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Our FCBC Boat

Mark 4:35-41

June 21, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Seventeen years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine what it would feel like to be standing behind this pulpit to deliver my last sermon as your senior pastor. In everything we do, we take one step forward and then another one and another one and after some time we arrive at the destination—our babies grow up to become mature adults and parents themselves; our jobs take different courses but at the end we hope that they reflected our God-given gifts; our lives were filled with hopeful goals and dreams but in the end we became more honest and realistic about ourselves and discover that we are all in need of mercy in the sight of our gracious God.

One of my retirement events in August is to finally visit Alaska so that I will check this off on my bucket list. Alaska is the only state that I have not been to; to see a glacier would be amazing to my eyes. But Joy and I will begin in Vancouver to avoid the choppy Pacific Ocean. We’re taking the inside passage where the waters are calm. It will be on a Holland America cruise liner in a cabin as close to the middle of the big ship as possible to avoid any chance of seasickness. It will be nothing like what the disciples endured on the Sea of Galilee.

I have taken a number of you on this Sea of Galilee on one of my Holy Land trips and the fastest way of getting from one side of Galilee to the other is to sail across the sea. And it can be choppy. The boats that we were on were replicas of the one that the disciples and Jesus were on in Mark’s gospel. None of us had a cabin in the middle of the boat to avoid seasickness.

Mark’s Story

Jesus and his disciples were packed into a boat sailing across the notoriously volatile Sea of Galilee. Mark doesn’t tell us why they are making this crossing except that it was Jesus’ idea. The group found themselves being tossed about by a strong and sudden squall. Jesus, however, was unfazed by the adventure at hand. Mark tells us that Jesus was “in the stern at the back of the boat, asleep on the cushion” (v. 38).

Roused by his disciples, Jesus does more than calm the seas. He teaches them a lesson. Seeing their anxiety and fear, Jesus says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (v. 40) And with these words, Jesus makes it clear that this isn’t just an opportunity to prove his divinity by demonstrating his power over nature. It’s a lesson about the nature and substance of faith itself.

The disciples were far too focused on their circumstances. They were far too consumed with where their feet were located. Were they on steady ground or in a rocking boat? Had Jesus led them to another crazy cliff’s edge or were they safe and sound in a synagogue where a rabbi and his disciples should be?

When Jesus dragged their feet someplace scary, then their faith tended to be shot. Yet, by implying that faith was still possible, still the goal, despite their crazy location, Jesus makes it clear that their faith must not be in the ground on which they stand, but in the person with whom they’re standing. Their faith could not be contingent upon circumstance, but must be clinging to the company of Christ. As long as they were with him, they are going to be okay. But that’s a hard thing to believe in the middle of a storm.

Our Storms

The easiest thing for me to do in my last sermon with you is artificially tell you that it’s calm and the storm has passed. I could tell you that it’s a sunny day outside. We all know that it is not. We may be in the calm of successive storms but we all know that our FCBC boat will be tossed and thrown about and we may be afraid of perishing.

For the past few weeks, we have engaged in some challenging conversations when we have met as a church as well as in boards and committees. We know that it has been over what some have called the most controversial issue facing the church today. Some have used this issue to define who they are and proposed to also define the whole church. Some have expressed that such an issue is not what defines us but rather based on our American Baptist principles, we have the ability to agree to disagree based on soul freedom and the freedom to interpret Scripture. We all know that this is a looming storm and it can’t be avoided unless we offer each other the grace that Jesus gives us.

In this passage for this morning, Jesus makes it clear that our faith must not be in the ground on which we stand, but in the person with whom we are standing. Let’s confess that we have a storm but as Jesus said, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

Fear is confronted in this story, but not by a sudden burst of courage or resolve on the part of the disciples. In the course of the storm, they never themselves pull themselves together.  You would think that as mostly fishermen that they would be able to survive a storm at sea. They do not, at least not on their own, discover inner resources they did not know they had. Rather, it was Jesus who calms both his disciples and the storm with the power of his presence.

Read Related Sermon  March 1999 Newsletter

Notice that Jesus never says, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” The Galilean storm was indeed fearsome, as are the “wind and waves” that threaten us. Rather, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Let’s look at this distinction.

Imagine a scene such as this. A child awakens in the dark of the night, terrified at some dream that has disturbed the child’s sleep, frightened of some phantom hiding in the bedroom closet. A mother rushes into the bedroom and scoops the little one into her arms and sits in a chair. She wipes sweaty locks off her child’s forehead, caresses his hair, rocks her gently, and then she whispers what a thousand mothers have whispered since the beginning of time, “Hush now, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” The question these comforting words raise is simply this: “Is the mother telling the whole truth to her child? Is there really nothing to be afraid of?

We often think that, “there’s nothing to be afraid of” is the same as saying, “do not be afraid.” There is a difference. The hard truth is that fearsome things are very real. When we experience personal isolation, pain, illness, and meaninglessness, we are very afraid. When there’s rejection and losing one’s job, we are afraid. When we face money problems and a sense of ultimate failure, we are afraid. When we are facing life’s final act and death is knocking at our door for the final curtain call, we are afraid. And when we as the FCBC boat find ourselves being tossed and thrown about over controversial issues, we are afraid.

God With Us

As we grow in faith, we come to understand that even though such fearsome things are real, they do not have the last word. They do not have the ultimate power over us, because reigning over this world of fearsome things is a God who is mightier than they.

Time and time again in Scripture the word is “Do not be afraid.” It is, you might say, the first and the last word of the gospel. It is the word the angels spoke to the terrified shepherds and the word spoken at the tomb when the women discover it empty: “Do not be afraid.” Not because there are no fearsome things on the sea of our days, not because there are no storms, fierce winds, or waves, but rather, because God is with us.

I told you that when I was in third grade that I was so afraid to speak that my teacher insensitively came to my desk and shook me to speak. The fear I had to speak that I would stutter and the kids would laugh at me did not stop God from calling me into ministry where one of the primary tasks I have is to speak. Jesus told me, “Do not be afraid.”

When I submitted my application to be considered as a candidate to be your senior pastor 17 years ago having never pastored before, having never preached on a regular week to week basis before, having never grown up in a Chinese/Asian American church before did not stop God from helping you to discern in calling me to become your pastor. Jesus told me, “Do not be afraid.”

And then when I thought I have done everything I believed God called me to serve, my beloved denominational family called me to be president during this biennium. Why me when there are so many other faithful servants? I asked myself during the many nightmares that I have had: “Why God, have you placed such burdens on me now?” Jesus told me, “Do not be afraid.”

Instead of saying, “There is nothing to be afraid of,” the whole truth would be for the mother comforting her frightened child to say, “Don’t be afraid, because you are not alone.” The easy part of the truth, which every child figures out sooner or later, is that some things that frighten us are real and some are not. But the rest of the truth, the deeper truth that only faith in the God who raised Jesus from the grave can teach, is that even though there are real and fearsome things in this life, they need not paralyze us; they need not have dominion over us; they need not own us, because we are not alone in the boat.

Christ is King

Jesus’ stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee is one of the most familiar stories in the Gospels. Many of us can recall in our storybook Bibles or pictures on the walls of our Sunday school classrooms, Jesus standing on the edge of the boat with his arms outstretched over the whitecaps of the raging sea.

Jesus calming the storm tells us about the kingship of Jesus. This bruising storm that caused the waves to beat against the boat and swamping it is like the watery chaos from which creation was brought forth by God. It is the prerogative of the divine Creator to bring order out of the water’s chaos. Jesus is to be seen doing things reserved to God—ordering chaos, conquering the forces of death, assuring the endurance of life.

Read Related Sermon  The Conscience of a Christian

But the response to Jesus’ kingship by the disciples surprises us. After calming the storm, the disciples were “filled with great awe.” Rather than being glad, they were in awe and probably still afraid of where Jesus will be taking them next. The KJV’s translation is, “they feared exceedingly” or “they were afraid with great fear.”

When we are afraid, we try with great effort to find solid ground to stand on. Some try to interpret Scripture based on their best understanding. Some use the most current scientific understanding about things. Some evoke tradition to find a solid ground on which to stand.

But when we are on a boat and suddenly a great windstorm arose, the only person with whom we stand is Jesus. In the midst of the waves tossing and be thrown, King Jesus was taking a good nap. He lies asleep, undisturbed by the tumult, while the disciples respond to the energy of the storm by expending energy of their own, vainly muscling human exertion to compete with the powerful force of nature.

Following Jesus will often feel alone, as though we have been stranded by Jesus. But the truth is that when we follow Jesus, we join Jesus. He does not take his people where he does not reside with his people.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). He is with us on the edge of the boat. And this Jesus who takes us to face the fearsome things has already faced the fear of the grave. It is one thing to stare at death; it’s another to defeat it. If we are to follow Jesus, he will lead us to where we do not want to go. And when he does, the temptation will be to give in to fear as you focus on your feet. When that happens, take inventory of just who is with you. Lift your eyes off of your crisis and on to Christ.

The ground beneath our feet will always give us some reason to fear because let us confess that this ground is our human efforts to calm the storm in our lives and in our FCBC boat. But when we trust in King Jesus, our companion, our Savior, is mighty to save.

My last wish for you and our FCBC boat is that you love one another as Christ loves you. The reason why we are different is not necessarily that we are enemies but that God has created the beauty of being different and rich in our diversity. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. If God created the countless different kinds of flowers to enjoy, why does it surprise us that we would have a difference in the ways we interpret God’s holy words! I pray that you would study the meaning of being an American Baptist because I truly believe that it is God who has blessed us with this ability for appreciating our differences and to remain one in the Lord.

We all like to be right. We all believe we have the truth. We all like to proclaim, “Here I stand” to show that we have convictions. But Jesus makes it clear that our faith must not be in the ground on which we stand, but in the person with whom we’re standing and that is only King Jesus.

Jesus calms the storm by saying, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased and there was dead calm. Why are we still afraid when Jesus is always with us? Why do we still have so little faith when Christ is risen?

Did you know that walking is falling forward? Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—a teetering, a holding on and letting go.

For the past 17 years, we have been walking together. We take one step forward and then another one and another one and after some time we arrive at the destination. I have reached my destination of retirement.

While today is a calm in the storm, let us get out of the boat and walk together, hand in hand, to fall forward, be afraid for there are some fearsome things looming ahead but to also have the faith and trust in Jesus that he is with you always.

Let us pray.

Merciful Savior, we are shortsighted and forgetful, and for that we are sorry. With a word, you created all that is and your word still has power to deliver us from storms of doubt and fear. But, we fail to call on you. We rely on our own resources rather than trust in yours. We muddle along in weakness, forgetting how readily available to us is your strength. Deliver us, gracious God. Calm the storm within us by being our peace, and renew us in love and trust. For the sake of Christ, we pray. Amen.

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