“To the Other Side”

pdficon_small Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

June 21, 2015 – The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4:35-41

 

On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, pebbly beaches merge into grassy hillsides that slope gently from the lake’s edge up to rippling hayfields and fertile farmlands. Along the western shore of the lake lies the region of Galilee, the home territory of Jesus and his compatriots. There is a string of cities, towns, and villages whose names are familiar to us from the stories of scripture. There is Capernaum, where Jesus taught in the synagogue. There is Magdala, the town from which Mary Magdalene gets her name. There are Gennesaret and Tiberias, which share their names with alternate names for the lake.

The shoreline is dotted with churches and chapels, monasteries and convents, all sorts of places of worship that commemorate the life and ministry of Jesus. The Church of the Beatitudes claims to be at the site where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Down the hill, there is a cave that claims to be the real location of that preaching moment. Further down, on the shore, is the site where Jesus is said to have cooked breakfast for his disciples and then commissioned Simon Peter to “Feed my sheep.” Some of these sites have extensive archaeological evidence for their historical claims; others have nothing but hearsay. But regardless of precisely where exactly what did or didn’t happen, it is clear that the footprints of Jesus and his disciples are all over that shoreline.

But today’s story isn’t about that part of the lakeshore. It’s about going across to the other side.

 

Where the western side of the lake was home turf for Jesus and his friends, the eastern side was Gentile territory, home to people who were different, foreign, other. It would not have been a common travel destination. The people who lived there were strangers, even enemies, to the house of Israel. There was no compelling reason to go there—in fact, it would likely have been seen as inappropriate, even dangerous.

But Jesus said to his friends, “Let us go across to the other side.” And the way the gospels tell it, they got into their boats, and left the crowds behind, and off they went, without a second thought. But I think there might have been some grumbling. I think there might have been some griping. I think there might have been some complaints and some questions, because I have heard people hesitate—and I myself have hesitated—when asked to try something new. I have heard people hesitate—and I myself have hesitated—when asked to go somewhere unfamiliar. I have heard people hesitate—and I myself have hesitated—when asked to go the extra mile to connect with someone different or unknown.

“Why would we want to go there? This side of the lake is much nicer.”

“All our friends and family are here. We won’t know anyone over on that side.”

“There’s plenty of good for us to do here. Shouldn’t we take care of our own people first?”

“We’ve heard that those people are different from us. They eat strange food, and wear strange clothes, and talk with strange accents, and listen to strange music. We won’t know how to fit in. We’ll stick out.”

“If they really want to know us, can’t they just come here?”

“I think I’ll just stay at home. This is where I feel comfortable.”

But then as now, with those disciples as with us, Jesus was not the least bit interested in keeping his friends in their familiar, comfortable surroundings. He pushed them outside the quiet confines of home. He called them to cross every kind of boundary. He led them through green meadows and beside still waters, yes—but he also led them into stormy, turbulent seas. Because there are things more important than comfort, and a faithful life draws us, over and over, into the unknown.

 

In light of this week’s events in Charleston, I am more convinced than ever that if our nation is to find redemption from our original sin of slavery, if the festering wounds of racism are ever to be healed, then we, white people, must take it upon ourselves to cross beyond what is familiar, to see truths that are uncomfortable, to hear stories that break our hearts, to understand our own complicity in the ongoing oppression and violence that continues against people of color in this nation.

Our hearts are broken this week with the people of Emanuel AME Church, but if we want this terrible pattern to change, we must do more than lament this latest hateful act for as long as the news cycle lasts and then retreat to the familiar safety and comfort of our lives in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. If we want to build a world where all of God’s children can live in safety and dignity, we must do more than shake our heads and condemn the actions of a madman. We must also examine the deep and pervasive ways in which racism is embedded in our society, and in our community, and in our own hearts.

We might think that because we do not ourselves use the N-word or fly the Confederate flag, we are not complicit in a culture that continues to value black and brown lives less than white lives. But if we do, we let ourselves off the hook too easily. That kind of vitriol does not exist in a vacuum. Voices of hate are out there, loud and clear. And so it is not enough for us simply to avoid saying or doing things that make it worse. It is time for us to tell a different story, to use our voices and our actions to try to make it better.

I know it’s uncomfortable to think about and hard to talk about—but imagine what it’s like to live it. We could choose not to talk about it, but our sisters and brothers don’t have that luxury. For people of color, not talking about it is not an option—and if we want anything to change, then it’s not an option for us, either.

 

I believe that Jesus is calling us to get in the boat and go across to the other side. To seek out the voices of diverse authors, commentators, pastors, bloggers, poets, and musicians, to listen carefully and deeply to their perspectives as people of color. To educate ourselves about the ways in which racism is still alive and well in this country, and in this community, and in our own hearts. To break the taboo and talk thoughtfully and deeply and openly about racial injustice, even though we might sometimes say the wrong thing, or give offense, or be offended, or sound foolish.

I believe that Jesus is calling us to go beyond what is familiar and comfortable, to extend ourselves to people whose experiences are different than our own, to stick our necks out in ways that might make us feel exposed, and to commit ourselves to doing the long, hard work of unmasking, dismantling, and eradicating racism.

This will not be an easy journey. If we take these conversations seriously, they will make us feel, at minimum, uncomfortable. They will show us things about ourselves that we would rather not see. They will tell us things about our world that we would much rather believe are different. It would be so much easier to stay here on this side of the lake, where it is pleasant and beautiful and familiar. It would be so much easier to stay here on this side of the lake, safely ensconced among our friends and family. It would be so much easier to steer clear of situations where we don’t know how to fit in. It would be so much easier to stay at home where we feel comfortable.

But then as now, with those long-ago disciples as with us, Jesus is not the least bit interested in keeping his friends in our familiar, comfortable surroundings. Because God’s family is so much bigger than this congregation or this community. Because there are things more important than comfort, and a faithful life draws us, over and over, into the unknown.

This will not be an easy journey. But we will not embark upon it alone. Jesus did not say to his disciples, “You go across to the other side.” He said, “Let us go across to the other side,” and then he got in the boat with them. When the storms billow up around us, when we feel our little boats tossing and turning, when the waves threaten to overwhelm us, when we feel uncomfortable or ashamed or exposed or afraid, Jesus will be right there in the midst of the storm, right where he has always been, right where he has promised always to be, speaking peace. He will not keep us from discomfort, but he will travel with us through the storm and beyond.

And when we gather up our courage and brave the journey, we will discover a Love that is broader, and stronger, and more powerful, and more beautiful than we ever could have known from within the narrow confines of familiarity. We will see the face of that Love in the faces of all our sisters and brothers, made in God’s image. We will discover anew that we are all one in Christ Jesus. We will be transformed, and in our transformation, the whole world will be transformed, and we will hasten the day when the crooked shall be made straight and the rough shall be made plain, when the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

May God bless our journey, and may it be so.