Sunday, June 20, 2021
Lectionary 12, Year B

Prayer of the Day
O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Job 38:1-11 The creator of earth and sea
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Paul’s defense of his ministry
Mark 4:35-41 Christ calming the sea

Sermon

Title:  Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

Here is an interesting piece of St. John’s history that I learned just recently. (I’m trying to expand my knowledge in preparation for the 200th anniversary of our sanctuary that we will celebrate in September.)  Turns out that St. John’s had a member who was a victim of the Titanic disaster.  Alexander Halverson, aged 45. In our funeral/burial records he is listed as having died on April 15, 1912 – the day the ship sank; however, his burial did not take place until May 4th.  There is a note in the records saying the body was found after the date on which he died. An additional, and happier Titanic-St. John’s connection is the story of a woman and her four children who were traveling to New York from India where the family was serving in the mission field. I’m guessing her husband remained behind in India.  She was bringing one of the children to New York for some type of medical treatment.  They, too, were on the doomed ship, lost everything in the sinking, of course, but survived, and when they finally arrived on one of the rescue ships, St. John’s took them in and cared for them while they were here.  So many lives lost, lives upended, so much regret for ever having gotten on that ship.

The Finnish branch of my family tells the story of a relative emigrating from Finland to the US who was supposed to be on the Titanic but arrived in Southampton, England too late and missed the departure.  If it is true (in my family you never know), I’m guessing that, in the end, her regret at being late, turned into joy for being safe.

I just finished reading a book about the sinking of the Lusitania that was sailing in the opposite direction, from New York to England, three years later.  Turns out there were a number of passengers who were moved from an overbooked ocean liner to the ill-fated ship that would become a victim of this new submarine warfare introduced in World War I.  How those folks must have regretted that forced move in the end, regretted being on that ship.

It’s pretty safe to say that the disciples were regretting having gotten into their little boat.  Here it was evening when Jesus said “let’s go to the other side.”  Why didn’t someone say: “Let’s wait until morning.”  Afterall even without a storm, that expansive Sea of Galilee can be quite daunting in the dark of night.  But now they had both darkness and storm to contend with.  Why didn’t they hold back and just do nothing?  Keep in mind, not all the disciples were used to this sailing life either.  Only some were fishermen who at least had experience dealing with this terrifying weather threat.  I’m sure the landlubbers were regretting not admitting their fears, excusing themselves from the cross-lake cruise, and walking around the shore to the intended destination.  Sore feet being much more desirable than death by drowning.  But no one said anything, they got into the boat, obeying Jesus’ invitation in the same way they accepted his invitation to follow him. 

Following the action of taking Jesus into the boat, Mark throws in a strange four-word phrase – “just as he was.”  What did he mean by that?  What did the witnesses of this event mean when they told it over and over until it was written down? “They took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  Perhaps, in anticipation of the supernatural event that was about to happen, the reporters of this miracle wanted to emphasize that fact that Jesus was sitting there in the little boat just as human as he always was.  Just a man in a toga.  No hints of the power he was about to display in the face of the gathering storm.  Maybe if Jesus was displaying something a little extraordinary when that storm hit rather than, not only being there just as he was but, even worse, sleeping; the frightened disciples would have been able to muster up a little faith.  But with him being just as he was, they were left to regret placing themselves in this life-threating predicament. 

Throughout northern Europe, where cultures have been so married to the surrounding seas for time immemorial, it is part of the Christian church’s tradition to have a model of a tall ship hanging in most sanctuaries.  I’ve always loved this symbol for the church.  For one reason, I have a love of all things maritime – especially from the glory days of sails.  But more important, it is such a rich symbol for a variety of reasons.  The ship depends on water and wind.  It gets no where with either missing (think baptismal waters and the rushing wind of the Spirit).  Also, it takes a crew of people with a variety of talents to sail the craft (think diversity in those of us who make up the body of Christ, the church).  Going further with this, a ship exists in a vulnerable place (certainly highlighted by today’s story) as does the church as it struggles to bring God’s reign of peace and justice to a world of rage and roughhouse.  And a ship is built to move, to go, and, although our very stationary buildings may seem to contradict it, the church is called to go.  I’m sure there are move parallels to explore, but we’ll leave it as a short list for today.

But here’s one more parallel that may not always come to mind, like the folks on the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the boat with the distraught disciples, there are times when people regret ever having boarded the ship.  Similarly, most likely there are times when folks regret being part of the church.  I know I have had my moments.  How about you?  Do we dare admit this out loud?  To ourselves?

Lately, with the rise of what some are calling Christian nationalism in this country, as too many leaders and people seem to be trying much too hard to be sailing against the wind of the Spirit, in my disagreement with them, I’ve regretted wearing the same label as them, being in the same boat.

Then there are those, in the news in the last couple of days, who have dropped the sails completely and are readying for battle as they load the cannons with the sacraments that we have been blessed with, so as to use them as weapons, rather than the free and undeserved gifts from God that the church is privileged to administer in Christ’s most welcoming name.

Historically speaking, I regret being connected to an institution that has contributed to the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and way too much other slaughter of the innocents and oppression of the other.  

And I’m sure there are those who regret being onboard any church-ship that people like me have been allowed on.  But rather than finger pointing around this crazy crew and arguing who regrets whose presence more, there is another form of regret I would call our attention to.  Deeper.  Perhaps more painful.  Maybe even harder to speak of.

Regretful – when we are called to be present with the Job’s of the world in the midst of their suffering, not having the answers they desire but merely pointing to the God of the whirlwind whose ways are beyond our understanding.  Regretful – when we are called to be servants of God, being judged by the world as having nothing to offer, and while we may not endure all the hardships that Paul lists in his letter to the church in Corinth, we are called to keep our hearts wide open with no restrictions in our affections for those we serve.  Regretful – when we are called to sail with Jesus, even in the midst of storms, even though he may seem to be sleeping sometimes, yet we are to go with all faith.  These, and more, are the times when regret for ever having boarded the ship in the first place can torment us, swamp us, crash us on the rocks of despair, can tempt us to take the advice of Job’s friends to curse God and die, or at lease be with the disciples and just give up and think there is nothing left to do but die.

This ship, built by our creator, launched by our savior, and piloted by the spirit never promises smooth sailing.  There will be storms.  There will be second guessing.  There will be disputes.  There will be regrets.  And yet, through it all, Jesus is there, is here, just as he is, the crucified one who knows firsthand what it means to be mistreated by religious leaders, institutions, and traditions.  Jesus is here, one who knows the frustrations of speaking words of truth and life only to have them go unheeded, misunderstood, even twisted.  Jesus is here who knows the pain of losing a friend and the sorrow of the betrayal of friends. Jesus is here, just as he is, who in the midst of his own gathering storm prayed a prayer of regret – take this cup from me.  Jesus who went forward in spite of it all, finding life, new life, eternal life which he shares with all of us, this Jesus is here.

Testing, suffering, doubting, regretting, surrendering, infighting, whatever the storms may bring to us or out in us, there is no other ship to be on that will bring us the joy, the hope, the grace, the peace, the love, the life that is ours, beyond understanding, through Jesus the Christ who sails with us. Encouraged by the cloud of witnesses who have sailed before us, let us, as a diverse community of faith – or should I say crew of this ship – keep our hearts wide open – that’s a tough one, sure to bring regrets, but by the power of the Holy Spirit we can keep our hearts wide open, trusting in the one who keeps their heart wide open to us, and who is strong to save, who calms the storms, who fills our sails.  God, all powerful, yet who still hears our cries when in peril on the sea.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

PS: With further research, I’ve learned that ships in Scandinavian churches are “votive ships” reminding worshippers to prayer for those on the sea. However, the ship is used as a symbol of the church, and for good reason.

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