Sermon from June 24, 2018

Crossing to the Other Side
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 24, 2018   Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 107; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Earth is a far gentler planet now than at other times in the past four billion years, and yet even the largest cargo carriers still shipwreck, sometimes close to 100 a year.

We suffer other storms, as well.  We sail into controversy and conflict.  We can be capsized by sickness or loss.  Captains of industry strive to make their lives unsinkable, but the rich and famous suffer mental illness, divorce and dissatisfaction as much as the poor.  I have heard a prosperity gospel preacher claim that Christianity is a fast track to owning a BMW—but Jesus lived in voluntary poverty and was crucified.  Paul was shipwrecked three times and lived in constant danger, in and out of prison, until he, too, was crucified.

Today’s passage can be read in many ways depending on our world view.  For instance, young children naturally have a magical view.  The gospel story shows them the magical power that a leader or God can have over the world.  Children a little older and many adults would read the story as literal truth.  The winds and waves will obey Jesus’ command.  Those who are in his boat will have his protection, but those who are not will be lost.

We gain the potential for reading the story more critically in adolescence.  Not all people ever adopt this view, but we have at least the potential to look at scriptures from a rational perspective.  This can be upsetting as we begin to doubt our former assumption that Jesus could command the wind and waves.  Our rational mind might enable us to identify more fully with the desperation of the disciples and have more compassion for them, but when we look to the back of our own storm-tossed boat, we get a sinking feeling that no one is there who could calm our seas.

Most people do not ever move beyond a literal or rational view, but something can happen in midlife, some great suffering or great love, that opens us back up to the possibility of a higher power that we cannot fully understand.  We realize that there is more to us down in the shadows of our unconscious and ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’  We sense that this story may be symbolically true in some way that is more meaningful than literal facts.

We see that truth in the story of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that Rosa Parks started.

The Boat People 36 x 44 oil/canvas by Marcia Bushnell

King was harassed by police and receiving death threats many times a day against his beautiful young wife and new baby.  Late one night he was sitting alone at his kitchen table near despair.  His small boat was being swamped by racist storms of hatred and violence and oppression.  He turned to Christ in prayer, crying out for help, and a voice spoke, giving him peace, filling him with the courage to keep sailing through whatever winds and waves would come.

A Canadian woman named Karen Ridd was working with a peace group in El Salvador in the 1980s. The government death squads were murdering people who were working for peace, suspecting them of helping the guerilla freedom fighters.  One day, government soldiers came to arrest Karen and a Columbian peace-worker named Marcela Rodriguez.  Karen heard them coming and had the presence of mind to make a quick phone call to tell another volunteer what was happening.  The soldiers took them to an army barracks and subjected them to five hours of brutal interrogation.  They could hear the sound of torture and sobbing of victims from other rooms.

The phone call saved Karen’s life.  She was pulled out of the interrogation room and found herself walking toward an embassy official waiting at the gate.  But Karen had glimpsed Marcela’s face shoved up against a wall, and she felt sick, so when she reached the Canadian official, Karen apologized and turned around and walked back, having no idea what would happen to her, but knowing it could not be worse than walking out on a friend.

The soldiers were shocked.  She could hear a soldier banging Marcela’s head against the wall in the next room and shouting that a “white bitch” was stupid enough to walk back in there, and now she was going to get the treatment terrorists deserve.  But the soldiers around Karen could not help asking her why she would do such a thing.  Her selfless loyalty and courage got to them.  A short while later the soldiers released both Karen and Marcela.  They walked out together hand in hand.  (The Search for a Nonviolent Future, Michael Nagler, pp 26 ff)

No matter how we read today’s gospel story, as magic or literal fact or deeply symbolic truth, we know that as long as we are on this earth we will confront personal hardship, and as long as we follow Christ we will be called into confrontation with governments and individuals who do not follow the way of compassion and justice and peace.  The gospel story assures us that if we turn and look to Christ, we will find peace in the midst of the worst waves and wind imaginable.  We will find a way to cross to the other side.

Today our nation is in upheaval.  Our diverse world views are being charged by an atmosphere of fear and incivility.  They collide like extreme weather fronts, creating violent storms.  The reporter Carl Bernstein says we are in the midst of a cold civil war.

The situation seems impossible.  People who view the world from an ethnocentric standpoint feel that they are the only ones in the boat, and that others who are trying to climb on board are criminals or animals who can be treated as harshly as necessary to protect the boat.  The evangelist Franklin Graham is traveling the country recruiting conservative Christians to get politically active, saying, “Progressive?  That’s just another word for godless.”

People with a rational or a more pluralistic view see things completely differently. They feel compassion for all who are suffering, whether at the border or from economic inequality or racism or climate change or a host of other problems that threaten to destroy our world as we have known it.  And yet many with the rational view feel compelled to reject everything about the spiritual life once they realize their former beliefs are not literally true, and they are as hostile to the more spiritual pluralistic view as to the evangelical view.  Meanwhile the pluralistic view tolerates everyone and everything except the intolerance of the conservative evangelical or atheist view.

What hope of peace can we have between all these incompatible, warring views?  And yet the gospel tells us to turn to Christ and cry out for help, to pray and wait, and peace will come.  Jesus calls us to do what he did and promises we will do even greater works.  We will be peacemakers, too.

So where is our hope today?  What can we do to enable our clashing fronts to come together in a way that does not swamp our nation or destroy our world?  What does Jesus teach us to do?

The answer in traditional theological terms is kenosis, metanoia and agape.  If that is Greek to you, kenosis means self-emptying so the Spirit can fill us as it filled Jesus.  Metanoia means turning and reaching beyond ourselves to God as Jesus did to transform our hearts and minds.  Agape means to love the way Jesus loved.

What all this means is that there is yet another possible view.  The disciples realized that they were helpless, that they needed a higher power.  They turned and called out, and Christ lovingly changed their view in a way that transformed the storm and filled them with love for Christ and then love for those they found once they had crossed to the other side.

The other side for them was the Gentile shore, hostile to Jews.  The other side for us is whatever force we are confronting that is rocking our personal world, like illness or loss or conflict with those with differing world views.  Christ does not smite or remove what makes us struggle, he transforms us and our way of viewing life so that we find a way to transform the situation.  This is called the universalizing or integral view.  It integrates everything, it sees all as one, it finds a way where there was no way.

Jesus taught Martin Luther King Jr. a way to love his enemies that enabled them to rise to a higher level of love themselves.  Karen Ridd found a way of love that completely undid the force of hate that was torturing her and that enabled her torturers to perform an act of love.

We have different views of the world among us even here in this church, different ways of thinking about God, different struggles in our hearts and in the world.  We need to have compassion for ourselves, and we need to marvel at the miracle that happens when we do what the disciples did.  How can we not believe in Christ’s higher power when we see again and again how love finds a way to peace where there seemed no way?

Be still and know that God is a power in us that can accomplish more than we can imagine, a power that can fulfill our dream of uniting our differences and making a difference in this world.  We can live in peace.  We can cross to the other side.

Let us pray together in silence…

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