"Comfort Zone? What Comfort Zone?"
Life is a journey, and as the German expression has it: “He who travels can tell lots of stories”. As we were sitting in our garden recently, relaxing after a great but hectic visit from the Toronto grandkids I reflected on the expression of “the calm before the storm” – or, in our case at the time, the calm after the storm. One thought led to another, and the message for today was born.
The Scripture reading for today comes from two passages in the Gospels. We’ll start with John.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[a] they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Our reading in John 6 today describes to us a dramatic incident in the life of the disciples that was important enough to find its way into 3 of the 4 Gospels. John, Mark, and Matthew all record this incident, but in slightly different ways, each focusing on a different perspective.
John tells of the disciples getting into the boat and battling the waves and wind on their way to Capernaum. Mark tells us they were on their way to Bethsaida, while Matthew simply says they were on their way to the other side. Tradition has it that the feeding of the 5000 (which precedes the boating incident we are looking at) took place on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, while both Capernaum and Bethsaida are located on the northern shore. The disciples were probably traversing the lake in a north-westerly direction. The prevailing wind direction for the sea of Galilee is from the west so they would have been running into the wind from the left front quarter. According to some boating guys that is not a good thing in a storm.
Allow me to take you, in your imagination, into to the boat with the disciples. The remnants of an ancient boat was discovered on the shore of the lake in 1986, dating from the time period that Jesus ministered in the area. The boat is displayed in the Yigal Allon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar, while replicas are on display at the Lednica Lake in Poland and in Brunswick, Germany. Although it quickly became known as the “Jesus Boat” there is no evidence to link the boat to Jesus.
Picture the scene in the boat. We do not know how many disciples were in the boat – all 12, only some of the 12 or more than 12. Based on the archeological evidence of the boat it seems unlikely that all 12 of the disciples were in the boat, due to its smaller size. There is space for 6 rowers and fitting another six passengers would have been crowding the boat. We know that Peter was one of those in the boat. It would be safe to assume, I think, that John, James and Matthew were there too, as well some other disciples who had been fishermen before being called. We know that Peter, John and James were fishermen, Matthew was a tax collector. (Mark is not mentioned as a disciple – the evidence is overwhelming that the Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas, whom Paul refers to in his letters). In short - not all the disciples were fishermen, or seasoned sailors.
The weather turned against them. The wind was against them, and the waves got rough. It is more than likely that there were a few hard words exchanged among those in the boat. Not all might have been in agreement on the best way to weather this storm – some may have wanted to return to the shore, some may have wanted to ride it out, others may have wanted to head for Bethsaida and still others for Capernaum. We won’t know but I think it is fairly certain that, as people like us, they might have had some disagreements among themselves in this time of stress. It would only have been natural.
But whatever the situation and interpersonal relationships in the boat were, we can be sure that, under the circumstances, the boat represented the comfort zone for the disciples. It may not have been comfortable, and not everyone may have been happy with the way things were going, but it was better than being outside the boat. There may have been those who were wishing for a bigger boat, or a different one, or wishing to be ashore, but for now, at that moment in time when we meet these disciples, they are in their comfort zone – in the boat.
- Let’s keep this picture in our minds, and let’s personalize this passage from Scripture.
We are the disciples. Our boat is North Lonsdale United Church. We are on a journey to the other side of our lake – our destination is to reach the North Shore community for Christ, to show and share Christ’s love with our community. And our boat is being battered by the wind and the waves.
The wind is against us – in the last four years we have been through a lot of rough weather. The first storm to hit us, in 2018, was when our long-serving minister, Robin Jacobson, was called to Vernon. For the 15 months after that we battled through to find a new minister. When the Reverent Jaylynn Byassee joined us, the waters calmed down, the waves grew less threatening, and we were getting comfortable in our boat, metaphorically speaking.
Then, in 2020 a storm (or should we liken this to a hurricane?) blew in – the Covid-19 pandemic hit. That caused an unprecedented disruption to our way of life and to societies around the world. Very quickly we were in a state of lockdown, with no way to meet and worship together or even to socialize.
To take the boat illustration further – it seems to me that in March 2020 our boat capsized, and we were all floating in individual lifejackets on our own instead of being in any sort of comfort zone. But we coped. Under the circumstances we adapted as much as we could, and virtual worship was introduced – pre-recorded messages took the place of face-to-face worship. We all had to deal with isolation, some with loneliness, some with serious health problems and some possibly with the loss of loved ones. Through it all, even when we were not able to meet in person, our faith community, our church family, remained a focal point – a rallying point, if you will. Our comfort zone. Think about the telephone contact ministry that evolved in this time.
Slowly things got better. About a year ago we could start to worship together again. It was strange, meeting at a distance and hiding behind masks, but we were getting back into some sort of a routine, a normal comfort zone. The last six months or so it seemed that the storm had mostly blown over, and things were getting back to normal.
And then another squall sneaked up behind us. Pastor Jaylynn Byassee left us at the end of August to be with her husband, Dr Jason Byassee, who has been called to serve in Toronto.
Here we are, back to battling a storm, bailing to keep our boat, our comfort zone, afloat. John’s words could apply so well to our situation – “the wind was against them, and the waters grew rough”.
One could well ask the question: “Comfort zone – what comfort zone?”
- Let us get back to the disciples in the boat on the Lake of Galilee.
Despite the stressful situation the disciples found themselves, they were, to a larger or smaller degree, still in their comfort zone. Things were rough, sure, but somewhat familiar.
And then, in the distance they saw what looked like a man walking towards them on the water. A closer look revealed this strange sight to be Jesus, walking on water. It scared them. If I may take the liberty of juxtaposing the two narratives from John and Matthew: the storm frightened them, but the sight of Jesus walking on the water terrified them.
We may be surprised by this reaction. They were, after all, familiar with Jesus. He had taught them, He had performed miracles in front of them, even involving them in doing stuff with Him, like feeding the 5,000 just the previous day. One would think they knew Him and might be surprised but not terrified when they saw Him again.
I suggest the following:
The disciples thought that they knew Jesus. They thought that they were familiar with His way of doing things. For nearly three years they had lived and worked in close relationship with Him. They had even seen Him calm a storm before.
Why then, the terror at seeing Him walk on the water? I think it may have been because this was outside their frame of reference. This was something new, unfamiliar to them. It was not the way things had been done up to then. It was not the traditional way of doing things. And that terrified them.
- Matthew records the second act of this drama on the Lake of Galilee.
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.
Peter is one of those in the boat. One of those in their comfort zone. He is in his comfort zone, maybe more so than some of the others. Remember he had been a fisherman before he started to follow Christ, so the storm would probably not have bothered him as much as some of the others.
When Peter hears the assurance from the apparition on the water “do not be afraid, it is only me, Jesus” (I paraphrase) he does something out of character. Keep in mind that Peter was the conservative guy – the fisherman who had his feet firmly planted on what he knew and understood. And yet, he steps out of the boat. He responds to Christ’s call and gets out of that which he knows and that which appears safe and comfortable.
Verse 29 is one of the most powerful images for me in the New Testament. Peter, the fisherman, the disciple, steps out of the known into the unknown. He steps out of his comfort zone and walks on the water towards Jesus.
I am not ignoring the final episode of the drama when Peter takes his eyes off Christ and goes for a swim instead of walking on water. It forms part of next Sunday’s message, so stay tuned.
Allow me to bring this into context for us, today in North Lonsdale United Church, and as individuals wherever we may be. We have been through a lot. The pandemic created havoc with that which we knew and were familiar with. We have had to adapt to new ways of doing things – including new ways of worshiping. Just when we were starting to feel comfortable again and things were returning to what used to be normal – or at least somewhat normal, we are thrown into turmoil again as we start to look for a new minister.
Think about the illustration of the disciples in the storm-tossed boat, but still somewhat in their comfort zone. That could be us.
When I had the privilege to preach in June (refer to sermons for June 19th and June 26th on the website), I spoke of how I believe God is ahead of us and is at work in our world in ways we may not yet have clued in on. In many ways, the old ways of doing things no longer are relevant. “Doing church”, as it used to be 15, 10 or even 5 years ago, is not coming back. New and different approaches may be called for.
- Let us take this personally.
We are, somewhat, in our comfort zone. Sure – we are dealing with a lot of stuff, and, to use the metaphor again, we are battling a storm in our little boat called NLUC. I think Christ is calling us, as He called Peter, to get out of the boat and follow Him. To get out of the mindset that the way things used to be is the way things must be in the future. In some ways to let go of the past and look to embrace the future. Christ calls us to serve Him in ways we may not have thought of before, to do church in a new way, to be disciples in a way that is true to His teaching and relevant to this post-pandemic world.
What does this look like? I have no idea. However, at the visioning workshop last weekend several approaches and ideas surfaced. These are prayerfully being evaluated, and in some cases already implemented by folks who are passionate about carrying Christ’s love out into the world.
There are many challenges ahead of us as a community of faith and as individuals. Finding a new minister is one. More important, however, is discerning what God has in mind for us, not only as a congregation, but as individuals. There are exciting changes in the air.
God is calling us to get out of the boat!