to the other side

June 21, 2015 was my final Sunday at University Hill Congregation after twenty years as its Congregational Minister. Thirty-five years after my ordination I retired from full-time congregational ministry. Here are the notes for the sermon I preached on the occasion.

Mark 4:35-41

Today we find ourselves at the end of twenty years together. For me it is the final Sunday in the pulpit and at the table thirty-five years after ordination. How appropriate that the lectionary brings us to this miraculous story on the sea … a story that has functioned as a root gospel narrative for the church. When memory fades, when communal amnesia takes hold and we forget the gospel we can return here, to the story of the stilling of the storm.

"On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” This story begins as the gospel always begins - with an invitation to get up and go somewhere. The gospel always entails a journey. It is not a set of values that reinforce the status quo, allowing us to remain comfortably where we are. When Jesus shows up he says “Follow me”, he says “Turn around, change your ways”, he says “Pick up your cross, die to the way you are.”

The gospel is the good news about a risky journey of discipleship that we are called to take. After the legacy of Indian Residential Schools and the Indian Act it is the long path to reconciliation that we are called to walk. Given the looming catastrophe facing the earth it is dying to a way of a life reliant on fossil fuel. For denominations, like ours, accustomed to the benefits of Christendom it is leaving behind the shore line of cultural accommodation and support for the shoreline of salty, yeasty, self-sufficient Christian community. For us, here, the journey to the other side, to a new pastoral relationship, began in earnest four years ago when we first learned that I was living with multiple myeloma. Since then we’ve known that this day was coming, sooner or later. Now here we are in the nave – literally, the boat – of the church, making the crossing to the other side.

Then there is a storm. The gospel is not about life lived safe from the storm. To follow Jesus is to be taken into the eye of the storm. It is the reason we have been speaking of the gospel as a three-day, three-chord journey that begins with the terrible storm of Good Friday. Notice that the Bible begins, finds its Genesis, not in a silent vacuum but with a terrible storm. The storm is the canvas on which God’s creative handiwork is revealed. The storm is the frightening place where the church, where we, regularly find ourselves.

In the ship called the church, in the boat called discipleship, we expect Jesus to be at the helm, charting the course, leading to safety. Instead, more often than not, he seems absent, asleep. Instead we seem to be on our own. The experience of God’s absence does not place us outside of the gospel story. The Holy Saturday silence of God is to be found in the heart of the journey to the other side. The storm is also a storm of faith, of trust in God to carry us safely through. Sometimes the church domesticates the gospel into a sentimental story of God’s easy presence at all times and places. The gospels, like the psalms, understand that the journey to the kingdom come where God’s will is done includes a pilgrimage through the land of the seeming absence of God.

So the disciples cry out: “Kyrie eleison … Lord, have mercy … Wake up … Do you not care that we are perishing?” Anne Lamott has said that there are three essential prayers: “Wow … Thanks … Help.” To be in Christian community is to be in a community that cries out to God for help. The gospel is not a self-help story. It is a story of relying upon God, even when – especially when – God seems to be asleep, seems not to care that we – and the creation - are perishing. In the words of our opening hymn today: “How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in his excellent word.” The excellent word is God’s promise to be faithful, to answer the cries of those in trouble in the storm. Some firm foundation! It is a foundation called trust in the promises of God.

Then the miracle. Then the answer to prayer. Then the stilling of the storm. Then the impossible Easter Sunday news that the storm has been tamed, that there is life on the other side. The gospel is, finally, the good news that the God who stilled the primal storm, who created order out of chaos in the beginning, is still active and can still be trusted. How do we know this is so? We know because of the testimony of those who have sailed through the storm, who have cried out for mercy, who have journeyed through Good Friday grief and Holy Saturday absence only to be surprised by Easter Sunday newness.

Jesus wonders aloud about the lack of faith among his disciples. They have nearly drowned, the boat swamped by hurricane force winds, and he wonders why they are afraid. It is rather reassuring to know that even with Jesus in the boat the church finds it hard to trust, hard to believe, that it will arrive safely at the other side. We will not be surprised if we struggle to believe that the earth, that the church, that our souls will make it safely to the other side … that Jesus does save … and will save.

The disciples are witnesses to the saving power of God, revealed in Jesus. They are “filled with great awe” and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” He is not your average miracle worker. He is not simply a great teacher, even a great healer. He is the one who reveals what God is up to in the world, in the church, in the soul. The God he reveals has the power to overcome the most elemental forces: the wind and the sea – in other words, the forces of chaos that overtake every generation – cycles of violence, greed and fear that paralyze lives called to compassion, sacrifice and care. This is the elemental miracle – that Jesus will see you, see me, see us and this world safely through to the other side.

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