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The Call to Cross Over

June 25, 2012

“The Call to Cross Over” Mark 4:35-41 © 6/24/12 Ordinary 12B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Sea of Galilee was known for its sudden violent storms. Terrible squalls came out of the blue or out of the night and hurled themselves on the calm waters and any fishermen unlucky enough to be caught. It was just such a shattering wind that blew hard one night as the disciples sought to cross the lake.

They had put out into the water at Jesus’ request, making for the other side, which was Gentile territory. Jesus and his friends left behind the huge crowd that had gathered to hear him teach at lakeside. Our Lord had told his parables while sitting in a fishing boat, since the crowds were so large that they thronged to the water’s edge.

Now, with Jesus asleep in the stern, the disciples were fighting for their lives as the winds blew, and the waves threatened to swamp the boat. Exhausted and snoozing away on a cushion, Jesus seemed blithely unaware of their plight. How could he sleep at a time like this? They were in real danger, about to drown, and their teacher was apparently uncaring! Why wasn’t he in a panic, filled with fear, desperately trying with them to bail out the water that constantly poured into the boat?

They decided to wake him. He was the only one who could do something. It was obvious their efforts were failing miserably. When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the storm as if speaking to a growling animal: "Be quiet! Be muzzled!"

What Jesus said, traditionally but weakly translated "Peace! Be still!" is the same thing he said to a demon early on in Mark’s gospel. So what we have here is a kind of exorcism story. Jesus was binding, neutralizing, a “storm demon,” as the ancient people would have said.

The sea for the Jews was the home of the demonic. By “demons” they meant destructive forces hostile to God. And these forces were often thought of as entities, creatures, concrete and personified evil. So we find “Yam,” the sea, portrayed in the psalms as a monster with many heads, surging, churning up chaos, threatening always to engulf the land, but held back by God’s power. “You divided the sea by your might,” the poet wrote, “you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (Psalm 74:13,14). Leviathan, you may recall, was another sea monster. Or the sage has God say in the famous speech from Job (38:8-11): “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”

The sea stood for those dark powers that sought and still seek to undermine God’s purposes, that were always trying to introduce brokenness into God’s world. Especially did they try to bring misery and pain to human life.

The stormy sea still serves as a powerful symbol for trials and tribulations in life. It’s captured the imagination of hymn writers, as in this classic: “Jesus, Savior, pilot me/o’er life’s tempestuous sea/unknown waves before me roll/hiding rock and treacherous shoal/chart and compass come from thee/Jesus, Savior, pilot me.” Or the less familiar: “From every stormy wind that blows/from every swelling tide of woes/there is a calm and sure retreat/’tis found beneath the mercy seat.” Whenever we think of conflict, danger, fear, the possibility of loss, the image of an angry sea may come readily to mind. Don’t we talk about the “perfect storm” of troubles? Or like the line from Sleepless in Seattle: “What do you call the place where everything comes together?” “The Bermuda Triangle.”

This story of the disciples and their distress on the lake is so familiar that we may have to struggle to hear it in a fresh way. I suspect we’d like to move right away to those powerful words of Jesus that will calm our raging storms and make the waters placid and peaceful again. We indeed need to hear "Peace! Be still" spoken to us. But in our need and in our eagerness to be reassured, let’s not overlook why those disciples were out on the lake and going to the other side. They had launched their boat because of Jesus’ command to cross over.

So let’s focus our attention this morning on that call to cross over. Where does Jesus invite us to go with him? What new challenges do you and I undertake at his command?

Certainly a sea crossing could serve as a metaphor for all of life, the passage from birth to death. “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea,” says the hymn. All our lives he asks us to put out into the waves at his command, going where he bids us, whatever the risks may be. But there are much more specific ways to apply the image of crossing.

Let me suggest for one thing that moving to a new level of closeness or communication in a relationship is a crossing over. There may or may not be storms, but usually there is uncertainty and risk. We might think of a scared teen or young adult who wants to take that first step or the next step to get to know a special young man or woman. Or perhaps someone married for a long time wants to rekindle the flame, but is unsure how to do so. If not crossing over to a new country of romance, then to better communication with spouse, children, friends. There is a restlessness to move closer, to understand more about what motivates your long-time friend or child growing up or spouse who’s changing, to explore new dimensions of friendship, marriage or parenting, to go beyond the chit chat and linger long into the evening talking about things that matter. It could be that the uneasiness is the inner prompting of God’s Spirit calling us to something new and better.

So, you or I stand on the shore, and we see through the fog the dim outlines of the opposite side. That’s our goal, where we want to go, what we want to be and experience. But in between lies the lake, and we know that there are often storms there. Dare we risk that in order to get to where we feel we are wanting to go, even called to go? Do we stand cautiously there and refrain from venturing out or do we accept the risk of conflict, misunderstanding or even pain? Do we become vulnerable to the storm demon, relinquish control, and open ourselves to the fury of wind and wave? We know that it is often true in relationships what the late Don Fogelberg sang: "It’s never easy and it’s never clear/who’s to navigate and who’s to steer/as you flounder ever nearer/the rocks” (“Hard to Say”). Is it worth the risk?

Or maybe you or I find that being called to cross over means a new way of living, thinking or responding to situations. Maybe it’s time to downsize our lives, to move from abundance to simplicity or perhaps from little to even less. What do we do with our stuff? Where do we find meaning? Could be we find ourselves on the secure shore of cherished, tried-and-true tradition in our personal faith. But though it feels safe enough, this way we believe and feel about God and Christ and the church, it’s no longer satisfying; it doesn’t feel adequate for the challenges of our day. We want more than feeling safe, perhaps. There is no life, no richness, no freshness, no spirit. So we long to move to another place, another plane, ano­ther stage, to take on some new challenge to faith.

I could imagine also a call to cross over in the way we handle conflict. Our old approach maybe has not been productive. Rather than solve problems, we have felt badly about ourselves and have alienated others rather than gaining them as friends. Respect for differing positions is not the out­come, just more animosity and suspicion. We want to cross over in that part of personal life.

But again, we must risk sudden storms of doubt, the dark absence of God, confusion, not knowing what to believe or do as we leave the safe shore and travel to the other side. For on the waters in between, as the old maps said: "Here there be dragons."

We want to cry out as we see our boat being swamped, “Lord, don’t you care?” As we feel our relationship changing, even if we want it to, we scream “Jesus, don’t you know? Help me! Help us!” As minds and hearts are buffeted by doubt and confusion, we cry "Lord, where are you?”

We look around, and Jesus is asleep in the stern. That’s bad news, because guess what’s in the stern of a boat. The rudder. We’re looking to Jesus for control, direction, guidance, and he’s not paying attention. When we can’t make our little ship go to port or starboard, when we’re being swamped with whatever is crashing over us, we would like to know somebody has the skill and strength to right the boat and move it back on course. We would like that someone to be Jesus, whom we trust for such things. But if he’s asleep at the wheel, as it were, what hope is there?

Ultimately, though our plea doesn’t go unheard. Even if we have to scream to get our Lord out of his stupor, he ends up paying attention and coming through. He does speak a rebuke to the winds and the waves. We will make it to the other side.

When we cry to God for help, his fleshed-out word today may come from a friend, a counselor, a book, a conversation, a church or maybe even a sermon. I like Mark’s detail that there were other boats with them. The disciples were never the only ones struggling through the storm. So also can we count on others being there with us, offering encouragement and assistance.

We may find our Lord’s presence and help in the strength we have to persevere, to move on to the other side and fight our way through the crashing, threatening waves. We might discover hitherto unknown gifts on the crossing to the other side, courage we didn’t know we could muster, skills for making it through a crisis we never thought we possessed. All these and more could be ways our Lord speaks a word of peace to us and shows his power over the storms.

Most of all, though, he bids us have faith which recognizes who he is. The disciples did not understand how Jesus could sleep through the storm. They had not yet learned how to trust God as he did. What Jesus called for in their lives was the faith that knows the God in whom it trusts, a God whom the winds and waves obey, who can stop and order the raging chaos of life’s storm with a powerful word, whose presence brings peace. So would our Lord also say to you and me as we risk the crossing: "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Crossing over serves not only as a metaphor for our individual journeying to new life. It’s an image for our corporate experience as well. Where were the disciples going, after all? Jesus was taking them to Gentile territory, to new mission among "outsiders." To cross over the Sea of Galilee was to discover the new thing God was doing. It was in seeking that new thing that the disciples encountered the storm.

By the time Mark wrote his gospel, the story of the lake crossing had gained symbolic significance. Early on the ship stood for the Church. And certainly the Hebrew picture of the sea as a hostile environment was not lost on the Church. The ship of the Church had to sail the stormy sea of persecution by the Roman Emperor Nero and of the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD. It found itself in the unfriendly surround­ings of the Roman empire. More than once the Christians must have said "Lord, don’t you care if we die?” Mark wanted his readers to know that the powerful Son of God was present with them, just as he had been with those disciples on Galilee. The power of Christ matched the lack of faith of his followers. Mark called his community to stand in awe of their Lord, asking “Who is this that even winds and waves obey him?”

The Church and the churches today can find assurance as Christ’s disciples cross over to new mission, risking storms of controversy, disagreement, and even suffering on the way. In the dark days of WWII, the World Council of Churches chose as its symbol a boat with a cross for a mast, afloat on a stormy sea. The delegates were confident that Christ could carry the church through hard times and lead them to new visions of what God is doing.

These days, there are some hard crossings for the church to endure, as there always are. We know the litany of hot button issues in our society well, so there’s no need to repeat them here. For us, General Assembly is coming up next Saturday, and there will be issues considered there that will bring disagreement and anger and hurt as well as joy and celebration and thanksgiving for common vision. And of course, congregations seek to cross over to new mission in uncharted territory because they feel God is calling the church to go there. Sometimes it looks like the waves will swamp the boat. The controversy will be too heated, the problems too great, the risk of failure too high. But we are called to remember that Jesus is in the boat; he’s awakened and is handling the rudder. As in our individual lives, he bids us in the church’s corporate life to have faith in a powerful God who can carry us through the storm.

Perhaps the hymn writer summed up what the church and we as individuals are challenged to know and trust. She wrote: "The King of Glory standeth/beside the heart of sin/his mighty voice comrnandeth/the raging waves within/the floods of deepest anguish/roll backward at his will/as o’er the storm ariseth/his mandate ‘Peace, be still’” (Charitie Lees de Chenez, “The King of Glory Standeth,” 1867).


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