[This sermon is more of a reflection on the scripture than a sermon in the classic sense. Throughout this reflection, I will be using the word, “I” but I ask you to hear this “I” as a symbol for the ordinary Christian. When I say, “I”, hear “you, me, every person who professes to be a disciple of Christ.”]
Jesus needed some time alone. Maybe he was just worn out from the noise of the crowds or the constant travel from village to village but it kind of seems like it was the disciples themselves that had worn him out. Earlier that day, when the chosen 12 had urged Jesus to send the crowds away so that the people could buy some food in the surrounding villages, Jesus had told them to take care of the people’s hunger themselves.
“Just give them some bread,” he said in a reasonable tone of voice.
The disciples got all snarky and adolescent with him, saying, “Sure, Jesus, like we have a couple of thousand dollars to blow on bread for these hangers-on. Get real and just send them home.”
And though anyone would have excused Jesus if he had snapped back at the disciples, he didn’t. He told them to bring them what they had and then he distributed the few loaves and fish to the entire crowd and everyone was satisfied. And it was right after that that he told the disciples to get in the boat — insisted that they get in the boat, the scripture says — and row clear across the sea because he wanted to spend some time alone in prayer. It sure sounds to me like Jesus needed a break from his blockheaded band of disciples and that what he wanted to pray for was patience.
The gospel of Mark never puts the disciples up on a pedestal. If anything, the gospel often makes the 12 look like the biggest dunderheads imaginable almost as if to say to us, the readers, “I know being a disciple feels tough at times but take heart because even the worst among you can probably do a better job of it than these guys did.”
And yet, I wonder if I am doing any better than the 12. I wonder how many times I push off people’s needs as “not my problem”, or belittle the childish faith of the masses while strutting about sure of my own standing with Jesus. I wonder how many times my God in heaven looks down upon me and has to summon up divine patience hoping that one day I will choose to accept the call wholeheartedly truly trusting the one whose name I bear.
So there is Jesus up on the mountain, taking a breather from the boys, when the wind comes up. He looks out at the lake and notices that the disciples are straining at the oars. Jesus, maybe with a sigh for the lost time to himself, gets up off of his knees and hikes down the mountain, and the story says, walks right out onto the water to get a closer look. Even then, the gospel tells us, “he intended to pass them by.” In other words, Jesus is still hoping that his chosen ones will pull it together, that they will reach deep down inside themselves for the strength and the courage to weather this storm on their own. He’ll check on them and make sure they are doing okay, but he really doesn’t want to intervene again if he doesn’t have to. He’s hoping that they learned something from the episode with the bread, that they understood that he was trying to show them that they are capable of doing what feels impossible if they will only have as much faith in themselves as he has in them. Jesus is like a mother who sees her toddler fall down but waits to see if the child can shake it off knowing that in the long run, children will be stronger and more confident if they learn to manage the small bruises on their own.
Oh, Jesus, would that these twelve would live up to your hopes for them, but once again, they give in to the worst in themselves instead of searching for the best. They see Jesus out there on the water and refuse to believe in anything but their own fear. All that they can think about is their mortality and their weakness, until everything feels overwhelmingly frightening, even their Savior.
“It’s a ghost!” they yelp.
“We’re going to die,” they weep.
“The storm is too much for us!” they wail in mindless terror.
“These are the famous disciples,” the gospel writer says to us the readers, “crying like babies because the boat ride got a little bumpy. They can’t even manage a few waves; what are they going to do when Jesus shows them the cross? Take heart because even the worst of you can probably do a better job of it than these guys did.”
And yet, I wonder how many times have I been ready to jump ship because my life as a disciple wasn’t all smooth sailing? Sometimes the storm of people’s sorrow threatened to overwhelm my heart, and the night of grief, of struggle, of the world’s cruelty, and of human mortality swallowed me in fear. And I talked to the fear instead of to Jesus. I shouted at the fear and battered it with my fists until all I could see was the fear when I know I should have been turning my face toward my Savior and trusting that he would help me ride out the fear until the storm quieted. I wonder how many times my God in heaven looks down upon me and has to summon up divine patience hoping that one day I will open my eyes to Jesus’ presence and wholeheartedly trust the one whose name I bear.
Jesus summons his patience and he calls out to the twelve, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” and he climbs into the boat with them. The winds immediately cease because in Jesus’ presence, they feel safe. But as the waves recede in the distance, and their fear recedes with them, the disciples’ gratitude is short-lived. Suddenly, they remember why they are out on the water in the first place — there was that whole incident with the bread when Jesus asked them to take care of the crowd — and the disciples fall back into a sulk. Their hearts are hardened once again, the gospel says.
“These are the famous disciples,” the gospel writer says to us the readers, “sulking because they wanted a Savior who would protect them and comfort them and instead they got a Savior who expected something from them as well. They wanted cheap grace — they wanted Jesus’ constant presence and faithfulness but they didn’t want to do anything for Jesus in return. Take heart because even the worst of you can probably do a better job of it than these guys did.”
And yet, I wonder. I wonder how many times I have seen my faith as something that God does for me without stopping to ask what God needs me to do for others. I, too, look for cheap grace. I am all too willing to accept the forgiveness God offers me for my sins but I confess that I am sometimes miserly with bestowing forgiveness on others. I am happy to accept salvation for myself but wary of admitting others into God’s company unless they subscribe to the right doctrine or belong to the right church. I come to worship ready to hear what Jesus has to offer me but resist changing my ways so that I might have something to offer others. I wonder how often I am a toddler disciple, wanting a God who will take care of all of my needs and wants, who will kiss my bruises and dry my tears, who will lead me by the hand, who will calm all of the storms and smooth the way ahead of me, but the minute my God suggests that there are other people in the world besides me with needs as well, I sink into a self-pitying sulk. I am too often a toddler disciple who doesn’t want to grow up. I wonder how many times my God in heaven looks down upon me and has to summon up divine patience hoping that one day I will mature into true discipleship.
In the gospel of Mark, we see toddler disciples who still have some growing up to do. Jesus will calm the storm now but one day, Jesus will ride into Jerusalem and he won’t stop the storm; he will let it roll right over him and he will show them with his own life that there really is nothing to fear; that storms cannot sink us, death cannot undo us; and giving ourselves in the fullness of love to others will not leave us weakened but will only make us stronger and richer as our love takes us out of ourselves and gathers the world to us, just as he gathered the world to himself on the cross.
After the cross, after the empty tomb, the disciples do grow up and choose to believe wholeheartedly in the call and the promise of Christ…. or at least 11 of the 12 do.
I wonder if God is still waiting for me to trust with all of my heart and fully follow.