November 11, 2012
St. Mark 4:35-41
Several years ago when I lived in Virginia, I paid a visit to an interesting little church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. Fifth Avenue is a historically African American church, founded over a hundred years ago. When I visited, it was a small struggling church, and maybe it still is, but when I was there I was struck by a stained glass window in its sanctuary. It’s a picture of a beautiful, calm, river scene with, of all things, Civil War tents on one side and a wooded area on the other. I asked what it was and discovered to my surprise that this stained glass window depicted the Rappahannock River going through the Civil War battlefield of Chancellorsville, and that the window was dedicated to one of the Confederacy’s greatest generals, Stonewall Jackson.
You see, Stonewall Jackson was a general, a Southerner, and a lifelong slave-owner, but he was also a dedicated Presbyterian elder. Before the Civil War, Jackson personally taught a Sunday school class for the children of slaves at his home Church in Lexington, VA, and paid for the class to continue while he was away at war. One of those slave children grew up and became a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Lilburn L. Downey, the child of slaves who’d been taught Sunday school by Jackson. He came to Roanoke and founded Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
During Rev. Downey’s ministry, the congregation installed this window to honor Jackson, who died at the battle of Chancellorsville. The window depicts a Confederate camp on the bank of a peaceful river and memorializes Jackson’s last words: “Let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”
Over the years, the congregation has often been asked why they have a window that honors such a questionable hero, or challenged to take the window down, but they refuse. For better or for worse, it’s part of their history, and they’re proud of it. It’s a kind of representation of the redemptive power of God—that a passionate secessionist and slave owner and a vicious soldier like Jackson could also be so dedicated to this Sunday school for slave children; that one of those former slaves could rise up to become a Presbyterian minister and found a church. It’s a way of saying that God can use the most unlikely circumstances and the least likely people to do God’s work in the world; and that faith can build relationships and opportunities between the most unlikely of people; and that over all of human history, there is this amazing, loving God who is sovereign over everything, who can turn bad to good, and can redeem and save the most unlikely people.
But we won’t see that if we don’t cross over to the other side.
“Let us cross over to the other side,” Jesus says in our Gospel today. When Jesus says those simple words to his disciples, they probably about had a heart attack. Jesus had been preaching on the western bank of the Sea of Galilee, which meant, basically, that he was preaching to people like himself and his disciples—his fellow Galileans, mostly poor fishermen and their families, mostly Jewish, with a strong regional identity. And suddenly Jesus is saying, Let’s go to the other side, by which he means, let’s cross the Sea of Galilee, at its widest point, from west to east, and go to other side, which in modern times we’d call the Nation of Jordan, and which back in those days was a land filled with people completely different from Galileans. This was Gentile territory, an area called the Decapolis, or the Ten Cities, populated by Arabs and by people from every part of the Roman Empire, sophisticated types, people who were proud Romans. Even the Jews who lived on the other side were completely different from Galileans. Jews who lived in the Decapolis were comfortable with compromises most Jews wouldn’t have made. They were willing to live among and work among people that Jews considered unclean, maybe even engage in unclean practices like eating pork. There were key Roman units garrisoned there. These people didn’t like Galilean Jews and Galilean Jews didn’t like them; and here’s Jesus saying, let’s cross over to the other side and hang out with them! The other side isn’t just any other side, it’s the dark side, and it’s like Jesus saying to them, “Come to the dark side, Luke!”
But Jesus wants to cross over to the dark side because He knows that His father, the Sovereign Lord of the universe, loves those weird people over there just as much as God loves Jews, and so Jesus wants to go over to the other side to make sure they know that, and if He goes to the other side, well, His disciples have to go to the other side too.
There’s a great rabbinical story about Moses, the man God ordained to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. Moses’ big problem was that even though he was a Hebrew, he was raised in the house of an Egyptian princess, so the other Hebrews didn’t perceive him as one of them, and when he tried to help them, they told him where to go. So in disgust, he left Egypt and tried to start a new life. But God appears to Moses in a burning bush and says, “Moses, I want you to save my people.” The rabbinical legend is that when Moses first heard this, he was amazed. He argued with God. “What? Those people? You want to redeem those stubborn, mean, ignorant people? What could you possibly find in them that’s any good?” And God responded angrily, “If I say they can be redeemed, then who are you to question it?”
This is a good word for all of us, all the time, but maybe especially in these times. People say that the United States is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. I suspect that might be an exaggeration, but the fact is that there sometimes there doesn’t seem a lot of love lost between republicans and democrats, between Hispanics and African Americans and Whites, between rich and middle class and poor. The recent election showed us a nation that’s split 50-50 down the middle of the perceived cultural divide. Everybody looks at the other side and says, “Look at those people. They are irredeemable. They are hopeless. Could anybody find anything good about them?”
Well, yes, somebody can. God can. And if God says they can be redeemed, then who are we to question it?
You may not believe it, but whichever side of the debate you’re on, Jesus is getting in the boat to go over to the other side right now. And He isn’t gently asking us if we want to get in the boat with Him. He’s telling us, “Get in the boat. You say you’re my disciple? Then get in the boat. You’re worried there might be a storm? Well, I’ve got news for you. There will be a storm. But I’ll handle that. Your job is to get in the boat and go to the other side, because God says EVERYBODY is redeemable, and if God says it, who are you to question it. Just get in the boat.”
We need to go to the other side, and the place to start is simple: get to know them. Get out of ourselves, our stratified ways of thinking, the way we hang out just with the people who are like us. Those of you in high school I know how it goes. In my high school it was black versus white, during the period of integration. These days it’s divided more like white and everybody else, or honors versus non-honors. And it’s always been divided by rich and poor. That’s never changed. Whatever side you’re on, Jesus is challenging you, Go to the other side. Listen to what they have to say. Get to know what they really need, what their concerns are, what their problems are, what their loves are. Listen to them, and dare them to listen to you, too. It’ll be uncomfortable. They probably think you’re as bad as you think they are. That’s the storm. You’ll weather it because Jesus is on your side. But first you’ve got to get past that fear of crossing over.
Here’s the thing: as disciples we don’t have any choice. God says they’re redeemable, and who are we to question it? Jesus says, “Let us cross over to the other side,” and it isn’t a request. It’s an order. Get in the boat!