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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0623.B.The Boat

[Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41]

Wednesday afternoon, I was driving over the Calvin Coolidge Bridge  on an errand.  The threat of our first summer thunderstorm was palpable.  The sky was low, leaden, and thick.  There were rumbles of thunder peeling over the Holyoke Chain: All portents of what in fact hit us Wednesday night with a sudden violence of flash flooding, uprooted trees, and power outages.  

Crossing the bridge always grabs my attention.  The Connecticut River is wide at that point; and for a moment, the river takes me away in wonderment.  Like some fabled, ancient siren, the site of water (be it a river, a lake, or the ocean) always touches my yearning soul.  Even living on the banks of the Mill River, the flow and the sound of the water calls to me, even in the dry season when that historic river resembles a creek.  I suppose the stanza from the old hymn hints at the water’s deeper power: “Time, like an ever-flowing stream, bears all our years away…”1

At the apex of the bridge, I looked southward and noted one of those pontoon motorboats, plying its way northward.  It was raining at the time, causing the visible boundary between the air and the water to blur.  But what caught my particular attention was not just that the boat appeared to be struggling against the current and the growing wind; but in the gray, sodden, afternoon it appeared so toylike in the middle of the river.  Where was it headed?  Back to its home base, I immediately hoped.  Why was it out on the river when the weather was so clearly threatening?  I felt my stomach clutch at the thought of being so vulnerable and potentially helpless in all that foreboding water.  

It was then that I noticed the boat had a small, illuminated, red light on its bow.  Clearly, the red light was “on” so the little boat might be seen amidst the encapsulating gloom: a faint, timorous expression of hope against the distinct possibility of being lost and forgotten .  I hope that the boat and those aboard made it home ok.

In today’s gospel lesson, we have the first of six boat trips that St. Mark records Jesus taking with his disciples.2  With the recognition of this boating sequence [contained between Chapters 4:35 to 8:21], several important elements of Mark’s perspective emerge on what it means to follow Jesus and what such discipleship entails upon the waters of life.  

Take, for example, how last week’s gospel from Mark concluded.  Recall (if you will) that last week’s gospel lesson contained two parables that Jesus presented, both of which illustrated what the Kingdom of God is like.  The first parable posed the Kingdom being like a simple seed that is planted in the soil and grows into new life.  The second parable seems to refine the first example, expressing the Kingdom in terms of a mustard seed, that is, as something very small emerging into something not only large but also very important.  Yet, that gospel lesson’s final snapshot editorially portrays that publicly Jesus always used parable stories; but that in private, away from the crowds, he explained the nooks and crannies of his teachings to his disciples.  

I mention this enigmatic point with the intriguing possibility that it was in the boat on the various trips that Jesus was able to be in private with the Twelve and to unravel the significance of the Kingdom parables to them.  Moreover, I think that this is a very plausible insight into the purpose of these six boat trips that Mark records Jesus and the Boys taking.  It is also significant that each of these boat trips is initiated by Jesus.  So, each trip and what happens in that excursion contains an outward demonstration of what Jesus taught (or attempted to teach) his disciples.  I believe that this point (that in the boat Jesus demonstrated what he needed his disciples to know) is the key to the entire lesson – not to mention to all of the succeeding boat trips.  On this first boat trip, what does Jesus want his disciples to know, to experience?

In the New Revised Standard Version of this morning’s scene, the opening line says: “On that day, when evening had come…”. What day?  Again, it seems perfectly possible that it was the end of the day on which Jesus told the two parables we heard last Sunday.  More to the point, it is Jesus who says, “Let us go across to the other side” [4:35] – a comment whose tone usually means moving from the familiarity of the Jewish regions to the unfamiliar and threatening Gentile areas.  This is to say that the “storm” that is coming is not limited to the sea and the weather.

With the swiftness of a summer thunderstorm, suddenly waves crashed against the boat and water poured over its gunnels, putting the Twelve in fear for their lives.  And in Mark’s creative, gospel hand, this precisely is where today’s lesson takes off toward its God-life point, toward what Jesus wants his disciples to know, to experience.

Undeniable and telling tension exists in this storm story.  It is mostly expressed in the drama of the storm overcoming the fishing boat but also more pointedly in the cry of Jesus’ disciples to their surprisingly slumbering Lord.  Amidst all the chaos and the imminent threat of death at sea, Jesus is described as being in the stern of the boat, slumbering deeply, with his head on a cushion.  I can imagine that Mark might have had to sanitize the language of the fishing disciples, when in their terror they screamed at the sleeping Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” [4:38]

I want to pause briefly here to confess to you that in my mind’s sense of ironic humor, I cannot avoid perceiving some comedy nestled into this intense scene.  To wit: What is wrong with this picture: Experienced, seafaring fishermen asking a carpenter for help sailing a boat?  And is this what happens when Jesus directs his fishermen followers to sail at night? – of all times of the day and with no red light on the bow!  In any event, it is on this point of high anxiety and drama that Mark wants us to focus in order to glean what this “storm” story holds.   

The gospel lesson says that Jesus “woke up”.  Was he awakened at last by the lashing storm; or did the cries of the Twelve arouse him?  Mark doesn’t tell us because he wants us to note something else: namely, that Jesus immediately awakens to the situation.  Beyond the obvious ending of Jesus’ nap, I wonder if there is here a poignant hint of Jesus’ resurrection.  He “awakened to”, which – as we have discussed before -- is what the word “resurrection” means: “to awaken to”.  Upon awakening from what was obviously a deep sleep and without hesitation, Jesus swiftly “rebuked” the wind and the waves: “Peace!  Be still!”  Instantaneously, dead calm set in.  This second allusion that Mark wants us to note is the authoritative word that Jesus uses to reorder creation from chaos – just as in the Genesis story.  

With the din and the threat of the storm removed, Jesus turns to his chosen followers with two, terse questions: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” [4:40]. In these questions, we are given to see that it is not only the wind and the waves that receive Jesus’ rebuke.

Curiously, in the biblical narrative’s tradition, when God’s people face threats or overwhelming circumstances, the divine counsel says in reassuring tones, “Fear not.”  In other words, the faithful may have fear; but they are not to be fearful.  Yet, in this dramatic storm scene, Jesus seems to indict his disciples for their fearfulness, and quickly follows up with: “Have you still no faith?” – “still”!  The only response Jesus’ stunned boatmates can possibly make is to wonder out loud: “Who is this guy?”  “Who is this guy, that even creation obeys?”  Clearly, the answer Mark seeks to make clear to his readers stems – once more -- from the Genesis creation story, where God speaks the word; and it is so.  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” [4:41].  Answer?

Boats.  One of the ancient symbols for the people of God, faithfully gathered and living on God’s terms, is the boat.  From the homemade craft that Noah and his family built to endure the flood and to “reboot” God’s creation, to the symbol of a fishing boat carrying followers of Jesus as they sail amidst the waters, “fishing for people”, the imagery of the boat remains as a reminder of who we are and Whose we are.  And so it is that our worship space itself makes the same point.  What we so euphemistically (and imprecisely) call a “church” conjures up the pictures of the ark and a boat’s imagery.  

Look up at this worship space’s ceiling.  What do you see?  Does this not look like the inside of a ship from the crow’s nest?  What's more and to emphasize the point, the architectural term for this part of the church space is called the “nave” – not the sanctuary, please!  In Latin the word for “ship” is “nave”.  Significantly, the “nave” is where most of the congregation sits for worship; and in a manner of speaking, the “nave” is the place where we all learn more and more about sailing and rowing the boat of the church – in the world.

So, what’s all this have to do with you and me being in the boat with Jesus – because ultimately, this is the “storm” story’s issue?  What does this storm and this boat have to do with our faith, especially when our lives are threatened with being swamped and every fiber in our body reverberates with the fear of drowning in the chaos that life can so often be?  

We could have a great deal of discussion about how we respond personally to these questions.  And in fact doing so would mark a new level of honesty, openness, and faithful compassion among us.  Perhaps, we can move toward this sense of faithful community as a kind of response to the findings of the “Congregational Assessment Tool” from two Saturdays ago.  Yet for now, we know that we will face (if we aren’t already facing) the threats of uncertainty, confusion, and no small amount of chaos in our lives as individuals, as a nation, and as a church.  But the unexplained but concretely demonstrated answer that this gospel passage holds – and holds for us – is this: Being in the boat with Jesus is where we need to be -- even though it doesn’t feel like it; even though we want Jesus to get us out of the mess.  Oh yes, being in the boat with Jesus, in the midst of the storms of our lives, seriously tempts us to bail more than the water.  Yet (and again, this is the point) we need to experience this trial in order for our faith to make a difference in our lives. 

As such and in spite of our fearful instinct to bail ourselves from the boat, I think we need to remind one another that this is not our first ride on the water.  We have sailed dangerous and threatening waters with Jesus and with one another before.  We have tasted that bitter fear as we have been forced to move into unfamiliar, foreboding, and uncontrollable places.  We have experienced the reality of the shadow of death in our midst.  Yet, in the boat -- with Jesus -- we have also discovered that these same foreboding places can also be places of new and surprising life.  

“Lord, don’t you care if we perish?”  

Here is the point of the “storm” story.  When the Jesus we want doesn’t show up, when the Jesus who is supposed to get us out of situations we don’t like is asleep, the disciples’ panicked question comes easily to our lips.  And we wonder if our trust in Jesus is a sucker’s bet.  Yet, the truth is we are perishing.  In fact, learning how to die to what is passing away is the central element in a healthy spirituality.  Jesus knows we are perishing, and his care rests (no pun intended!) with the fact that we need to know, we need to experience that going through life’s storms and not bailing out gives us what we need: new and lasting life that is free from fear and death.  

Oh, yes, Jesus cares that we are perishing.  Christ’s caring comes from his demonstrating new life and the faith that it takes to have a deep life.  Like the Twelve, our level of faith, rarely steady, fluctuates between belief and unbelief.  And that is the reason we stay with the boat because Jesus is taking us to where we need to go – beyond the throes of perishing to new and lasting life – the life we, in fact, see in Jesus.

Jesus is in the boat with us.  We can still have faith in that!  Amen.


1. Hymnal 1982. Hymn 680: words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) 2. Werner Kelber. Via Andrew McGown’s article: “In the Boat with Jesus”, Andrew’s Version, June 18,2024

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