We’re All in the Same Boat (Luke 8.22-25)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
July 3, 2016
“Dad, is it all right if Jesus has a Han Solo body, pirate legs, and a George Washington wig?” He asked without looking up, piecing together spare Legos into a passable messiah. I smiled in return and asked to see. “He looks good,” I replied, as I turned the figure over in my hand. Yellow skin. White hair. Star Wars vest. Buccaneer breeches. “We need some disciples as well,” I added, but he was already working on them. A small crew for the fishing boat, also made of leftover pieces. Police officer. Rebel trooper. Ninja. He connected heads, torsos, legs, until there was a small crew of disciples. We placed them in a cloth bag next to a carved wooden boat and set them by the front door so we’d remember them on the way to church.
Such was the lesson plan for the fourth day of Vacation Bible School. Our story was drawn from Luke Chapter 8. It told of Jesus and his disciples pushing off in a boat and sailing into a storm. I was charged with telling the story to two groups of kids. The first group, aged 5 and 6, was a large and inquisitive bunch. The second, group, aged 3 and four, was smaller but even more curious. It occurred to me that we might read the story, then play act it with Lego people, running through it a few times to ensure that everyone had a turn. Rev. Anya Leveille, who co-taught the Bible stories, brought a mottled blue sheet that looked very much like the ocean. We laid out the sheet and the kids gathered around it. I read the story through the first time and then reached for the bag.
It wasn’t long before we had assembled our beach scene and then pushed the wooden boat out onto the smooth waters of the sheet. And here, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to retell the story, as we told it together, adding a few visuals along the way.
We remember that Jesus and his disciples shoved off and began to sail. Jesus, we are told, fell asleep on the calm waters. Every time we mentioned this a child would reach over to the boat and push Lego Jesus over onto his side. And while he slept, a squall whipped up around them. At which point the kids on all sides of the sheet began to ruffle and shake it, causing the boat to rock, and the Lego Jesus and his disciples to roll around uncontrollably. The kids giggled as I narrated the disciples waking Jesus and crying for help. Their storm grew more and more violent, tossing the Lego figures out of the boat over and over (we kept replacing them), and the room grew louder and louder, giggles turning into belly laughs until Lego Jesus said Stop! and the wind and the waves died down.
Children restored the Lego disciples to dignified standing positions. Jesus took his place at the bow of the boat in order to instruct them. The sheet was drawn tight again, smoothed out in a display of calm. And Jesus asked them why they didn’t have more faith? Or as some translations put it, more trust? Or as we rendered it, there among the 3 to 6 year olds, why they were so worried? The kids all looked at the Lego figures, as if the wisdom had issued forth from there. A sheet on the floor. A wooden boat. A Han Solo-pirate-George Washington Jesus. Where is your faith? And why are you so worried? I asked if anyone in the room had ever been worried. Heads nodded and hands went up.
The great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” Suzuki Roshi meant that we are all impermanent and must learn to live with this reality. He surely didn’t mean to reference the story of Jesus and his disciples’ fearful journey on a boat. But he tapped into their anxiety all the same. The disciples were worried about their lives. When the storms came and the waves rose, they cried out. They were holding on to the only solid thing – the boat – aware that it might not be enough. And when they roused Jesus and he called to the waves and the wind to calm themselves a couple of things happened. First, ancient hearers would have instantly recognized Jesus’ importance as a healer and teacher. Calming the waves was a sign of his greatness. But second, and more importantly, a metaphorical meaning is made. Jesus asks them about their faith, their trust, and their worry. And as a wisdom teacher he is not simply referring to the waves on the surface of the water.
Jesus is asking about the trouble in our souls. I know this because every child could share something he or she was worried about. And it wasn’t the weather. When we talked about calming the storm, they went right with the metaphor. We calm the storm by taking a deep breath, they said. I take ten breaths in a row, one boy said. Ten. We calm the storm by saying a prayer. May we say a prayer in our class? asked one girl. Yes, let’s say a prayer together and experience its calm. We calm the storm by leaning on each other or by relying on our friends and parents for help. Yeah, my parents, one boy said, and looked both homesick and happy at the same time. And I know I was teaching the kids as we leafed through the Bible’s pages and pushed around our wooden boat. But they were teaching me, too. Why do you think I sign up for Bible School every year?
Yet there was another part of the week that related directly to the children’s part. Every day this week after Vacation Bible School was over, I met with one or more grown-ups about one or more things. There were the usual projects and planning meetings. But there were also the usual pastoral conversations. And in every case, there was a storm. I heard two different stories of the deaths of adult sons. I heard three stories of struggles with addiction. I heard two more stories of depression. I heard a story of the return of cancer. The stories were excruciating. I found myself wiping my eyes over and over again. And listening. And sitting in my office, where the kids had sat earlier, play acting responses to life’s stormy seas. Only none of it was pretend. For the kids would know suffering in their lives. The adults did know it. And all of us were crying out for help in our own ways, all of us were trying to still the waters. The funny thing is, when we call out, the Christ who comes is always nearer than we think.
The kids picked up on this right away. They always do. We’re all in the same boat, here to help each other. The themes of our week reinforced this – they were: God Creates, God Helps, God Loves, God Calms, and God Sends. But the only way God does these things is through us. Through each of us. Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey. Whatever age we are. Whatever spare pieces we’re made out of. We bring ourselves to the table, step into the circle, and take care of each other. It doesn’t fix everything, necessarily. For there is still suffering. But it adds love to the picture. Which is one way of understanding God.
Pema Chödrön writes, “There’s no way to make a dreadful situation pretty. But we can use the pain of it to recognize our sameness with other people.” I believe that’s true whether you’re 5 or 55, the only difference being that so often kids are better with ambiguity and uncertainty than grown-ups are. For they already know that they’re not in control. And they know that things happen that make no sense. Yet they’re trying to find their place in relation to others and to all that is. As are the best grown-ups, who recognize that everyone who’s lived long enough has suffered and deserves a little more compassion and a little less judgment from the rest of us.
That’s how I hear Jesus’ question about our faith. It’s not a judgmental question; it’s a compassionate one. Why do you worry so much? Have faith in your ability to reach out. Have trust in those all around you. Take the risk of taking care and letting others care for you. Remember we’re all in the same boat. I know he never said that, but I think he might have if he had been sitting in a circle of Bible School kids.
Writing of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch say, “Jesus’ liberating ministry and its continuation in the church. . .embody eschatological transformation differently understood, accessible in the present rather than anticipated for the future.” Or, as we taught our children this week, we love and care for each other here and now. There is no need to worry about the rest. No need to fight the waves that are too big for us or seek to control that which is out of our hands. We can simply take the moment that is ours and put it to use. Creating. Helping. Loving. Calming. Sending.
At the end of the week we stood at the edge of the churchyard as parents stopped to pick up their Bible School students. Boys and girls hugged and fist bumped. They carried crafts and snacks. They clutched homemade rockets and colored balloons. Lego Jesus had already been taken home, but as we waved goodbye to each other his lesson remained.
Take care of each other. We’re all in the same boat.
 Quoted in Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2012), 3.