1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
I’ve just returned from a vacation trip to my brother’s wedding in Madison, Wisconsin, which began with four solid days of family gatherings and raucous festivities. But when that was all over, my wife and daughter and I retreated to the home of Meg’s a college friend Pam. And on our second day there we packed up our towels and bathing suits and a picnic lunch and brought along Joel, Pam’s younger son headed out of town to Devil’s Lake.
The sandy bottom of that lake stays shallow a long way out from the shore, so it’s a perfect place for children. I played with the kids a bit, and then when I was satisfied that they were content with each other, I went to rent a stand-up paddle board from the concession by the beach. I made a little voyage out into the middle of the lake before heading back in so that everyone else could have a turn. Meg went for a cruise, and when she came back we let Risa and Joel take turns paddling around in the shallow water.
Then our hour was up, and I asked the kids if they wanted to ride on the front of the board while I paddled it back to the boat rental area. They climbed on carefully and sat down while I shifted to the back to even the weight. I paddled along slowly, skirting the crowd of bathers close to the shore. We all had to concentrate on keeping as balanced as possible, because if one of us started leaning to one side, the weight of the others would accelerate us toward the tipping point. By the same token, we had to be cautious not to overcorrect when we moved to right ourselves, and so spill over in the opposite direction.
We made it to the beach at the boat rental area without capsizing, and it felt like a big relief. But when you think about it, what was the worst that could have happened? We would have tipped over and fallen into three or four feet of lake water, the same placid water we had been splashing and plunging and wading in just a few minutes before. Something about riding on top of the paddle board and the illusion of mastery that it gave us changed the way we thought about that water. From the precarious perspective of the deck of our little craft, it was no longer our cooling and refreshing friend—it was a dark peril to cross over using all our vigilance and skill.
The danger that the disciples of Jesus were in on that stormy night on the lake was very real. Those waters were deep, and those men were quite familiar with them. They knew how unexpectedly the squalls of wind could come down from cold heights of Mt. Hermon, and how quickly they could whip the surface up into dangerous waves. So they must have been asking themselves what they were doing out there in the middle of the lake in the dark of night.
Well, the answer to that was easy—they were there because Jesus sent them. Jesus said, “let’s go across to the other side,” and they went. That’s what disciples do, after all—they trust the teacher and go where he tells them to go. And insofar as we also are disciples of Jesus we are committed to doing the same. We go where we think Jesus wants us to go, and at least part of what that means for us is that we go to church. Now maybe we think that’s not a very risky thing to do. This church building has been sitting here on this corner for 124 years, which has a reassuring ring to it. Even the great earthquake of 1906 didn’t knock it down, so maybe it feels like a safe place where we are protected from the storms and tides and whirlpools of the world outside.
But the church is not some giant unsinkable cruise ship purring along high above the waves. The massacre last Wednesday night at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina reminded us that the church is a little open boat, and in a storm the waves are liable to come in over the side. Our society is being buffeted right now by a storm of unchecked gun violence and long-simmering racist hate, and it’s tempting to want to batten down the hatches and turn the ship around, to look for a safe harbor where we can stay warm and dry. But Jesus says, “friends, let’s go across to the other side.”
We are accustomed to think of the church as a place of refuge from the ugliness and sickness of the world. But the career of Jesus is a sustained engagement with the “other side” of human experience, the side we prefer not to think about. You can see this especially clearly in the Gospel of Mark, which doesn’t contain a lot of long quotations of Jesus. There is no Sermon on the Mount in Mark; there are no lengthy parables like the story of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. What is in Mark are a lot of stories of the people that Jesus encountered along his way, and the things that he did and said to change their lives. And what those encounters have in common it is that in them Jesus confronts some aspect of the human condition that we would rather not deal with.
The people who seek him out are the people we would rather not deal with. They are the people we don’t want to know, or to become. They are the sick, the outcast, the insane, the disabled. They are the poor and the little children. They are everyone who it is too much trouble, too time-consuming, inconvenient, and expensive to have to take care of. Or if they are not, if they are people who have it all together, who are well-situated in society, and well-satisfied with themselves, Jesus’ encounters with them reveal their arrogance and self-righteousness. He shows them their true colors, hidden under their cloak of prestige and respectability—the colors of envy, deceitfulness, and hate, and deadly violence. Jesus shows them these things and he finds them turned against himself.
So following Jesus is no guarantee of worldly success, or even of survival. The martyrs of Emanuel AME Church have proven that once again. Following Jesus requires that we surrender all our illusions of invulnerability and control, and accept the full vulnerability of being human. Sometimes it is all enough to make you wonder, like the disciples in the gospel, whether God is asleep, or simply doesn’t care. But the journey across to the other side is not just a challenge to be met or a commandment to be obeyed—it is good news, and it comes with a promise. This is the promise that in Christ God has come across to our side, to make this stormy journey with us. That’s what “Emanuel” means, after all—God with us.
The gospel is not just the story of Jesus’ encounters with a lot of sick and sinful people. It is also the story of their encounters with him, encounters that bring a sudden end to the raging of the wind and waves, and to a great and mysterious calm. The encounter with Christ does not leave us with a final answer to the human condition, but it does leave us with questions, planted like seeds in the center of our lives—questions about what we were afraid of, and what it might mean to have faith, and above all, the question “Who is this?”
They are questions that transform the way we look at our journey. They open up the possibility that there is another “other side” of human existence that we have scarcely begun to know, one that is fully human and at the same time divine. They are questions that suggest that Jesus is leading us, not merely across social and racial and religious barriers, but also across the gulf between earth and heaven, between time and eternity, between death and life. So the only response that is really fitting to the encounter with Christ is worship and praise. But this is not worship in a spirit of triumphalism and certainty, but of awe and wonder. It is thanksgiving that remains profoundly aware of the fragility and precariousness of human life, and of the mystery of God’s presence with us. It is praise that is focused more on wrestling with the deep and life-giving questions than standing pat on the answers. It is discipleship that knows that we are still in middle of our crossing, and that it is only by the gracious loving-kindness of God that we will make it to the other side.