Jesus invites us to venture out to the other side, even when there is the danger of a storm out at sea.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him
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My sons, Stephen and Jason, were 13 and 12 when I took them deep-sea fishing for the first time in their lives. The charter boat, out of Bodega Bay, was scheduled to leave at 6:00 am. So we decided to camp at a nearby beach campground the night before to be sure that we would be at the dock on time the next morning. That night of camping around the campfire, I learned what my sons knew about sex from the off-color jokes they shared with me. But it was good, because it turned out to be a wonderful occasion for me to give them some healthy sex education. The next morning was cold and damp as we ate our breakfast and prepared a lunch of salami sandwiches, tuna fish sandwiches, potato chips, fruit, candy bars, and coke. We figured we would be starving come noon. The harbor was bustling at 6:00 am, with lots of people excited about going out into the ocean for a day of fishing. Like my sons, many were going out for the first time. First-timers are great because they add an air of electricity and excitement.
We had no idea it would take so long before we would actually begin to fish. It was 2 hours before the boat arrived at our fishing spot. Only a half hour from the harbor, the excitement and the noisy chit-chat turned into the worst case of sea-sickness that my sons and I ever experienced. It was a nightmare. My sons and I took turns leaning over the side of the boat and heaving. The huge breakfast of bacon and eggs and hash browns disappeared into the ocean in the first heave, gone in 3 seconds. We turned pale. There was no relief. What made it so embarrassing was that no one else on board was sick. Out in the middle of the sea, there was no turning around. You were on a charter boat with 22 other people, anxious to catch fish. And they really didn’t care how sick you were and how badly you felt. There was no turning back. The boat seemed so large when it was docked in the harbor. But out at sea being tossed by the rough waters and the wind, the boat was frightfully small. It was two hours of being tossed from side to side, of being lifted up and dropped like the floor suddenly was taken out from under you. It seemed like an eternity before the boat came to a stop. And even when we began to fish, it was no better. Side to side, up and down. The thought of the huge lunch we had prepared only made us feel sicker. Whenever our eyes met, we didn’t have to say a word. There was that knowing look of understanding and empathy…because we knew exactly how the other felt. Out at sea, we were totally at the mercy of the captain of the ship and of the sea. And the sea was rough; the winds were hard; and the waves were high. The boat had to follow the movement of the water, of the wind, and of the waves. And our out-of-control stomachs pretty much symbolized how all of us in the boat felt—at the mercy of the sea, not in control.
So I think this is what it was like for the disciples, in the boat with Jesus, out in the middle of the sea. A great windstorm arose suddenly, waves beating into the boat, and the disciples in danger of being swamped. Now picture the church, the PC(USA), Calvary Presbyterian Church as a boat out at sea. And suddenly, the church is caught in a storm, high winds, rough seas, huge waves threatening to sink the boat, Calvary Church. The sensible ones among us would wonder, “If there is the danger of a storm out at sea, why venture out at all?” Why did I take my sons deep sea fishing if it was going to such a miserable experience? Why did the disciples get themselves into such a dilemma by going out into the sea? Why does the PC(USA) get itself into so much conflict and controversy? The membership of the PC(USA) has been in decline for the past 50 years. Just in the past 2 decades, from 1996 to 2016, our membership has dropped from 2.63 million to 1.48 million, a 43% decline. Last year, our denomination organized 18 new congregations; but in the same year dissolved 104 congregations. Calvary Church used to have 2 services on Sunday mornings; and beautiful sanctuary used to be full. Our critics have described the Presbyterian Church as “deathly ill”, suffering from “a terminal illness.”
Let’s go back to our story in the Gospel of Mark, especially to how the story begins: “…Jesus said to the disciples, ‘LET’S GO ACROSS THE SEA TO THE OTHER SIDE…’” The idea to go out to sea, to cross to the other side, was Jesus’ idea in the first place. And like the disciples, the church FOLLOWS. It is Jesus who leads and who decides whether we will cross the sea to the other side or not. Whether the sea is calm or rough is not the issue. The issue is that when Jesus calls us to follow, to go, we do it! The church does not chart the course, does not decide whether or not to go out to sea where there is always the potential danger of a storm. Jesus gives the orders.
Before going out into the sea, Jesus had great success on the familiar shore. He called Peter, Andrew, James and John on this shore—and they came alive here. Jesus taught his first parables on this shore. He cast out demons. He called Levi, the despised tax collector, on this shore. The disciples witnessed revival here and gave up their old lives. Many of you here this morning, met Jesus and were baptized here at Calvary. These tested shores contain rich memories and a legacy of ministry and service. So why leave the refuge of this safe harbor behind?
Again I remind you that, according to the gospel text, it was Jesus who gave the orders to the disciples to get in the boat and go out into the sea…in order to get to the other side. We’d much rather anchor ourselves in familiar shores, where we feel safe and secure. According to our story, what was on the other side? The Gentiles…all the people who are not like us! If we are serious about growing as the church of Jesus Christ, of being a missional church, we must cross the sea to the other side and run the risk of winds and storms. To be the church of Jesus Christ, we must follow Jesus into the sea of life, risking danger, controversy, even death…in order to live. Christ’s ministry is not about renewal and revitalization; it is about resurrection.
My proposal to the Session was met with a long silence. Finally, one of the elders broke the silence and said: “Well you know, it is a very dangerous place.” The Frontier sat on the other side of the Deschutes River; the Deschutes River was the Eastern boundary of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The Frontier was rated as one of the 5 most dangerous bars in the State of Oregon. Because the sale of alcohol was illegal on the reservation, the Frontier just across the bridge provided easy and convenient access to the members of the reservation. I had been invited by Jasper Washines, who started worshiping at the church, to accompany him to the Frontier to make a pastoral visit. And I wanted the Session not only to know my plans, but also to give their blessing. When I walked into the Frontier, an immediate, deathly silence fell over the place. Then one voice after another broke the silence: “Rev, glad to see you! Thanks for coming! I did not hear anyone telling me I did not belong there. Instead, in the next 3 hours I heard stories of domestic violence, of women who hit children, of men and women in jail; on parole for robbing and raping, for shooting and stabbing and punching and kicking, for abandoning and vandalizing, for driving without a license or failing to stop, for shoplifting and deserting, for failing and failing and failing and failing. I did as much pastoral counseling in those 3 hours as in 3 months with my congregation. When we cross the street, go across town, go into another neighborhood, cross the bridge or the railroad tracks, we will meet people who will open our eyes and save us from our blind spots, from what we perceive as normal. We learn what we miss when we stay on the shores of safety and sameness. On the other side of the sea awaits just as much growth, learning, and life for the disciples as what Jesus intends to offer those who live there. The shores of others await our moving feet, open minds, and growing hearts.
III. When we talk about the elderly, we tend to focus on the very real problems of old age, like the declines in the body and mind, or the billions of dollars spent on end-of-life medical care. Or else they single out that remarkable old lady who seems to defy aging altogether, drinking martinis and running marathons in her 90’s. This vision is particularly seductive to the younger set, with its promise that you, too, can master the secrets of “successful aging.” All you have to do is basically extend late middle age—join a club, volunteer, exercise, fall in love, learn Italian.” In his book, “Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old”, the author John Leland had this to say: “The elders I spent time with, like the vast majority of older people, didn’t fit either of these story lines. They lived with loss and disability but did not define themselves by it, and got up each morning with wants and needs, no less so because their knees hurt or they couldn’t do the crossword puzzle like they used to. Old age wasn’t something that hit them one day when they weren’t careful. It also wasn’t a problem to be fixed. It was a stage of life like any other, one in which they were still making decisions about how they wanted to live, still learning about themselves and the world.”
The other side, whether it is how we face old age or what happens when we meet strangers, provides an opportunity for growth, learning, and life. We are about to begin our Mission Study, in preparation for the search for the next Pastor and Head of Staff; and we have an opportunity before us to look across the sea, knowing that it will challenge us with winds and storms, but knowing also that Calvary can look forward to its transformation.
We often lift up the cliche about “re-arranging the deck chairs on the TITANIC” to illustrate how NOT to work for change. But the more helpful lesson that I learned from the movie about what happened on the TITANIC, was the problem of “lifeboat” thinking. Lifeboats is finite thinking. Lifeboat thinking says that only so many people can fit in here. Survival, scarcity, limited, a chosen few are the perspectives of “lifeboat thinking.” “If we take on more, we all may perish!” Diane Butler Bass suggests a new ship narrative—the Mayflower, an explorer ship in a new world. The Mayflower was a ship in a new land, in uncharted and unfamiliar waters. And like the Mayflower, if we stick together, rely on each other, and also learn from the inhabitants, receive the gifts they have to offer, we’ll make it. In contrast to the disastrous ending of the TITANIC, the story of the Mayflower ends at a banquet table. I grew up eating around banquet tables. It is a place of abundance, enough for all. There is welcome, sharing and community. Yes, of course, there are family issues, complicated by the fact that we’re not crazy about all the people gathered at the table. But we deal with it. We value it. And we work hard to make it happen. It gives shape and meaning to our lives, these banquet tables we gather around. And of course, the Church gathers around a table as well, our Lord’s Table.
Calvary Church, we have followed Jesus into the sea; and we continue to struggle to make our way to the other side. Confronted by the chorus of conflicting voices, each clamoring to chart the correct course, let us ALL be a bit more modest and humble about our place in the Church. In the end, it is Jesus who is the captain and navigator. Jesus is the Lord of the Church, of life and death. Well you know how the story ends—Jesus does wake up in time to calm the wind and the sea. And may we, like the disciples, be filled with great awe and confess to one another: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him”?