Creekside Church
Sermon of June 20, 2021

"Troubled Waters"
Mark 4:35-41

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! It is the season after Pentecost, and as I mentioned last week, for the rest of June we will be talking about the mission of the church -- our partnership with God’s mission -- and looking at that through texts from the gospel of Mark. Last week the imagery was agricultural, this week we move from Jesus’ teaching through parables to Jesus’ example to his disciples.

Like any preacher, I rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in my study and preparation. I know that sometimes the inspiration of the Spirit is code for “it’s Saturday night and I don’t know what I’m going to say” but usually it means paying attention to what I am reading, and especially to what I am seeing or the conversations I’m participating in or listening to. I have been living with these texts from Mark, and I’m sure that they have informed my listening, and I have confidence that the Spirit was acting in my hearing, and I trust the Spirit will be part of your hearing today as well.

The first conversation was a couple weeks ago with another church leader -- not a pastor, but someone with whom I served in district leadership. The second was with a pastoral colleague. And the third was a devotion which Diane Lund shared with Worship Team this past Tuesday. The through-line for all these conversations was the idea of returning to normal as churches and other activities begin to re-open and the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be winding down in this country. There would be many ways we could characterize the past 15 months or so, but I think upheaval, uncertainty, and fear for our own safety and the safety of others would all be accurate. I am sure that the writer of Mark’s story of a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee actually happened. It certainly is a demonstration of power and authority for Jesus to calm a weather event, but of course, weather events are not the only storms we face. As we consider God’s mission and bringing forth the kingdom of God, I want to think about the storms we face: not just meteorological, but theological, social, or public health storms. Do we believe that Jesus has the authority to act in all of these storms, and not only the wind and water kind?

I regret to report that the conversations I had with other church leaders were not entirely positive. I am not making judgements about choices other leaders have made over the past year or so, but it’s probably not news to you that some churches have not fared well: beloved members have died of COVID, congregational giving has not been enough to support expenses, members have not returned even when the doors were opened again, and leadership -- both volunteer and pastoral -- has checked out, disengaged, or decided that they’ve had enough. When colleagues who are struggling ask me how things are going at Creekside, I’m almost embarrassed to say, “Pretty well, actually.” I don’t go into list the things which you might be aware of--we’re continuing outreach programs, we’ve started livestreaming our services, we have accepted new members, giving has been robust -- but I believe those are all indications of health. Of course, even if we’re through the worst of the storm, we haven’t reached the other side of the sea yet. Things are not entirely “normal” -- whatever that is -- and we still have a ways to go before the church looks the way we wish it did.

There are other winds blowing too: theological and social issues which threaten to swamp the Church of the Brethren. No doubt we’ll hear about these at our upcoming Annual Conference. I believe that part of our role in bringing forth the kingdom is to find ways to calm those storms and lower the temperature on those interactions, because if the boat turns over, everyone is in trouble. I was struck by something which I had not picked up in reading this passage before. Mark is the shortest of the gospels and he tends to be brief in his descriptions, so it’s a good bet that if Mark includes a detail, it has significance. Jesus has been preaching to large crowds, it’s evening, and he leaves the crowd and gets into a boat with the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. And verse 36 says, “Other boats were with him.” Of course this is a dramatic story about Jesus and the disciples, but this storm affected other people, too. Our activity as Christians and especially our mission to bring forth the kingdom of God is never only about us. A global pandemic is not only a problem for the church, it was a storm which threatened to swamp businesses and schools and families. Churches and denominations which are struggling internally aren’t able to focus on outreach and mission. If the boat is in danger of being swamped and we’re arguing about whose job it is to bail out the water, that turns troubled waters into a disaster.

And here’s where the devotion which Diane shared hit me. It was written by Lynn Colwell of Proverbs 31 Ministries, and it was titled, “Our Reluctance to Return to Normal.” We’ve heard a lot of longing about returning to ‘normal’ -- wherever it was we were before the pandemic. Lynn asked the question, What if God doesn’t want us to return to normal? What if there is somewhere else that God wants us to go? If we use this story from Mark as an example, Jesus didn’t calm the storm so the disciples could turn around and take the boat back to where they were. Jesus calmed the storm over their boat -- and every other boat out on the sea that night -- so that they could all get to the other side. God’s mission is not about staying in the same place. God’s mission isn’t about returning to the way things have been -- if that is even possible. I know there were years when churches, including Elkhart City Church, were filled with people and families with young children, and blossoming youth ministries. That is not where we are now. If we are going to find ways to reach families and children, it will be by going forward, not by going back. The way forward means getting in the boat, even if we don’t know what the weather ahead is going to be like.

Jesus could have promised the disciples calm waters and smooth sailing. I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where Jesus or any other prophet gives that promise. Jesus’ power to calm the storm probably means that storms are part something we can expect. That doesn’t keep storms from being unsettling or terrifying; it doesn’t keep us from being afraid; it doesn’t keep us from calling out, “Jesus, we’re in trouble -- don’t you care?”

I think most of us -- and I would certainly include myself in this group -- think of normal as a fixed point: as in “I can’t wait until things get back to normal.” That is, our lives return to predictable rules, expectations, and routines. No inconveniences, no surprises, no storms. Isn’t that what the Christian life is supposed to be like? Surely, if I am inconvenienced, that is not normal and someone is to blame for that. I think what Mark is saying in this passage is that bringing forth the kingdom of God means getting in the boat with Jesus. We have to get in the boat and get out on the sea, because there are things to do on the other side. It is about having faith that any mission where we are with Jesus cannot fail. That mission might be uncomfortable, inconvenient, and occasionally even terrifying. That is not failure; that is ministry. Bringing forth the kingdom means having faith that Christ has the power to calm the storm. And when we get to the other side of the sea, we are not “back to normal”; we are still on the way.

I want you to know that when I tell people how things are going at Creekside, I mostly just brag about all of you -- in a humble way, of course. I tell them that we have been blessed with strong lay leadership, a variety of gifts, and people who have been willing to focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t do. I believe that Spirit is what has kept us together and gotten us through what I sincerely hope is the worst of the pandemic storm. You have been wonderful to me, you have been wonderful to one another, and I am so grateful. It feels like the waves are beginning to die down, and I’m grateful for that, too. But I have been in ministry long enough that I am not naïve about what may be on the horizon. In the immortal words of the great Gilda Radner character Rosanne Rosanna Danna, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” If we are looking for a “normal” which is predictable and trouble-free, we will probably be disappointed. Storms are part of our individual and corporate life. The way to weather storms is to get in the boat with the One who is Lord of All -- including the wind and the waves. We are participating on bringing forth the kingdom when we have the trust and the courage to rely on Jesus and on one another whatever storms come our way.

May God bless you and keep you.

 

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