Asleep at the Wheel

Listen to sermon audio:

“Asleep at the Wheel” Philippians 4:4-9 and Mark 4:35-41

Maybe (a poem by Mary Oliver)

Sweet Jesus, talking

His melancholy madness,

Stood up in the boat

And the sea lay down,


Silky and sorry.

So everybody was saved

That night.

But you know how it is


When something

Different crosses

The threshold- the uncles

Mutter together


The women walk away,

The young brother begins

To sharpen his knife.

Nobody knows what the soul is.


It comes and goes

like the wind over the water-

sometimes, for days,

you don’t think of it.


Maybe, after the sermon,

After the multitude was fed,

One or two of them felt

The soul slip forth


Like a tremor of pure sunlight,

Before exhaustion,

That wants to swallow everything,

Gripped their bones and left them


Miserable and sleepy,

As they are now, forgetting

How the wind tore at the sails

Before he rose and talked to it-


Tender and luminous and demanding

As he always was-

A thousand times more frightening

Than the killer sea.


“There is always turbulence at the boundaries,” says my wise friend Jerry.

Wherever there is change, or transition, a crossing of a threshold or a moving from one place to another, there is turbulence, disorder, and instability.

When I tell my husband about the idea of turbulence at the boundaries, Peter lights up, and I know that Mr. Science is about to add another interesting layer to this notion.

“Not only is there turbulence at the boundaries,” says Peter, “But the lack of turbulence holds you back.”  I look puzzled.

“Do you remember when they drew pictures of the vehicles of the future, and they were all very teardrop shaped, because they assumed they wanted to avoid turbulence, with the air flowing over it,” he explained.

“But what they discovered is that the lack of turbulence forms a partial vacuum (an area of low pressure) behind the vehicle, which holds it back.  Really they needed to create a sharp boundary in the lines of the car so that there would be turbulence behind the vehicle instead.  Think of the design of the Prius.”   (For you scientists, let’s not put too fine a point on this.)

When Peter talks science, I hear theological reflection.  Turbulence is a sign of moving forward, and lack of turbulence means you aren’t going anywhere.

If you get in the boat with Jesus, you can count on turbulence.

The men in the boat with Jesus were seasoned fisher folk who were well familiar with the Sea of Galilee, the largest fresh water lake in Israel.  The fishermen were intimately familiar with this lake because they had fished and fished on that 13 by 8 miles lake.  It was their shop.  They knew how the winds could come roaring across the Golan Heights as if out of nowhere, and turn a calm sea into a raging monster almost without warning.  Being caught out on that lake in such a windstorm could be the death of a fisherman.

If you get in the boat with Jesus, you can count on turbulence.

All three of the synoptic gospels tell us this story, so deeply was it etched into the minds of the disciples, they retained the cellular memory of their fear long, long after that night.  They told the story over and over, as if trying to convince themselves that it wasn’t just a bad dream.  The boat was open to the elements, and they heard the wind coming before they felt it and the sea thrashed like a monster from the deep and as the boat rose up to the top of the wave and crashed into the trough they stomachs seemed to hang in mid air.

And Jesus was asleep at the wheel.  Sound asleep: head on a pillow, snoring, drooling, dead to the world.  Dreaming perhaps of the faces of those who looked to him with so much hope and desperation in their eyes; hearing instead of the wail of the wind the cries of the man who waited for him on the other shore, the demoniac who rattled around in the cemetery waiting for Jesus to come and help.

And as the boat slammed down hard again against the water, the boat filling with water at an alarming rate, the disciples shook Jesus hard and instead of saying “Help us, we’ll all be killed,” they said “Don’t you care about us?”

Swimming up from the depth of a deep sleep all Jesus could see in the dark was the whites of their eyes and what he heard beneath their accusation was: “Jesus, if you cared about us, you would be as afraid as we are.”

How Jesus managed to inoculate himself against their contagious fear is anybody’s guess.  Maybe even this early in his ministry Jesus intuited the death that awaited him and had let go of any outcome for his ministry that he may have desired.

If you get in the boat with Jesus, you can count on turbulence.

“And Sweet Jesus, talking His melancholy madness, Stood up in the boat And the sea lay down, Silky and sorry. So everybody was saved That night.”

Their hearts were pounding so hard they thought they still heard the wind roaring when it was only the sound of their own blood pumping loudly in their ears.  And just in that second that the water lay down, “silky and sorry,” they caught a glimpse of it, the “soul slip(ing) forth Like a tremor of pure sunlight,” and it was gone as fast as they saw it, this vision of what they could become, what they already were. And Jesus scared them to death, it scared them because they knew that to live into that soul would cause turbulence. Jesus, “Tender and luminous and demanding, As he always was- (was to them in that moment) A thousand times more frightening Than the killer sea.”

If you get in the boat with Jesus, you can count on turbulence.

This church is more than a year and a half into its interim period.  Let’s just say we’re half way across the lake.  Crossing a threshold into a new chapter involves the turbulence that comes with moving ahead.  And storms seem to come out of nowhere.  We’ve been naming the losses this congregation has experienced over the past few years: Irv’s leaving, the death of Martha Jane Hackett, a pillar of the church if ever there was one; other key leaders who have moved on.  Fears about money and growth and trying to heal old wounds enough to make this church a safer space for people to grow the beloved community buffet our small boat on this wide sea.  Fears about the future can spring up out of nowhere and seize us around the neck.  And fear is contagious.  And how natural it is to say to each other: “If you really cared about me you would be as afraid as I am.”  How easy it is to say to God: “If you really cared about this church you would be afraid as we are.”  How tempting it is to convince those around us of the severity of the storm.

Fear comes easily and naturally to us, it is not a spiritual practice we have to cultivate.   The peace of God, which passes all understanding, which the apostle Paul writes about, is a lot harder to nurture, and requires practice, practice, practice.  Which is why we come together week after week and sing and pray and express gratitude to God and re-tell the ancient stories, which nourish our religious imaginations and help us to find those places where our stories intersect with God’s story.  And these religious and spiritual practices steady our boat in the midst of the thrashing storm.  But there is still turbulence at the boundaries, rough waters as we cross a threshold into the future.

If you get in the boat with Jesus, you can count on turbulence.

That truth may frighten you or it may comfort you, or both.  But remember: the turbulence can signify that you are moving forward, crossing a threshold.

I don’t know what lake you are personally crossing at this point in your life, and I don’t know what makes you feel the most afraid and unsafe.  But God knows, because God is in that boat with you.  And Jesus, “tender and luminous and demanding, as he always is” may scare us to death by asking us to take the risk of crossing to the other side, where our boats are so small, and the sea is so wide, and where the unknown future awaits us.

If you get in the boat with Jesus, you can count on turbulence.

And you can also count on the peace of God, which passes all understanding, to be in that boat with you.  So may it be.  AMEN


  • Pastor Meg Hess