Who Sails the Ship?

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Today it was my joy to share worship with the United Church of Stillwater as they elected their Pastor Nominating Committee and began their journey to calling their next pastor.  The sermon text is Mark 4:35-41, Jesus and the Disciples in the Storm.  Blessings to the Stillwater Church as their search process begins! 

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“Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?”

Pastor, do you not care about the membership numbers?

Pastor, do you not care about the youth group?

Pastor, do you not care about my mom who is in the hospital?

Pastor, do you not care about the strawberry festival?

Pastor, do you not care about the leaking roof?

Pastor, do you not care about how we format the worship bulletin?

Pastor, do you not care about what hymnal we use?

Pastor, do you not care?

You can imagine Jesus sleeping in the stern of the boat as it bobbed up and down on the sea, gently rocking him to sleep.

Jesus finally getting the opportunity to rest.

He had just engaged in healings and teachings. He had struggled with his family relationships.

He has been going non-stop.

He must have been exhausted. He must have been tired.

And so as he goes out onto the sea with his new disciples, most of them fisherman and night falls, he allows himself to fall asleep and take the rest he has been needing. To get a night’s sleep.

To let others be in charge and steer the ship.

To take a rest from leadership.

No sooner does he fall asleep than a storm begins.

Jesus still does not wake up. He is so very tired.

And then he is woken up in the most unceremonious way.

Hands shaking his body.

Pushing him.

Poking him.

Yelling at him.

Accusing him.

“Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?!?!?”

Can you imagine?

Any of us who have been woken up when we are sleeping, bothered when we are trying to take a break, harassed when we have been trying to rest.

Can commiserate with Jesus.

What is wrong with the disciples?

Why are they so stressed out?

Why are they so worried?

Why are they not trusting their skill set?

After all they are the fishermen.

They know the sea.

They must have been in other storms before.

Jesus is not a fisherman.

Jesus is not an expert on sailing.

What is wrong with the disciples?

What is wrong is that they are anxious.

Anxiety robs us of our ability to think clearly and to behave rationally or politely. Anxiety causes us to lash out, to not trust our instincts or our accumulated skill set. Common, every-day occurrences make us behave differently.

The disciples are anxious.

I would like to suggest this morning that their anxiety is not about the storm. They know what they are doing. They are the experts of the sea.   But they have been hanging around with Jesus for a few weeks or months perhaps and what they have seen thus far is beginning to scare them. He’s taking them to the other side of the sea, to new territory and they know what is over there on the other side—people who are like the walking dead, victims of violence and terror and who are not right in the head. And Jesus is taking them over there. They’ve seen Jesus touch untouchables; heal those who no one else cared to heal. They’ve seen him talk back to his family.

And they are at that moment when you have started something new and you are starting to have misgivings.

They are in the middle of the sea.

There is no turning back.

And they have decided that their skills no longer work, they are leaving all of the control in the hands of Jesus.

They have sunk into a spiral of anxiety.

For me, this is an excellent passage to meditate upon as you begin your journey of beginning to look for your next pastor. What kind of leader do you want? What kind of responsibility do you want to take for the search and the relationship with your new pastor? Because she or he is out there—and God already knows who he or she is. The Spirit is already preparing the way for you.

This passage raises many questions. I’d like to focus on just two today:

One of them is: how is ministry practiced?

The best pastoral leaders are not what I call “Christian Performance Artists” but leaders. But oftentimes what we want is the Christian Performance Artist. The pastor who does the leadership of Christian faith for us. The pastor who makes all the hospital and shut in visits so we do not have to. The pastor who organizes every worship service. Who takes care of the building. The pastor who does it all. For the world we live in today, the communities we are a part of in this part of the country where conservatively 30% of people identify as “none”, as in no religious affiliation of any kind, be it Presbyterian or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist….anything—and are not looking—we need pastoral leadership that leads every single member of every single faith community to be a leader. For the congregation to take on the work of visitation, building maintenance and other tasks so that the pastor is free to spend 90% of hers or his time equipping others for ministry. Being a teacher.   Being out in the community talking to people who have no affiliation but are looking for a place to belong about Jesus and about this congregation. Helping every single person who is a part of this community of faith deepen their discipleship. Pushing the envelope and never slowing down. Being an encourager, a coach and a cheerleader. Not becoming a specialist in everything—but being a specialist in one thing only: sharing the love of Jesus Christ, teaching and making disciples and multiplying ministry while at the same time being an interpreter of today’s culture and engaging in innovative practice to reach new people in one of the hardest times for any of us to be engaged in this practice we call being Church together.

The second question is: what kind of a sea do we like?

Most of us if we are honest prefer tranquility, peace and calm. Like the disciples in the boat we prefer (and I include myself in this!) a sea that is clear blue water. Looks like a mirror on top. No waves. A light breeze that takes you exactly where you want to go. But that was not what the disciples got that night. And that is not what we are going to get into the future. Let us remember the historical backdrop to Mark’s Gospel: “As best we can discern, Mark’s church was living in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.” The sea around them was not calm. It was disturbed and traumatized from years of war and violence. Symbols and structures of importance had been destroyed.

We are in one of those in-between, liminal times today. We are still recovering from an economic crash—some places will never recover. We have been at war for years. Our communities struggle. The sea around us is not calm. We might not have the same exact situation that is being faced by those in Mark’s Gospel—but we can relate to the feeling of wanting a calm sea. Dreaming about smooth sailing. As your next pastor begins this will not be the case.   Of course there will be joy and love and a new beginning. But there will also be greater challenges ahead of you than you have faced in your past.

Living out and sharing the Gospel in this time is difficult work. Your pastor will be tired. She or he will want to take some time to rest.  Ministry of our present-future requires a new level of commitment to constant change and constant learning. The work of community building will be more difficult because we are blessed to be living through the next reformation of our Church. A new awakening. So we have to be prepared for rough waters, choppy seas—the seas of change and renewal of the Church. That is the sea we are facing. Just like the sea in today’s Gospel passage.

Here’s the Good News!

Today you begin anew! Today you take the first steps towards calling your next pastor! And I believe that God has already called that person. He or she is out there and does not yet know the amazing adventure they are about to undertake with you.

But God knows.

God knows about the choppy sea and the needs you have in navigating them.

And God has already planned and provided for your next pastor.

And here’s the Good News!

You are not alone!

I am here, Lois is here. Pastor Aline is here. Your Presbytery is here. We are here to work with you, to walk beside you and to help you. I know the last time we did this together it was hard and it was a struggle that deeply affected your congregation. I know this. I was here with you 18 months ago in worship on one of those difficult days. And I promised you then that we would work together to make a new way. God sent Pastor Aline who has walked this journey with you. God sent new people in our Presbytery who stepped up to walk beside you. And now the Holy Spirit is working and weaving the next steps in the process.

The sea may be chopping but Jesus is steering the ship.

No one else.

And we are not alone.

And the way and new beginning has already been provided for.

The Good News, for you and for me.

Alleluia. Amen.

+Photo credits, Shannan Vance-Ocampo of Stillwater United Church (July 2015) and Lake George, NY (October 2014)

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