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Following Jesus

Following Jesus

(I preached this sermon to the Presbytery of San Francisco in April, 2011, when murmurs and rumors from congregations seeking dismissal from the denomination were beginning to be heard.  At the time, I was serving the Presbytery as the Transitional Executive Presbyter.)

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.  Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


My sons, Stephen and Jason, were 13 and 12 when I took them deep-sea fishing for the first time in their lives.  The charter boat, out of Bodega Bay, was scheduled to leave at 6:00 am.  So we decided to camp at a nearby beach campground the night before to be sure that we would be at the dock on time the next morning.  That night of camping, around the campfire, I learned what my sons knew about sex from the dirty jokes they shared with me.  But it was good, because it turned out to be a wonderful occasion for me to give them some healthy sex education.  The next morning was cold and damp as we made breakfast and prepared a lunch of salami sandwiches, tuna fish sandwiches, potato chips, fruit, candy bars, and coke.  We figured we would be starving come noon.  The harbor was bustling at 6:00 am, with lots of people excited about going out into the ocean for a day of fishing.  Like my children, many were going out for the first time.  First-timers are great because they add an air of electricity and excitement.

We had no idea it would take so long before we would actually begin to fish.  It was 2 hours before the boat arrived at our fishing spot.  Only a half hour from the harbor, the excitement and the noisy chit-chat turned into the worst case of sea-sickness that my sons and I ever experienced.  It was a nightmare.  My sons and I took turns leaning over the side of the boat and heaving.  The huge breakfast disappeared into the ocean in the first heave, gone in 3 seconds.  We turned pale.  There was no relief.  What made it so embarrassing was that no one else on board was sick.  Out in the middle of the sea, there was no turning around.  You were on a charter boat with 22 other people, anxious to catch fish.  And they really didn’t care how sick you were and how badly you felt.  There was no turning back.  The boat seemed so large when it was docked in the harbor.  But out at sea, being tossed about by the rough waters and the wind, the boat was frightfully small.  It was 2 hours of being tossed from side to side, of being lifted up and dropped like the floor suddenly taken out from under you.  It seemed like an eternity before the boat came to a stop.  And even when we began to fish, it was no better.  Side to side, up and down.  The thought of the huge lunch we had prepared only made us feel sicker.  Whenever our eyes met, we didn’t have to say a word.  There was that knowing look of understanding, of empathy…because we knew exactly how the other felt.  Out at sea, we were totally at the mercy of the captain of the ship and of the sea.  And the sea was rough; the winds were hard; and the waves were high.  The boat pretty much had to follow the movement of the water, of the wind, and of the waves.  And our out-of-control stomachs pretty much symbolized how all of us in the boat felt—at the mercy of the sea, not in control.

I. So I think this is what it was like for the disciples, with Jesus in the boat, out in the middle of the sea.  A great windstorm arose suddenly, waves beating into the boat, and the disciples in danger of being swamped.  Now picture the church, the Presbytery of San Francisco, the PC(USA) as a boat out at sea.  And suddenly the church is caught in a storm, high winds, rough waters, huge waves threatening to sink the boat, the Presbytery.  The sensible ones among us would wonder, “if there is the danger of a storm out at sea, why venture out at all?”  Why did I take my sons deep sea fishing if it was going to be such an awful experience?  Why did the disciples get themselves into such a dilemma by going out into the sea?  Why does the PC(USA) get itself into so much conflict and controversy?  Notice how our story began in the Gospel of Mark:  “…Jesus said to his disciples, ‘LET US GO ACROSS THE SEA TO THE OTHER SIDE…’”  The idea to go out to sea, to cross to the other side, was Jesus’ idea in the first place.  And like the disciples, the church follows.  It is Jesus who leads and who decides whether we will cross the sea to the other side or not.  Whether the sea is calm or rough is not the issue.  The issue is that when Jesus calls us to follow, to go, we do it!  The church does not chart the course, does not decide whether or not to go to sea where there is always the potential danger of a storm.  Jesus gives the orders.

II. The seas can be rough and dangerous.  In Mark, the sea is where the sea-monsters, the demons live.  And the demons are enemies of God.  And in the sea, the church will encounter demonic forces, forces that will try to destroy the church.  Many say, “Why not stay in the harbor where it is calm and safe?  Why go out into the dangerous sea?”  The church should not be involved in politics, in controversial social issues, engaging the demons in the world.  The church should be a place of refuge, of safety.  And where do we find the PC(USA), the Presbytery of San Francisco?  In trouble, in controversy, in conflict, in the stormy seas of human sexuality…and losing members and being described as “deathly ill”, suffering from “terminal illness.”  Some of our pastors and churches are thinking of abandoning ship, of leaving the sinking denomination.  Now if the boat is already out at sea, like we are, you don’t jump ship.   You’ll drown in the turbulent, deep, waters.  So if you think you can just jump ship, and survive, I have doubts that you were ever fully on board in the first place.

III.    I want to remind you again, that according to the gospel text, it was Jesus who gave the orders to the disciples to get in the boat and go out into sea…in order to get to the other side.  And what was on the other side?  The Gentiles…all the people who are not like us!  If we are serious about growing as the church of Jesus Christ, of being a missional church, we must cross the sea to the other side and run the risk of winds and storms.  We have run into horrific storms as we tried to navigate the crossing to the other side of who can or cannot be ordained.   Whenever the church reaches out, tries to be inclusive, to affirm all whom God has called into ministry, we will be crossing dangerous and rough seas.  And yet that is what Jesus calls us to do.  To be the church of Jesus Christ, we must follow Jesus into the sea of life, risking danger, controversy, even death…in order to live.  Christ’s ministry is not about renewal and revitalization; it is about resurrection.  As we struggle our way across to the other side, we may well be facing the death of our beloved denomination as we know it, the death of our Presbytery as we know it.

IV.    And the fact that Jesus slept through the storm is actually comforting.  In the middle of the storm, we may not think so, but the fact that Jesus could sleep through it all assures me that we will make it through.  And like the disciples, we will be angry and upset with God, wondering why God is letting us drown.  That also is a good sign.  It is better than apathy, indifference.  It shows that we really care about what is going on.  So I welcome the voice of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, the voice of the Next Church Conference, the voice of Presbyterians for Renewal, the voice of That All May Freely Serve, the voice of the Layman, the voice of Covenant Network and More Light Churches.

We often lift up the cliché about “re-arranging the deck chairs on the TITANIC” to illustrate how NOT to work for change.  But the more helpful lesson that I learned from the movie about what happened on the TITANIC, was the problem of “lifeboat” thinking.  Lifeboats is finite thinking.  Lifeboat thinking says that only so many people can fit in here.  Survival, scarcity, limited, a chosen few are the perspectives in “lifeboat thinking”.  “If we take on any more, we all will perish!”  Rev. Joey Lee, the Executive Presbyter for San Jose Presbytery put me in touch with the noted church writer, Diane Butler Bass, who suggests a new ship narrative—the Mayflower, an explorer ship in a new world.  The Mayflower was a ship in a new land, in uncharted and unfamiliar waters.  And like the Mayflower, if we stick together, rely on each other, and also learn from the inhabitants, receive the gifts they have to offer, we’ll make it.  In contrast to the disastrous ending of the TITANIC, the story of the Mayflower ends at a banquet table.  I grew up eating around banquet tables.  It is a place of abundance, enough for all.  There is welcome, sharing, and community.  Yes, of course, there are family issues, complicated by the fact that we’re not crazy about all the people gathered at the table.  But we deal with it.  We value it.  And we work hard to make it happen.  It gives shape and meaning to our lives, these banquet tables we gather around.  And of course, the Church gathers around a table as well, our Lord’s Table.


The PC(USA) has followed Jesus into the sea; and we continue to struggle to make our way to the other side.  Confronted by the chorus of conflicting voices, each clamoring to chart the correct course, let us ALL be a bit more modest and humble about our place in the Church.  In the end, it is Jesus who is the captain and navigator.  Jesus is  Lord of the church, of life and death.  Well, you know how the story ends—Jesus does wake up in time to calm the wind and the sea.  And may we, like the disciples, be filled with great awe and confess to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

5 thoughts on “Following Jesus”

  1. Cal,
    The transitional twists and turns of each paragraph of all your stories never cease to amaze me. With each paragraph, I think “Oh I know where this is going,” but it doesn’t. It goes somewhere else equally important; then again the next, and the next……. Yet I rest at the end still finding the “moral of the story” deeply relevant to personal experience, interests and concerns of the day and not begrudging that none went where I thought it would (gentle, kind, calming exhale).

  2. The best line: “Christ’s ministry is not about renewal and revitalization; it is about resurrection.” What if, for the sake of ministry, the Church could learn to let things die? When ministries and programs have served their purpose, let them go, with thanks to God for the good we got to participate in? Usually, we just try to hold on and “maintain.” Lifeboat thinking.

  3. If you and Sharon are able to share some more words of wisdom on letting go, I’d love to be made wiser. In certain circumstances, I am so wanting to say to people, Time to let go and move on to new things. For everything there is a season.

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