Monday, June 26, 2006

Sermon texts:
2 Corinthians 6: 1-13
Mark 4: 35-41

I read on my Oklahoma welcome map that our state has more coastline than either the East coast or the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that? I see on my map that we are not too terribly far from Lake Eufala, and I look forward to going down there and checking it out. Judging by the OK department of tourism, I would say it is safe to say that Oklahomans know lakes. We also know wind and storms, don’t we? I don’t think the wind has stopped blowing since I have been here, and those sweetgums in our front yard blow in the breeze and keep our cats entertained looking out the window.
Yes, we know lakes, and we know storms, and many of us know what this storm in the gospel represents—chaos.
One of the most important “surface ideas” that this story communicated was that Jesus possessed the power of the Almighty God. After all, the healings that he had up to this point in Mark, which was the first Gospel to be written, were all replicated by other traveling holy men, healers, and magicians. However, it was known in the ancient world that only God could calm the sea and the wind. The sea was symbolic of the great Chaos that was subject only to God. The significance of this miracle is communicated by the disciples in the story who witness Jesus quelling the storm, and gasp, “Who is this man?!”
Many ancient stories told of particular gods of their culture defeating the forces of chaos. Psalm 107 is a Hebrew version of a common motif found in Babylonian, Canaanite, and Syrian myths—God is more powerful than the forces of Chaos.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
24they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.
25For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity;
27they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
28Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;
29he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
31Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
32Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
If you pay close attention to Genesis 1, you see that God creates the world not out of a void, but out of a turbulent chaotic sea. It wasn’t nothing that existed, it was just hopelessly unorganized.
Many of you have experienced the pain and uncertainty of chaos. I was privileged to meet with the “grief-share” support group last week, and became more familiar with the chaos that has invaded the life of this church family. Chaos wrought by death, by loss, by illness. Mark tells us that Jesus “rebukes” the storm—a word that is used when Jesus is exorcising a demon. In the face of the Living God, the forces of chaos settle and bow. Our Christ has the power to heal—not only to heal physical wounds, but the power to mend those deeper, spiritual ones that take longer, are more intensive.
I am proud of our church for offering a grief group to our community. In the circle of compassion that I participated in last week, I witnessed the Living Christ there among us, quelling the storm of chaos—healing fractured souls, turning sorrow into joy. Grief is not the chaos—the grief that has been and continues to be shared is the healing—it is the voice of Christ saying, “Peace, be still.”
One important thing about this scripture was the disciple’s amazement. Mark wrote this part of the Gospel to communicate with a world that was quite infused with stories of the sea—they were familiar with what it meant that Jesus stilled the storm. It didn’t need to be spelled out for them.
I have a professor at Claremont who likes to read the gospel of Mark in conversation with the Homeric Epics. He argued that the Greek hearers of the Gospel would have made some connections that are probably lost on most of us because the Greeks had the Epics stamped on their mind, much like you and I all know the story of Pecos Bill, Jonny Appleseed, or Paul Bunyan.
Interestingly enough—there is a story in Odyssey that this story of Jesus sort of “echoes.” Odysseus has just returned from the land of Aeolus, the king of the wind. Aeolus is impressed with Odysseus, and gives him a bag of wind to use for his sails. One day while Odysseus sleeps, his shipmates are curious about the bag and open it—they release the winds contained in the bag, and veer Odysseus and twelve other ships riding with them, off course. Odysseus’s shipmates wake him up in a panic, and he laments “We are lost by our own folly!” The word lost is the same Greek word that is translated as “perishing” in Mark’s story of the disciples at sea.
The early readers would no doubt have read this and thought of how Jesus was even more powerful than the great Odysseus. And while Odysseus could only lament that we were “lost by our own folly,” Jesus saves us all from “being lost” by stilling the storm. In most cases, Mark portrays the disciples in a less than flattering light (much like Homer plays the shipmate’s folly off of Odysseus’s own virtuousness.) And in this story, Jesus castigates the disciples—“why are you cowards?” The Greek word that Jesus uses for “afraid” is “deilos,” and does communicate a sense of inward defect that is a cause for the person’s fear, as we often distinguish between “fear,” and “cowardliness.”
In a sense, Jesus poses them with a question that has no reference at all to the waves and wind that are crashing in on them. Jesus knows that they must first remedy the fear from within before they turn to facing their fears from the outside. Jesus wanted courageous captains on his ship—because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to pilot it for long.
According to the traditional imagery and symbolism of the church, you are sitting in a boat right now. This part of the church is called the “nave,” which comes from the Latin “navis,” meaning “ship.” The word “Navy” also comes from this Latin word. You have probably heard before that one way to look at our church’s ceiling is as the bottom of a boat. The stained glass window on the back right of the sanctuary is of a ship sailing on the globe—this is the same imagery that Mark is using in his story.
Let me ask you—“why do the disciples cross the lake?” Any ideas? Well, one might also ask, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” You know why? To get to the other side. On one side of the lake, the people are Jewish. On the other side, the side that Jesus asks his disciples to take him to, the people are Gentiles. The boat sailing on the globe is a symbol—a reminder to ourselves, that we are to take Jesus all over the globe. But we must also recognize that the Gentiles are in our midst. They are in our neighborhoods, they are in our workplaces, they are in our social clubs.
Paul is one who was willing to take the boat to the other side of the lake. His mission to the Gentiles was opposed by Peter and some of the other disciples, including Jesus’ own brother James, who was the leader of the church after Jesus died. Paul recounts some of the storms that he had weathered in his letter to the Corinthians: I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in “the Message,” People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.
You probably notice that Paul alternates between the good and bad fortune in the same breath—it is because Paul faces good and bad treatment with the tremendous power of the Gospel in his heart, radiating outwards. Paul faced intense difficulties because of the message that he brought to the world. He also was exalted and even worshipped by some. Paul knew the steady confidence that came from faith in Christ, and it is because of his faith that he was able to write exuberant letters from prison cells, bounce back from a shipwreck to invite a whole community to the Gospel feast, and stand trial among his own co-workers in the church.
Paul chides the Corinthians in the same tone that Jesus chides his disciples, “Dear, dear Corinthians, I can't tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn't fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren't small, but you're living them in a small way. I'm speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”
Did you hear him say, “the smallness you feel comes from within you?” It is this same inner fear that Jesus can help us overcome. It is this storm from within that Jesus is able to still in our lives at this very moment! Jesus expands our hearts, makes them bigger and mightier. Are any of you troubled by the storms of life? No one can promise you that your faith will be a magic talisman against difficulties arising in your life. What we can promise you is that with faith in your heart—by “opening up your lives” and living expansively with faith in Christ, you will be equipped to face those difficulties.
As Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.” We will still be afraid, and sometimes rightly so—but our faith will sustain us and give us mastery of fear. Mark Twain also said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A person who lives fully is prepared to die at any moment.” The difference is as keen as the little children who enter the wardrobe and the warriors those children become—standing in Aslan’s honor against his enemies.
Though the storms of life may still come, though we may face the next day with apprehension and anguish, through Christ, we have no need to have a fear from within. We can face the chaos with courage and the peace of Christ. The peace which comes from riding in the ship with Jesus, knowing that even if it may seem that he is sleeping with his head on a cushion, his Spirit is ever awake, ever breathing into our own lives and giving us the ability to stand with these words broadcasting from our heart, “Though I may walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff—thy comfort me.”

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