(A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost June 21, 2009 Mark 4:35-41 )
This past week, my husband has been crossing the country, making the longest trip home he’s taken after the longest time away since we’ve known each other. He traveled across country with his best friend from high school, who flew out to meet him in Seattle. The trip began well with happy seeing of sights:
• Places where you could do nothing but turn East
• The town where the Twilight books are set, which I did not know was real!
• The Continental Divide
• A human skeleton with a dinosaur skeleton on a leash.
• Old Faithful
• Mount Rushmore
• The Badlands
Even the best days, or the best trips, can become too much for us, and in the gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus at the end of a long day, hoping to get a break from the crowds following him. In Mark’s gospel we have a cycle: talk, heal, get tired, retreat; lather, rinse, repeat. He taught in parables, and then tried to explain them to the largely clueless disciples, and like a person who spends the day in any kind of exhausting work, he needed a break. Let’s go across the lake, he said. And in the boat, he went to sleep.
I had been asleep two hours on a Sunday-night-become-Monday-morning when I woke up in labor with Light Princess. On two hours sleep, I probably didn’t have the best start on the process. We waited until morning to go to the hospital, and in the best room on the floor, I prepared to give birth.
Having done it twice before, I thought I knew what to expect, or at least had a grasp of the range of possibilities. The first time went slowly, the second quickly; perhaps the third would be in between? Maybe because I was a little older and more aware of all I had to lose in this world, or maybe because I let them give me those injections of Nubain that had become popular since the previous child’s birth, I became a bit philosophical between contractions.
On further consideration, I think that must have been the drugs.
But whatever the reason, my mind wandered to some netherworld where mothers do not survive the process of giving birth, or fear they might not, and I felt the nearness of the other side.
Birth, death, rebirth—we believe in a cycle that includes resurrection, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hope death holds off as long as possible.
As is so often true in the life of the church, there will be some of you who knew the financial news before this morning, and others who had no idea and some who expected it to turn out this way all along. (Note: the church I've been serving has lot a significant renter.) We’ll have a chance next Sunday to get into details at the Church Council meeting, the facts about where you are and the questions about what comes next. I encourage you to be present, to participate in the conversation, to ask questions at the meeting where everyone can hear them.
I encourage you to see that you are in this boat together.
The disciples set out to cross the lake, and while they traveled a huge storm came out of nowhere. I imagine them, sitting in the boat, glad the chief is finally getting some rest, looking forward to an evening of quiet story-swapping on the water. They weren’t all fishermen, but four out of 12 had been, and being on the water felt natural to them. They relaxed and listened to the quiet breathing of the sleeping Jesus.
We go along in life, and by “we” I mean churches, we go along and expect that things will stay the same and that we can predict what will happen next. We feel surprised when anyone asks us to do things differently, and also feel surprised when our repeated behaviors produce the same results. Really, this is true of any group of people, from families to churches to business to nations. Most of us aren’t looking for change; most of us do not expect the storm when it appears on the horizon.
Pure Luck called me from his car the other day and asked if I could pull up a satellite picture of the Chicago area on my computer. He wondered how long the thunderstorms might last; he wondered if they would get to see anything at all. Midway across the country, his journey became one of frustration and a battle for non-existent parking spaces and already-sold tour tickets.
If you’ve ever been on a long car trip, you know that sometimes things don’t go smoothly. And if the people involved don’t have a tacit agreement to make the best of things, these sorts of disappointments can lead to crankiness or worse. As a person who likes things to go well and wants everyone to be happy, I am brilliant at escalating the crankiness just by taking responsibility for things clearly beyond my actual control. I feel sure I ought to be able to make it right! If I just press on, I’m sure I can get through it, whatever “it” might be.
But sometimes when the storm comes we have to pull off the road and wait. We have to assess when the time is right to begin moving again.
In the dream, I found Molly inside the house across the street from us. It's a lovely house, a gracious house, and she seemed perfectly at home, curled in a pretty chair. She looked beautiful and did not seem to be in pain. I followed her to the front door, where she waited to greet other visitors. I thanked my neighbor for taking such good care of her. He spread his hands as if to say it was nothing –the real neighbor is a man of few words– then said, "I'm glad to."
I knew I had to leave her there.
She had crossed over, you see, to the other side.
When I woke and remembered the dream I felt relief and sadness and joy. I felt an assurance of a connection that goes beyond the normal and ordinary and explicable.
This must be something like what the disciples felt when they looked back on their time with Jesus, when they remembered the night he called out and made the storm be still. They must always have remembered being in that boat.
We use that expression about “being in the same boat” to describe being in shared or similar circumstances, and I want to assure you that churches of all sizes and descriptions this very day are trying to figure out how to live through the economic storms of our time in history. They know things have to change, but first they have to be afraid; first we all have to admit we may be afraid, afraid of change, afraid of new ways of being, afraid of the death that always accompanies rebirth.
Just like a traveler on a family trip gone awry, I dearly wish I could fix this. I wish I could suggest we all pull
off and go to the Howard Johnson’s to eat chocolate ice cream first, and maybe a cheeseburger after, as my mother once let a little girl version of me do.
I wish I could say that since Pure Luck got home safely last night, you will get where you want to go, too.
More than that, I wish I could stand up in the boat and command the things that threaten you to stop!
But I am not Jesus.
(I guess it’s good I know that!)
You will have to go out into this storm relying on him, this storm of reduced income in a time of general economic uncertainty. We don’t have any way of knowing what that will look like for this church, but I can say with assurance that it will not be easy and it will require conscious attention to the matters at hand, in financial terms and in personal terms. You will be responsible for your own selves and for one another and for the way you live in this community as people of faith.
Can a church do this?
Well, it’s how churches started in the first place.
And you’ll be part of living into what it means to be a new kind of church, a church for the 21st century that may well look more like the 1st century than anything we’ve seen since. As you get into your boat together, I will be wishing you well from the shore, getting into a different boat with a different congregation that will face storms of its own. We all will.
Look up to the rafters of this upside down ship. Now look around at your traveling companions. We can’t know everything about your voyage together; there is more story left to live and tell. But I promise, when you push off, Jesus will be with you, crossing to the other side. Amen.