The disciples and Jesus are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee headed for the shore on the other side. This is the first of several journeys Jesus will take to the "other side," in the Gospel according to Mark. As he moves back and forth from one side of the Sea to the other, there is more than geography at work. In Mark's Gospel one side of the Sea of Galilee symbolizes the place of the Jews. It is the home of the first disciples and is filled with people, places and customs familiar to them.
The "other side," everything east of the Jordan River, which flows in and out of the Sea of Galilee, is associated with the Gentiles. Here, everything is strange and alien, and threatening to those who live on the west side of the sea. The River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee serve as a great divide, keeping those on one side "safe" from those on the other.
We live with such divides every day. Religions erect barriers, keeping some in, closing others out, declaring some worthy of God's love and others unworthy and unacceptable. Economic injustice creates an ever-widening chasm between the wealthiest and poorest among us. And after the Cold War thawed, we all became more acutely aware of the ancient ethnic animosities that had been simmering under the surface, animosities which, with increasing frequency, are flaring up into hate-fueled violence.
Some who live in gated communities, inside homes with elaborate security systems, feel threatened by those who live outside the walls. They avoid encounters with those "on the other side" except, perhaps to hire them to clean their houses and tend their lawns.
We don't want to get too involved with the folk who live "on the other side" of the poverty line or on the wrong side of immigration authorities. We don't want to know too much about the people who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat or make the clothes we wear, much less those who live inside the walls of a prison. Knowing these persons and their working and living conditions, upsets the equilibrium of our already precariously balanced lives.
Or worse, it might bring us face to face with the fear and prejudice within our own hearts and the truth about how our way of life contributes to the pain that others suffer. Its scary "over there," It's safer, more comfortable simply to stay on "our side" of the divide.
But even if we choose to close our eyes and pretend that all is right with world, the divides remain. Think of the many divides in the Middle East, the land so many peoples call holy. Or North and South Korea. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Serbs, Croats, ethnic Albanians. Russians and Chechens. Whites and Blacks in our own cities and suburbs. Gay and straight in every community.
The divides are many, the wounds are deep, the walls are high. And though we spend inordinate amounts of time and money protecting and defending our boarders and our way of life, no one feels safe, secure, or at peace on either side of these divides. Fear, anxiety and hatred infect the heart and soul of the whole human race.
Jesus was born into a world much like ours. Religious and political taxation widened the economic chasms already present. Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each other. The "clean" did not touch the "unclean," the "circumcised" did not eat with the "uncircumcised," and the righteous did not associate with sinners or tax collectors. The lines were clearly drawn between one side and the other and no one crossed over. No one dared to make the journey to the other side.
No one, except Jesus. He not only wasn't afraid of those on the other side. He chose time and again to cross the lines to be with them. The path of his ministry zigzagged back and forth from one side of the divide to the other, from one shore of the Sea of Galilee to the other, as if with each crossing, he was making another stitch in the torn fabric of the world, mending the divide, binding one side to the other, creating a reconciling seam.
Four times he makes the journey by boat across the Sea and back. He feeds 5000 hungry Jews (6:33-44) on one side, then he feeds a multitude of Gentiles (8:1-9) on the other.
Jesus heals both the daughter of Jairus, a leader in the Synagogue, and another daughter of Israel, a woman who had suffered for twelve years with hemorrhages and had spent all of her money on treatments, only to grow worse (5:21-43).
But then he crosses to the east side of the Sea, and goes to the region of Tyre where he heals the little girl of a Syrophoenician woman, who was considered to be no better than a dog by those who lived on the west side.
From there he travels toward the Sea to the region of Decapolis, where the people brought a man to him, a Gentile who could not hear and who suffered from a speech impediment. Jesus tenderly takes him aside and with a touch and a word opens his ears and loosens his tongue (7:24-37).
Back and forth he goes. By his movements and his deeds he declares that he has come to feed and heal and bring God's life to those on both sides of every human divide. Moreover, he's come to reconcile the peoples long divided to one another.
And he wanted his disciples to be part of this ministry. He came to create a reconciled community, one new humanity where many factions had been. But he also came to call a reconciling community, a people whose lives would be spent mending the divides, tearing down the walls, bridging the chasms, and taking the risk of loving the stranger, the other, even the so-called enemy.
So he called his disciples to get into the boat and travel with him across the Sea, to become, with him, part of the stitching thread that would piece together again what fear and hatred, arrogance and ignorance had shredded. But the disciples did not want to go. They resisted the call in a dozen different ways.
They didn't want to go with Jesus across to the other side any more than Jonah wanted to go to Nineveh. Remember that story? The word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me" (Jonah 1:1).
What did Jonah do? He high tailed it in the opposite direction, straight to Joppa where he hopped a ship bound for Tarshish, as far away from Nineveh as he could go, as far from the presence of God as he thought he could get. No way he was crossing to the other side and preaching repentance to the Assyrians who lived in the capital city of Nineveh. Jonah despised these people; they were heathen, they were the enemy. And Jonah knew that God was merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah knew God did not desire the destruction of the inhabitants of Nineveh, but desired repentance, healing, and grace for those people. That galled Jonah!
But God was not about to give up on Jonah. So while Jonah was aboard the boat headed for Tarshish, "The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up" (Jonah 1:4). In terror the sailors threw Jonah overboard. A great fish swallowed him whole and after three days "spewed Jonah out upon dry land" (1:10b).
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to them the message I give you." God is determined that Jonah make the crossing to the other side, to proclaim a word of repentance and release, to mend the fabric of that society, to heal the people, the animals, the land itself. Reluctant, petulant, angry though we was, Jonah went.
Well, a storm arose when Jesus and his disciples were "crossing to the other side" of the Sea of Galilee, too. The boat was taking water and those fisherfolk, wise to the ways of the sea, knew that their lives were in danger. The disciples cried out to their sleeping teacher, "Don't you care if we drown!?" Jesus woke, stilled the wind, calmed the sea with a word of peace. Then, after the sea was calm and all were safe, the disciples were truly terrified. Jesus asked them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
The disciples, like Jonah, seem more frightened by the prospect of having to complete the journey to the other side, --now that the storm had been stilled-- than they were of drowning. Bearing God's love to those on the other side seems to be a fate worse than death.
The evangelist Mark knew his first readers well. He knew that they were struggling in their ministry of hospitality and reconciliation. It wasn't easy for the earliest Christians to bind together Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free in equity and love. All kinds of storms arose to make it difficult. Parents disowned their children for eating with the "wrong people." Those in power spread rumors about the Christians, calling them traitors and trouble makers, The early Christians were persecuted by those in authority.
Mark writes to encourage them in their struggle, reminding them that Jesus is in the boat with them, telling them again and again that God's love is more powerful than economic systems, governmental powers, even religious laws.
The ministry of hospitality and reconciliation isn't any easier now than it was two thousand years ago. Even so, this is the ministry to which we're called in our baptism. In every age storms of chaos will arise to impede the journey of those who seek to follow Jesus across the divides of the world into the territory of the other. There is something about reconciliation that galls the forces of evil!
Sometimes following Jesus will mean we will stand against the most powerful forces in our world. We will speak against customs and attitudes that fuel fear and anger. We will work to change laws that widen the economic divide by favoring the rich and hurting the poor. We will find ourselves struggling against the current and buffeted by winds and waves, even, sometimes, inside the Church. When religion becomes part of the storm that impedes Christ's mission of reconciliation, God sends reluctant Jonah's and fearful disciples to make the crossing and speak again the Word of repentance and renewal to a frightened and reluctant Church. Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
We do not make these crossings alone. We travel with one another, for we have been knit into a community. Even though we are afraid to move outside familiar territory, we draw "little faith" from each another, not a lot, but enough to hold on through wind and waves and make the crossing.
In fact we travel with all those who have made this journey before us, including Jonah and those first disciples of Jesus. We are part of a long line of people who have been called to make the crossing, to live without self-protective walls, and to discover in the those once called stranger or enemy a friend and fellow traveler.
We are given food for the journey, not a lot, but enough to nourish and sustain us. Each week we gather at the table set for all who seek to follow Jesus into unknown territory for the sake of God's future. Here we are gathered by God's Word, renewed in our own baptismal water crossing, given the bread of grace to eat and the wine of peace to drink, and sent on our way, empowered by the Holy Spirit,
And we travel with Jesus. The one who can still the storm of chaos and subdue the power of sin goes with us, back and forth, from one side to the other, as we bear witness to God's reign of justice, mercy, and peace. Each passage, great and small, is a stitch in God's reconciling seam, for even now, even among us, God is mending with mercy what sin has torn asunder and making all things new. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Creator of the wind and waves, still our fearful hearts. Forgive us when we tear the fabric of human community and rend with greed the world you have made. Grant us the faith we need to follow Jesus across each divide as witnesses to your peace, workers for your justice, and bearers of your mercy, in whose name we pray. Amen.