Down with the Ship

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 20, 2021
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

When the bubble popped, we all felt it. It was September 2008. A web of mortgage backed securities, investment banks, and Wall Street stocks all melted down at once. We watched with horror as this neat little line graph of the Dow Jones was going up, up, up, and then way down. I was in seminary at the time and had just started working at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. It was at that moment that the rector asked me to give my first fundraising talk to the church. Here I am, some young kid out of college with zero assets talking to a bunch of grown ups with dwindling retirement portfolios telling them why they should give more money to the church. My talk went over like a lead balloon.

As I reflect on that time, I remember learning just how much the economy dominates our lives. Every conversation, every thought, even every seminary class was taking place in the shadow of the financial collapse. But that is the very lesson we keep forgetting. At the end of the day, everything gets boiled down to a financial decision. The kind of job you want to get. The school you want to attend. Where you live. How you get to work. And once a decision is made, we are tied to those decisions for years, even decades to come. I mean, have you ever dared to look at the maturity date for your mortgage? It’ll make you shudder. And the economy has so come to dominate us that even minor decisions when we are young can set the trajectory for our entire lives. Think of this – I had a credit card throughout college and seminary that was faithfully paid off every month. I used it mostly to buy things like toothpaste at the grocery store. When Maggie and I got married, we canceled that credit card because we were joining all our accounts. No big deal, right? Well, to this day, my credit score is lower than Maggie’s simply because a credit card in my name was canceled. This means that when we bought a house, or get a car, Maggie has to be the primary signer in order to get the best interest rate. Hey, I’m happy to let her have it, but if the consequences for something so minor are so dominating for us, think of what happens with something major. Think of what that could mean for someone who doesn’t have two good jobs like Maggie and I do. An unexpected medical bill. A car accident. A hurricane. A global financial meltdown. The economy has mastery over our lives. 

It’s as if we’re in this little boat, just as we are, and a great windstorm arises. We made the simple decision to cross to the other side, and everything erupts into chaos. Battered by the uncertain waves, bailing out the water as quick as we can, we look for help in any place that we can find it. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). The storm, like finance, has a totalizing, dominating impact on the disciples. It is all they can think about because their next decision may very well be their last. 

In a raw display of power, exhibiting his nature as the Lord God, Jesus calms the dominating wind and waves, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). And there is a dead calm. But there’s more. See, this is not Jesus calming the storm. This is a manifestation of Jesus’ dominion over and mastery of all creation. Think back on the psalm we just read, Psalm 107. This whole story is a recapitulation of that psalm. “He stilled the storm to a whisper, and quieted the waves of the sea” (Psalm 107:29). But it goes even deeper than that – think of what we read from the book of Job. God is the one who shut the doors of the sea, who commanded that it should go no farther (Job 38:8-11). This is not just a story about the wind and the waves. This is not just a story about some worried disciples in a boat. This is not asking God for help when you’re in a bind. This is a statement about Jesus’ identity. The disciples ask that primary theological question, “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). The answer is clear – this is the Lord God Almighty. 

In that way, this story is a stern warning to all the other forces in our lives that vie to dominate us. They will not win. They will not swamp the boat. The waves may batter you, the stock market might melt down, the pension might evaporate; but those forces do not stand a chance against the power of God

This is the freedom given to us in Christ. In Christ, one bad decision from years ago does not have to dictate your life of faith. Forgiveness from God is the cancellation of that debt, that credit card, that indiscretion, setting you free to live in Christ. Freedom in Christ means that your life of faith is not measured by some indiscriminate number that judges all your past decisions. There is no salvation credit score. The only credit is the one accrued to you by the blood of Jesus upon the cross. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to give, even if it doesn’t make “financial sense.” We are free to give and we give freely because it is a way to say that money, the economy, is not our master. The Lord Jesus is our master, because he has mastery over all things.

And yet this freedom does not mean that we are in our own boat all by ourselves. Freedom in Christ does not mean that we can live for ourselves only. Instead, freedom in Christ means that we are free to live for and with each other. Notice what happens on that boat. The disciples are frantically bailing out water and they wake Jesus up, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:48, emphasis mine). Sometimes it takes a crisis to recognize that we are all in the same boat. We will make it to the other side or we will go down with the ship, together. As one of you pointed out to me this week, it almost reads as if the disciples are waking up Jesus to get him to help them bail out the boat. Like, “hey buddy, grab a bucket, will ya?” In that way, the light has dawned upon the disciples. They realize that they need each other and that they will all succeed or fail, together. When the bubble pops, it pops on everybody.

We learned that in 2008. You saw the pictures as I did; investment bankers walking out of their offices with cardboard boxes; Wall Street traders with heads in their hands; financial policy makers looking just as scared as we were. We are in this boat together, though we do not always want to be. We want to get ahead; we want to be the one getting that bonus and not our co-worker; we want to sell the stock at the right time and not the other guy. We treat our economic system as a game. We want to catch a stock while it is hot, ride it to the top, and sell it just before it busts. Who cares about the people who actually work at that company? Who cares about everybody else stuck with that garbage stock? But the very fact we think and behave that way is the problem. We have allowed the economy to dominate us, to batter our boat, to toss us about in the storm. For freedom, Christ has set you free to stop living as if you are the only that mattered. For freedom, Christ stills the storm so that we can all make it to the other side, together.

Now, maybe more than ever, I have to say one of my favorite phrases – “don’t hear what I’m not saying.” I am not saying that the economy is inherently evil. I am not saying that any one method of fiscal policy is better than another. I am not telling you to hide all your cash under your mattress. I am not telling you to quit your job and move into a commune. What I am saying is that we have allowed economic decisions to dominate our lives when, as Christians, we know it is God who has mastery over us. And all too often we have made decisions based on finance, not faith. I think that is what Jesus means when he says, “you cannot serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). 

One of the most rattling things we learned in 2008 is that money is fiction. When all those stocks plummeted, the value simply disappeared. It wasn’t like when you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store – you get the milk and HEB gets the money. No, in 2008 the money just vanished. If that is not a warning about who or what to trust, I don’t know what is. Hear what I am saying, Jesus Christ is freeing you from the economic prison of your own making. You are now free to make decisions in Christ, and with Christ, and for Christ, and not for yourselves. You are now free to receive God’s absolution as a free gift of grace for whatever past indiscretion or mistake you made. And when the next financial storm hits, because you know it will, that’s how the economy works, cling fast to God and to one another. Jesus does care that we are perishing. And Jesus sets us free.

Note: this sermon draws heavily on Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner.

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