Our Life’s Wild Restless Sea

Mark 4:35–41

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?”
—Mark 4:41

 

 

So Jesus decides to preach a sermon from the water’s edge on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but by this point in his ministry Jesus has become such a popular preacher he’s drawing Taylor-Swift-size crowds, and the congregation is so pushy they’re crowding him into the surf where he’s getting his feet wet, so he rents a nearby fishing boat, climbs into the bow, and turns the boat into a pulpit.

Maybe you’ve been to a church where the pulpit is shaped like the prow of a boat. They’re all over the place, especially on the coasts, including in Massachusetts and Florida. In Moby Dick, the revered Father Mapple famously climbs a ship’s ladder into his boat-shaped pulpit at New Bedford, and when he’s safely positioned in his prow-shaped pulpit, he pulls the rope ladder in after him. This passage from Mark is the inspiration for all boat-shaped pulpits.

Anyway, when Jesus is finished with his sermon, he turns his pulpit back into a boat and tells his sailor-disciples, “Let us go to the other side.” “The Other Side,” of course, is foreign territory, Gentile Land. Jesus means to take his Good News to alien, non-Jews.

En route to “The Other Side,” Jesus curls up on a cushion in the stern under the platform where the helmsman sits and instantly falls into a deep REM kind of sleep. I know preaching doesn’t look all that difficult, but it’s actually quite exhausting, and the better you are, the wearier you get, and Jesus is good, so after his sermon he is out cold.

Just then a minor typhoon gales up and roils the waters of that Galilean Lake. Oh, I know, on a map it doesn’t look like much; it’s not a sea at all but a freshwater lake. At 8 miles wide and 13 miles long, it’s a lot smaller than many lakes in Wisconsin and Minnesota and shallower too, with an average depth of 84 feet, but under the right conditions it can get a little dicey out there.

The sailor-disciples have to shake Jesus from his serene slumber. “Rabbi,” they plead, “do you not care that we’re perishing out here?” Jesus stands up, fists the sleep from his eyes, and—now notice how St. Mark talks about this—Jesus starts ‘rebuking’ the wind. Jesus disses the principalities and powers. In your English Bibles, Jesus says “Peace! Be still!” but in Greek it’s more like “Shut up and sit down!” In Greek, it’s a vivid and rude expression.

Jesus speaks to the winds and waves exactly the way he speaks to a demon he wants to exorcize, as if the winds and the waves are personified powers. In the Hebrew theology Jesus would have learned in Sunday school, you see, the Sea was a symbol for the powers of Chaos arrayed against God and God’s Kingdom.

Huge, wild, unruly, unpredictable, uncontrollable, the sea stood as a cipher for the evil powers threatening God’s good but unfinished creation which still apparently featured pockets of chaos here and there, now and then, ready to face God down.

The Hebrews didn’t quite give this Sea-Principality a name like the Greeks (Poseidon) or the Romans (Neptune) or Melville (Moby Dick) but it was almost alive, almost intentional, almost malevolent.

That’s probably why Mark calls this modest, freshwater lake the SEA of Galilee, to make it bigger and more menacing. Leaving aside the Edmund Fitzgerald at the bottom of LAKE Superior, the word ‘lake’ generally conjures visions of family picnics and children with inflatable waterwings floating in placid, harmless waters flat enough to water-ski on, but the SEA: that conjures the Ancient Mariner, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, Odysseus’ shipwrecks, Aeneas’ brushes with a fathomless grave, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm.

So Jesus addresses the Sea almost as if it were a personified deity. “Shut up!” he yells at it. Jesus ‘Yo-mommas’ the elements. “Yo momma wears army boots,” says Jesus to the winds and waves. Or something like that.

Instantly the winds and the waves collapse into a dead calm. “Down dropt the breeze,” says Coleridge in “The Ancient Mariner,” “the sails dropt down, no breath, no motion, as idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.”[1]

Mark’s conspicuous point, of course, is that Jesus shares power, substance, and identity with the Creator God whose Spirit brooded over the face of the Deep at the beginning of Time and shut in the sea with doors and said “Thus far shall you come and no farther!” What we see in Jesus of Nazareth, says Mark, is not less than God Godself.

And this might be God’s very word for us today in one of two ways. It might be a word of comfort, and it might be a word of challenge. I’ll let you choose the point you are most in need of today.

It might be a word of comfort. Perhaps your life feels like the wild, restless sea of the famous hymn we’ll sing in a few minute. Perhaps you feel tossed and swamped. Perhaps you have lost your job, or your health, or your beloved. Perhaps your child is wandering aimlessly in the dark forest of adolescence where the straightway is often lost.

That’s the way it was, we think, for Mark’s first readers. This Gospel was written in 65 A.D. Nero was on the throne in Rome. He was setting Christians on fire and hanging them on crosses to light his garden parties; he was feeding them to his pet lions and tigers. Mark’s first readers needed to hear that the whole world wasn’t one gigantic, unpredictable, wild, restless sea.

Notice that in his story Mark gives us two questions: humanity’s frequent question to God, and God’s frequent question straight back to humanity. Humanity’s question to God is always, “God, why are you sleeping?   Rabbi, do you not care that we are perishing?”

You see, here’s the thing about Jesus’ serene slumber in the stern of that skiff. You can see it two ways: it might look like cool composure in the face of wild trouble, or it might look like uncaring indifference in the presence of genuine threat.

Jesus sleeps through many of the things that keep us awake all night, but of course imperturbability sometimes looks an awful lot like indifference. The line between sometimes proves very thin indeed. When someone sleeps through vast trouble, is he calm or indifferent?

Where’s the line between ‘cool’ and ‘cold’? Do you notice we use the same temperature metaphor for ‘stoic’ (cool) and ‘uncaring’ (cold)? ‘Cool’ and ‘cold’ are just a couple of degrees apart. “He’s so cool,” is a compliment; it means a person is calm under pressure. But “She’s so cold” is not a compliment; it means a person just doesn’t care.

Don’t you just hate it when you get all stressed out for good reason, and nobody will be a nervous wreck with you, nobody will share your convulsions? What is the matter with them? Don’t they get it, or do they get it but don’t care?

Jesus is sleeping through a hurricane. Does it ever seem to you as if God doesn’t get it, or maybe doesn’t care?   Does it sometimes seem to you as if your little boat is about to be swamped in high and lonely seas but God is sleeping soundly, or at least not listening?

I hate to trivialize a noble Bible story, but this story is Mark’s way of saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff,” even storms, even trouble, even tragedy, even death, because death is not an end but a brand new beginning, where all the seas are calm and all the breezes gentle and the sun is throwing diamonds across the face of the glistering deep.

My friends Lew and Sharon were two of the most happily married people I ever knew. They’d met at my church in Connecticut, at Coffee Hour in the courtyard after Sharon’s first visit to my church. Sharon was raised in Seattle in the Pentecostal Church, but when she moved to New England, she discovered that there were no—or few—Pentecostals in New England, so she tried my church. The Presbyterians were a little too boring for a Pentecostalist and a little too progressive, but it worked out. She fell in love with Lew.

Sharon was 52 when she met Lew. She’d never been married, so this gift of romance at mid-life was lavish serendipity for her; late in life, love seems an even greater grace than it does for the young. They were madly in love; they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. “Get a room,” we’d say, even at church.

They were married for ten years. Then before he was 60, Lew got Alzheimer’s disease. He died at the unfair age of 62. He was a friend to all. Lew had served three tours of duty in Vietnam and earned the rank of Coast Guard Commander. We sang the Navy Hymn at his funeral:

O Savior whose almighty word

The wind and waves submissive heard,

Who walked upon the foaming deep,

And calm amid its rage did sleep:

O hear us when we pray to thee

For those in peril on the sea.

Six months after Lew died, Sharon was still a wreck; she was so sad and so lonely. One night my wife woke up distressed. She sat up straight in bed in the middle of the night. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” I said. “I did,” she said. “Lew was standing at the foot of the bed.” “Did he say anything?” “He said, ‘Tell Sharon I’m all right. Tell her she will be too. We will be together again.’”

When Kathy reported this visitation to Sharon, Sharon was a little comforted and a little miffed. “Why did he visit you?” She wanted to know. We had no answer for that.

God doesn’t promise that the boats of our lives won’t be threatened by raging storms and angry seas; life often is a wild, restless sea. God only promises that even things like Alzheimer’s and early death won’t ultimately swamp our little boats, because even in death, Lew is still with God.

Or maybe for you, life is not a wild, restless sea, but a flat, Pacific Ocean with a following breeze on a sunny day, and what you need is not a word of comfort but a word of challenge.

“Let us go to the other side,” says Jesus to his sailor-disciples. “Let us go over to the Gentiles, the foreigners, the aliens, the uncircumcised, the unkosher, the unclean, let us go to where we don’t know the customs, and when we get there, let us bring the Good News of our Glad God.”

Now notice how, as soon as he says this, instantly, as soon as he says this, the vigorous forces of the cosmic elements themselves array themselves against him. A minor typhoon gales up to prevent Jesus and his sailor-disciples from crossing to the other side.

The universe does not want Jesus to cross to the other side. The universe likes neat and tidy categories—Jew and Gentile, black and white, rich and poor, communist and capitalist, Christian and Muslim, and Jesus threatens to mix it all up into a polyglot, multi-hued, interfaith salad or salmagundi of disparate ingredients.[2]

Hasn’t it been a riot watching, improbably the Cubs and Cardinals and Mets in the National League post-season. All those mocha faces, all those mahogany faces, all those Caribbean names, those Harlem names, those Southside Chicago names. I got to thinking how short a time that’s been possible.

I watched the film 42 again, one of my Top-Ten movies of all time. About Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey’s efforts to bring a black man into Major League Baseball. Branch Rickey, University of Michigan Law School, Class of 1911. Finally, Mr. Rickey finds the right guy.

It was a harrowing adventure every time the Dodgers appeared as visitors in other National League cities. You never knew what abuse the opposing players and fans would hurl at Jackie.

In 1947, two teams in St. Louis, the Cardinals and the Browns, were the only baseball teams south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Cincinnati and Washington were close. When the Dodgers visited Cincinnati for the first time with Jackie Robinson, the invective was especially loud and scornful and obscene.

Pee Wee Reese was the Dodger shortstop and Captain of the team. Pee Wee Reese was from Louisville, Kentucky, just a hundred miles southwest of Cincinnati, which, of course, is on the northern bank of the Ohio River, the Mason-Dixon Line. Pee Wee says that Jackie Robinson’s was the first black hand he ever shook.

And so on that first visit of the Dodgers to Cincinnati with Jackie Robinson, during pre-game infield practice, with curses and expletives raining down on Jackie from the stands, Pee Wee walks over to first base from his shortstop position and starts chatting with Jackie about nothing in particular.

And then he throws his arm around Jackie’s shoulder, and he says, “Jack, I’m from Louisville. My whole family is in those stands. My friends, my neighbors, all the folks from back home. Let me just stand here with you for a minute, would you? I want them to know who I am.” A hush falls over the stands.[3]

Outside a minor league baseball park in Brooklyn, there’s a bronze statue of Pee Wee Reese with his arm thrown across Jackie’s shoulder. Rachel Robinson and Dottie Reese were there when it was unveiled in 2005. Pee Wee and Jackie were long gone by then, playing catch ever since at shortstop and first base, in whatever celestial stadium God’s reserved for baseball’s saints.

Sometimes it’s hard to cross over to the other side, but that’s where Jesus wants to go. Somebody here is trying to cross over to the other side. Somebody here is thinking about bringing Good News to the foreigner, to the alien, to the unclean. Maybe to a family member who has wounded you with cruel words or with cold indifference? Maybe to a teenager who seems distant or surly or unapproachable? Maybe to a recent immigrant who doesn’t speak the language? Maybe to a refugee who needs a sponsor or a job?

This story from St. Mark is a challenge and Good News to you. When the cosmic elements attempt to prevent Jesus from crossing over to the other side, Jesus stands up and says, “Shut up and sit down!” Instantly, they do, because he is God.

When for whatever reason our life turns into a wild, restless sea, we ask “Rabbi, why are you sleeping?”   And then he asks, “Friends, why are you afraid?”

And then we are chastened, because just then we notice that with him in the boat with us all the time, we haven’t gone under yet.[4]


 

[1]Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” ll. 107, 116-117.

[2]This is how Ched Myers puts it in Binding the Strong Man (New York: Orbis Books, 1988): “These harrowing sea stories intend to dramatize the difficulties facing the kingdom community as it tries to overcome the institutionalized social divisions between Jew and gentile. Through this metaphorical action the community struggles to make the “passage” to integration (hence the difficulty is always en route to the gentile shore). The wind and sea as obstacles derive from the ancient Semitic mythic personification of cosmic forces of chaos and destruction (as in 5:13; 9:42; 11:23). It is no wonder the disciples demonstrate reluctance: all the power of the established “symbolic universe” of segregation oppose this journey. And no doubt the real-life social hostility to such project integration threatened to “drown” the community. But Mark insists that Jesus will rescue this project and silence the winds of opposition” (p. 197.).

[3]The film 42. It is hard to tell how much of the film is historical and how much is legendary or apocryphal. The conversation at first base in Cincinnati is historical, but I don’t think Jackie Robinson himself ever mentioned Pee Wee putting an arm around his shoulder.

[4]Last line adapted from Kate Layzer in “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, June 16, 2009, 18.