most of the night was spent in silence; in what we call centering or contemplative prayer, or simply meditation.
What happens is that compassion grows. People who pray contemplatively have much slower triggers for anger, for insult and for disgust feelings about others. In fact a sense of oneness begins to blossom. A person who regularly meditates in silence begins to see that we are all connected to each other on this planet. And not only are we connected to each other, despite surfaces differences, but we are also connected with all living things. In fact with all things in the universe.
The importance and significance of the boundary markers that we have spent so much time building and maintaining that make our group different from and better than other groups based on race or language or religion or sexual orientation or status or education, or any other descriptor, simply diminish to the vanishing point.
This is the essential insight Jesus had which blew open the doors and exploded the walls around the concept of the kingdom of God. Think of how revolutionary and actually difficult it would have been for a Jewish person who grew up feeling that they were part of the exclusively chosen people, to imagine the kingdom of God without ethnic boundaries. But for Jesus, it was essential. God’s Spirit is at work in the world to bring God’s blessing and wholeness to everyone.
So, no, the disciples did not want to get in that boat and cross over, because in Mark’s story, crossing over to the other side is about going from Jewish space to non-Jewish space. Each time they do, the crossing is difficult.
Of course it is. For whom is it ever easy to open the door to the “other” to the stranger, to the person who is different? Our instinctive impulse is suspicion, or fear, if not outright loathing for people who are different. Nobody wants to get in the boat and face the difficulty of crossing over. But disciples of Jesus feel compelled by the Master Teacher, and so they do.
This is the second difficult crossing Mark tells about. In the first one they encounter a storm, but at least Jesus is in the boat – even if he is sleeping. When they awaken him he calms the storm. When the community of Jesus followers awakens the presence of Christ as they gather together, the storm of opposition to fulfilling their transformed vision of embracing a new humanity can become peaceful and calm.
This time, as they cross, there is no storm, but they face adverse winds that make them spend the whole night straining at the oars. This time, Jesus is not even with them, and the struggle to cross is all the harder and longer for his absence.
Did you notice what Mark keeps calling this fresh water lake? He calls it the Sea of Galilee. This is purposeful. The sea is rich with symbolism in the Jewish scriptures. The whole world is a blessed and good place because God, the creator, calmed the waters of chaos in the beginning by his Spirit, his breath, the wind of God that blew over the waters.
The Israelites gained their redemption, their freedom from the Empire of Pharaoh in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea as another wind from God separated the waters.
That crossing was remembered liturgically and poetically in the Psalms. The imagery of Psalm 77 takes the Exodus story and adds pyrotechnics to dramatize the immensity of the moment with these words:
“When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
That moment Israel became a nation. The family who had gone down into Egypt as a 70 member clan came out of Egypt as a new nation. God’s way was through the sea, on a path that left no footprints.
This is the tradition that Mark is invoking. To be part of the new nation, the new kingdom of God is to make the challenging crossing to the other side.
Mark wrote his gospel in and to a young Christian community that was most likely a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians. They had begun to live that alternative vision of a new humanity of reconciliation; a community of radical hospitality. But there is no way that it was easy for them. How could it be? And all the more difficult because Jesus was not physically present anymore. Jesus was not in the boat.
The language of spatial separation Mark uses emphasizes Jesus’ absence. The boat was out at sea, and Jesus was alone, on the land, and ominous evening had already fallen.
Passing By on the Water
So then the scene comes that is both famously memorable and confusing. If you know anything at all about Jesus it is probably that he turned water in to wine and walked on water. But why in the world would he walk on water only to appear to pass by the poor struggling and now terrified disciples?
Well if you read this literally, I do not see how it makes any sense at all. I do not read this literally. Mark is again alluding to a profound tradition in several of texts from the Hebrew bible; stories that every Jew, literate or not, would know well. These are the stories of divine revelation when God makes his glorious presence known by passing by. It happened to Moses and to Elijah. Both stories are dramatic.
Mark is saying to his struggling mixed community: yes, it is true that we are separated from Jesus now. But he is the one whose vision of a new humanity we are following. We are in this boat together. And it is not true that we are abandoned. God is with us. The Spirit of God is here. The Spirit of the risen Christ is here in the midst of our struggle against the adverse winds on this threatening sea.
Mark’s gospel is realistic about how difficult this process can be. The disciples are slow to catch the vision and to embrace it. So Jesus pronounces peace as he comes to them, and says, “take heart; it is I”. Then Mark explains the root of the difficulty of the evening: their hard hearts made them unable to understand about the loaves.
If you were here last week you know what he is talking about: the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Strangers who had massed around Jesus had been formed into groups the size of house churches on the fresh green grass that had sprouted in the desert, sharing eucharist together, as if they were family. If you do not get the meaning there – even on the Jewish side of the lake, you will certainly not understand why you must get into the boat and cross over to do it again on the Gentile side of the Lake. But that is exactly what followers of Jesus are compelled by Jesus to do.
This is why many people now refer to Jesus’ mission as the Kin-dom of God, instead of kingdom of God – replacing a monarchical metaphor for a kinship, family metaphor.
Here is the point: when strangers are embraced with hospitality instead of hostility, God is present. It is miraculous and transformative.
And frankly, our world desperately needs this. Our country needs this vision as we now are newly aware of how deeply divided we are racially. Our state needs this vision too, as it is still not able to wrap its judicial head around the fact that LGBTQ people deserve justice and equality for all. Our world desperately needs people who know that religious differences do not constitute justifications for violence or for discrimination.
This text is a call to the church to be the church. First, we must be the people of God and then do the work of the people of God. Being the people of God means that we follow Jesus in his spiritual practices. To be a Christian must mean practicing the regular disciplines of a Christian, including and especially regular silent prayer-meditation and the regular celebration of the sacrament of Eucharist in the community. These are the essential practices that both sustain our faith and open our hearts to the oneness that is the fundamental reality of the world God made.
And then we do the work of the people of God as we open our personal hearts to strangers and people who are “the other” and as we take up the cause of working for justice and equality for all people – not just Americans (which would be radically missing the point) – but all people on this planet.
So in a moment we will come to this sacrament. We will break bread together as a family. We will share one cup, and enact the sign of God’s presence among us. And we will, by this meal, proclaim that the kin-dom of God is present, and that we, as followers of Jesus, are ready to really follow Jesus.