A Sermon for Evensong
Some words from our second lesson this evening: “When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” More than once in St Mark’s Gospel, things seem to be going well for Jesus, he is accruing a good crowd of followers; he’s building a good base for his work of preaching, healing and teaching; he’s gaining a reputation throughout the country. And then he simply turns around and goes in a different direction, leaving behind all the advantages he’s been building up. In our reading tonight, Jesus and his disciples leave the crowd behind. It’s not easy to build up a following of such a size that it can be called a crowd. Yet Jesus simply leaves them. Surely now is the time to care for the crowd, to let the people know that Jesus is interested in them, to build them up into a tighter community of people. With crowds behind him, surely Jesus can influence government policy and start to have a real and lasting impact on the life of the nation and the world. But no. Jesus waits until evening, waits until the crowd are preparing for sleep and, under cover of darkness, leaves them behind and goes to the other side. Every leadership expert, every church growth theorist, should be tearing their hair out! But what I want to suggest this evening is that this is not a mistake on Jesus’ part, however counter-intuitive it seems to us. Rather, it fits with the whole tenor of Jesus’ teaching and the way in which we see God working. Above all, it helps us to see the three great theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
First, then, Jesus taking his disciples to the other side is an act of faith. It is faith that God is calling him on, faith that does not lean on success but is attuned to the call of God. Faith in God is not the same thing as success, indeed faith in God can and often does undermine the very way in which we determine success. The disciples, perplexed at leaving the crowd, the result of hard work and a growing ministry, find themselves heading for unknown territory. When a storm arises, they might well have thought that this was a sign that they should return to the work they were doing. Yet Jesus rebukes them – ‘have you still no faith?’
Jesus’ parables also capture this faith. Planting seeds is an act of faith: faith that the harvest will come; faith that what is needed will happen. I love the description of the faith of the farmer, who scatters seed on the ground and then sleeps and rises and does nothing more until the harvest. And faith is also seen in the story of Abram in our first reading. Faith in journeying, leaving behind securities. Letting Lot choose which part of the land to have is an act of faith. Faith as we see it in Jesus and Abram is a giving up of success, it is a leaving behind of things that have given us security, it is to trust in the God who calls us to the other side.
This faith is not given to us alone. It comes with hope. Jesus taking his disciples to the other side of the lake is also an act of hope. It is hope that in a different place, in the unknown territory on the other side of the lake, God will still guide him. This hope is far from our desire for control. We cannot make God present in different places, we rely on our hope that he will be there. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “the Spirit moves where it wills … and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). To move with the Spirit is to let go of control, and to trust in the hope of the presence of God. The disciples, caught up in the storm are rebuked for their lack of faith. They are equally lacking in hope. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” they say to Jesus. The storm in moving to unknown territory finds the disciples without hope. ‘Why are you afraid?” asks Jesus, where is your hope?
This hope is also seen in Jesus’ parables. Jesus is clear that the farmer who scatters his seed and waits for it to grow “does not know how” it grows. Here is the danger of too many accounts of leadership and church growth – they want to know how it happens. But we don’t know how growth comes. We are simply to sow in the hope of the harvest. Abram also demonstrates this hope. Having in faith given Lot the choice of the land, Abram is shown the whole land, as a place for his descendants. But it is not for him, not for now. He is to live in the hope of the land. Abram gives up his claims to the whole land, and in doing so is promised an even fuller possession. This is the pattern of hope. Giving up control, and trusting in God.
In crossing to the other side, then, we are shown faith and hope. Each is intertwined with the other. And inseparable from them both is love. Love is the point of the movement, the reason for the crossing. Jesus, in taking his disciples to the other side of the lake demonstrates the nature of God’s love. On the other side of Lake Galilee is Gentile territory. Jesus is taking his mission of preaching, healing and teaching to those who are strangers and outcasts. To those who are separate from God’s people, seeking to bring them in. Here we have the reason for going across the lake. It was not to get rid of successes for fear they might undermine his faith. Nor was it to test the hope of the presence of God, and to surrender control. Jesus takes his disciples across the lake to widen the circle of his presence to those who are outside and estranged. In this movement we see the very nature of the love of God, as it continually seeks those who are outside.
This too can be seen in the parables of Jesus we have heard tonight. All seeds are sown, as we have seen, in faith and hope. But the point of sowing is not to exercise faith and hope. Rather the point of sowing is the harvest, when the fruits of the seeds can be used by others. And we have the parable of the mustard seed as well, both to demonstrate the faith in sowing such a small seed to produce such a large tree, but above all to demonstrate the provision of that tree for all of the birds of the air. The unfolding of the seed into the tree is a picture of the movement of God’s love, stretching ever outwards in order that others can make their home in it. Abram too shows us the love of God, in his generosity in giving to Lot, and in the way that the promise of the land is not for him, but for those who will come after him. It points us back to the way in which God calls him, not for Abram’s own sake, or for the sake of the people who will be descended from him, but so that in him “all the families of the world shall be blessed” (Genesis 12.3). The call of Abram, for the blessing of the whole world, shows us the love of God, ever moving outwards to reach those who are outside.
In our readings this evening, then, we see faith and hope and love. And we are brought to a better understanding of each. We see faith in moving on, in trusting that what is left behind is enough. We see hope in going to unknown territory, trusting that God will be the same there, that though we do not always understand, God will suffice. And we see love in going to others, to the strangers and the outsiders. Faith, hope and love that undermine our categories of success, our need to control, and draw us ever beyond our limits. These three virtues challenge us in two ways.
First, they challenge us to be critical of the worldly virtues of success and control and looking to ourselves. We can see these antitheses to faith and hope and love simply by picking up a newspaper and reading about our world, or contemporary politics. We can also see them in our church and in our own lives. The story of Jesus taking his disciples across the lake challenges us to be critical about the ways in which faith and hope and love are exercised in our own lives and in our church and the world.
But secondly, the virtues of faith and hope and love challenge us to ask about the call of God on and in our own lives. Where is God calling us to leave behind security and success, to give up control, and to more outwards to those who are strangers? Where is God calling us to learn more about faith and hope and love? These are not virtues that we can learn by listening to sermons, or even to readings from scripture. They have to be learned by doing, by following the call of God, by leaving things behind and venturing through the storm to the other side of the lake.
“When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”
Given at Derby Cathedral 16.6.13.