It seems to me Jesus has been spending an awful lot of time in boats over the past few weeks. I went back through the Gospel of Mark on Friday to see, and there are at least six occasions in which is crosses the sea. We heard the first one a few weeks ago when Bishop Lane was here: Jesus convinces the disciples to take the boat out onto the water, he falls asleep, a storm comes up and the disciples chastise him, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?!”
After Jesus calms the storm, they land on the other side and Jesus exorcises the demons from the man who lived among the tombs. As if that were his only reason for crossing the sea—although it was clearly not something planned!—Jesus gets back in the boat, and goes back across the sea. When he lands on that side he heals the woman with the hemorrhage, Jairus’ daughter, goes to Nazareth to teach and is rejected, sends the disciples out ahead of him and waits for them to return. That’s where we pick up today. He convinces the disciples that they need to get away for a few days, so they get into the boat, go across the sea…and are met by crowds on the other side. Jesus feels compassion for them because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.”
That’s just the first half of the list! For some reason, Jesus keeps going back and forth over the water, even though it often seems it’s with no real purpose.
This may not seem all that significant to us who live near water and enjoy recreational time out in boats on lakes or rivers or the ocean. But boating for leisure was not a common practice among the people of Jesus’ time. There were fishermen among the disciples who were familiar with being out on open water, but only in the context of fishing. And even then, they tended not to go any farther out than absolutely necessary.
As you may recall from previous discussions about these texts, they didn’t trust the sea, so much so that it was a common biblical symbol for chaos. None of them would willingly put themselves into the middle of an uncontrollable, chaotic situation, just for the fun of it. When Jesus calms the storm in that first crossing, it’s meant to show that he has power over the wind and waves. Power over the chaos. It is a subtle way of showing the disciples that this man they followed was able to channel the power of God.
It appears they couldn’t make a lot of sense of that, though. I kind of wonder if that’s why Jesus kept going back and forth for no apparent reason!
In my quick review of these chapters of the Gospel according to Mark, I noticed for the first time that in earlier chapters—much earlier than they actuall use it—Jesus tells them to have a boat ready. I was reminded of those directions he gave them disciples as he prepared for the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, telling them to go to such-and-such a place to find a donkey.
Perhaps Jesus’ trips back and forth across the sea are not quite so random as they appear! Or perhaps he is trying to teach them to be prepared, and not afraid, for the moments when chaos intrudes and we are confronted with something unexpected that needs to be addressed.
We don’t get the story of the miraculous feeding of a crowd—the lectionary skips over it for now and then back tracks next week to pick it up. It’s too bad we don’t hear all this in one go, because it would remind us that there are times when Jesus is sort of supernaturally prepared ahead of time, but there are also times when he is not, and has to respond in the moment. Chaos can’t always be subdued from on high; sometimes it has to be contained from the very center of the storm.
Jesus and the disciples were trying to get away from the noise and the crowds and the activity for a while. Jesus takes them out onto the sea, which probably does not feel all that much better to them. So they land on the other side, and are met by a huge crowd of need. I’ll confess that when I find myself in that situation of being bone-tired and suddenly being confronted by one more need, my first response is probably not going to be particularly Christ-like. I am much more likely to sigh and try to turn around and go back into the boat than I am to respond as Christ did.
He saw them, and he had compassion for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
There is something about that phrase, “like sheep without a shepherd,” that makes me want to cry every time I hear this reading. I know that feeling, that stirring of compassion. But too often I feel like I don’t know what to do with it. Too often it feels like more chaos than I can handle.
Last Sunday, at the end of coffee hour, I was looking forward to going home, having another cup of coffee, and putting my feet up for a half an hour before I had to leave for the service in Bethel. I was almost out the door when I heard someone ask, “Is Nancy still here?”
SIGH. (or more accurately, GROAN.)
I stood up and went to see who needed me. Tom Knight was at the door, with a man who had been clearly dealing with quite a lot of chaos lately. He asked if he could talk to me for a minute. I took him into my office and listened to his story. I told him we didn’t have any money to help him, and thought, “Well, that’ll have him out the door.” But no, he stayed. And we talked some more. And I called in the few people who were still there. And together we put together a plan to help him as we could. The Watts brought in some blankets from the car, and Susan Emerson went out to the food basket and pulled some items that didn’t need to be cooked to be eaten. I watched these wonderful people, acting in the Name of Jesus, to help him. Afterwards, Patty Watts looked and me and said, “What was that you asked in your sermon this morning, ‘Where is the Good News?’ It’s right here, Nancy. It’s right here.”
At the end of the Gospel reading today, we read that people begged Jesus to let them just touch the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. We have been touched by Jesus, and it is through us that Christ reaches out to others to make a difference, to heal, to restore to community, to make whole. We are the ones standing in the midst of the chaos, choosing compassion over fear. We are the proclaimers of the Good News of Christ’s reconciling power that can overcome the world’s chaotic drive to divide. Jesus will keep hauling us across the sea until we figure out that we can trust him.
We are the fringe of his cloak, my brothers and sisters. We are the fringe of his cloak.