Not in danger, only near death

Sermon from 4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 24, 2012
Mark 4:35-41

          As many of you know, Maggie and I took a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral just before I began my ministry here at Holy Comforter. Canterbury Cathedral is the spiritual center of the Anglican Communion and served as the home for many of the world’s greatest theologians and writers. And in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral witnessed the death of one of its Archbishops, Thomas Becket.

The site of Becket’s martyrdom

T.S. Eliot wrote a play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” about Becket’s martyrdom. Thomas Becket and the King of England are at odds with one another. The King, upset that his earthly power is threatened by this godly man, wishes that somebody would rid the world of Becket. So four knights, with dreams of glory from the King, go to Canterbury to kill Becket. On December 29, 1170, the four bloodthirsty knights, fortified by wine, chase Becket through Canterbury Cathedral with swords in hand and murder on the mind. Becket’s assistants, priests and monks, help him run through the Cathedral seeking safety, until they come to the entrance to the Canterbury Cathedral’s choir. The monks and priests urge him to keep running, to find safety, to fly from the present danger. And Becket, inspired by the Holy Spirit, looks around to his friends, and as he hears the bloodthirsty knights just yards away, ready to kill him, he simply stops running. He turns and says, “I am not in danger, only near death.” I am not in danger, only near death.

This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had difficulty learning. Their boat is being rocked, the waves are crushing over the gunwales, they are in danger of swamping. Their lives are on the verge of being extinguished by the chaotic winds and waves. And where is Jesus? Asleep. On a cushion. In the back of the boat. Scared out of their mind they shake Jesus by the shoulders, waking him and screaming, “Don’t you care that we are dying?!”

The funny thing about this story is that Jesus doesn’t really answer their question. I see him waking up from the back of the boat, grumpy, maybe with bedhead. I almost see him roll his eyes as the disciples panic and try to bail out the water from the boat. After calming the storm Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, what I believe, to be a snarky question: “Why are you afraid? Is it because you still don’t have any faith?” Or he could have put it this way: “You are not in danger, only near death.”

Because I have news for you; everybody is going to die. There is no getting out of life alive. One day, whether in a tragic accident, or peacefully in our sleep, or after a long battle with cancer, we are all going to die. This truth is something that our culture tries to cover up. We don’t even talk about death – we prefer to say that somebody has “passed away” or that their life has “expired.” But as one wise priest told me, time passes away, milk expires, and people die.

Death comes to all of us, but that is not the danger.

There is another truth embedded within this passage. There will be storms in life. The waves will crash in and the winds will howl. The rain will blow in sideways and the water will come flooding in. Disasters, small and great, will visit each one of us; no matter how much we love Jesus. And that’s the sobering lesson in this passage. Jesus, who loves the disciples very much, is with them in the boat and still, still the storm blows and howls and visits its fury upon them.

Just a few weeks ago, I met somebody who lives here in Spring but who doesn’t go to this church. We began talking, and I said that I am the new priest over at Holy Comforter. “Oh,” she said, “You’re Friar Jimmy. I saw your name on that sign!” I didn’t take the time to correct her and tell her that I’m actually Father Jimmy. As the conversation went on, we began to share our faith with one another. And then this woman said something that scandalized me. She said, “You know, I’ve found that when you love God, life just seems to go so smoothly.” My mental jaw hit the floor.

Thomas Becket loved God dearly, and his life was all but smooth. Hounded by a king, an enemy of the state, four drunken knights literally stabbed Becket in the back because he loved God. That is not an easy life. That is a stormy life. All because he loved God.

And life for the disciples wasn’t all that easy either. They left their livelihoods, their families, and everything they knew in order to follow Jesus. They sailed through this terrific storm with God himself in the boat. And eventually, they were scattered and murdered. The disciples’ lives did not go smoothly. They had stormy lives. All because they loved God.

Loving God and following Jesus is not like making a contract. We don’t sit down with the creator of the universe and sign a document that says “If I love you, God, then you will sail me around the storms.” Though that message is preached by some, I say that it is a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how much you love God and follow Jesus, the storms in life will come. The danger is not that you will die. The danger is that you may be afraid and run away from the storm.

Each day when you wake up, you are confronted with a choice. You are standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus says that he needs to get to the other side, and that it’s time to load up the boat and cross the sea. Though in the distance, you can hear thunder, and you know that a storm is brewing. As you load up the boat, the skies begin to darken and the first rain drops fall, and the wind begins to pick up. Yet still, Jesus is tired, and he needs to get to the other side. And as the disciples are loading up the boat and you begin to see the lightning on the horizon, you are confronted with a choice. You can go or you can stay.

You can stay behind and find a nice cave to sleep in. You’ll be dry there, and you’ll have plenty of food and you’ll be warm. The storm will pass and you’ll be safe. But you won’t be with Jesus, because he has crossed to the other side.

Or you can load up with the disciples. You leave behind the safety and comfort of that nice cave or tent. You pack your bags and head straight into the teeth of the storm, because that’s where God is. As you leave the shore the waves crash into the boat and the wind is beating you back. Your little boat is battered and rocked and in danger of sinking. Yet you are with Jesus. And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, they do. You are sinking. The baggage and heaviness of life is catching up with you. Thomas Becket is stabbed in the back. The disciples are executed one by one. Your commitment to Jesus makes you unpopular, unsavory, it makes you a nuisance.

It’s a stormy life to remind the world that everybody is going to die. It’s a stormy life to tell the world that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. It’s a stormy life to care more for the poor and powerless than the rich and famous. God doesn’t take us away from the storms. If God is the captain of our lives, then we go straight into the teeth of the storm. The winds will come. The waves will crash in. Our boats will be swamped.

But through it all, we are not in danger. We may be near death, but we are not in danger. Jesus rises from the back of the boat and rebukes the chaos, “Peace! Be still!” Jesus rises from the grave, giving us the life of the Kingdom of God. Jesus rises with us every day and asks us to follow him on the voyage, even though the storm is brewing. Jesus, as the captain of our lives, demands that we pack our bags, jump into the boat, and head out into the gale. We are not in danger, we are near Jesus.

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