A Fishing Story: God Cares – a sermon

I am a terrible fisherman.  It isn’t that I don’t like to fish.  There are few things I enjoy more than getting on a boat, rod and tackle in hand, in search of a good meal.  It is really more that I don’t do it often enough to know what I’m doing.  There is both a science and an art to fishing, and I know neither.  I don’t know what time of year what fish are biting.  I don’t know what time of day is best.  I don’t know what kind of bait to use to catch which fish.  I don’t even know how to filet my catch into something edible.  When I go fishing, I am 100% at the mercy of my guide.  When I would go night fishing with my friend, Brad, I trusted him to get us to the right spots, to rig the lines the right way, and to bring us home with a mess of speckled trout.  When my dad and I went out in search of red fish near Alabama Point, we paid a guy who knew the water, knew the habits, and, most importantly, knew how to keep us from running aground.

Trusting in someone else’s knowledge has worked for me almost every time I’ve gone fishing.  Almost.  Then, there was the time I went out on the Blue Sky in search of tuna.  It was to be a twenty-four-hour fishing expedition.  We left at about 5:30 in the evening and were headed ninety miles off shore.  I trusted that the captain would get us there safely, that the deckhands would put us on some big fish, and, erroneously, that the weather man would be correct.  After dinner, a few beers, and good conversation watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, we all turned in to get some sleep ahead of our two am wake up call.  Somewhere in those few hours of sleep, the forecast for one to two-foot seas became a reality of six to eight-foot swells.

I can remember it vividly, even as I’ll spare you the vivid details, but with the combination of diesel fumes, a wildly undulating oil platform that in the dark of night looked like a giant spider bathed in yellow flood lights, and the rocking of the boat, by the time our second fish came aboard, I was doing a great job of chumming the water.  I didn’t really know what to do.  Ninety miles off shore, on a fifty-four foot boat, there isn’t really anywhere to go, and I knew inside the cabin would make things worse.  As my buddies fished and the deckhands worked to bring the giant fish over the gunwale, I wondered if anyone cared that I existed at all.  Were they all hoping that maybe I would just perish so that they could fish without the sound of me retching behind them.

Just then, the captain came down from his perch in the crow’s nest, high above deck with two pills in his hand.  “Take these,” he said, and I didn’t hesitate.  I didn’t question.  I trusted Captain Richard to know what to do about sea sickness. I popped those two pills and six hours later, I woke up.  The seas hadn’t calmed much, but my stomach had.

1381167_10151926105600236_106031717_n

Jesus and his disciples trusted one another.  James, John, Peter, and Andrew had all been called by Jesus right off of their fishing boats.  He knew that they knew the Sea of Galilee like the backs of their hands.  They’d fished deep into the night.  They’d experienced its violent squalls.  They’d seen everything that the Sea of Galilee had to offer, and so Jesus took the opportunity to rest.  The disciples, for their part, knew that Jesus had miraculous powers.  They had seen him heal many women and men.  They had watched as he touched a man with leprosy and made him clean.  They knew that he was a special gift from God and they trusted that Jesus was always going to take care of them.

And so, it was, that one night, Jesus had wrapped up his teaching for the day, and when he said, “let’s go to the other side,” they all loaded up and went, no questions asked.  Now, it must be pointed out here that this was no ordinary trip for Jesus and his disciples.  In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first trip outside of Galilee.  Leaving from Capernaum, they were headed east, across about six miles of lake to the region of the Decapolis, a Greek speaking area, filled with Roman citizens.  They were, for all intents and purposes, headed to Gentile territory.  Jesus’ disciples trusted that he knew what he was doing.  They must have assumed that he had a plan for what they would do when they arrived, and so, without any hesitation, they headed to Gergesa.

As the story goes, in the dark of the night, a storm rose up such that the seasoned fishermen had never seen before.  It would have taken a real doozy of a storm to scare the sons of thunder, James and John, but Mark tells us that all of the disciples were convinced they were going to sink.  No doubt, they all knew of someone who had found their demise 141 feet deep in the Sea of Galilee during a swift moving storm.  In the midst of their fear, the first thing to sink to the bottom of the lake was their trust in Jesus who was asleep in the back of the boat.

“Teacher!”  Not master.  Not Lord.  Those honorifics were swept up in the howling wind.  Tonight, Jesus wasn’t a miracle worker from God, but he had been demoted to teacher, the one who they had chosen to hitch their wagons to and were beginning to wonder why.  “Teacher!  Don’t you care that we are perishing?!?!”  This is perhaps the most challenging rebuke anyone could give to Jesus.  Don’t you care?  Of course, Jesus cares.  He cared about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.  He cared about the man with the withered hand.  He cared about the crowds of thousands that pressed in upon him.  God cares about everyone, that’s why God sent Jesus to earth to proclaim the Good News of salvation for all people.

Jesus most certainly did care, and so he jumped up, and with the harsh words of anger rebuked the wind and calmed the waves.  Jesus deeply cares, and so when the ordeal was over, he looked his disciples square in the eyes and said, “Why don’t you trust me yet?”

It is not uncommon in times of hardship to cry out to God and wonder, “don’t you care?”  With the world changing so rapidly, it can feel like a mighty storm has whipped up on us in the dark of night.  It would seem that we have every reason to be frightened, and to wonder if all that we had hoped for might be for not.  It is totally natural to lament what feels like God’s absence, as if God were asleep at the helm of the entire universe, and wonder, does God really care about us?  No one said the life of faith would be easy.  In those moments of doubt, when our trust in God seems to be wavering, we are in good company.  Even Jesus’ closest friends had trouble holding on to that trust in hard times.

What this story helps me remember is that like Captain Richard, God is always paying attention.  God knows what you are going through because God is right there in the boat with you.  God does care, and even in those moments when God chooses not to stop the wind or calm the waves, God is there.  God will never abandon us to the pit.  The world may be rocking and rolling under our feet, but God is there.  God loves you, and God will never leave you alone.

When Jesus and his disciples get to the other side, they will be greeted by a man possessed with a legion of demons.  The momentary calm after the storm will break and fear will once again strike the disciples.  Yet, there again, Jesus won’t abandon them.  Nor will he abandon the demoniac.  God’s compassion and love knows no bounds.  God’s mercy is everlasting.  God cares – about you and about the whole world.  Amen.

Advertisements

Dead Calm

One of the things that I love about where we live is the ease of access to the water.  I’m not a beach guy, and there is plenty of white sand to go around near us, but my favorite place to be in on a boat on Fish River or Magnolia River or Perdido Creek as the afternoon turns to evening.  There is a moment, just before dusk, when the water, stirred up by boats and a summer breeze all day, suddenly becomes still and smooth as glass, or as the Gospel writers say, “dead calm.”

Photograph of Magnolia River by al.com

The first time I noticed it, there was actually very little calmness about it.  I was on an inner-tube being dragged behind a boat by a driver working hard to throw me off.  As I was being whipped to and fro right there at water level, I noticed just how flat the river had become, as if nothing, not even the wake of an outboard motor and the carelessness of a tuber could disturb it.  Despite everything happening around me and my death grip on the tube handles, I found myself filled with awe at the beauty of God’s creation.

The disciples in Sunday’s Gospel lesson are filled with awe for a different reason.  Having been filled with fear just a moment before, they are now in awe, or as Mark’s Greek says, “they feared a great fear.”  What I found interesting as I looked at Mark’s text, is that in Greek there is a specific word for the calming of the sea, galene, used only three times in the New Testament, once by each of the Synoptic authors to describe what it was like after Jesus calmed the storm – and coupled by Mark and Matthew with the word megas.  Mega Calm, or as the King James’ Version puts it, Dead Calm.

Despite appearances, a river or a lake is never actually calm, there is always activity happening, water moving here and there, not unlike life.  Even those who appear to be calm often have all sorts of things burbling just below the surface.  The gift of grace is peace, dead calm, even in the midst of upheaval.  That’s what Jesus rebukes the disciples about, they feared a great fear rather than finding peace in the one who created all things.  That’s why the only blessing prescribed in a Eucharistic service in our Church starts out with these words, “The peace of God which passeth all understanding…”  We need that peace, that dead calm, deep within us to combat the storms that threaten on the horizon.

Other Boats?

Mark’s Gospel is intentionally sparse when it comes to details.  Mark’s goal is to tell the Good News in as efficient a way as possible.  He uses the word “immediately” with reckless abandon.  Things are happening in a hurry, swift decisions must be made, and Mark want us to come to know the saving love of God with great haste.

It is odd, then, when spurious details show up.  It makes us pause.  We slow down for just a second to ponder the implications of this word or that phrase.  These details keep us from racing to the finish line.  We have one such example in the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  It is a brief passage, only six verses long, and it tells the story of one of Jesus’ great miracles: calming the storm and raging sea.  It ends with the disciples fearing a great fear, wondering just who this man really is (more on that tomorrow), but stuck in the middle is an odd little detail.

“Other boats were with him.”

Other boats?  More ancient translations say “other little ships,” which is even more curious, I suppose.  Anyway, as I read the Gospel lesson this morning I was drawn to the other boats.  Who was on them?  Did they experience the same sort of fury that the disciples’ ship endured?  Did they know that it was Jesus who calmed the storm?  Were they part of the group that was filled with awe?

So much of life is simply paying attention to your surroundings.  There are people all around, many are suffering, some are experiencing great joy, the vast majority are staring at their phones unaware that peril lies just ahead.  The world is full of “other boats” that are following the uncharted course of Jesus, whether they know it or not.  As disciples, we should pay attention to those other boats and invite them to see the amazing things that we see.  We should tend to them with kindness and compassion.  We should note when the waters around us are empty or when God has placed some extra traffic in our wake.  Opportunities for evangelism, discipleship, and service are all around, if only we’d pay attention.

Open Wide Your Hearts

One of my colleagues in the Doctor of Ministry program here at the School of Theology is hoping to look at the various emotions displayed in Paul’s writings to try to elucidate what was really important to Paul as he wrote, and what maybe we’ve deemed important that wasn’t.  I find it to be a fascinating project idea, but as one who isn’t too in tune with his emotions, it seems like a lot of hard work mixed with a good bit of speculation.  Of course, there are moments in reading Paul when what he’s thinking just seems obvious, and the lesson from 2 Corinthians appointed for Proper 7, Year B seems to be one of those times.  This section of 2 Corinthians 6 is, without a doubt, serious Paul imploring the Church in Corinth to genuine faith, which involves, much to my chagrin, real vulnerability.

“We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return– I speak as to children– open wide your hearts also.”

Paul has, in his words, opened his heart wide to the Corinthians.  He has risked everything for the sake of the Gospel, that the whole world might come within Christ’s saving embrace.  The response of the believers in Corinth seems to be lukewarm.  They are holding back, keeping things from coming into the light of God’s love, and Paul knows that closed off faith is no faith at all.  “Open wide your hearts,” he begs them, “welcome Jesus and his love fully into your hearts, your lives, your families, your whole community.”

This admonition is a good word for me to hear one week before I get on an airplane headed to General Convention.  There are lots of things from which I would like to close myself off, but if any part of me is closed off, all of me is.  As we gather in Salt Lake City, there will be many opinions, lots of politics, and a few frayed nerves, but if we all enter with our hearts open wide, if we all accept vulnerability and admit our weakness, then perhaps a spirit of grace might enter the Salt Palace like has never been experienced before.

Vulnerability is hard.  It requires a level of trust that many of us are incapable of.  It requires a type of forgiveness many of us can’t fathom.  It is risky, just ask Paul, but it is part of what makes true Christian community, and true community should be the goal of all who seek to further the Kingdom of God.  With God’s help, I’ll come to Salt Lake City with an open heart, and I hope the rest of us will as well.