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The Stories We Tell
I got to give another sermon!
I’ve been participating in an Episcopal community called Brent House for the past few years. It’s run by a wonderful priest who encourages students to preach, and so today I got to preach my second sermon, this time about Jesus walking on water! (You can find the readings here.)
Below is a recording and a (rough) transcript. The other sermon I’ve given is uploaded here.
My grandmother, before she passed away, was very active on Facebook in a way that I as a high schooler found absolutely mortifying. I would be tagged in a photo with like fifty of my classmates and the only comment would be Mary Aitken saying something like “My dearest grandson, I am so proud of the young man you are becoming. Remember what Prince John said to the duke on his fifteenth birthday. Love you, xoxo, grandmother.”
We didn’t always understand each other. I don’t know who Prince John is or what he told the duke. I didn’t understand why she felt the need to leave these personal messages as comments on other people’s pictures and she didn’t understand why that embarrassed me. But I still knew these messages meant that she loved me very much. And she knew that I loved her penchant for obscure references I didn’t get and this brought us even closer. What we didn’t understand and even what was frustrating meant we could still surprise each other.
And the fact that this kind of love is possible and even ordinary matters because what we see in today’s passages is that nobody really understands God. Not fully. The Israelites hit a temporary setback -- they’re thirsty -- and they conclude that God never meant to bring them to freedom. Moses is so focused on bringing about systemic change -- and he’s right, this really is God’s plan -- that he responds to the Israelites’ thirst with disdain and condescension. The disciples have no idea what’s going on, they’re just hung up on bread. Nobody gets God’s vision completely right. But there is still love.
If I’m being honest, that’s not why I told you this story. I told it because it makes me go “yeah, that’s Grandmother” and it’s almost like she’s still here. It’s a way of experiencing and sharing who she was and what it was like spending time with her even now that she’s gone.
And if your first question is “what does this story mean?” or “what is Colin trying to say with it”, you’re going to miss the entire point. Even if you focus on her and say “we learn from this story that she was loving and fond of obscure references” you wouldn’t be wrong -- those are both true -- but that wouldn’t be the same as the story in the same way that knowing these adjectives isn’t the same as knowing her.
And I worry that the analytical approach to faith -- this thing where we have ideas and ideas about ideas and ideas about where those ideas came from -- makes us lose something when we constantly ask what the stories in scripture mean and what they teach us and we don’t experience them for what they are. Stories. Encounters. Memories of people. And this same tendency leads us to reduce God to a sort of shorthand for a command or a ritual or kind of discourse and we forget that he’s a person who really moves and can really surprise us. Imagine being surprised by God! Imagine God doing something new! Every time it happens I am amazed and every time I eventually put God back into his box where he belongs.
Walk through this story in Mark with me, this weird story where nobody has the slightest idea what Jesus is up to, including us. Look at what we’re given. Jesus has just fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and he says “hey, go ahead of me by boat, I’ll catch up.” Okay, Jesus. They get caught in a storm and Jesus just straight up walks across the lake. To help them? No! The text explicitly tells us that he “intended to pass them by”. What? To what destination, in the middle of a lake, was he possibly going? Mark doesn’t tell us. Jesus only stops because the disciples, quite reasonably, think that this dark figure walking across the water in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm might be a ghost and Jesus is like “It’s me. Calm down.” and he gets in the boat and the storm stops. And this is the end of the conversation. The disciples have no followup questions. They can’t process this because they’re still trying to figure out the loaves and fish from the day before. Two full chapters from now Jesus uses a metaphor about yeast and Pharisees and the disciples’ immediate response is “oh, he’s mad about that time we forgot to bring bread.” These guys are following Jesus around, most of the people in this boat will someday die for him, and pretty much the entire time they’re with him they have absolutely no idea what is happening.
But they still follow.
Not because his theology was so satisfying. Not because the path forward was ever clear or easy. Not because what he was saying fit perfectly into their understanding of the world. It clearly didn’t. But because something was so compelling about this man who was walking on lakes and shouting at fig trees and showering the world in bread that they would go with him no matter the cost.
And I think that’s why Mark doesn’t give us a nice tidy morality play. There is no lesson here. There is just Jesus raw and unexplained. There’s just ``Behold this man I would follow to the end of the world. This is what it was like to be with him.” Disconcerting. Strange. Terrifying. And we get to join this incomprehensible journey in the hope that somewhere along the way your heart would catch fire. That you would be swept away in the confounding love of this utterly alien God-person. So that when you sell all you have to give to the poor it will be because you have found something -- someone -- better. So that when you stand up to a broken church, you can stand tall because this weird little guy who strides upon storms is at your side. So that on the days we don’t talk about, when the theology you mistake for God can’t step in to rescue you, there will be just enough wonder, just enough surprise, just enough of that thing you can’t quite put into words to carry you through again. And again. And again.
There is much I don’t understand about this God. And now we’re going to eat him. And that’s nuts. And I love him all the more for it.
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I produced the image in this post using DALL-E 2.