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Crossing Over

June 22, 2015

“Crossing Over” 1 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41 © 6.21.15 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 arose 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 demons. The entities had names like “Yam” and “Leviathan,” writhing, horrible creatures that stirred up the chaos of storm and wave. 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.” Whenever we think of conflict, danger, fear, the possibility of loss, the image of an angry sea may come readily to mind. We might even talk about the “perfect storm” of troubles, where everything comes together in a frightening, threatening mass of misfortune.

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 fitting image for our passage through the years from birth to death or for those sometimes difficult life transitions in between, as we go from one stage of life to another. “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 more specific ways to apply the image of crossing over.

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 of his or her first years with a spouse, but is unsure of how to do that. If we’re not crossing over to a new country of romance, then maybe we want to understand better the long-time friend or co-worker or get inside the head and heart of a child who’s growing up and has suddenly become a different person or help a spouse who’s changing in troubling ways. Could be we feel a need 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. So many times such 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, who we desire to be and what we long to experience. But in between lies the lake, and we know that there are often storms there. Dare we risk a crossing? 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 Dan 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 we are crossing over to 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’re 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, because there’s no life, no richness, no freshness, no spirit in the way things are now. So we long to move to another place, another plane, ano­ther stage, to take on some new challenge.

I could imagine also crossing over in the way we handle conflict. Our old approach, whatever it is, has not been productive. Rather than solve problems, we have felt badly about ourselves and have alienated others rather than gaining them as friends. Like the apostle Paul in the epistle text, we’ve reached out to another, made our feelings known, shown vulnerability, and we want that from the family member or neighbor. But instead of achieving mutual respect for differing positions, we experience more animosity and suspicion.

In all these situations and more, 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 rear 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’d like to know somebody has the skill and strength to right the boat and move it back on course. We’d 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?

It’s so easy these days to feel there is no one in control, no one strong and trustworthy at the helm. Chaos and hate and fear abound and erupt into violence. In ancient terms, the sea monsters behind the storm are closing in for the kill. As the song puts it: “This world keeps spinning faster into a new disaster…” (Lady Antebellum, “I Run to You”). To know that’s true, just turn on the TV or look at any online news service. Or simply go through a day at home or work or school.

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 speaks a rebuke to the winds and the waves. We will make it to the other side. “This is my Father’s world: oh, let me n’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”

When we cry to God for help, his fleshed-out word today may come from a friend, a counselor, a book, a conversation 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 who have or are having the same experience. They offer encouragement and assistance, even as they face their own troubles.

If we find our Lord’s presence and help in community, we may also feel it somewhere deep inside, in the strength we discover we have to persevere and move on to the other side, fighting our way through the crashing, threatening waves. We show courage we didn’t know we could muster, use skills for making it through a crisis we never thought we possessed. We will perhaps find new energy and life as we try some new spiritual practices like silence or prayer beads, investigate links between Christianity and other faiths or study the original languages of the Bible, as we seek out a challenging way to serve our neighbors or maybe we even learn a new hymn or two. All these and more could be ways our Lord answers our plea for assistance on a hard crossing to renewal and peace.

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,” the outlanders, the strangers, the others. 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 to the conference that adopted the logo were confident that Christ could carry the church through hard times and lead them to new visions of what God was doing.

These days, there are some hard crossings for the church to endure, as there always are. Christians across the spectrum disagree on so many things, whether the hot button social and theological issues of our time or the way the denomination should be structured or the ever-present issues of money and furnishings and leadership in a local church. Sometimes individuals and congregations and councils even end up in secular court or in a church trial. Quite often in my experience, those arguments are at root about a grab for power, masquerading as something noble and holy. On the other hand, a storm of controversy may be the consequence of a denomination or a congregation answering faithfully the call of the Savior to new mission in uncharted territory. Sometimes it looks like the waves will swamp the boat. The conflict 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 believers together and individually are challenged to know and trust. The anonymous author has God speaking: “When through the deep waters I call you to go,/the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow,/for I will be with you in trouble to bless,/and sanctify to you your deepest distress. The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose/I will not, I will not desert to its foes;/that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,/I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake!” (“K,” “How Firm a Foundation,” 1787).

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