Proper 7B, June 21, 2015

June 22, 2015

Fantastic Voyage!
Mark 4:35-41

4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

I’m guessing that I’ve preached here about 275 times over the past six years. I’m not going to declare that this is the last time I’ll ever preach here, but this is the final one for now. Having become a grandfather last Wednesday evening, my first inclination was to just stand up here and smile for 15 minutes – which is something I could do. My second plan was just to ask if anyone had any questions, but I was afraid you might come up with some, so I abandoned that idea. My 3rd plan was to fly a little drone I recently acquired and to take pictures of you from the air, but I have come to understand that I am not a qualified drone pilot – somebody would have gotten hurt. So I decided to stay with the usual format and develop a monologue.

My sermon title Fantastic Voyage was sort of connected to the gospel lesson for the morning, but my original intention was to focus on where we’ve been over the past few years. I feel like we’ve covered some interesting territory together, and one thing I do want to do is to express my gratitude for the support you’ve provided me. I don’t feel like I’ve been given a literal or a figurative blank check to do whatever I want to do, but I’ve enjoyed a very positive working relationship with this church.

There were some people who felt compelled to bail when they realized who I was and what I was like, but that wasn’t all bad. What I primarily feel is gratitude for the tremendous support I’ve experienced. I always wish we had more people to show up on Sunday mornings, but I’m also happy that so many of you go to the trouble to get here.

Many of you have heard me say how much I desired to be appointed to this church, and how I had tried to get appointed here on three different occasions before I finally did get sent here in 2009. I don’t think I’ve ever shared this, but during the Spring of 2009 when I was trying to get the Bishop to appoint me here is that I had a very unsettling dream. I don’t remember many of my dreams, but I remember this one. It was in the midst of the appointment making season, and I dreamed that they had appointed to this church a person I knew as a teenager and it was a person who had no association with the United Methodist Church or any church as far as I knew. It was this totally random and inappropriate appointment, and I woke myself up trying to scream the word, Noooo! , but I couldn’t get a sound out of my mouth.

As I say, it was a very unsettling dream, and while I was glad to wake up and realize it was a dream, I half-way wondered if it was some kind of an omen of things to come. But that’s not what happened. Clearly, I did get appointed here, and that’s when I truly became unsettled!

Actually, that’s not true. I’ve never regretted being appointed here, but as is always the case, you rarely know what you’re getting yourself in to. This has been a very rich experience, and one of the best things that has happened to me is that you’ve enabled me to find my voice to some extent. I remember the frustration of not being able to formulate that word in my dream, but my experience here has been the opposite of that. I have felt heard here, and I’ve been encouraged to find the right words to speak.

You’ve pushed me in some good ways to say what I believe to be true and to speak those words in ways that can be heard. In my opinion, you have helped me to become a better preacher. You may not have noticed any improvement, but I know I like my sermons more than I used to, and I give you credit for helping in this regard. You listen, and that raises the bar. I’ve always known I couldn’t say ridiculous things and then enjoy Sunday lunch with Sharla, but when there are at least a dozen other people listening to what you say it really puts you on notice to stay out of the preaching ditches. In my mind you’ve got the boring ditch on one side and the ridiculous ditch on the other, and it’s not easy to stay out of them, but I’ve been motivated by you to keep my words fresh and relevant.

So I do have a lot of gratitude for what you’ve done for me and what we’ve been able to do together. I consider us to have been on a fantastic voyage together, but I don’t just want to wallow in the past. What I’m hearing in these words from the gospel this morning is the need to keep moving forward. The instruction Jesus gives to his disciples sort of jump out at me. He says, Let’s go across to the other side. Discipleship is never an exercise in looking backward and patting yourself on the back for the fine work you’ve done.

Christianity is an exercise in perpetual movement toward the other side. Jesus stayed on the move and he didn’t to go to easy places. As these words indicate, going to the other side involves departing from familiar territory and going to a new place. And it turns out that these unfamiliar crossings can actually be dangerous.

The disciples weren’t just overreacting to a threatening storm when they woke Jesus up and told him they were sinking. They actually were sinking. And Jesus didn’t tell them they didn’t have anything to be afraid of – they were in an actual frightening situation, but he did question their faith – which seems a little unfair to me. It didn’t seem like an unfaithful act to wake Jesus up before the boat went under, but I think Jesus wanted them to understand that when they have absolute faith in God it doesn’t even matter if the ship is going under. When your heart is in the hands of God it just doesn’t even matter what happens to your body.

I don’t doubt that that is true, but I don’t think it’s easy for any of us to fully disconnect our spiritual wellbeing from our physical wellbeing. I believe this becomes possible when circumstances require it, but it isn’t easy to fully abide in that place. The moment will come for all of us when we are called upon to let go of our bodies and fully reside in our souls, but for most of us there is this ongoing struggle to balance the needs of our bodies with the needs of our souls.

Abundant life calls for faith in Jesus, but you also need to show up for work, pay your bills, and brush your teeth. It’s important to secure food and housing and healthcare, but it’s critical that we seek to connect our lives and our institutions with the values that Jesus exhibited and spoke. And in a significant way this requires us to be on this perpetual journey to the other side. To follow Jesus is to continually move toward a more just and loving world, and that’s a frightening journey because this journey to the other side frequently puts us in vulnerable positions. There is great resistance to such movement, and disaster is a possibility.

Unfortunately there are a lot of people in this world who don’t want to travel to the other side. They like the world as they know it, and they don’t want to travel to the other side. They don’t want to change the world and they don’t want you to change it either. People like this don’t want to understand reality – they want to define reality, and many of these people associate their strongly held opinions with their faith in God.

It’s amazing, but it’s true. People have connected some of the most hateful attitudes with faithfulness to God, and therefore they don’t think they can change their minds without rejecting God. I think this is largely what keeps our church and our society from becoming more hospitable to all people. For whatever reason, they don’t connect their affection for Jesus with the need to keep moving in new directions. People like this can’t develop more hospitable policies toward people of different sexual orientations because they think God wants them to continue standing in the same spot their ancestors stood. It’s true that it’s much safer to not go to the other side, but it’s also not very Christian.

This fear of crossing to the other side is what keeps our economy from becoming a more just marketplace. It’s what keeps our criminal justice system so broken, and it’s what keeps us from dealing with the roots of racism in our country. People associate faithfulness with God with clinging to entrenched ideas, and that is so contrary to what Jesus did and taught.

What in the world was going on in the mind of the young man who showed up at that church in Charleston and started killing people last Wednesday night. His actions were about as evil as anything I’ve ever heard, and he was about as misguided as I can imagine a person being. That happened the same night my granddaughter was born. I’ve been struck by the contrast of those experiences. While I was basking in one of the happiest moments of my life there were these nine families in Charleston who were experiencing the worst nightmare of their life.

I don’t really know how to reconcile the majesty and miracle of this world with the tragedy and heartache that goes on here as well, but I will say that this event in Charleston has grabbed the attention of our nation in a way that few other events have been able to do. If nothing else, the murderous action of this young man has brought attention to the issue of racism, and it’s not going to be easy for this situation to go unaddressed. Racism is a blight in our land, and it’s my hope that this event will cause some new people to start moving to the other side.

In that sense it almost seems providential that a young African American woman has been appointed to this predominately Anglo-American congregation. This church is poised to do some groundbreaking work in regard to breaking down some racial barriers, and I’m excited to see what may come out of this. This isn’t going to be an easy transition for the church, but it wouldn’t be easy if they appointed another white man to the job. You’ve got that now, and we aren’t exactly knocking it out of the park!

It’s not going to be easy for anyone, but there is this beautiful possibility that this church can become a model of interracial cooperation and a threat to racist politics. It’s so interesting to me that there was a time when there were people who worshipped God in this place who were unwilling for students from Philander Smith College to be seated in the sanctuary. I’ve seen a few letters that were written in the 1960s to this effect. And now the person who will be occupying the pulpit is a graduate of Philander Smith College. What a new day this is!

I feel like this church is on an important journey, and I trust you will make it to the other side. I’ll be pulling for you, but even better than that – Jesus is available and pulling for us all. Jesus is with those families in Charleston, Jesus is here with you, Jesus will be with me in Newport, and Jesus is with everyone who is on a treacherous journey to the other side – the side where Jesus is calling us to be. This is a fantastic voyage we’ve been invited to embark upon, and the good news is that Jesus is with us! Thanks be to God.
Amen.

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