The Farthest Shore

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 23, 2024

Mark 4:35-41

“Let us go across to the other side.” That’s how this story begins. Remember where we are: Jesus’ home territory, Galilee, up in the north, next to the Sea of Galilee. Remember where we were last week with him: the crowds pressing so tight, he and his disciples couldn’t even eat. “Let’s get out of here,” he seems to be saying—and also—he’s always pressing onward, forward. Peter and Andrew have a boat, James and John are sailors too, so the easiest way out is to get in the boat, sail off. 

Remember how I keep saying that everything in Mark happens immediately? It’s the same here. You know, when I go somewhere, I have to get my phone, maybe pack up my computer and a couple cords and chargers, find my keys, get my hat, find where I parked the car. If May and Jacquelyn are coming along, I need to wait for them to change outfits, get a purse, fix their hair, get a treat for the dog to distract her while we go out the door. It’s a process; is it that way for you? One of the commentators I read this week said the line that says, “They took him just as he was” is a mystery. It isn’t to me; it means, they didn’t wait to fix up, find keys, get phones, they just piled in the boat and left.

It’s an open boat. A few years ago, someone found a Galilee fishing boat from the same period, so we think we know what it might have been like. It would have been stinky: it’s a fishing boat, after all, and fishing boats have a certain aroma. It would have been a little leaky; wooden work boats tend to let a bit of water in through the seams, so there’s always a puddle in the bottom. These boats were rowed so, you can imagine the disciples shifting out the oars; some know what to do, some don’t. They had a short mast they could rig up and a sail, so perhaps they did that. Not all of them are sailors, so I’m guessing some were nervous. Some were in their element. They cast off and set out for the far shore.

It’s about seven miles across the Sea of Galilee, maybe two hours or just a little more. They’re setting out at evening, which is often calm. Jesus is exhausted, and who knows? Maybe a little seasick? The first thing that happens when you get seasick is being drowsy. In any event, he falls asleep. Have you got this pictured? A little open sailboat, raggedy sail catching the wind, bunch of guys sitting around, Jesus asleep, someone steering, someone keeping watch in the bow. That’s when the storm hits. 

I wince every time I read this story because I know just what that feels like. One moment you’re sailing along peacefully, the sails trimmed, the boat burbling along, the pressure on the tiller just enough to hold it steady. Suddenly there’s a bang, suddenly the boat tips, suddenly someone’s shouting to get the sail down, suddenly there’s water coming over the side. Now, my boat is a keel boat, which means it’s going to come back up. My boat has a cabin and a deck, and the water will run off. But this boat, this Galilee fishing boat, is an open boat: no deck, no cabin, no keel. It’s a bit crowded, not everyone there is a sailor, and they must have been bailing furiously, and yelling, and finally they wake up Jesus.

Now, when I thought of this sermon originally, I thought this is the place where I’d describe some time I was sailing and got hit by a squall and got scared. But I think Gordon Lightfoot said it better than I could. In his song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, he describes the storm that took down that big Great Lakes freighter, asking “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” That’s what’s happening here. Whether on a boat or in life, haven’t we all felt this, haven’t we all been hit by a squall? Maybe it’s the death of someone loved, maybe it’s a dread diagnosis, maybe it’s some other event that threatens to overturn your boat like this boat is threatened.

The story says Jesus wakes up, looks around, tells the sea and the wind to knock it off. Just like that, everything is calm, just like that, it’s ok. Wouldn’t that be great when we hit a storm in life? Wake Jesus up, have him say Stop! to whatever is threatening us and just go on? Is that what’s happening here? 

I think what’s actually going on is something deeper, something more profound. Jesus’ healings, Jesus’ exorcisms, the things we call miracles are actually meant to be signs, signals to show us what we can hardly understand, that in Jesus we are meant to encounter not just a miracle worker but the very presence of God. There’s one other place in scripture where the roiling, restless seas are calmed: at creation 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Genesis 1:1

God is acting here: God is stilling the waters. 

The disciples get it. English translations usually say something like, “…they were filled with great awe.” What the original text actually says is, “They feared a great fear.” It’s interesting that in this story, when they think they are perishing, we’re not told they were afraid. It’s only when Jesus stills the storm that they get scared. And it makes them ask the question that’s going to occupy the rest of this gospel: “who is this?”

We’d like to be able to wake Jesus up whenever there’s a storm, whenever we feel like we might be overwhelmed. There’s an old song that says, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” It’s a great song, bad theology because the point is not for Jesus to walk with me, it’s for me to walk with Jesus. What the gospel shows us is that if I want to walk with Jesus, I’m going to have to go places where it feels stormy, I’m going to have to cross to other shores, I’m going to have to change in ways that feel uncomfortable. He says, “Let us go across to the other side,” and the truth is, I’m comfortable right here—he wants me to go to another shore, a new place, a new way, a new creation. 

“Who is this?” The disciples ask: we should ask too. When we figure it out, then indeed, like those disciples much later, we can cross with him. And our destination will be the farthest shore. And we’ll find that as long as we are with him, we are home.