Fourth after Pentecost
Proper 7B2, Mark 4: 35-41
Grace and peace this first Sunday of the summer, as we passed the solstice this past Wednesday evening--and it certainly has been feeling like summer this week, and maybe too much like summer--more like early August than late June. I know for me the first part of this season is pretty busy, especially with preparations this year for our Episcopal Church General Convention in July in that wonderful summer resort town of Indianapolis. But perhaps it is the little heat wave this past week, or the prospect of ten days in summertime southern Indiana, that has made it pleasant actually these past few days to be transported in imagination to the world of the fourth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel.
There’s nothing I enjoy more in the summer than to spend time at the shore, and here in Mark 4 that’s just where we are. We can almost hear the little waves lapping in the background. Jesus at the end of the third chapter have departed from Nazareth, where as we remember from a couple of weeks ago his preaching, exorcisms and healings had led to a confrontation with the authorities and even with his family about what he was saying and doing--and about the source of his power. The Master and the Twelve then walk the distance to the Sea of Galilee, and there at the shore Jesus begins to teach the assembled crowds in parables about the Kingdom of God, as we had a bit of that sermon last Sunday in the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
Imagining a cool afternoon breeze off the water as we and they sit and take it all in. He also talks about the Sower and the Seed and the different kinds of soils. He says that a lamp doesn’t do any good under a bed or in a basket, but that it needs to be put up on a stand where it can be seen by all and shed light all around the room. Both with the Mustard Seed parable and with the Parable of the Seed and the Wheat he talks about how God’s Kingdom springs up in our midst in surprising and unexpected ways, in mysterious ways that are beyond our understanding and control.
Hard to know what the crowds made of all this, though certainly Jesus seems to be making an impression. This guy is a little different, for a rabbi. A freshness to his teaching, perhaps. Not the same old droning preacher in the pulpit, the too-familiar, cliched religious language. His words seem to stir things up in the imagination, to answer questions they weren’t asking. Almost to say that he wasn’t answering questions at all. When he was finished they found they had even more questions than they had when he had begun. Questions that had never occurred to them before. Certainly we have through this period here the note from Mark that whenever there was a pause even the disciples were eager to ask questions themselves, to have things explained.
In any event, we come to our reading for today in Mark 4, and as evening approaches the crowds drift away, and the disciples of Jesus, several of them fishermen, as we remember, have Jesus get into a boat with them and prepare for the voyage to their next destination. Jesus I gather doesn’t even prepare for the trip with whatever clothing might be appropriate, and he doesn’t go back home to Nazareth for his luggage. St. Mark says, “they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” Smaller boats, apparently several of them, to get the whole group to go together. And off they go, as darkness falls around them, and Jesus, exhausted after this long day of healing, casting out demons, teaching, and preaching, and debating, finally stretches out in the boat for a bit of rest. It has been a long day.
And then of course, we know the story. The clouds gather, the winds roar, the waves begin to churn, lightening flashes across the sky, and these experienced sailors, these men who have been on these very waters in every season and in every kind of weather since they were boys—well, it’s about the worst they’ve ever seen. It would take a lot, I would think, to frighten them, something truly extraordinary, and they are indeed suddenly terrified for their lives. They’re bailing like crazy, rowing with all their might, and for all their agitation, shouting, the rolling of the waves and howling of the wind, Jesus meanwhile seems entirely undisturbed. Snoozing away, even though by this time he must be soaking wet.
“Can’t you see what’s happening, Jesus?” “We’re in big trouble here!” We know you don’t know much about boats and sailing, but couldn’t you at least wake up and panic a little, like the rest of us?”
And we know the rest of the story. He does sit up. He speaks, perhaps with a sigh, perhaps lifting up his hands in a kind of benediction over earth, sea, sky. “Peace. Be still.”
“And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.”
And in that stillness, that deep and sudden quiet, he turns to them: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Haven’t you been listening at all to what I’ve been saying? You’ve heard the words, but have you taken them to heart? You've seen the healings, you’ve watched as the presence of the Evil One has been dismissed at my command. And now you’re all in a commotion about a summer squall?
And they fall silent. In “awe,” Mark says. I’d imagine it might almost be hard to breathe in a moment like that. Awe and wonder. “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” What in the world is going on around here?
I think there’s something of a tendency, at least in our culture and era it seems quite common, to think about Christian identity and faith as something that is primarily or even exclusively a matter of inward interest and affection and value. “My favorite color is blue. I like salty snacks more than sweet snacks. In my spare time I like to work in the garden. I find the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins to be deeply meaningful. And I know Jesus to be my personal Lord and Savior.”
This is reinforced for us socially and politically, of course, and perhaps in a necessary way, as we bump up against one another in our not always harmonious diversity. We don’t peek through each other’s windows, if we know what’s good for us, anyway--and so long as you mow your lawn occasionally and pay your taxes on time we don’t really care who your favorite poet is, or to what deity you address your bedtime prayers. These things are part of the private sphere. It may not even be polite to talk about these things in mixed company or outside of a small circle of friends. Nobody’s business but your own.
Which is perhaps why a story like this catches us a little off guard. Maybe the same reason the disciples react the way they do. “Prayers and blessings are fine, Jesus. Teaching about the ancient scriptures--wonderful. Even good advice about moral life and economics and politics. All fine.
But hey, Jesus: leave the weather alone! It’s disturbing to us, at least in our post-enlightenment world. A category error. Blindness, deafness, spinal cord injuries, skin diseases? Leave all that to the doctors. And I guess they can make it rain sometimes by flying in airplanes and seeding the clouds. But Jesus—I think, from our point of view, we’d rather you would stay in church. Respect appropriate boundaries. We would say, “keep it spiritual.”
Even in a pre-enlightenment and non-western culture, the friends of Jesus don’t find this moment any easier to comprehend than we do. Any easier to accept. To integrate into an understanding of reality, of how things work. And yet, what they saw, they saw. With their own eyes. Out there in the storm, on the open water, in their small boats.
How in the world to make sense of this. Who are you, Jesus? What in the world is going on here? What in the world is going on? Something very new. Something unexpected.
There are these moments. In this obscure corner of backwater province. In the tiniest of villages. Along these dusty roads. In this Jesus. The Kingdom of God beginning to break through, to be revealed. In reality. Perhaps we can barely see it happening at the far edge, but the old world beginning to pass away, and hints now of what it will be, renewed and restored, healed, made whole. What it will be, and what we can be as we let go our grip on what was passing away, and through repentance and a turning away from old loyalties and in a new commitment take hold of what God in Christ is doing now in this new way, in a reality that from where we stand now is all wonder and miracle. It must have seemed like a dream. Strange. Unsettling. They had never seen anything like it. We've never seen anything like it.
A glimpse in these moments of a whole new way of being alive. Something about the real world, with God in it. In our minds and hearts, yes. But more than that as well. The Kingdom of God. True for us, and true for the world.
A foretaste, out there on the open water, as this piece of bread and sip of wine is here this morning all the abundance of feasting at heaven’s banquet table. On the table. Here and there at the same time, as we are in Christ, here and there at the same time.
The Kingdom of God. Not far away at all. Right here. Right now.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.