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To the Other Side

Text: Mark 4:35-41

The storm starts before a cloud is in the sky and before the boat has left the dock. The storm starts when Jesus tells his closest friends, “Let us go across to the other side.” What was he thinking? Good Jews did not go to “the other side.” Unclean people, filthy Gentiles, those people that Jews were forbidden to associate with by law, lived on “the other side.” Every Jew, including Jesus, knew better than to go to “the other side.” As soon as he tells his followers where the boat is headed, the storm starts.

         The storm started before Jennell and I stepped foot on the plane headed to the Holy Land. It started as I read books that disturbed my simplistic support for Israel. It grew stronger as we landed and traveled through one political and moral enigma after another. One day, we were inspired watching faithful Jews pen their prayers and then tuck them into the wailing wall. On the next day, we were welcomed into the home of Palestinians in Ramallah whose family had lived in that refugee camp behind a Separation Wall since 1948! We were brought to our knees as we visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem only to learn that cars with Palestinian license plates are not allowed to drive on Israeli roads, regardless of the identification held by the driver. Israeli Jews and Palestinians of various faiths learn early and often to fear each other and NEVER to go to “the other side.”

         From childhood, I did not need a map or GPS to steer clear of the storm awaiting me on “the other side.” In my blue-collar and thoroughly white neighborhood, the road markers were everywhere. They communicated in a thousand verbal and non-verbal ways that I could travel anywhere I wanted to travel but a deadly storm awaited me should I ever travel to “the other side.”

         In the sea parable told by Mark, Jesus invites his friends to go exactly where they have been carefully taught to never to go. Then, after insisting that they go to “the other side,” Jesus puts a cushion under his head and takes a long nap. They left shore in a storm before the storm at sea and now Jesus is snoring in the stern.

         I often hear people treat this sea story as a sweet, little moral tale. They say that Jesus snuggles with us through the storm-tossed boat of life. Jesus brings calm to the most tumultuous sea if we trust in him, just as he brings calm to the stormiest times in our lives. While this is a lovely sentiment that is often true, it is not what this story is about. It is hardly a story about a tame Jesus calling us to live a tame and serene life.

         Notice the question Jesus asks his friends, AFTER, he has calmed the storm. He does not ask them, “Why were you afraid? I was right here with you in the boat all along.” No, he uses the present tense. He asks them, “Why are you afraid right now?” The sea has stilled or in Mark’s language, there is a “dead calm.” They do not need to answer Jesus because their fear says it all. They are afraid because even though Jesus has stilled the tsunami, he is not taking them back to safe and familiar home; he is taking them to “the other side.”

         As soon as they land on “the other side,” they are met by a wild man, filled with demons. Now the storm is not at sea, but is raging within this troubled man. And, just like at sea, Jesus casts out the demonic, bringing calm to this deeply troubled man. And, with Mark’s tongue in cheek, he says that the demons take a new home in a herd of swine that then rush over the cliff to their deaths. Town folk come out to see who calmed the storm raging within this disturbed man, but they do not come out to celebrate that this wild man is now sane and whole. They come out to send Jesus away because he has messed with their calm, their livelihood. Read the rest of the Gospel. Troubling stuff like this often happens to those who follow Jesus to “the other side.”

         In a recent article written by columnist David French, he shares the story of his deep commitment to the Presbyterian Church of America, a much smaller and more conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church. When French and his wife adopted a child from Ethiopia, they turned to the church for their support and love.

         Instead, French writes, “We began encountering racism and hatred up close, from people in our church and in our church school. The racism was grotesque. One church member asked my wife why we couldn’t adopt from Norway rather than Ethiopia. A teacher at the school asked my son if we had purchased his sister for a ‘loaf of bread’. We later learned that there were coaches and teachers who used racial slurs to describe the few Black students at the school. There were terrible incidents of peer racism, including a student telling my daughter that slavery was good for Black people because it taught them how to live in America. Another told her that she couldn’t come to our house to play because ‘my dad said Black people are dangerous’ (The Day My Old Church Canceled Me Was a Very Sad Day).” Ask David French and he can tell you firsthand about what can happen when you follow Jesus to “the other side.”

         I wish Mark would have ended the whole sea tale with something pithy, like Jesus saying, “Do not fear” or “I calm the seas and so you can be calm now too.” Instead, he sees through them as he sees through us, and asks “Why are you still afraid? Why are you so terrified about heading over ‘to the other side’?”

         Well, Jesus, I can answer that question for you. I am afraid because you expect more from me than I am ready to give. You expect me to go places that I have absolutely no interest in going. You expect me to sit down for supper with people who make my stomach churn and to listen to people who say things that make me want to holler. I am afraid, Jesus, and for good reason. I do not want you to lead me into uncharted waters, much less into unwanted storms. I am happy to stay close to home and not be bothered. I have no burning desire to go to “the other side.” Take someone else!

         Lots of critics lament how dense the disciples are in Mark’s Gospel, how slow they are to make heads or tails of Jesus. Not me. I say, move over disciples. I don’t know about you, but I have enough angst in my life without Jesus creating more. There is more than enough to sort on “this side” of life, Jesus. What person in their right mind wants to go to “the other side”?

         Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a 3-year-old girl named Ellen who was going to be baptized. Ellen was due to be baptized at an Easter Vigil service— a service that occurs in the middle of the night, when the day of Easter actually begins. 

         “The only problem was that the parents wanted Ellen baptized by immersion, and the church they belonged to had what we’ve got—a baptismal font for sprinkling, not dunking.

         “So, the minister got creative. And without asking Ellen, he decided that the best thing to do would be to take a 36-gallon garbage can, decorate it with ivy to make it look pretty, and fill it with water so Ellen could be immersed.

         “The night of the service arrived, and unbelievably, the garbage can looked . . . not too bad. But 3-year-olds are savvy enough to know a garbage can when they see one, and when Ellen saw the destination that the minister had in mind, she stiffened. What to do?

         “But Ellen was also a brave little girl, and her parents had rehearsed her well

for this moment, so she moved forward to the make-shift baptismal font, doing

everything she was supposed to do, right up to the point where the minister leaned

down to pick her up.

         “And you know what Ellen did then?

         “She planted her feet FLAT against the garbage can so that water went

splashing everywhere, and she screamed at the top of her lungs:

         ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!`

         “THAT baptism was a little chaotic! Little Ellen didn’t want to end up in a

garbage can. Who can blame her? It was going to be messy. It didn’t feel safe. She was

going to get all wet.

         “I get that instinct. It’s so much easier to stay dry. After all, there are all sorts of

possible storms out there” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Buried by Baptism,” in God in

Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering).

         “It’s so much easier to stay dry.” It is so much safer to stay close to shore on familiar land and not to venture to “the other side.” When I am brutally honest with myself, there is much I have not learned in my decades of ministry, but I have learned one thing. Following the One in whose name you and I are baptized is not about staying safe at home; it is all about joining Jesus on a journey to “the other side.”        During those all too infrequent times when I have traveled to “the other side,” I have always found Jesus there waiting for me, waiting to open my mind to what “the other” has to say, waiting to open my heart to “the other” whom I have always been content to fear and even to hate, waiting to open my life to “the other” and how I can even learn to love “the other” and “the other” can learn to love me.

         I hope you will have some refreshing travels in the summer months ahead as Jennell and I just enjoy at Smith Mountain Lake and I pray that in those travels you and I may head out into the storm only to meet each other and to meet “the other,” an even to meet Jesus, on “the other side.”







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