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Mark 4:35-41
A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on Sunday, June 23, 2024.

I speak to you in the name God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have a story of being caught in the midst of a storm on a lake and in a boat. Sarah was heard this story at least once, because it is one of my favourite stories for telling at our annual diocesan clergy conference. Its my favourite clergy conference story because it happened at the clergy conference one year. Over the years most of our conferences have happened at centres on Lake Couchiching, near Orillia. For many years they were held at the YMCA’s Geneva Park. One particular year I was invited to spend our free afternoon with my colleagues, the Reverend Jack Cox, who had brought his boat, and Archdeacon Rick Jones who was Jack’s usual fishing partner at the conference. We started off the day by crossing the lake, going over to the other side where Jack and Rick’s favourite fishing holes were to be found. We had a wonderful afternoon, sharing stories and experiences of fishing and of church. It was a terrific day.

As we got later into the afternoon, we noticed that the weather had started to change. The wind had shifted, and the temperature seemed to be dropping. With a closer look, we noticed above the trees which had prevented our view towards the top of the lake, that storm clouds were brewing. It was agreed that we should pull in our lines and make for the dock at Geneva Park before we would get wet.

Lake Couchiching is a rather large lake. You can be quite protected in its bays, but out in the main part of the lake, with the wind blowing down the length it, the wind and the waves can be quite threatening. That was the case as we ventured to cross back to the dock and our safe haven. Jack’s boat was a substantial craft, much bigger than the little tin can which had provided most of my own fishing experience, nevertheless, when we hit the open waters, it was necessary that we did not travel the shortest distance across, but first travel with the wind and waves to our back for some time, allowing us to avoid the waves hitting us broadside. During this portion of the trip, we all seemed to be quite enjoying our little adventure.

Eventually, however, it was time for us to come about and turn into the wind and waves so we could reach our destination whith was now up the lake some distance. The turn required that Jack, our skipper, pay attention to the timing of the maneuver to avoid the broadside attack of the waves. That he managed well. However, as the bow of the boat now pointed into the waves, they all seemed much higher than we have previously noticed. Sitting beside Jack, I heard him say something which I cannot repeat in a sermon, but which indicated to me something of his heightened concern. Jack demanded that the life jackets, which had remained at our feet up to this point, now be put on and buckled up, which we all did, Jack putting his on with my assistance. We continued on our way, climbing each wave, the bow of the boat crashing down into each trough. Each time I was praying the bow would rise again before the next wave came, and each time it did, but not without some water crashing over. The rain had started by this time, but we were already soaked by the water spraying over the bow. As mentioned, I was sitting anxiously beside Jack. Rick, however, was to be found reclining in the stern of the boat, not sleeping as our Lord was doing in today’s Gospel, but laughing. One might have thought he was having the time of his life, and perhaps he was. Or perhaps he was experiencing the same nerves as those of us in the bow, those nerves expressing themselves in a different manner.

By and by we came closer to our destination and as we got closer to the shore the waves were less severe and we felt ourselves out of danger. We all breathed a great sigh of relief, made our landing in the protected cove of Geneva Park and had our stories to tell at dinner and at every clergy conference thereafter.

The final words of the Gospel reading today have Jesus’ disciples asking a most pertinent question that St. Mark the Evangelist wants us as his readers to consider: “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mk 4:41). This is the question of this section of Mark’s Gospel and the central question that is and will be addressed in the Gospel readings for today and the following two Sundays. We begin something of a sermon series today.

Who is Jesus? What is the meaning of the claims that he makes? What is the nature of his authority? What do others make of Jesus? Beginning today and for the next two Sundays we are going to be confronted with miracle stories that Mark intends to provide us with different insights into the single pressing question: What is the nature of Jesus’ kingship?

The events that take place in these readings happen on alternate sides of the Sea of Galilee. The most direct route between these shores is, of course, across the sea, and as such there are several references in the Gospel to boat crossings. But there is more to these crossings than a mere change of location. Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side” (v. 33). “The other side,” is foreign territory, the land of Gentiles, the “country of the Gerasenes” (5:1). This is the first time that Mark is telling us of Jesus making a foray into what is a foreign, and potentially dangerous, and even inappropriate place. People would have considered it quite natural to ask, ‘Why is he going there?’ 

Jesus’ journey into the foreign region says something about his claims of kingship. It underlines that is claim is not just for Israel, but for the world; not just for Jews, but for all. It shows that Jesus is the one who crosses boundaries, who reaches out to strangers, the ‘others’, even to perceived enemies. Jesus’ example stands out as an example to his followers in the church today. This story raises the question regarding who are the strangers, the ‘others,’ whom we have neglected and perhaps intentionally avoided? Who are the people that perhaps we are repulsed by, but whom we have never taken the time to listen to, to learn of their experience, to hear their stories and learn from them? Who are ‘those people over there,’ whom we would rather avoid? Who are the people left untouched by our Christian hospitality due to our fears or ancient hatreds? The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all, and it transcends the human-made divisions we erect to separate ourselves from others. This is a timely message for the church in the world in which we live where we are increasingly divided, stuck in our solitudes, trapped in our echo-chambers, and suspicious of others with different politics, religions, orientations, abilities, or lifestyle.

On the way to the “other side,” the boat encounters “a great windstorm” (v. 37). Many commentators tell us that this would not have been unusual and that the Sea of Galilee is known for such storms to this day. Some of the disciples that were in the boat with Jesus were fishermen, perhaps accustomed to occurrence of storms in these waters. What they would not be accustomed to, however, was the fact that Jesus was in the boat. They would not normally have a passenger who might have the power to protect them.

This event happens early in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, and as such matters concerning Jesus’ identity are not clear and the disciple’s faith in him is still quite tenuous. So, this event becomes a moment of clarity despite the chaos of the storm, clarity as to Jesus’ identity, authority, and power. Clarity too as to the desperate need of the disciples—and each of us—for the calming, healing power that Jesus provides.

We face many circumstances in our lives as individuals and families, in our life together in the family of faith, and in our society where we might be afraid. We are afraid of the ‘wind and the waves’ that assault our fragile vessels—our lives, our church, our towns, our world. We become fearful of the future, fearful of change, fearful of the ‘other.’ Some of our journeys carry more perceived danger than others. What do we fear? Disapproval? Rejection? Failure? Illness? And of course there is the fear of death: our own death, the death of someone we love, the death of a way of life, the death of the community to which we belong. The disciples fear the sea and its storm and the limits of the fragile craft that carries them.

Fear is what is confronted in this story, not by the sudden inspiration to take courage or find new resolve on the part of the disciples. In the course of the storm, they never pull themselves together. They do not, on their own, find the resources that they need. It is rather Jesus who calms both them and the storm that threatens them.

Jesus never says, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” The storm on the Sea of Galilee was no doubt fearsome as are the metaphorical ‘winds and waves’ that threaten us. Jesus asks instead, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (v. 40).

Imagine with me a scene. A child wakes up in the middle of the night, terrified by some dream that has disturbed them deep in their sleep. They awake frightened that some monster is now hiding in the closet. A mother rushes into the room to comfort the crying child and scoops the little one into her arms and sits with the child in a nearby rocking chair. The mother pulls back the sweaty hair from the child’s brow and rocks the child gently, and then whispers what a thousand mothers have whispered before: “Hush now, there is nothing to be afraid of.” But we must ask, strictly speaking, is the mother telling the truth to her child? Is there really nothing to be afraid of?

There is a difference between saying “there is nothing to be afraid of,” and saying, “Do not be afraid.” The hard truth is that there are some very real and fearful things in this world: isolation, pain, illness, rejection, the loss of employment, health problems, failure, death. As we grow in faith, however, we learn that these fearful things, as very real as they are, do not have the last word. They don’t have ultimate power because reigning over this world of fearsome things is a God more powerful than they.

Time and time again, the word from scripture is “Do not be afraid.” It is the first and last world of the gospel. Its what the angels said to the terrified shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth and the word spoken by the angel at tomb following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. “Do not be afraid.” Not because there are not fearsome things on the sea of our living, not because there are no storms, fierce winds, or waves, but because God is with us.

Instead of saying, “There is nothing to be afraid of,” the whole truth would be for the mother comforting her frightened child to say, “Don’t be afraid because you are not alone.” Every child always figures out eventually that there are things that frighten us that are real and some which are not. But the rest of the truth, the deeper truth, is that even though there are real and frightening things in this life, they need not paralyse us, they need not have dominion over us, they need not own us, because we are not alone in the boat. God is with us. Jesus, the king of the universe is with us.