“The Back of the Boat” Colchester Federated Church, September 3, 2017 (Mark 4:35-41)

 Regina Brett (a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer) wrote a book called God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours which has become a favorite book over the years.  The fourth chapter of the book is entitled, “Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously.  No One Else Does.”  And she talks about submitting a lengthy story for a magazine containing one mistake and beating herself up for not being perfect after she discovers her error.  Regina Brett had spent weeks and weeks working on this article, had interviewed many people, and rewrote it too many times to count to make sure that it was flawless.  But then she got a phone call.  One of the subjects in the article thanked her for the feature, but noted that she spelled his name wrong.

She recounts, “I buried my face in my hands and wept at my desk.  The story was more than 3,000 words long.  I had spelled one single word incorrectly but I gave myself an F.  When a coworker in the newsroom saw my tears, she rushed over, ‘Are you okay?  What happened?’ she asked, worried that someone had died.”  Brett gasped between sobs that she spelled a name incorrectly in the article, and the coworker stared at her in a dumbfounded way and just walked away.  It was then that Brett told herself that maybe she needed to lighten up a little bit.[1]

I once made a fairly big mistake as a Seminarian and can relate to what happened here with this misspelling of a name.  My former church in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts is a large congregation of about 1,000 members and so it was incredibly difficult to keep track of everyone, especially when it came to pastoral care situations.  One Sunday I was giving the pastoral prayer and one of my clergy colleagues gave me a last minute prayer request, to pray for a member whose mother had just been diagnosed with cancer.  Yet somehow I didn’t hear the word “mother” in his sentence.  So I announced to the entire congregation that the woman herself was diagnosed with cancer and that we needed to pray for her.  There was a collective gasp from the congregation that I took to be gasps of concern, and just went on with my prayer.

After the prayer, the senior minister got up before the offering to correct my mistake, and I was absolutely mortified.  During coffee hour, I went up to this parishioner and apologized profusely.  Nearly in tears because I was so embarrassed and felt horrible that I messed up this prayer request for her mother and sent the congregation into a bit of a panic that one of their members (and an active and beloved member at that) might be sick.  She loving and graciously said that she got more attention in church than she had in a long time and now everyone would be sure to pray for her mom.  All was well, not to worry.  We all make mistakes.

What both of these instances highlight is that no one can be perfect all the time and that we just shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously all the time.  Whether it was Regina Brett having a meltdown over her one mistake in the column or me freaking out about mistakenly botching a prayer request—life went on.  We were forgiven.  And the world didn’t come to a screeching halt because we happened to make a mistake.

As Brett says in another part of her book, “Frame every so-called disaster with these words: in five years, will this matter?”[2]  Sometimes the answer is yes.  But more often than not, it’s no—your crisis, disaster, mistake, really and truly won’t matter in five years.

What we see in today’s scripture from the Gospel of Mark is exactly this call to not take ourselves so seriously all the time.  When we read this passage we may get hung up on the miracle story contained within.  Could Jesus really say to the sea, “Peace!   Be still!” and it could happen?[3]  That understanding will always be a matter of belief.  Though we can look a little closer at the story to see how Mark sets the scene for us.

Jesus leaves the crowds behind for a while to get some space.  He tells the disciples in the evening; let’s go across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  But then a storm kicks up and the disciples are terrified.  Now to be fair, this seems like a pretty bad storm and the Sea of Galilee is known for sudden, violent storms with damaging winds.  What’s so telling and actually rather comical though, is that during most of this encounter, Jesus is “in the stern, asleep on the cushion.”  The disciples, some of whom are fishermen and professionally sail these seas, are running around, scared to death, yelling at Jesus, “Don’t you care that the ship is sinking and we’re all going to drown?”[4]

And Jesus is just passed out on this cushion sleeping away.  When he gets up and stills the storm, Jesus’ words are, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”[5]  I’ve said it before and you’ll probably hear it again—in the Gospel of Mark in particular and for all of Christianity—fear is the opposite of faith.  So the implication is that the disciples need to get a whole lot more faith if they’re going to conquer their fears and doubts.

We can take this story a step further in our modern context.  Because the implication is also don’t take yourself so seriously!  Calm down.  It’s going to be okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you.  Relax.

The fantastic writer Anne Lamott tells a story about having a meltdown when she discovered a mole on her ribs.  Her father died of malignant melanoma, so she was justified in her fear.  However she found the prospect of having it tested absolutely terrifying and couldn’t concentrate on anything else.  Lamott says that she decided to write God a note on a scrap of paper.  She wrote, “I am a little anxious.  Help me remember that you are with me even now.  I am going to take my sticky fingers off the control panel until I hear from you.”[6]

The mole ended up being benign and just irregularly shaped—though Lamott says that the two best prayers she knows are, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help me, help me, help me.”  She used both of these prayers to address God in this incident, and often finds these simple prayers to be the most fitting in her life.  You know, when the storm was rocking the boat on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples’ call to Jesus was certainly, “Help me, help me, help me!”  And he does help them.  He does address their concern.  But he also calls their panic and anxiety into question a little bit here.  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Words for all of us to contemplate in the midst of stormy seas.

Now, having been accused by family and minister friends in particular of not being great with self-care, I was gifted a book years ago written by a professor at Andover Newton about self-care strategies for ministers.  Thanks for the hint.  Anyway, this story of Jesus stilling the storm is the main biblical example that Professor Kirk Jones uses in his book to tell ministers that sometimes we just need to stop and rest.

This doesn’t just apply to ministers, obviously.  Here’s what he says specifically: “We cannot be certain of all that Jesus did while he was in the back of the boat, but we do know there were some things that he did not do.  Since he was the only one back there, we know that he did not preach to anyone, he did not teach anyone, and he did not heal anyone . . . ‘the back of the boat’ is a metaphor, a symbol of the necessary break from the activism of life, in general, and the rigor of the ministry, in particular.”[7]

Translation: if you want to be a productive, happy, relatively sane and balanced person who can enjoy and appreciate life, you need to lighten up a little bit and get in the back of the boat.  I have to tell this to myself all the time because of natural inclinations to be a workaholic.  And I’m probably not the only one in this sanctuary who needs to hear this message about changing our attitudes and our perspectives and our habits and resting every now and then.  Yes it can be hard, and yes it’s necessary.

This sermon is proof of the progress made over the years.  Why?  Because the truth is that I’ve given pretty much this entire sermon before in June of 2012.  Decided that for the five days I could spend back home with my parents in Ohio I did not want to be focused on an upcoming worship service or researching and writing a brand-new sermon.  Instead, I could use a sermon from five years ago that you haven’t heard before and perhaps no one would be the wiser.  Though this was an example of getting in the back of the boat, and that’s why the honesty about recycling this sermon matters.

As Professor Kirk Jones so rightly states, “What matters in the back of the boat is that delight is found, not in what we produce, but in what we can, if only for a moment, open ourselves to receiving unconditionally.”[8]  Resting and recharging our batteries helps us be better for ourselves, for one another, and for God.  So here’s hoping that this fall won’t be so hectic and busy that we miss out on moments of delight.  Here’s hoping for a transformative season for all of us, and that we’ll have some chances to bask in the unconditional love of God who is just a hastily said “Help me, help me, help me” prayer away.  Here’s hoping we can take some time to rest in the back of the boat, not take ourselves so seriously all the time, and just be for a while.  And may we always remember that the comforting presence of God will be with us wherever we go.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Regina Brett, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours, 20.
[2] Brett, God Never Blinks, 119.
[3] Mark 4:39, 41, NRSV.
[4] Mark 4:38.
[5] Mark 4:40
[6] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 180.
[7] Kirk Byron Jones, Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers, 26.
[8] Jones, Rest in the Storm, 37.