"Courage for A New Time"
During the dark days of World War II, the World Council of Churches adopted a symbol which had been important to the early church during times of danger, hardship, and persecution: the church is depicted as a storm-tossed boat, with a cross for a mast.
Over the centuries, the ship has been a prominent symbol for the church in Christian art and architecture. This part of the church building is called the “nave,” which is the Latin name for “ship.” If you look up, you can see how the designers of this building evoked the symbolism.
Then, if you look at the stained glass windows, you’ll see that one of them depicts a ship tossing about on the waters.
When the early Christians tried to describe what it was like to be a Christian and to be a member of the church, they said it was like being on a ship with Christ in a storm. The story we just heard from Mark's gospel seemed descriptive of the early church’s experience.
In the Gospel lesson, we find the disciples on a journey. The journey is not one of their own choosing, but one they've been commanded to take.
It must have been a long day. Jesus had been teaching beside the sea. There had been a huge crowd gathered on the shore, while he sat in the boat and spoke in parables about the Reign of God.
When evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, "Let us go across to the other side of the sea." So, leaving the crowd behind, they set off across the sea.
The time I sailed across the Sea of Galilee, it was on a beautiful, calm, sunny day. It was smooth sailing. But Peter and the other fishermen among Jesus' inner circle of disciples knew from experience the danger of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee. As the wind and the waves fill the boat with water, the disciples are filled with fear. They're sinking, and they’re afraid they might drown! In terror, they turn to Jesus, who is calmly asleep in the stern of the boat. The disciples woke Jesus with words we may use to address God when things get scary: "Don't you care?"
Mark tells us that Jesus had been sleeping through the storm. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the ability to sleep peacefully is a sign of perfect trust in God's providential care. So when Jesus was sleeping through the storm it didn't mean that he didn't care about his disciples. It showed that he had perfect trust in God to keep them all safe.
Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!"
The words Jesus addressed to the wind and the waves are exactly the same words he used in the exorcism of the demon-possessed man in the first chapter of Mark. It's a forceful rebuke, as he commands the forces of the storm, saying, “Be still. Be calm!"
And the wind ceased-- just like that. There was a dead calm.
Then Jesus said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
When you read through a gospel from beginning to end, you get a much better feel for what the evangelist means when he uses particular words and symbols that you miss if you read little parts of the gospel in isolation. For Mark, faith isn't about holding correct, orthodox beliefs or living an upstanding moral life. Faith is trust. Fearfulness is the lack of faith.
Mark tells us that disciples are sometimes called to do things that are risky or scary to us-- things that require that we trust in the power of God to sustain us, in spite of our fears.
Mark wrote his gospel in a time of great persecution, under the emperor Nero. Peter and Paul had in all likelihood been put to death. The infant church was in danger of being wiped out. So Mark included stories in his gospel that would encourage the people in the church.
I think we all live our lives somewhere between fear and faith. A certain amount of fear can actually be healthy, when it protects us by motivating us to avoid unnecessary danger. But too much fear can be unhealthy. It can be crippling.
Bruce Larson was once interviewing Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier about his counseling methods. He asked, "How do you help your patients get rid of their fears?"
"Oh, I don't,” was Tournier's immediate answer. "That which does not frighten does not have meaning. All the best things in life have an element of fear in them."
The disciples may have been afraid to cross the sea at night. They must have felt fearful about going to the gentile side of the Galilee and reaching out to people they'd always regarded as unclean and unacceptable. Yet Jesus commanded them to get in the boat and go.
We're all caught somewhere between our desire for safety and security and our need to move to new and fearful areas. It's good to be sensible and responsible... to provide for our loved ones... and to avoid certain unnecessary risks. It’s good for a congregation to use best practices to be faithful stewards of the church’s resources.
But there's a difference between having a healthy degree of fear-- and being fear-full. A certain amount of fear and struggle can actually contribute to our spiritual development. But when fear takes charge of our lives, it can prevent us from being all that God intends for us to be.
We might like to think that if we follow Jesus, he'll keep us out of the storm. But, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we're not promised a safe, successful, long, or trouble-free life. He never promised it would be easy.
Congregations have a tendency to want to stay out of the storm. It's scary to set out into less familiar territory... to reach out to people who aren't just like us…. or to do some things in new ways. It would feel safer to stay close to home…or to wait for a weather forecast that guarantees us that there won't be a storm.
I'm convinced that the storms and the struggles of life-- both on a personal level and as a church-- are part of how Christ teaches us to trust in God's love and power to save us. If we're going to travel with Jesus, we have to weather some storms.
The good news is that when we begin to trust in God's love and saving power we can overcome some of our fears. We can begin to have faith we can weather the storms of life-- because Christ is with us.
We live in a tumultuous time—a time of great change and polarization and anxiety— in the world and in the church.
And yet--- I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time. I believe that this is a time of new reformation-- re-formation--and that God is working to create a new church, in and through us. I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
So… on this Reformation Sunday, what do we hear the Spirit saying to us?
In her blog a few years ago, Diana Butler Bass wrote of the Protestant Reformation movement: “It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as “Reformists.” Rather, the moniker that stuck was “Protestant.” Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.
These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful. The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.”
The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church-- but that they were also creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity. They weren’t content with the status quo. They felt a deep discomfort within. They knew things were not right. And they set out to change the world.
Long ago God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Don’t you perceive it?”
I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time. I believe that this is a time of new reformation-- re-formation--and that God is working to create a new church, in and through us. I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
So, on this Reformation Sunday, we can be thankful for the Reformation of the 16th century. As we look around at the world we live in and see things that are not right, we can be glad that we are freed for a great adventure of faith.”
In the words of our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, “in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”
In this ship we call the Christian life, we will go through some storms. But we don't need to be afraid, because we know that Jesus is with us.
Thanks be to God!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
October 30, 2016