Let Us Go Across to the Other Side

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

When it comes to this account of Jesus and his disciples in a boat in a storm, our attention is usually drawn to the almost comic image of Jesus asleep in the boat in the midst of the storm – and then his power to still that great storm.  While we don’t want to skip those parts of the story, I found my attention drawn this week to the beginning of the story and Jesus’ first words to the disciples: “Let us go across to the other side.” 

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and he often packs a lot in just a few words.  That short quote of Jesus and this short passage are no exception.

“Let us go across to the other side.”  What Jesus is asking the disciples at the end of a long day is no walk in the park, no short trip in a car.  The water they are going to cross is no small pond either; this is the Sea of Galilee Jesus is talking about.  The distance they are going to travel is something like 13 miles. 

And they will not be traveling like us with an engine and a cell phone in our pocket.  No, their small boat is only powered by oars, and if they are lucky to have wind, a small sail.  They are setting off in the evening so if they are delayed, or a storm comes up, they will likely be rowing without being able to see land, with their ability to communicate with people on shore limited to how far a human voice can carry against the wind.  No wonder “the sea” is often associated with danger and chaos in the Scriptures.

Yet that is not the only challenge facing the disciples.  The side of the Sea of Galilee from where they are starting is primarily Jewish.  This is where Jesus’ ministry has begun.  The disciples, on this side, are on home ground, living among people they know and who seek to follow the Torah much like them.  The land on the other side is Gentile territory, made up of strangers and foreigners to these disciples who do not follow the Torah, who have different customs and may speak different languages or dialects.

“Let us go across to the other side.”  As modern Christians, we often talk about the need to be welcoming and inclusive for all people, an essential part of being a follower of Jesus.  But if you think about it, when we speak in that way, we are usually envisioning how we can show inclusive hospitality for those who come to us, whom we meet on our home territory, where we are in the majority.  But sometimes the call of discipleship is a call to go somewhere else, somewhere which is not home, where we are not in the majority.

We can wait a few years before we tell this to young Braxton whom we just baptized, but being a disciple of Jesus can be hard.  Because Jesus has this tendency to call us to go across to the other side, to leave home, to leave our comfort zones.  Being a disciple of Jesus means always being open to change: changes in our thoughts, changes in our heart, changes even in our location.

What about us?  Are we being called by Jesus to go across to the other side?  To serve in a new ministry?  To reach out to new people, to spend time with a community of people where we are in the minority, not majority?  To venture into a new place in the Lehigh Valley or beyond?  To leave our comfort zones?

This week I thought back on the many mission trips I took with church members before my first retirement: with youth to various places on the East Coast; with adults to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance sites throughout the United States, and on trips to bring clean water to villages in Honduras through the Living Waters ministry.  What struck me was how many people, youth and adult, kept coming back, year after year.  Why?  It wasn’t the opportunity to give up a week of vacation – the pastors and youth director were getting paid on these trips but these volunteer servants weren’t.  It wasn’t because of sleeping on cots or air mattresses in earshot of snorers – trust me.  It wasn’t because the work was easy.  No, they came, because when we go across to the other side with Jesus, we find the adventure is always worth it.

“Let us go across to the other side.”  Sometimes it may be the call of Jesus that calls us to get into the boat, start rowing, and begin that transitional journey towards an unfamiliar place.  But sometimes it is life that sends us to new places and new stages.  Sometimes those new places are ones we have gladly chosen.  Sometimes they are thrust onto us unwillingly.  And rarely are they as short as a one-week mission trip.

Going across to the other side – it may mean something we have longed for: a promotion at work, or a new job, or going to college.  It may also mean change we knew was coming but which we are not ready for: an empty nest or retirement, for example.   The other side – we can also be pushed out into the sea by a divorce, by the loss of a job, or by a medical diagnosis that leaves us feeling adrift and all alone.

“Let us go across to the other side.” Mark 4 offers us not only wisdom to prepare to hear Jesus’ call to be open to go to new places.  Mark 4 also offers us wisdom to guide us through all of the transitions in our lives – whether caused by the call of discipleship or by changing circumstances, and whether the change is chosen by us or forced upon us. 

First, in times of change and transition, expect to leave something behind.  Or as William Bridges, the psychologist and management consultant, puts it, “every transition begins with an ending.”[1]

Sometimes what we are leaving behind is obvious.  No disciple in that boat had to be told that they were leaving land behind.  But they were also leaving behind things they could not see or even yet name.  They were leaving behind their preconceived notions of who their neighbors are and what it means to be faithful.  They were getting their first glimpse of what it means to follow Jesus and leave behind their kindred and homeland.  The movement which Jesus is launching is not limited to the Jews, nor to their homeland.  This boat ride is the first step towards carrying the gospel towards Samaria, Judea, and the ends of the earth.

Every transition begins with an ending.  I heard this week from a parent about an orientation program recently offered at the Penn State main campus for the parents of incoming freshmen.  A Penn State staff person asked the assembled parents, “raise your hand if you wake up your child each morning?… If you still make their doctor’s appointments?”  “Now it will be up to your children to do that,” the staff person gently told the parents. Then there was a panel of current students who spoke to the parents.  One young man told them with a smile, “Please get a hobby.  We don’t want to be responsible for your happiness.”

Sometimes our outer circumstances have changed, but our inner outlook has not.  A newly retired businessman arrived in a state of bitterness and frustration at the meeting of a “transitions group” that William Bridges led.  His marriage was on the rocks because his wife could not adjust to his retirement, he reported.  Here he was home more and could finally help out at home – but she had kicked him out of the house that day.  Why?  Bridges writes:  “A very precise and orderly man who had been used to supervising others, he discovered in the empty first days of his new leisure a fresh field for his talents – the kitchen cupboards.  His wife had come home from a trip to the city to find everything in the kitchen in some new place with a neat label for each shelf.”  He might no longer be at the same job, but he still thought he was running a business and his wife was the one-person staff he was now supervising.[2]  But that had all ended – and it was he, and not his wife, who needed to recognize and understand that ending.

Some endings are as obvious as getting in a boat to leave the land behind.  Some endings are subtle, easy to miss or overlook.  And, some endings are so hard that we have a lot to grieve.  As someone has said, it is not change which we fear but loss, and with some changes, there can be a lot lost, a lot to grieve. a lot to grieve.

The next time you find yourself in a time of transition, ask: what is ending here?  And be prepared not to fully know the answer to the question at the outset.

Second, transitions take time.  This trip for the disciples across the Sea of Galilee is not a short trip – even before the storm arrives.  Most of us might like our transitions to be instantaneous.  But transitions from this side to the other side take time, time when we are in between shores, between what is ending and what is beginning.  It takes time to understand and grieve what is ending, time to process and discern what is next, time to prepare and get used to that new beginning.  

Jesus had been baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, but his public ministry did not begin right away.  Instead, the Spirit sent him into the wilderness for 40 days, a time of transition.  At the end, he was better prepared to withstand the temptations and forces of evil that might keep him from fulfilling God’s purpose.  The Israelites fled Egypt, but they did not enter the promised land for 40 years.  During that time, they went from fugitive slaves all too ready to return to familiar routines of slavery to become a people forged into a community ready to follow the Torah in a new land.

Transitions take time.  When we moved for the first time with children, I remember how helpful it was to hear from my parents that in their moves it usually took two years before they felt fully at home in their new place, two cycles of seasons, holidays, and events.  I remember answering the call to become a minister, to leave a job, make a move, readjust roles with Kerry, and go back to school.  It took a longer time than I wanted to make the decision, a longer time than I wanted to begin ministry – but looking back, I needed all that time.  Please do not get impatient with your Pastor Nominating Committee – discernment takes time.

Times of transition can be dispiriting and disorienting – especially when we did not choose to go to the other side.  We may experience all of the signs of grief like denial, anger, bargaining, and depression – and all in one day.  We may feel adrift, lost at sea, and all alone in our boats.  We may run into terrible storms as the disciples do here.

The storm described here is not just a hard rain.  No, the Greek words describe a storm of fierce and terrifying winds that can suddenly blow up in that part of the world.  Remember at least four of these disciples are experienced fishermen.  But they are all scared.

Here then is the third and final piece of wisdom Mark 4 offers us when we find ourselves going across to the other side: remember who is in the boat with you. To begin with, there are fellow disciples in that boat.  Most importantly, Jesus Christ is in the boat with them. 

That is the way it is with Christ.  He does not just launch us out on our own from one shore or wait for us on the far shore.  He always gets in the boat with us.  And when those storms come, as they will come, he may appear to be asleep because he is not afraid.  But he can be counted on to wake up, calm troubled waters, and get us to where we need to go.

So, when you are launched to go across to the other side in some new ministry or mission, remember who is in the boat with you.

When you find yourself off to a new college or new job or new home, remember who is in the boat with you.

When you find yourself in one of life’s transitions and feel confused or dispirited, remember who is in the boat with you

When you as a church feel like you have been on the sea for such a long time and long to find that distant shore, remember who is in the boat with you.

When you are on the sea and a storm arises, a storm of loss and grief, a storm of loneliness or sadness, a storm of uncertainty, doubt or fear, remember the One in the boat with you – is more powerful than any storm.

When you, as all of us will do, face that final journey and must cross to the other side, from this mortal life into the mystery beyond that lies beyond, remember that you journey with the One who is the resurrection and the life.  The One who says to you, “Peace.  Be still.  Do not be afraid.  I am here.”

Amen.


[1] William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1980), 11.

[2] Bridges, 144.