Sunday, June 24, 2018

Boats in the Storm

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7B, June 24, 2018

Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We live in stormy times. When I first arrived among you four years ago, I wrote in a newsletter article, “Life is an epic adventure.” That sounds exciting, but it’s also harrowing. You don’t have an epic adventure without hardship and suffering—your own, or that of those around you. Once the story is read, you may be able place the worst episodes in perspective. But we can’t do that from where we’re sitting. We look around our nation and the world, and people are suffering. It’s especially blatant and unmistakable right now. We are part of broken human systems, and in many ways, we are complicit in them. We’re in uncharted waters in the middle of a storm.

Which boat are you in? I’ve got news for you: if you’re baptized, you’re not in any boat that belongs to your family or nation or ideology. You’re in Jesus’ boat. How do we, as Christians, respond to these stormy times? Some of us content ourselves with saying, “Well, I go about my life and try to be a nice person.” Unfortunately, that does next to nothing to address injustice and may actually help perpetuate it. Others of us fret and fuss and fume, flailing about busily to do something—anything—to make the anxiety go away. We don’t respond; we react. And the net result isn’t always positive.

Between these two extremes, some good work does get done. But meanwhile, where is Jesus? This is his boat we’re in, after all. We were counting on him to be our pilot, to steer our ship safely to shore. Instead he’s in the stern, asleep on a cushion! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus Calming the Storm (10th century)

When the disciples cry out, Jesus immediately wakes up and calms the storm. I find it annoying that the storm hadn’t disturbed Jesus’ sleep up to this point, but he does wake up, and he does help.

Some biblical commentators suggest that this is not a natural storm, but the product of evil forces. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus will send an unclean spirit out of a man and into a herd of pigs. Could this storm be an attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrival? In response, Jesus contends against evil and makes no peace with oppression. And if these commentators are correct, Jesus’ calming of the storm sends a warning to the forces that seek to oppose him on the far shore. Where Jesus goes, things get set right. Where Jesus goes, justice follows.

As Christians who know this, we come to church to find Jesus, imagining that we might wake him up and receive relief from the storm. But is this our experience? When we cry for help, does Jesus come to our rescue?

Well, first of all, just because there’s a storm doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent or asleep. Indeed, from Jesus’ reaction to the disciples—“Why are you afraid?”—I’m led to believe that they all would have been fine whether Jesus had calmed the storm or not. Jesus doesn’t calm the storm to save his friends from perishing. He calms the storm because they ask him to. It may be that the storm of the disciples’ own anxiety is far more dangerous than the storm raging around their boat.

Remember that at the heart of our faith is Good News: the news that in coming to be among us, in living and dying as one of us, Jesus has reconciled the entire universe to God. We can imagine all sorts of theories as to how this has happened—and we do. And we can splinter into tens of thousands of denominations and argue about how it works and what it means for the living of our daily lives—and we have. But that’s not the point. The point is that Christians dare to believe that Jesus has made everything right, and that even if the work doesn’t appear to be finished yet, it’s a fait accompli. It’s easy enough to say it. But do we believe it?

Maintaining trust in God, even in the face of Good News, is very difficult when the storms of life are raging all around us. This leap of faith is difficult for us because we are in pain. If the Good News is so Good, why is there still injustice and suffering? This is the big question of all theology. Job knew it, though his answer from God was, “Shut up and know your place!” I’m not sure I like that answer. As for me, the simplest answer I’ve been able to find is that much of this injustice and suffering continues because we inflict it, and because we allow it. If we want there to be less injustice and suffering, we will work to end it.

But during such stormy times, we can’t always work out what to do next, and sometimes we just want some comfort. I pray that you find that comfort here at St. Paul’s on a regular basis. But I also pray that you also find sufficient challenge: challenge not just to believe with your head and your heart, but to live the Gospel by actively relieving people’s pain, as individuals, and in organized groups. So much of that work already goes on in this place, and everybody is invited into it. As Christians, we have a duty to each other and to everybody in the world: a duty to love, not just with fuzzy feelings, but with bold actions. Comfort and challenge: these are two things to pray for in equal measure.

This past week, I looked back on articles I wrote in my first year among you at St. Paul’s. Most of them were about baptism, through which we are adopted into Jesus’ boat. And so, as I move on from St. Paul’s to take up my new position as rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Federal Way, I will end here the way I began: with our Baptismal Covenant.

The first element of the Baptismal Covenant is the Creed. “Do you believe?” we ask three times, once for each person of the Trinity, and believing is a word which here means trusting. Are you willing to proceed with your life trusting in a Trinitarian truth that is realer than reality? Are you willing to step out into the darkness with this Creed as your guide?

After the Creed, we turn to five solemn vows, to which we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” I’ll say them now, and you can respond—but don’t do it unless you mean it! First:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised to come to church—any church; it doesn’t have to be Episcopal—and to participate in its community, not just when there’s nothing else going on this Sunday morning, but as your central practice and deeply ingrained habit, and to keep praying, and to keep learning.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just admitted that you are not perfect, and you have promised never to assume that you are in the right, but to keep learning humbly and turning around thankfully.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised to evangelize. Evangelism simply means telling your story of God’s Good News in your life in a way that understands it also to be Good News for everybody in the world, not just a privileged few. This may or may not involve standing on street corners, but it never involves words of paranoia or hatred.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised to trust Jesus’ presence not only in those you know and love, but also in your enemies—whom you have promised to love as well as your friends. You have promised to treat everyone in the world as the divine creations they are.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.
You have just promised not to be silently complicit in any evil actions of your own people, your own church, or your own nation. You have promised to work to dismantle any system that dehumanizes—understanding that people are never to be used as a means to an end, for all human beings are a divine end in themselves.

So … how’s it going? How is your relationship with God stretching and growing? And how will you respond in the wider world outside of your private prayer life? Does it strengthen you to understand that Jesus is in the boat with you—to know that there is grace even in the storm, and that you are loved eternally and through every storm?

By the way, I notice that our Gospel text also says, “Other boats were with him.” Now, I might just be making this up, but I like to think that Mark, writing for the early Church, included this sentence as a way of including those catechumens who were preparing for baptism into the Body of Christ. They weren’t in the boat yet, but as they learned about the faith and heard the Gospel, the text gave them another boat to imagine themselves into, also under Jesus’ care. Perhaps you find yourself in one of these other boats, trying to figure all this out.

But whichever boat you’re in, we’re all in the same storm, and Jesus is here, too. We are surrounded by dangers and wonders, and sometimes it feels like we’ll all be washed overboard.

And then there are moments of surprising calm and peace, and with that calm comes a promise: we will be brought to the harbor we were bound for. “Now,” comes the voice, “now is the day of salvation.” Not just someday in the far-off future, and not just at the end of your earthly life: now. You are saved from the storm even in the midst of it. 

It has been my honor to sail these stormy seas with all of you for the past four years. Sail on, with Jesus as your captain. And when your anxiety becomes too much to bear and you cry out for help, may Jesus wake, stand on the prow, and cry out, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” Amen.