Martha Spong: All in the Same Boat


I thought it was a brilliant idea.

I was serving a church in Maine, where Summer Sundays are not the best-attended. The window of good weather is brief, and people want to be in their gardens or at their lakeside camps. That particular summer, I felt motivated to make worship interesting for the ones who did come. For this story from Mark 4, I arranged the text for multiple readers, plus the congregation, with effects designed to put us all in the midst of the storm. I started planning weeks before with a church member who worked with our youth, and he recruited a 13-year-old to help him devise stormy sound effects. They brought a large jug of water to slosh around, amplified by a microphone, and they improvised a thunder sheet.

We met the day before with the four readers to practice. At the rehearsal, I liked the thunder sheet so much I decided to incorporate it into my sermon. On Sunday morning, I gave a copy of the manuscript to my sound guys so they would know when to make noise. They practiced again just as worshippers began to arrive, then stepped away while a prelude was played and most of the congregation took their seats.

I slipped away to put on my robe, so it was about worship time minus 60 seconds, and I was about to go through door into the sanctuary when the head Deacon for the day stopped me and said someone in the congregation was upset, even angry, about the makeshift thunder sheet. I hadn't stopped to think about whether the particular sounds would be distressing to anyone who might be with us that day. "What? It's too late to change it now!" I said.

I admit with chagrin that my first reaction was anger and defensiveness, and while I can tell you and myself all day long that it was 9:29-and-a-half, and I was wound up to lead worship at 9:30, while I can make the case that it might have been hurtful to the guys doing the sound or confusing to the readers to cancel at literally the last half-minute, the truth is I resented being questioned.

Maybe I could have changed the plan, or at least reconsidered using the thunder sheet as part of the sermon, but the prelude had ended and I had to start the service. There was no time to unpack what exactly had troubled the opinionated but faithful member who always sat toward the back on the right-hand side, a guy who would have given anyone the shirt off his back. I did not take the time to choose my words carefully, or consider the feelings of the deacon caught between two reactive personalities that morning.

I thought it was a brilliant idea, and both the scripture reading and the sermon went over well - except with the guy in the back...and his wife...and the deacon...and me. We left dissatisfied, uncomfortable, and worried about what would happen when next we met.

We were all in the same boat.

At the end of an exhausting day of preaching and teaching, Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, trying to get away from a crowd of people. He was so ready for a break that he suggested going across the lake to the other side, even though that was Gentile territory, a potentially hostile destination. He was so tired that he that he fell sound asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, so tired that even the storm blowing up around them and whipping the waves to a terrifying height did not wake him.

Jesus may have been tired of more than the crowd. The disciples had spent most of that same day showing that they did not understand what he was talking about, even after he offered them private explanations. Sleeping was one way to shut off their noise. It's a familiar motif in Mark; Jesus withdraws to recharge, showing us how human he is. He withdraws to reconnect with his divinity, and he withdraws to recover what his humanity requires.

We're a quarter of the way through the oldest gospel, and Jesus' ministry is in crisis. His most faithful followers, his hand-picked comrades, have no idea who he is. When they come to wake him up, they don't ask him to save them. They only ask him if he cares that they are surely going to die.

I grew up a block away from a tidal river, the Elizabeth in Portsmouth, Virginia, just where it passed through Crawford Bay. I remember once watching the bay through the picture window at a friend's house, roiled out of it usual gentle current into waves with white caps as convincing as the ocean's. I've also been a spectator to real ocean storms on the coast of Maine. But it's one thing to watch a storm and another to be on the water in the midst of it. A few years ago, I embarked on a cruise with a group of clergywomen for a continuing education program organized by the ministry I lead. The weather was so bad that for the first time on a cruise ship I moved from feeling a little queasy and a bit worried to feeling both sick and frightened. I huddled in my cabin as we were buffeted by winds so strong the ship could not make its port calls; I wondered what would happen if we could not dock in our home port. I recalled every bad cruise story I had done my best to ignore up to that moment, and I felt a heavy sense of responsibility for our participants.

In my cabin, with one hand on the wall, I felt entirely helpless, even as I prayed.

Why does Mark give us this storm on the Sea of Galilee? His intricately composed gospel gives each story a place with a particular narrative intention. It's easy for us to wonder what was wrong with the disciples, clueless and disbelieving as they were. Surely the fishermen among them, at least, would have known how to handle the boat in a storm, but we do not hear anything like that. Instead, they have a major freak-out and jump to the conclusion that all is lost.

And because I know from my own experience of wall-holding that the literal and metaphorical storms of life can leave us feeling unmoored, I suspect there is more to this story than a factual recounting of a dark and stormy night that stood out in the memories of the disciples. Consider the people who first heard these stories read aloud. Mark wrote for an early church community that felt threatened by Rome; this story served as a reminder of both who they were and whose they were. They could see themselves with the disciples, all in the same boat.

The disciples "were filled with great awe," we read in verse 41, "and said to one another, 'Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!'"

What else did the disciples need to see? Magician, shaman, weather-controller, what else must Jesus do to open their eyes to his super-nature? Rise from the dead?

We have the benefit of hindsight. Before we scorn the disciples, perhaps we need to sit with our eyes closed and let ourselves feel the swell of the waves and the power of the wind, the nausea of both motion sickness and a reasonable fear of death, the water washing over the side of the boat to soak us, the desperate clinging to anything that feels solid. Maybe we need to remember the times we have called out for help and wondered if anyone, even God, cared. Maybe we need to admit that in the middle of such moments, even when help has come, we haven't always recognized it immediately.

Mark is not offering a corrective to the disciples, but a reassurance to his first listeners. They knew the answer to the existential question, and so do we. Jesus rises up from the cushion in the stern of the boat. They brought him along, "just as he was," their tired teacher and frustrated friend, who was also the Son of God. Jesus rebuked the wind just as they had seen him rebuke evil spirits, and the wind knew him, and the storm subsided.

What would it mean to acknowledge that the one we follow is not just an effective teacher, or a spiritual boyfriend, or a moral exemplar? What commitment would it require to claim that the one we follow is actually God?

That may scare us more than the storm.

In my work as a clergy coach, I talk to a lot of pastors about how things are going in their churches. They are situated in predominantly white, mainline churches, some urban, some suburban, and others rural. We reflect together on cultural shifts that have an impact on attendance patterns and volunteer availability. We note the way some things have evolved for the good at the same time we note resistance to some of our creative attempts. We acknowledge the challenge of navigating the needed work of anti-racism and LGBTQ+ inclusion with congregations that fear change. We grieve for things that will never be the same. We wonder whether the church as we have known it will survive, and, to be ruthlessly honest, whether it should.

We all fear the end of things we love.

We all want help in what feels like a time of crisis.

We all have trouble seeing Jesus for who he is.

There must be something else going on in the story of the disciples in the storm, something else to recognize in the story we are telling ourselves.

Remember where the boat was headed, to the other side of the lake, to a community of the Gentiles. Think about where we are headed now - into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the place where our familiar ways are no longer dominant in our increasingly secular culture.

The disciples survived the storm, and they did not turn back that night. They continued on with Jesus. Their capacity for understanding and their record of sticking with him, however, would remain checkered.

We are all in the same boat.

The good news is this: God is in the boat with us.

May we know who Jesus is, and may we find the courage to keep sailing with him, wherever he leads.

Let us pray.

Holy One, you call us to follow you into the boat, across the sea, through the storm, and to the other side. Grant us grace to see you and to know you for who you are. Amen.