We’re In This Boat Together

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | March 29, 2020

A few weeks ago, I told Lindsay to keep an eye for the bear that was seen close to her bus stop. Here in Duluth we live in bear country. The bears are waking up from their winter slumber. I appreciate seeing bears from a distance. I don’t like it when they get too close for comfort.

Years ago, Lindsay and I went camping in one of our Minnesota state parks. One night we were sleeping in our tent when a bear came to visit. There was a dumpster close by that the bear seemed interested in. We wondered what might happen if the bear lost interest in the dumpster and became curious about us. I had seen the bear earlier in the day on the trail. When I rounded a corner and there he was. After looking me over what seemed like a long time, he wandered off in the other direction. Now he was back. I doubted if he would remember me. We thought the wiser choice would be to sleep in the car.

When you live in bear country you are mindful of the advisories about living with them. We saw a flyer that was titled, “Co-existing with Bears.” If you change the first letter in bears to an “f” you get fears. The advice works both ways –

“Co-existing With Fears.”

  1. Do not feed fears. Feeding fears may place you in danger as fears lose their instinctive role and become unpredictable.
  2. Do not attract fears by leaving fuel within easy reach. Store fuel properly and securely.
  3. Do not approach fears in the wild. Maintain a safe distance between yourself and fears to avoid sparking a confrontation.
  4. Be alert in areas where fears may be active, especially areas frequented by fears.

“Facts About Fears.”
Fears normally retreat before you even realize they are there. Fears are intelligent, have good long-term memory and are capable of recalling the location of plentiful fuel sources even years later.

There are fears lurking about these days. There is an air of uncertainty.

When we face the uncertain future, one that presents us with a fearful reality, how do we handle that as people of faith? It’s a question that often comes to mind. But in these times when we are dealing with a whole new reality, it’s not an easy question to answer.

A story that comes to mind is about Jesus walking on water.

The basic story is simple. Jesus and his followers were traveling around the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He was dealing with a lot of people. He wanted some alone time and he tried to get away by himself by getting in a boat and going to a quiet place on a far shore. But the crowds followed him there. He spent a whole day with people and at the end of the day they all had a big meal together.

Now he really wanted to get away. He told his disciples that he was going up into the hill side for the night and they should get in the boat and go back to the other side of the lake and he would meet up with them later.

He went up and found a peaceful spot where he could watch the sunset. There on the lake below were his followers. Rowing out into the water in their boat; off into the distance; getting smaller and smaller.

The wind started to pick up and the waves started to roll. Jesus could see them out there on the water. He could tell they were in distress. So he left his quiet place and walked out on the water to where they were.

They saw him coming. At first they thought he was a ghost and they were afraid. But then they realized it was Jesus. But they weren’t quite sure.

Peter said, “If it is you, Lord then bid me come out on the water.” Jesus called him out of the boat but once he was on the water he got scared and started to sink. Jesus grabbed him and saved him and chastised him for his lack of faith. I tend to think that his lack of faith was not about walking on water; rather it was his thinking, “The rules don’t apply to me. I don’t need to stay in the boat with the others.”

Jesus reminded him that faith is about pulling together with your friends in community.

Walking on water? Are we supposed to check our intelligence at the door when it comes to a story like this? Sometimes when people tell stories they think they need to explain what it means. But we don’t explain stories so much as we tell them. A lot of bible stories can be framed in the storyteller’s saying, “It might not have happened this way, but it’s a true story.”

What does this story say to our present circumstance?

When the story was first told it was not so easy to be a follower of Jesus. By the time Matthew’s gospel had been written, Jerusalem had been laid to waste by the Romans. Rome was a law and order society. It was not wise to stand out, apart from or opposed to Roman rule because of one’s religion. To be a Christian meant to stand for certain things. It was a religion that had great appeal to common people, the working classes and the slaves.

Following Jesus held the hope of liberation. He came to set the prisoners free. And if it were not a literal freedom that came about, then being a Christian gave people a freedom of heart and soul that no chains of oppression could ever contain. And that was a huge threat to the powers that be.

In biblical mythology the sea represents chaos. Any time there is a story about the sea, it is a story about the ungovernable forces of life that have every power to overwhelm and destroy. In Genesis, the Spirit of God moved across the face of the deep; the rising waters destroyed all but Noah’s family. Moses parted the waters. Jonah was thrown into the raging sea where he was swallowed by a creature from the deep.

The followers of Jesus were caught in a storm. They were helpless against its power. Yet he came to them. He walked on the water, meaning, he was not swallowed up by the chaos. This story tells the followers of Jesus that the circumstances of life cannot destroy the heart and soul reality that exists within; the heart and soul conviction that if the son has set you free, you are free indeed.

When I was living and working in Scotland, I led worship every Sunday at St. James’ Parish Church in Pollok, Glasgow. I usually got to the church early enough to gather some inspiration from church building.

It was built in the 19th century and after World War 2 it was dismantled and moved stone by stone and rebuilt at its present location in the Pollok housing estate. A few years before I came there the folks remodeled part of the building and made it into what’s called The Village Storytelling Centre.

I would take my cup of tea and wander through The Village. On the ground floor was a village store. There were two stairways that led upstairs. One went through the turret where there were inscribed on the wall are the words, “Let justice flow down like the waters.” The stairs lead past a display of stained-glass windows representing world issues – hunger, the environment, community and the one that always impressed me, the artist’s depiction of the HIV virus.

At the top of the turret stairs a door opens onto a landing. On one side is a stable and on the other, is a hand carved fishing boat. There’s a fishing net hanging over the side of the boat. Up a few more stairs is the village rooftop.

All of these different storytelling venues. Reminders of how important it is that we know our stories, that we claim them and tell them and celebrate them. That was my inspiration on any given Sunday. I picture in my mind that boat up in the church gallery. It reminds me that wherever we are, at home and in the world, we are in it together.

In a sense, Jesus is still walking on the water. We might prefer to see him from the safety of the shore. But when we get in the boat, together and engage the struggle and face the chaos and the uncertainty, we discover that there too, he is with us. Stories will come from this time we are going through. They will be told for years to come and probably for generations yet unborn. How they are told depends on how we live them now. Amen.

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