Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 6:16-24) transports me to the Asheville Mall, 1979, where I worked during my senior year of high school in an import store called Curious Cargo. Asheville was hopping that year with the arrival of Hollywood stars and director Hal Ashby, as Being There was filmed on the Biltmore Estate. One of the big news stories was of the day Shirley MacLaine went shopping at the mall, accompanied by an entourage and film crew as she got her bag of Karmelkorn and oohed over the puppies in Pet Luv. The even better story was of the following day, when Peter Sellers went shopping at the mall, alone, unrecognized by anyone. He was so associated with Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther and the three characters he played in Doctor Strangelove, that no one knew what he looked like as himself. For all I know, I might have sold him some silk flowers, or a teakwood box, or a water bong (Curious Cargo was a head shop as well as an import store). When the film debuted, we all went to the theater, and cheered as a limousine, which had been going down a street of our nation’s capital, turned a corner into Biltmore village. We cheered more when the Biltmore House came on screen, and kept cheering right to the end, as Peter Sellers’ character, Chance the Gardener, meandered across the grounds of the Estate, and finally walked on water, strolling right across the lake in the famous closing scene.
In a well-scripted scene worthy of Hal Ashby direction, Jesus sends the disciples off across the lake, where they encounter a fierce storm. With several fishermen in the boat, you’d think they are in their comfort zone, being in their workplace, but the crashing waves sink their spirits as they struggle against the wind. In the middle of the terror, something even more terrifying happens. A figure they can only guess is a ghost comes walking toward them across the water. As much time as they have spent with Jesus, they do not recognize him. Perhaps it was because it was so out of context, or they were so used to seeing him in his familiar roles as teacher and healer. At any rate, he speaks to them, identifying himself, and they bring him into the boat, where he buoys their spirits and gets them to their destination.
This short vignette provides us with a powerful metaphor for what often happens to the church. It seems like many times Jesus sends us off on our own, and even if it is in a place we’re familiar with, the comfort zone of the church workplace, we can encounter waves and storms that scare us out of our wits and sink our spirits. We row as hard as we can, but the waves overwhelm us. And then, in the midst of the storm, an unfamiliar figure approaches, and scares us even more. We don’t always recognize Jesus in our midst, when he comes walking across the crest of the waves. But when he speaks his truth to us, and we let him into the boat, he does have a way of buoying our spirits and getting us to our destination. I think of the storms we confront as a church, whenever we row into the troubled waters of sexuality, or economic privilege, or nationalism, or racial prejudice, or war, or interfaith relations. It sure feels, a lot of the time, when we’re in the midst of the storms these issues create in our communities of faith, that we’re on our own, trying to figure out how to create some forward movement as the wind and tides keep pushing us back. And then Jesus comes, and it’s no surprise that we don’t recognize him at first – we’ve grown accustomed to the portraits we’ve painted of him, as teacher and healer and savior. We don’t expect him gliding across the turbulent waters of difficult dialogues around race, or class, or gender, or sexuality, or violence, or interfaith bridge-building. We are especially slow to recognize his face when it is the face of our enemy, or of one who carries a different world view. But he is there, and if we have faith to hear his voice, and invite him into our shaky boat, we’ll find our spirits buoyed and the destination in sight. This experience is not something you can adequately describe with words; you have to be there.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Google+, FB, Twitter, etc.