Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last November, when I was speaking to the Sons of Norway lodge in Austin, I was approached by a man who wondered whether I knew of anyone in the Twin Cities who would like to buy a Norwegian faering which is a four oared rowboat. To the man’s surprise, I was interested. For eleven summers as I worked as a tour guide in Scandinavia, I would routinely tell the same story of Norwegians and their boats. Ole and Sven were driving along a road by a wheat field when they saw their friend Lars in the middle of the field rowing in a row boat. Ole turned to Sven and said, “You know – it’s Norwegians like that that give us a bad name!” To this, Sven replied, “I know it, and if I knew how to swim, I’d go out there and drown him.” There was a serious and nostalgic side as well. When I first visited our family farm in Norway, I was told by my shirt tail relatives that the day before my great- grandfather left the farm to emigrate to America, he rowed across the fjord and brought his bride home in his boat. Well, after playing with the idea for a few days, and promising my wife that I would always wear a life jacket, I decided to contact the man down in Austin, and by the weekend I was a proud boat owner- just in time for the ice to thicken on Lake of the Isles and freeze over.
Ever since Jesus walked the face of the earth, the wooden sailing ship, like my Norwegian row boat, and the ship in our own church logo, has been an important symbol of the Christian church. The sailing ship, often referred to as Peter’s boat, is based on this morning’s gospel, the story of Jesus protecting Peter’s boat and the apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee. For some people, the ship represents the church itself tossed on the sea of disbelief while finally reaching safe harbor with its precious cargo. Part of the imagery comes from the wooden ark in the Old Testament saving Noah’s family during the Flood. During the times of persecution, when Christians needed to disguise themselves, the ship was a secret symbol for the Christian church since the cross could be hidden in the ship’s mast and sail.
Preachers have often used the ship as a metaphor in their sermons. Just consider some of the possible themes. “We are all in the boat together,” or “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat,” or “How often does it feel like you are caught in a ship in a storm and Jesus is sound asleep?” But my friends, what if the boat in St. Mark’s gospel is not a metaphor at all? What if the boat is just a means to travel from one place to another?
This morning, I would like us to meditate on the story of Jesus’ journey across the Sea of Galilee with its simple and comforting message that you are never alone. For where ever God sends you, he travels with you.
The story of the journey across the Sea of Galilee begins at the end of Jesus’ long day along the sea shore, in the same boat from which he has been preaching to the crowds. Jesus suggested to the disciples that they continue their work on the other side of the sea. “Let us go now to the other side.” So as the sun was setting in the west, they headed to the other side of the sea on the east. It was a wonderful stretch of water. Other boats accompanied them as they journeyed across to the unknown.
That’s how the Christian journey often begins. We are carried along effortlessly. We enjoy the company of fellow travelers as we glide gleefully across the waves with the winds to our backs. That is our experience of life as well. It is the experience that we wish for our children and those we love. Faith is easy. We may not even give God much thought or praise for all that is going so well. Yes, God is in his heaven and all is at peace on the earth. As for Jesus? He is just another passenger on the way. There may be obstacles and mishaps, but nothing really throws us.
I am reminded of the time my wife Janna and I were driving to Duluth to visit her parents. The traffic on I-35 was horrible, bumper-to-bumper and reduced to one lane. The late afternoon sun was beating in the windows. As we neared Forest Lake after only thirty miles on the road, I decided we would veer off the freeway and drive to Duluth cross-country. I didn’t have a map in the glove compartment, but I figured with Janna as my co-pilot, we would make it to her parent’s home in plenty of time. Within minutes, I was so pleased that we had abandoned the main road, that I turned to Janna and said, “Well, I don’t know where we heading, but we’re certainly making good time.” Five minutes later we drove over the bridge to Wisconsin, and we ended up in Duluth two hours later than expected. Yes, sometimes, in our journey of faith we give no thought to God whatsoever. Jesus is just another passenger on the way.
And while the disciples were on their way to the unknown, a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat. Quickly, the other ships had turned to the shore, and the disciples discovered they were on their own, and the boat was already being swamped. That is how quickly, the Christian journey changes. A loved one is injured in a car accident, a spouse is diagnosed with a dreaded disease, a treasured family member dies, your company lets you go after years of loyal service all in the name of rightsizing. You’re heading out together with the support of friends and neighbors, across to the other side, the unknown, and then suddenly, when the going gets tough, you discover you’re moving nowhere against a strong head wind, and your fellow travelers have abandoned the cause. There is no immunity from pain and sorrow. There is no elixir which prevents creation’s natural misfortunes. Now, suddenly you turn to your trusty Savior, and it seems as if he is sound asleep.
Truthfully, the storm shouldn’t have surprised the disciples, especially the four who were fisherman. In ancient times, the Sea of Galilee was notorious for its storms. As a seasoned sailor once said all the water in the ocean cannot sink a ship- so long as it stays outside- but the danger arises when the water gets inside the ship. We can often buffet the storms along our Christian journey, so long as our defenses are strong. But when you have been weakened, when the destination is unknown, and when anxiety and fear trouble you, your faith may suddenly be challenged and you feel alone. That is when the waters and the seas of trouble begin to pour in.
Yesterday, I visited with a close friend who is both a chaplain at Regions Hospital as well as a patient battling prostate cancer. He has been receiving chemotherapy since February. I asked him how he was doing. In his usual self-deprecating way, he answered, “I feel like my body has been injected with a poison every three weeks for the past four months, so that I can to experience everything the typical cancer patient feels.” I had to say, “Well, that’s not just a feeling. You have been injected with a poison every three weeks for past four months, but I don’t think you have to know everything about the disease to be a good chaplain.” My friend has remained positive and optimistic even in the midst of his own personal storm, and he continues his work as a chaplain offering comfort and hope to those facing disease and death every day. How, you may ask? Because he knows Jesus his fellow traveler, not simply as another passenger, but he knows Jesus as the one who promises to be with him throughout the long journey. It is a knowledge and assurance that has been is nurtured in prayer, in meditating on scripture, in receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion and gathering together in the company of believers in worship. Jesus is there, waiting, for you.
You see, with Jesus aboard, no ship is truly out of control. The promise of this story for you and for me is that when there is something on the other side that Jesus knows about, and needs to get us to, he will get us there safely. Jesus was there in the stern all along, at the rudder, guiding the little vessel to its safe harbor. And he will do the same for you. Of course, the reality for the disciples, and for you and me, is that the journey may not always be rosy. It may have its own set of challenges – but Jesus promises to be with you and to stay with you. And in the moment when your fear is great and your faith is weak, he cries out, “Peace! Be still!”
The British Navy has a unique tradition of whistles. If there is a sudden disaster aboard ship, the “still whistle” is blown. It’s a high pitched whistle that calls the crew to a moment of silence in a time of crisis. When the “still whistle” is blown, sailors aboard know that it means, “Prepare to do the wise thing.” Observers of this tradition note that the moment of calm has helped avert many a catastrophe.
It seems that both the storm and the fears of the disciples were calmed by the words of Jesus. “Peace! Be still!” that day. It is amazing what you can do when you have power of your fellow traveler with you and claim it; when you know the value of stillness and practice it; when you do not give into panic but instead, recall the words and promise of Jesus, “Let us go now to the other side.”
And what do you receive? Simply said, you discover a peace that passes all understanding. It is the peace of Christ which cannot be taken from you. You discover a calm that no storm can disturb. You discover a gentle rest that no sleepless night can trouble. In all these things, you become a marvel to yourself and to others of the confidence of your faith.
My friends, sleepless nights and swamped ships will always be a part of life, even for the owner of a Norwegian rowboat. But when you know Jesus, not simply as a fellow passenger on your journey, but as a friend and Savior, you can move forward to the unknown shore with the assurance that you will never travel alone. Amen.
May the peace of God which passing all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.