The Rev. Peter Faass
Several years ago, when Christ Church folks went on pilgrimage to Israel, we stayed a few nights in Tiberias at a hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was beautiful. Part of our tour included a trip in a boat that replicated the kind of boat Jesus and the disciples were in during today’s Gospel story about the storm on the Sea. While described as a sea, this body of water is really more aptly described as a lake; in fact, its alternate name is Lake Gennesaret, referring to the town of Ginosar on its northwestern shore.
The Bible says that the Sea of Galilee is where Jesus walked, preached, calmed the storm, and granted miraculous catches of fish, and upon whose waters Peter walked, at least until he took his eyes off Jesus.
Having been there, I find it difficult to imagine a really violent storm imperiling people on this body of water. It’s not big – on a clear day, you can see from shore to shore. It’s not really deep, although at the time we were there, Israel was heavily reliant on the Sea of Galilee for fresh water and the shores had receded dramatically – in places over 100 feet - from overuse.
While the disciples and Jesus (asleep in the stern) sailed the Sea, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” Such was the ferocity of this storm that the disciples feared they’d perish. As several of the disciples were seasoned fishermen and familiar with the Sea, we can deduce that the account is authentic and this was one doozy of a storm.
In the various cultures of the ancient world, water represented disorder and chaos. In the Genesis creation story, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Out of this formless void of water, God begins making order, putting creation together. Creating out of chaotic water is a common creation theme in near-eastern cultures. The mythological and poetic imagery of God triumphing over the raging, disordered waters is something the disciples would have understood. It also makes the answer to their question about, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” when Jesus stills the storm, self-evident. Jesus has God’s power to still the storm; he has the power to make order out of chaos. Jesus has the power to save even in the worst circumstances.
This story reminds us that Jesus consistently puts himself into liminal places. He likes to show up at literal and metaphorical boundaries and thresholds - especially if they are dangerous, or the threshold is considered taboo in the society in which it exists. Jesuslikes to push the envelope.
In the passage immediately following this one. Jesus goes to the opposite, Gentile side of the lake shore. He encounters a man with an unclean spirit – most likely epilepsy - who had been chained in the local graveyard. It is also an area where vast herds of swine are grazing. This is a threshold place for a Jew to be: an unclean graveyard, Gentile territory and amongst unclean animals. Yet Jesus goes there and heals the possessed man. He does this despite cultural taboos and what religious authorities say about him.
In another instance, he goes to a tax collector’s home and he dines with people who were considered notorious sinners. Again, he did so despite prevalent establishment beliefs that this was undignified and unclean. Any time he contacts a person with leprosy or with an uncontrolled flow of blood, he goes to the border of a taboo boundary between what is considered holy and what is believed to defile.
In a culture that disregarded children, Jesus crossed a societal border when he took a child in his arms and stated, “If anyone causes one of these little ones . . . (we might hear, these little ones with brown skin and who speak Spanish) to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly goes to liminal places where insiders have built borders and walls between themselves and perceived outsiders. And each time, Jesus crosses that border, ignoring what others think is right and wrong. He does this so that he can offer healing and compassion to the outsider, the alien, the sick and the despised. He does this to role model that only love is the way in God’s economy.
The Sea of Galilee is such a liminal, marginal place that was a significant physical border between peoples. Geographically it separated Jews, who lived on its western shores, from Gentiles, who lived on its eastern shores. Sociopolitically it separated the humble Galilean fisherman who depended on its fish for a livelihood from the Roman Empire who taxed those fish heavily. The Sea kept populations separate and it fed imperial appetites; appetites which needed to keep people under their control and living marginally, in order to be satiated.
That’s how dividing lines work: they allow us to keep what’s known on one side and banish whatever makes us fearful, unacceptable or what is unknown to the other side of the wall.
Each time Jesus goes to these dividing walls he indicates to us that these separations don’t work and that he intends to tear them down because they are not of God. They are not about loving neighbor as self.
Jesus meddles with borders because he wants to bring order and justice to the chaos and injustice that borders and walls inflict on people. He goes to the margins because the reign of God extends divine holiness and a commitment to human well-being to places and people that we have said were beyond the limits of our human compassion and caring. He goes to the margins to love people that we have said we don’t care about.
Jesus invites us into the boat with him. He is sailing to the borders, to those places where human fear and hatred keep people on the margins. The trip will be chaotic at times. The winds will rough and the boat will be in danger of being swamped by the violent sea. But the boat’s destiny is safely guided by the only One who can and will still the storm and bring order and justice out of the chaos we experience. When we are in that boat with him, we hear his voice saying "Peace! Be still!” It is his voice and love that will tear down all those boundaries and walls in the world that imperil us, so that we all may be one.