“The Other Side”
A Sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 24, 2017
On Father’s Day this year, the day after my Grandmother’s funeral, I took Katie on the “Andrew Tour” of the town where I grew up. We visited the house where my parents brought me home as a baby, the church where I attended pre-school, my elementary, middle, and high school, and other important landmarks in my history. We also visited a swim club where my family spent every summer weekend when I was a child. This is the place where I learned to swim. I can still feel the ice-cold water washing over me as I jumped in after playing for hours in the hot, summer sun. The swim club is set back almost a mile from the main road, and to get there you have to take a long, winding driveway through the woods. Eventually the woods open to a clearing where the first thing you see is the crystal-clear waters of the gigantic swimming pool. As we pulled up to look at this important place in the childhood, I got a strange feeling in my stomach, something between excitement and fear.
You see, tucked back at the end of the pool farthest from the parking lot is the deep end of the pool. Perched above those dark, deep waters is a super springy diving board that I jumped off of thousands of times as a kid. In order to use the diving board, I had to pass a swimming test each summer. If I passed, I got a patch that had to pinned to my bathing suit, which told the lifeguards I could use the diving board—no patch, no diving board. To pass the swimming test, I had to swim across the deep end without stopping and without help. The deep end of the Rock Spring Swim Club pool is 15-feet deep and 25 feet wide. That excitement and fear I felt as we sat looking at the pool last weekend was the same thing I felt each summer when I had to take the swimming test.
To be honest, the swimming part of the test did not scare me—I was one of those kids who learned to swim before I learned to walk. Swimming 25 feet was not a problem. The thing that scared me most was that I couldn’t see the bottom of the pool. At 15-feet deep, the bottom of the pool seemed like a galaxy away, dark and filled with all kinds of scary things. I may have been one of the fastest swimmers to take the test each year because I was afraid that a shark or a monster might swim up from the deep and grab my leg. I would jump in the pool, furiously swim across, and jump out on the other side. Even jumping off the diving board I would swim as fast as I could to the ladder, and rocket myself out of the pool.
Looking back on that now, it seems silly. All I had to do was get to the other side in order to pass the swimming test—and I did, every year, without a problem. There were no sharks or monsters or dangerous things in the deep end of the pool. I didn’t even have the nerve to look in and see that there was nothing there. I think one of the things that motivated me most to swim across the deep end each summer was just wanting to keep up with my older brother. Without that, the fear probably would have kept me sitting on the deck. Even though I was always afraid of the deep end of the pool, I was one of the lucky ones; I had friends who never took the swimming test because they were too afraid to even jump in, let alone swim across. Just jump in and swim to the other side and you’ll be allowed to have as much fun as possible—some of us could do it, others could not. I learned something valuable those many summers: getting to the other side can be hard.
On that day, Mark says, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side” and they all got in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples were happy to accept this invitation from Jesus. Jesus and the disciples are on the go constantly in the opening chapters of Mark’s gospel. In these opening chapters Jesus heals no less than 15 people and preaches to crowds in the thousands; he also comes face-to-face with the religious establishment in an argument about the sabbath, a foretaste of what is to come. Jesus then, likely out of sheer exhaustion, commissions the twelve disciples as apostles who will take the good news of God into all the world. From here, Jesus teaches parables about frivolous farmers and mustard seeds, and he even has to defend himself from some who think he is doing all these things by the power of an evil spirit. Exhausted—the disciples and Jesus were exhausted, so a little evening cruise was quite welcome.
But Jesus did not have a nighttime cruise in mind. Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side,” because there are lands and people on the other side who have not heard the good news of God. On the other side of the Sea of Galilee is the land of the Garasenes. The Garasenes practiced many different religions and were seen by religious folks as unclean and unworthy. When Jesus invites the disciples to go across to the other side, he’s inviting them to begin their apostolic ministry of taking the good news of God to all the world. Jesus knows that the Gospel can’t stay in one place with one people—it has to go farther, even when ‘farther’ means to people and places that make the disciples uncomfortable or afraid. The Garasenes were certainly folks who would make the disciples uncomfortable and afraid.
On the way to the other side, the disciples run into a terrible storm, one that threatens to end their apostolic journey. The Sea of Galilee is known for storms, but nothing of this size. I believe the storm and the sea as metaphors. Like the deep end of the Rock Spring Swim Club pool, the sea beneath the disciples was a galaxy deep, dark and filled with all kinds of scary things. But it is not sharks or monsters that lurk there. No, the scary things are doubt, doubt that they can fulfill their mission as Christ’s apostles. The scary things are anxiety and fear about who and what they might encounter on the other side. The scary things are what modern psychologists call “Imposter Syndrome,” the fear that folks might find out we are not who we say we are. The scary things are shortcomings and different abilities and limitations. Brooding above this deep, dark sea is a storm, a storm that is every voice, every person, every situation, that says ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ or ‘don’t get political’ or ‘you are worthless’ or ‘you will never be loved.’
When Jesus awakes and rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace. Be still,” he is speaking not just to nature but to the heart of every disciple. Jesus knows what is on the other side: the rough Garasenes. But he also knows that when they get to the other side, his Gospel will spread and his promise of abundant life for all people will become a reality. Jesus is not in the boat to protect the disciples from fear or anxiety or doubt or Imposter Syndrome; Jesus is not a magic pill against the trials and temptations of this world. Jesus is in the boat to remind the disciples that their fear, their doubt, their anxiety, their pain and frustrations no longer define who they are. Jesus defines who they are, and he is in the boat to speak love and peace and stillness over and above every voice that might keep the disciples from getting to the unimaginable glory that awaits them on the other side.
That is a tremendously good word for us today from the Gospel. Like the disciples, we have also been called to be Christ’s apostles in the world. The term ‘apostle’ literally means ‘sent,’ and through baptism we have been sent into every nook and cranny of this world with the good news of God’s unconditional, radical, and life-changing love. Each day Christ is calling us to go to the other side, because on the other side there are people and lands that need to hear the good news. On the other side we find our true purpose, our true redemption, our true salvation. So what are the other sides Christ is calling us to set sail for?
Right now, some of Christ’s apostles are being called to the go to the other side where immigrants and refugees are desperate to know that they are valuable and worth something. Over a sea of racism and domination and ethnic supremacy, Christ speaks, “Peace. Be still.”
Right now, some of Christ’s apostles are being called to go to the other side where they will work for the full inclusion of women, minorities, and other oppressed and depressed groups into the life of the church and world. Over a sea of fear, bad Biblical interpretation, and just plain inhumanity, Christ speaks, “Peace. Be still.”
Other apostles of Christ are being called to go to the other side to work peace and reconciliation between religious, ethnic, or political enemies. The sea they travel on is really rough these days, and yet Christ speaks, “Peace. Be still.”
Still more apostles of Christ are headed to the other side to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for widows and orphans, and work for the restoration of creation. These folks have the hardest voyage. They hear messages of scarcity; they hear the poor being blamed for being poor; they face deniers who say the earth can not be changed by humans. Do you know what Christ says? Peace. Be still.
Christ calls each of us to go to the other side. The good news of the Gospel is too good to hoard. Maybe he is calling you to one of these other sides that I have mentioned. Maybe he is calling you some place different. Wherever Christ is calling you, the sea we all travel to get there is deep and dark, and sometimes there are storms…big ones. But in the boat, reclining gently on a cushion in the stern, is the Lord of heaven and earth, the very one who created the wind and the waves in the beginning. When you run up against the storm, when those scary things begin to reach up and threaten to pull you under, Jesus will arise and he will calm the wind and waves, out there and inside here. He cares for us, he knows us, he loves each one of us for the beautiful and unique children of God that we are. It might seem like the boat is going down, but Christ won’t let it. Now or ever.
There is no swimming test in order to be apostles of Jesus Christ. All we are required to do is get into the boat and set sail in the direction Christ has set for us. And the promise we have from the Lord is that we never sail alone—we do it together and we do it with the Lord Jesus Christ. Today and always may we have the courage to get in the boat and go where we are sent, without fear and without doubt. The things waiting for us on the other side are beyond anything we can hope for or imagine. So let’s go, let’s go to the other side. Amen.