Straining Against the Oars

Mark 6:45-52
David A. Davis
October 14, 2018
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I was with my peer group of Presbyterian pastors this week. We met at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD just outside of Annapolis. One afternoon we all climbed a board a big old sail boat to head out into the Chesapeake. There was a boat show in town so the marina and the harbor were full of really big yachts. One of my colleagues pointed out a part of the marina in Annapolis harbor that the locals call “ego alley”. “You come in here just to show off your boat”, he said. Before sails went up, the captain had the motor on and we were maneuvering through the traffic toward more open water. At one point we passed a big fancy yacht, 50 or 60 feet or so, with two or three people aboard. It was out in the middle of the harbor with the anchor dropped. The people were on the back of the boat and as we drew near, we could see one man standing outside the boat on a ledge of some sort up to his calves in the water. He wasn’t dressed for a swim. In fact, he was holding a bottle of beer. As our boat of 25 pastors and crew puttered by, he yelled over to us, “look, I’m Jesus!” Then, as if he needed to explain it to us, he said, “I’m walking on water!”  A friend whispered in my ear, “God help us if that’s Jesus!”

Everyone knows Jesus walked on water. Of all the gospel miracles, this is the one that’s made it into the vernacular; “he thinks he walks on water, they act like she walks on water, they expect me to walk on water.” So common, so over used, so domesticated that the occasion told in scripture tends to get only a casual read, a passing glance. Whether you find yourself in the school of miracle deconstruction ( he was just walking in shallow water) or solidly in the camp that accepts the invitation into the strange old world of the bible, it’s so easy to kind of toss this one to the side. “yeah, everybody knows Jesus walked on water…next?”

If one takes a step back and looks at the 6th chapter of Mark from 30,000 ft, it is all about the developing identity of Jesus as the messiah and the disciples’ chronic inability to grasp it. It is not until the 6th chapter in Mark that Jesus calls and sends the disciples. The 6th chapter tells of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. John fades away and Jesus comes to the fore. Jesus feeds the 5,000 with the multiplication, walks on water toward the twelve, and the chapter concludes with him healing the multitudes. But the disciples, as you heard, are left astounded with their hearts hardened.They’re not getting it. It’s not sinking in. It’s sailing right over their heads. This Messiah whom the demons name.  This Teacher who does all sorts of signs, healings, and miracles, too. And when he starts to tell them about his suffering and death, and about the greatest being the least, and life coming through death, and taking up their own cross? It’s about to get worse before it gets better when it come to them having eyes to see and ears to hear. Eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to embrace this Messiah.

Everybody knows Jesus walks on water. But you still ought to click on it and zoom in every now and them. Jesus had stayed behind for some alone time, for some prayer time.  The disciples were making their way by boat across the Sea of Galilee by night. Jesus saw that they were struggling with the wind. It was a stiff wind. A strong wind working against them. It was a tough slog. Mark strikes an almost poetic tone: “they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.” Straining against the oars. It was three, four in the morning when Jesus headed their way on the water. The sense here is that they set out soon after sunset and were still at it hours later. The Sea of Galilee isn’t that big. This isn’t a Lake Erie kind of body of water. You can see from one side to the other at the Sea of Galilee. Adverse wind must be an understatement. It was full on storm and they were working their tails off just to go bit by bit.

Now here’s the part I’m struggling with: Mark records that Jesus “intended to pass them by.” When Matthew tells the version that everybody knows of Jesus walking on water, Matthew doesn’t mention he was going to walk on by. Matthew includes that part about Peter jumping in and starting to sink in fear. John, part of the miracle in John is that when Jesus got in the boat they were miraculously at the shore. Just like that! And no mention that Jesus intended to pass them by. Here in Mark, “he intended to pass them by.” The footnote in my bible tries to suggest that the phrase is more a description of how Jesus appeared to the disciples, that when they saw him, his back was to them. Bible footnotes always give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.

It wasn’t until the disciples saw Jesus on the water and when they were terrified that Jesus then spoke and stepped into the boat. “ ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’. Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.” The adverse wind died down. The storm abated. The sea calmed. The twelve were “utterly astounded”. That he walked on water? Yes. That the wind stopped? Yes. At his miraculous presence with them amid the storm? Yes. Now having absolutely no idea who this Teacher really was? Yes. The multiplication. The walking on water. They weren’t quite on board yet. Who would be? Seriously, even in that strange old world of the bible, who could possibly wrap their head and their heart around Jesus? The twelve aren’t alone. You and I are right there with them, right there with his followers in every time and place, then and ever since, trying to wrap your head and your heart around Jesus.

It was in response to their fear, that’s when he stepped in. It wasn’t because they recognized him. It was in response to their fear. It wasn’t in response to their strain against the oars, their exhaustion, or their failure to move it along. It was in response to their fear. It wasn’t because of some kind of messianic acclamation coming from the lips of Peter, “you are the Messiah, you are the Christ.” It was because they were terrified and he immediately said “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” That’s when he climbed in the boat. Otherwise, he was going to pass by.

“He intended to pass them by.” What the heck, Mark? I’m not sure I can make it sound any better; not sure I can preach that away. Jesus sees them barely getting along in a raging storm and he’s just going to walk by? Sometimes other translations can help make it better. No, not this time. “He could have passed them by” (KJV). “He was about to pass them by” (NIV). The Greek word for pass by? It’s the same word that shows up near the end of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus prays to God in the Garden about “letting this cup pass by me”. Jesus praying in another kind of storm. “He intended to pass them by.”

I bet there are a whole lot of people along the coast of north Florida right now who think Jesus just passed them by. The disasters never cease. The adverse winds are too real and the storms too many. How could there not be faithful and faith-filled people like you and me who feel like Jesus is keeping too far of a distance. Hurricanes. Floods. Fires. Earthquakes. Typhoons. Tidal surges. Yes, all in the literal sense.

But Mark’s description of their struggle, “straining at the oars against an adverse wind”, that poetic image just cries out for a broader understanding. It provides a nod of the head to a more symbolic take on life and faith and discipleship and the inevitable storms that come. The adverse winds that blow. Straining at the oars when it seems like one thing after another keeps happening, or when the stresses just don’t stop adding up, or when that sense that no one ever listens or believes you makes you want to scream, or when someone you love can never catch a break in life. Straining at the oars and leaning into the non-stop wind of the tyranny of your job, or the challenges that keep coming for your child, or the unbearable hurt of a relationship irreparably broken, or the knowledge that some in power want to take the legality of your marriage away, or an enduring grief that never seems to pass. Straining at the oars and trying to make just a bit of headway in the relentless storm of battling addiction, or amid the storm clouds of a cancer diagnosis, or the coming darkness of dementia. Straining at the oars in the adverse wind of the blasted college admissions process or the ever growing feeling of loneliness in the crowds of life or the helplessness of knowing the one you love can’t just make depression go away. Straining at the oars amid the storms and the wind and the raging sea of a world, of a culture, of a time, that rarely, if ever, relents and lets you feel like you are on solid ground. Who among us hasn’t wondered if Jesus was just passing by.

“He intended to pass them by.”  Maybe that’s the gospel writer’s own acknowledgement, own wrestling, own coming to grips with the reality of our humanity, of life before God. Everybody knows that Jesus walked on water and everybody knows that actually Jesus doesn’t calm every storm.

He does promise, however, to be with you. “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” I am with you. Do not be afraid. I am Emmanuel; God with us. Do not be afraid. I am with you until the end of the age. Do not be afraid. Christ and his promised presence with us. It is the ongoing miracle of God’s mercy and grace. Not that he walks on the water but that he gets in the boat. Do not be afraid.

You know that song we so often sing, “Jesus, we are here.” Maybe better, when your straining at the oars, let this be your song, “Jesus, he is here”.  Every Sunday when we gather in this place, you know there is someone straining at the oars. Really, when it comes to life and faith and keeping it all together, we’re all just gutting out. I know that. But there is and will always be one, two, a few, a handful of you who are really, really straining at the oars. That’s when the rest of us have to share with you, remind you, show you, that Christ is here. Christ is with you. Christ is for you. Would that by his mercy, and in his love, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, that we could embody his presence for you. That we would be as Christ to you.

It is I. I am with you. Christ is with you. Christ is for you.

Do not be afraid.