Today’s gospel is full of riddles for us to solve. Jesus decides it is time to leave the crowds who have been pursuing him in his home area of Galilee and go across to the “other side” of the Lake of Galilee. The other side is a Gentile area, where there will be more stories for us to hear in the future. But for now, we are told that once Jesus initiated the plan, the disciples “took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” I’ve always wondered what that meant – “just as he was.” And we often forget that there were other boats making the crossing with them, indicating that all of his followers, men and women, were accompanying him on this journey.
They are overtaken by a storm which must have been pretty bad because the disciples, some of whom were professional fishermen, were afraid of sinking. Yet Jesus manages to nap peacefully – asleep on a cushion – right where the person steering the boat would have been standing. I often imagine that Jesus, disturbed from his much-needed slumber, reacted as a slightly annoyed parent would. First, he took care of the immediate danger – he calmed the wind and waves – rather sternly, but not with too much drama. Then he turns his attention to the disciples, as a parent would with their children. They are clearly afraid – now, perhaps of him and his ability to control forces of nature – and he asks “have you still no faith?” It seems he is growing weary of their lack of understanding.
Their reaction is to ask “who then is this?” There is a scene in an old mystery movie about a man who his family thinks is just an insurance salesman. In reality he was a highly trained government spy who spoke several languages fluently, was an expert marksman and knew all the tricks of the trade. In the story the man’s wife disappears on a trip to Paris, and he takes his son and follows her, utilizing all his spy skills to find her and bring her to safety. When they first arrive in Paris the son overhears his father speaking fluent French on a pay phone as he tucks a pistol into his belt. When he emerges from the phone booth his son, whose eyes were wide as saucers, looks at his dad and asks, “Who are you?” His father was clearly someone that he had never imagined. That is kind of how the disciples reacted to Jesus.
One way to interpret this story is that for Mark, the trip across the lake is the mission to the Gentiles. The storm represents the many disagreements and difficulties that took place in the early church as they tried to obey Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations.” We often use ship imagery in the church – the area where you are sitting right now is called the “nave” from the Latin word “navis” which means ship. (“Navy” comes from the same Latin root.)
Any study of church history will reveal the storms that have been overcome in order to reach out to those who are perceived to be different. Bishop Lyle G. Miller said these words in opening worship at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly in 1991 (quoted in The Lutheran, June, 1991.) He said, “The church is not a luxury liner, granting passage and comfort to all who qualify and clamber aboard, but rather like a rescuing lifeboat, sometimes listing, or even leaking, but always guided by Jesus, the captain, at the helm.”
Many years ago, author James Moak adapted a tale about lifeboats and life- saving. There was once a simple little life-saving station on a dangerous coast where many shipwrecks occurred. The building was a hut and they had one boat, but the members were diligent and constantly watched over the seas, going out day and night searching for those in danger with no thought of their own safety. Over the years many people were saved by that station, so many that it became famous. People wanted to become associated with the station and made large donations to support it. New boats were purchased and new crews were trained.
As time went on some members were unhappy with the crude hut, so they replaced the cots with beds and put better furniture in. Gradually it became a gathering place for the members, they decorated it and furnished it as a club. Fewer members were interested in saving lives so they hired lifeboat crews to do that work, although the lifesaving motif still prevailed in the decoration. Shortly after that a large ship was wrecked off the coast and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and many were sick. The beautiful new club was really messed up and had to be completely cleaned. Their solution was to have a shower house built outside the club so victims could be cleaned up before being brought inside.
That created quite a schism and at the next meeting most members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because it interfered with their social life. But some insisted on lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still considered a life-saving station. They were voted down and told if they wanted to save the lives of victims of shipwrecks, they could establish their own life-saving station farther down the coast. Which they did. Well, history continued to repeat itself and if you visit that coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. There are still shipwrecks in the rough waters, but not as many rescues.
History constantly repeats itself in the form of storms that seem to sneak up on us, take us by surprise and then unleash such terrible force that we become terrified. We, as the church, are called to be Christ and help to calm the storm, or at least to offer sustenance and comfort to its victims. Our nation is in the middle of such a storm, as we hear and see terrible images of children being separated from their parents. As Christian and other religious leaders have stated, no matter our individual opinions on the complicated issue of immigration, taking children away from their parents, detaining them in prison-like conditions, and holding them hostage because of a moral dilemma that has been politicized is a sin.
Our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Elizabeth Eaton and the Interim Bishop of our synod, Donald McCoid, have issued pastoral statements about this terrible situation that is taking place, noting that the majority of the people who are being arrested for seeking asylum are fleeing dangerous and horrific conditions in their home countries. As Bishop Eaton said, “Leaving their communities is often the only option they have to provide safety for their children and protect them from harm. Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of both children and parents.”
These are real people just like us who love their families and want to do the best they can for them, just as we do. Jesus said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Surely this policy is not something we would accept for our own families. Bishop Eaton goes on to remind us, “As we continue to serve and love our neighbor, we pray for the children and families who will suffer due to this policy and urge the administration to stop their policy of separating families.” Bishop McCoid encourages us with these words, “May we follow our God of love and justice who does indeed welcome the stranger and has compassion for those in need.” Amen