PROPER 7 | 4TH PENTECOST — 24 June 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am
[Track Two] Job 38:1-11 | Ps 107:1-3,23-32 | 2Cor 6:1-13 | Mark 4:35-41
He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
I suspect that many of you have had the same experience that I have often had, watching television in the evening. A program comes on – a situation comedy, or a police procedural, or Dave Letterman after the evening news, or whatever it is – and I say, “Oh, this is a repeat, I’ve seen this one before.” And I switch to another channel, or I turn the TV off and go do something else, or go to bed, or whatever.
But in some instances I may say, “I’ve seen this one before, but it was good,” and so I watch it again. And I enjoy it again, and maybe I see some things the second time through that I missed the first time and so I enjoy it even more.
It’s one of the hallmarks of great drama, or great literature, or great music, that they bear watching or reading or listening over and over again. They never grow old. The experience gets better and richer with each repetition. We keep finding new things.
I’m afraid that some people – but none of us, surely! – take the attitude toward reading the Bible that some of us take toward watching TV – “Oh, I’ve already read this. I know how it turns out.” And they put it down and go do something else.
I’ve been reading the Bible for a long time. Longer than some of you, probably. Not as long as others of you, perhaps, but I’m not asking for birth certificates! But one of the things that always catches me and often delights me and frequently challenges me is that I will be reading a passage of Scripture and I will say, “I never saw that before! That never occurred to me! Oh, now that makes more sense! That gives me a new perspective!”
And God just chuckles.
I’ve been having that experience lately with the Gospel According to St. Mark. I think we sometimes think of Mark’s Gospel as “the short and simple one.” It is indeed the shortest, and it is the earliest of the four canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke both use Mark as one of their sources). (Yes, they do. There are still some folks who deny the priority of Mark, but there are also still some folks who believe the earth is flat.) However, Mark’s Gospel is by no means simple. It is not just a stringing together of Jesus stories, ending up in Jerusalem. It is a very sophisticated literary composition, maybe even as sophisticated (though in a different way) than the Gospel According to St. John.
The Gospel reading today, Jesus calming the storm, is probably familiar to us all. We’ve heard it or read it before, and Matthew and Luke both include it as part of the material they draw from Mark. If you did art history in school, you may have seen the famous painting of this scene by the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist Rembrandt. (You can look it up on the internet, but you can’t see the painting itself – the original was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston in 1990 and has never been found – one of the most infamous art thefts in history! But I digress…) And in fact many artists over the centuries, up to and including modern times, have painted this scene – some of them great, some of them not so much.
What makes this such a fascinating episode? I suspect that many of us have found that this passage resonates in our own lives, as we reflect upon times in the past, or perhaps even in the present, in which our circumstances were very stormy. We may have felt threatened, uncertain about the future or even whether there would be any future. It may have seemed like God was asleep, or at least not paying attention, and in our prayer we cried, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” And yet ultimately, with faith, the storms of life abated and we safely reached the shore.
This is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate way of relating to this story. And it is an aspect of the power of the Scriptures that we are able to reach into them, back two or even three thousand years, and hear God’s Word for our own lives today.
But I don’t think this is primarily what Mark was thinking about as he assembled his Gospel. We tend to hear the Jesus story in bits and pieces, because that’s how we hear it in church on Sunday mornings, how we share them in Bible study groups, how we read them in our own devotions. But even though that may be how Mark’s community had received the Jesus tradition from the earliest followers, that isn’t how Mark, or any of the Evangelists, composed their written Gospels,
Mark’s Gospel was, and is, and all the Gospels were and are, continuous narratives. I’m not questioning the basic historicity of the stories themselves, but Mark assembles them with his own narrative outline in mind.
You will recall that in Mark’s Gospel, following the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, announcing God’s kingdom and healing the sick. This results in initial conflicts with the religious establishment, principally the Pharisees and scribes; and Jesus continues to teach the crowd with a series of parables of the Kingdom.
(Incidentally, the word that Mark uses that we translate “the crowd” is a different word from that which we usually render “the people.” “The crowd” is not just a lot of people, it’s “the poor folks,” “the peasants,” “the nobodies,” “the mob,” “the masses.” Mark is very consistent and very intentional about this. But I digress again!)
But now today Jesus leaves the crowd behind, and he and his disciples get in a boat (presumably one of his disciples’ fishing-boat) and “go across to the other side.” Okay, what’s that about? Well, they have been in Galilee, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee (which actually is a freshwater lake, and isn’t very big, though it’s big enough for some pretty rough storms). “The other side” is Gentile territory, at least mostly. It was called the “Decapolis,” Greek for “The Ten Cities,” and was a league of ten more-or-less autonomous Greco-Roman cities, not under the direct rule either of Pontius Pilate (the Roman prefect of Judea) or of Herod Antipas (the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea). So what is Jesus up to? In fact, as Mark continues the story, having confronted the Jewish establishment in Galilee, Jesus is now going over to the east bank to make an initial confrontation of the imperial Roman establishment.
Not an uneventful journey, as we hear. And this is not just a garden-variety lake storm. In the imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures, storms at sea are signs of the chaos that resists the rule of God. The creation story at the beginning of Genesis tells of God imposing order on the formless void. In the psalms there are repeated references to the ancient monsters that inhabit the sea. The first reading this morning from Job speaks of the power of God to rule the sea, and in Psalm 107 today we give thanks to the Lord for delivering from the perilous storm those who went down to the sea in ships. And so now when Jesus awakes (“Awake, O Lord! Why are you sleeping?” Psalm 44:23, and numerous other verses in the Hebrew Scriptures), Jesus rebukes the wind and commands the sea to be quiet. I think it is not coincidental that in Greek these are exactly the same words that Jesus used at the beginning of his ministry to exorcise a demon in the synagogue at Capernaum. And so also at this turning point in his mission, Jesus must once again confront the demonic powers.
And if we were to continue reading, we would see that when Jesus lands in the Decapolis, he immediately encounters the Gerasene demoniac. You remember this guy. He hangs out in the cemeteries – places that were unclean according to the Jewish Law – and is possessed by demons whose name is “Legion.” A Legion of course is a division of Roman soldiers. That’s the only sense in which this Latin loan-word was ever used; Mark is not being subtle here. In fact, throughout this next story Mark uses a number of unsubtle and subversive words. Jesus is confronting the powers of domination and driving them into the sea – oh, there’s wonderful subtext in that story! Alas, you will not hear that story next Sunday, for reasons known only to the Lectionary Gnomes, although we will hear Luke’s version of it at this time next year. Next Sunday you will hear how Jesus goes back across to Galilee (without incident), heals a woman and raises a young girl from death. (Still confronting the powers of domination, but that’s for Mother Alice to talk about next week!)
So yes, we pray that God will deliver us at the end if with faith we persevere through this life’s tempests. “While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is high: Hide me, O my Savior, hide, Till the storm of life is past, Safe into the haven guide, O receive my soul at last!” [Charles Wesley. Hymn #699]
But the Gospel today, like the whole of the Gospel, is about more than just that. It is part of the epic story of liberation from the powers of domination into the freedom and wholeness of the Kingdom of God.