This is how our gospel lesson opens: Jesus speaks. It’s an abrupt beginning (as most movement in Mark’s gospel is) where Jesus gives a vague description of what’s up ahead.
And this is what Jesus says to his followers:
“Let’s go across to the other side.”
In these 7 words, we hear no physical description of point A (where they were) or point B (where they were going).
We hear no persuasive speech about the benefits of being on the other side like any parent would do with their grumpy children in tow. “We’re going doctor now, but when we’re done, we’ll get ice cream! Don’t you want ice cream? So you really want to go to the doctor, don’t you?”
We hear no explanation of why the other side is important. It’s set up like one of the stupidest jokes of all times, “Why did the chicken cross the road? . . . To get to the other side!”
But with this simple declarative statement, “Let’s go to the other side” Jesus and his attentive motley crew of 12 disciples and probably some women too find themselves on a boat to reach the unknown.
I can imagine this new journey began with anticipation bubbling over for those in this boat. After all, Jesus recently called them, named them “apostles” and drew crowds of hundreds of people to listen to his teaching. What could be next? It had to be amazing, right?
So why not get on the boat with Jesus? This might be their gateway to the next big thing! And the disciples, I’m sure wanted to be doing the next big thing!
My friend, Krista is one of the most well-traveled people I know. She's always on a journey to the next big thing.
When we catch up for dinner, she always tells me about her next trip planned (even if she just got back from one). You name it; she’ll do it—from scuba diving in the Maldives to spending a day as if she’s a village woman while in Rwanda to swimming with the dolphins in the Cayman Islands. She even came to visit me this year in Oklahoma (see our adventure at the Round Barn on Historic Route 66)! And with trips like this under your belt, I’d say my friend is winning at the adventure card!
Recently, Krista spent Christmas holidays with a group of girl friends in Tanzania with the big plan of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro—the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world at over 19,000 feet above sea level.
When Krista told me about the beginning of the hiking trip she began by saying, “Our guide gathered us at midnight.”
I quickly asked “Why? Why would you start such a climb in the middle of the night? Don’t they know that you’d be so tired?”
“I thought the same thing,” she said, “But I went along with the instructions. And later our guide told us this, ‘Because it’s one of the world’s steepest mountains, we needed to start at night. If we began our journey in the daytime we’d see the tough terrain and would not want to take the next step. And furthermore, in the morning, the winds at the base of the mountain are so bad. It would be too scary for us to move an inch.”
And the same would be true of the disciples. If they knew what was coming ahead, they wouldn't begin the journey either!
Because soon after they go in, verse 37 of our text says this, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat.”
I can imagine the disciples' chatter to one another, “This was not what we signed up for!”
But, regardless for their feelings, the windstorm raged on and the waves become higher. The waves got so high that the boat filled with water. They could see the storm. They could hear the storm. They could taste the storm. They could smell the storm too as the water ran over their sandals, and then up their ankles and to their knees.
In the middle of the sea, in the middle of the storm, in the middle of their boat filling up with water, the disciples reached a hard place.
Their journey with Jesus brought them a hard place.
It was a terrible moment when all logic screamed these giant red flags: great suffering up ahead! Pain! Loss! The destruction of dreams! Just prepare yourselves, disciples; this is not going to be pretty this trip in the sea.
But there was no escaping where they were at that very moment. A VERY HARD PLACE.
When I thought about the words hard place this week, my mind couldn’t help but go to that one hard place that is on all our minds this morning. I couldn’t help but speak aloud the place of Charleston, SC.
I couldn’t help but mention the fact that it was at a Wednesday night Bible study only days ago these 9 folks lost their lives simply because they showed up at church—names like Sister Sharonda, Rev. Pinckney, Sister Cynthia, Brother Tywanza, Sister Myra, Sister Ethel, Rev. Daniel, Rev. Depayne, and Sister Susie.
It’s a sin few of us want to talk about few want to name, especially people who look like me.
I couldn’t help but name the heaviness of this hard place for our African-American brothers and sisters especially this morning—those who have put on their Sunday clothes, those who have driven to their congregations, those who have gotten out of their cars and walked up the steps to their sanctuaries afraid.
Afraid for their pastors.
Afraid for their children.
Afraid for themselves.
Afraid that the color of their skin makes them a target for violence done in the name of hate.
It’s a heaviness that we who are white do not and cannot understand.
But yet if we believe we are a part of ONE body who worship ONE Lord, it’s a hard place we must acknowledge and acknowledge some more. When one of us hurts in the Body of Christ, we all do.
And in this, I can’t help but think of how churches like this one define themselves: to be a progressive Christians.
You define yourself according the welcome page on your website as “a community that honors asking questions, serving our neighbors, seeking justice, celebrating diversity, and welcoming all of God’s children. We seek to be a place where all people are embraced for their unique gifts and invited to participate fully in all areas of ministry.”
I can’t help but think about what our shared family of progressive Baptists, the Alliance of Baptists which I am glad to be a part, speaks of as their mission:
“We are Christians knit together by love for one another and God, combining progressive inquiry, contemplative prayer and prophetic action to bring about justice and healing in a changing world.”
And in all of this thinking, I began to wonder then about how our desire to stand up for justice collides with the hard place of this week?
How is God calling us to be in this hard place . . . beyond just putting out a statement condemning hate (as our friends at the Alliance already have done)?
It’s so easy. It’s so very easy to take on the name “progressive.” I would say in this part of the world it’s acceptable label. In some secular circles in DC you’re accepted when you otherwise wouldn't be when you can say you belong to a church that cares about social justice.
But what happens on weeks like this? What happens when the world cries out for justice and for gun violence in churches to not be ok?
Where do we find our progressive mission then? What do we do, church?
And this is a very hard place.
So like those disciples in the boat with Jesus, what will we do with our hard place?
Will we stand with our fellow disciples like those at Emmanuel AME? And, as we stand, will we acknowledge our contributions to this hard place?
Or will we say things like, “It’s a shame.” Or, “What a tragedy!” And leave the work of racial reconciliation to someone else?
As we begin to answer these questions for ourselves, you problem have some concerns.
If you’re like me, with such a problem seemingly “out there” when it comes to the news and Charleston not being our city or our suburb, it’s easy to become swept away feeling overwhelmed. It's not like we can all go to Charleston today and weep alongside this grieving church.
We’re talking about a big problem. Racism is no small thing. It’s a systematic problem embedded in practices and traditions upheld for centuries that if we are white, we've benefited from!
And if you’re like me, you might just want somebody to tell you what to do. “I’d be glad to my part, pastor, if I just knew what to do."
But remember friends, where we found our scripture this morning—in a storm.
Storms are dark. Storms are murky. Storms are such especially in the middle of the sea that you can’t see 10 feet in front of you even if you wanted.
There aren’t always clear answers or clear next steps in storms are there? Where to steer? When to put up the sails? When to stop?
And in the same way, like those first disciples, to reach the other side of this hard place in our country, we, the white church, need to say, “Please help me understand” a lot and "I want to listen" a lot. Knowing that we’ll make mistakes and we never will have the perfect words.
But, we’re following Jesus after all, aren’t we? And like my friend, Krista's journey, we don't get to see what the whole climb up the mountain will be either.
Yet, our job is to actively participate in Jesus’ salvation plan for all people, us included. You and I will be changed on a journey like this—and it’s exactly the point!
And while yes, this whole calling of putting feet to our feet is going to be scary; our fear doesn’t have to immobilize us.
For Jesus comes to us and says like he did to those first disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Commentator Bruce Writer says this about being a disciple: "Jesus didn’t expect [the disciples] to stand steely-jawed and silent in the face of the storm. He simply expected them to manage their fear by knowing that he was there, and that he was able, and that he would act." And so we too “Are not called to be fearless. We are called to face our fears by knowing that someone greater than our fears is present, and that Someone cares and can act.”
So though today, we all might find ourselves in the middle of a journey we didn’t sign up for, wouldn’t have started if we saw where it was headed, or even want to see to the other side—this doesn’t change the fact: we’re at a hard place.
It’s the only place we, church, can faithfully be.
The good news is that we're never alone. Because remember- it's Jesus in the boat with us!
So then: what then will the American church do next? What will our progressive family of faith do next? What will the Broadneck Church do next? What will you do next?
We're in a hard place.