Mark consistently refers to the freshwater lake as a ‘sea’ in order to invoke the most primal narratives in the Hebrew tradition: the Ark of Noah; the crossing of the Red Sea; and the psalmic odes to storms. But, above all, Mark draws on the tale of Jonah, the prophet who resisted the call to preach repentance to foreigners (read Jonah 1). — Ched Myers, ‘Say to this Mountain’: Mark’s Story of Discipleship
Eight years ago, my wife and I were in Israel on a tour. While there, we went on a boat trip across the Lake of Galilee. We were in a boat that was almost a twin of this one; I took the photo from our boat.
Storms come up on Lake Galilee all the time, and they come quickly. When we were something over halfway across, our little boat began riding some pretty rough water.
Our guide looked thoughtful. To be more accurate: our guide looked like he was trying to appear thoughtful rather than worried.
When we were safely onto dry land, he told us that had the storm been brewing as we were about to leave, he would have cancelled the boat trip. It would be just too dangerous.
If you go to the museum in Tiberias, a town on the western shore of Lake Galilee, you’ll see a boat that may have been very like the one that Jesus and the disciples were out on. This first-century boat was found in 1986, buried in silt and quite well preserved.
Storms blow up very quickly indeed on Lake Galilee. And while the tub we went out on was pretty basic, the boat Jesus and the disciples were in was far more spartan still.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be getting on that boat to go on a duck pond. Imagine being in it if a storm came! I don’t blame the disciples one tiny bit for being terrified.
So far, I’ve named the expanse of water that the disciples were on, and we were on some years ago, as the Lake of Galilee. Or just Lake Galilee.
Of course, it has another name. It’s often called the Sea of Galilee. That’s very common way of naming it. But why call it a sea? Galilee is a landlocked freshwater lake. Why ‘sea’?
A week ago, I found out for the very first time that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, was the first person to call Galilee a ‘sea’. (Ched Myers, ‘Say to this Mountain’: Mark’s Story of Discipleship). No one ever called it a sea before Mark. Isn’t that amazing? (I think so!)
The question remains: why call it a ‘sea’?
When Mark calls Galilee a sea, he is deliberately echoing certain stories in the Hebrew Scriptures.
For example: the Great Flood of Noah. Like the story we heard today, often called The Stilling of the Storm, Noah’s Flood can be seen as a story of God’s deliverance of people from a watery grave.
Or take the parting of the Red Sea: the Israelites walk through the hazardous sea as if on dry land. We imagine the parted waters holding still while the people walk through. (Remember Prince of Egypt?)
The sea was a place of dangerous monsters. The ancient Hebrews named one ‘Leviathan’. In Job 41, God says
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir [Leviathan] up.
Who can stand before it? …
Who can strip off its outer garment?
Who can penetrate its double coat of mail? … [vv 10, 13]
It sounds like Leviathan was something of a marine dragon:
Its sneezes flash forth light,
and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
From its mouth go flaming torches
sparks of fire leap out.
Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth. [vv 18–21]
Yet — Leviathan is only a creature of God, formed by God to play in the sea:
Yonder is the sea, great and wide …
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it. [Psalm 104.25-26]
The sea can be a terrifying place, but God is greater than the sea. In Mark’s story, Christ is greater than the storm on the ‘Sea’ of Galilee.
There’s yet another sea story from the Hebrew Scriptures that comes to mind here: it’s the story of Jonah. My all-time favourite book of the Bible. I reckon Mark definitely had it in mind.
Jonah is another story of a great storm on the high seas. Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the brutal Assyrians.
He gets on a ship to go as far away as he could, to a place called Tarshish. He figures God won’t find him there. And of course, he is thrown off the ship at the height of the storm, then swallowed by a great fish and finally thrown up onto a beach.
When he finally goes to Nineveh to cry out against their wickedness, they repent!
Why did Jonah hide from God? Because he suspected that God would be kind to Jonah’s enemies. Listen to what he says:
That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. [Jonah 4.2]
God was too gracious for Jonah’s liking! Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh. He didn’t want to be the means by which God showed them mercy. Poor old Jonah.
Some of you may have been hoping I’d talk about the Uniting Church, since our 44th anniversary will dawn on Tuesday 22 June. Shall we do that?
The Christian church has long been symbolised as a boat. The logos of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of Australia reflect that:
The structure of this church building reflects it too. It’s meant to remind you of a boat. Can you see how the struts on the ceiling suggest a ship’s hull? And the central aisle is the ‘nave’, which comes from the Latin word navis. The word ‘navy’ is also derived from navis.
The Uniting Church is a small boat on a treacherous sea. We are often frightened by the waves that seem to us from all directions. How will the Uniting Church survive the storms? What will we look like in another forty four years? I have no idea.
Why did Jesus and the disciples get in a boat? To get to the other side. No, really, it’s not a poor attempt at humour, a play on ‘Why did the chicken cross the road’ — Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side’. So they got into the boat.
What was on the other side? Gentile territory. ‘Other’ people. ‘Those’ people. Read chapter 5: they were about to get right out of their comfort zones with a naked demon-possessed self-harming Gentile who lived in a cemetery near a huge herd of pigs. I think that would be something like hell for a pious Jew.
The Uniting Church also gets into trouble when it follows Jesus and goes across to the other side. It’s trouble alright, but it’s ‘good trouble’. (This is a phrase used by US Congressperson John Lewis, who marched across the Edmond Pettus Bridge with Rev Dr Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965.)
Why do we go across to the other side, in our rickety boat that has more holes in it than nails to hold it together?
It’s simple: we go because Jesus calls us. Because just staying on the one side is to be untrue to our calling. So how has the Uniting Church gone across to the other side?
We have gone to the other side to where people are not like what we imagine straight, white, middle-class 1950s people were. We go there in the name of the God who is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love’.
As NAIDOC 2021 draws near, we recall that we have said the Uniting Church is not a white mob that does good things for Aboriginal people. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress determines indigenous business in the Uniting Church. We got into good trouble back in the day. I remember a small book called Red over Black, which claimed that Communism (not just socialism) was behind the fight for Aboriginal justice.
And because we are not a white mob, we are also a multicultural church that embraces non-Anglo second comers to these lands now called Australia. We have ethnic congregations, such as Park Church, a Tongan congregation a few blocks away. Every Sunday, the Uniting Church worships in many languages other than English. Is that the end of the journey? Maybe not, maybe we haven’t reached the other side yet. But it’s where we are at the moment.
Just as we are not a white church, we’re not a straight church that tolerates LGBTIQ people if they stay quiet. Though that is still a hard nut to crack in some places. That’s a sea some congregations don’t want to cross. Whether they cross it or not, the Uniting Church is an inclusive church. Here at West End, we are open and affirming. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back though; let’s see how we can be more inclusive still.
There are any number of ‘other sides’ we can go to. Any amount of ‘good trouble’ we can get into.
We can’t stay huddled on the shore and be faithful to Jesus. Let’s never forget though, when the storms blow up: Jesus is in the boat with us. When the waves buffet our leaky little tub, we call to him for grace and strength and direction.
There is a prayer I love. It’s called the Breton Fisher’s Prayer:
Dear God, be good to me;
the sea is so wide,
and my boat is so small.
The sea is so wide. It always will be!
Our boat is so small. And it sometimes leaks water!
Yet God’s Spirit is with us, and we are on our way across to the other side. Amen.
West End Uniting Church 20 June 2021