Afraid | Proper 7

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (CEB)

Afraid

I heard a story kind of like this once. It was about a small cruise ship on one of the Great Lakes that had been hired for a fraternity reunion party. Of course, everyone knew a storm was coming because they could see the front clouds in the distance. They could feel the wind pick up and the air grow cooler as the clouds approached. The captain assured everyone that there wouldn’t be a problem, and they should all enjoy themselves. So, the fraternity brothers and their significant others danced, ate, drank, and talked. As they caught up on each other’s lives, the storm grew suddenly wilder.

Wind buffeted one side of the ship, causing it to list and rock side-to-side. Waves crashed harshly against the same side, sending spray high above the windows on the dance floor. Drinks spilled. People lost their balance. Men and women screamed. Most everyone started to panic. Then, a terrified man grabbed one of his fraternity brothers and said, “Didn’t you say you’re a pastor? Do something pastoral!”

The pastor glanced at the growing terror of those around him. He quickly dumped a bowl of caramel corn on the table, held it out and said, “We’ll now receive the offering.”

Our Gospel reading begins with, “Later that day, when evening came…” (c.f. Mark 4:35 CEB). Those words alert us to the fact that something must have happened earlier in the day. So, let’s recap what happened. Jesus taught beside the lake, but such a large crowd gathered that he got into a boat and taught while the people stood on the shore. He told several parables about seeds: seeds that are sown on a path, on rocky ground, among thorny plants, and on good soil (4:3-9); seed that grows into a harvest (4:26-29); and a small mustard seed that grows into a rather large plant (4:30-32), among other things. Later, Jesus explained the parables to his disciples and others who were nearby (4:10-20, 34).

Verse 2 and verse 33 tell us that Jesus taught with many parables that day, as much as they were able to hear. He wore the crowds out with speech, and wore himself out, too. Public speaking takes a lot out of you. I get why Jesus was tired. I take a nap every Sunday afternoon before going to Youth Group in the evening. So, it’s understandable that Jesus crashed on a pillow in the back of the boat. He taught all day, and he was tired.

Then, the storm came. But not just a storm. A great gale of wind (λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου). In our idiomatic English, we might say it was a massive storm of wind. It whipped up waves that crashed against the boat and swamped it. Usually, when we read this story, we imagine panicked disciples who wake Jesus so he can perform a miracle and save them. But, honestly, there’s little in the story to suggest that. The only suggestion that the disciples were afraid is when Jesus asked them why they were frightened, and that word isn’t fear, the word means timid, cowardly, or lack confidence.

Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. They knew the waters, knew how to handle their boats, and had probably survived more rough storms than they could count. There is no reason to assume the disciples were panicked, but they were obviously concerned and probably working hard to save their skin.

When they woke Jesus up, I don’t think they were expecting a miracle. I think they wanted an extra pair of hands to help bail the boat. Their comment to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” (Mark 4:38b CEB) seems more akin to Hey, Professor, don’t you care that we’re getting swamped here? Get up and help bail the boat, you lazy git! Nothing in the story indicates the disciples expected Jesus to do what he did, that he could rescue them with a few commanding words to the wind and sea.

He rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea saying, “Silence! Be still!” and the wind stopped so that there was a great calm (γαλήνη μεγάλη). Then, Jesus asked the disciples a question that is challenging, confusing, and haunting, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB). It begs the questions: What is faith? What kind of faith is Jesus talking about? We can look back in the earlier parts of Mark 4 and see that Jesus was teaching on the matter of faith all day. That’s why he was exhausted and fell asleep.

At this point in their lives, the disciples seem to have had the kind of faith that was like the seed that was sown on rocky ground. “When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away” (Mk. 4:16-17 CEB). The faith of the disciples withered in a storm. And I have to admit that my own faith has done the same at times; not with a literal storm, but with the figurative storms of life’s trials and difficulties.

The disciples’ lack of faith is revealed fully in the next line. Some Bible translations tend to tone this down by rendering the Greek into English as, “Overcome with awe” like the CEB or “they were filled with great awe” like the NRSV. But they disciples feared with great fear (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν). They were terrified at what Jesus had done. They were more afraid of the fact that Jesus had calmed the storm than they were of the storm itself.

How do we respond when fearful things threaten to overcome us?

There are fearful things out there. There’s a difference between saying There is nothing to be afraid of and Don’t be afraid. In the Scriptures, when something fearful happens, the admonition is always, Don’t be afraid (c.f. Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 35:17, 46:3; Exodus 14:3; Deuteronomy 1:29; Ruth 3:11; 1 Kings 17:13; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10; Acts 27:24; Revelation 1:17, among others). Though fearful things surround us and press against us every day, having faith is trusting that, despite the fearful things of this world, God reigns and will not leave us alone. Fearful things do not have the final say over us no matter what happens.

Another storm story comes from the journals of the founder of the Methodist Movement. On Sunday, December 23, 1735, John Wesley was aboard a ship heading for the Georgia Colony, and the ship experienced a storm. He wrote in his journal, “At night I was awaked by the tossing of the ship and roaring of the wind, and plainly showed I was unfit, for I was unwilling to die” (Baker Vol. I, 19). He admitted that he was afraid, that his faith failed, that he didn’t trust that God was with him even if death should come for him. And he felt that failure of his faith keenly.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley described another storm, saying, “At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before… The winds roared round about us, and (what I never heard before) whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of any thing, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces” (Baker Vol I, 21).

At seven o’clock, after the storm had passed, Wesley went to speak with the Germans aboard who had been worshipping during the storm. He wrote, “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” (Baker Vol. I, 22).

Those German Moravians had a profound impact on John Wesley’s faith. They sang songs of worship through a storm so violent that they were sure their ship was already going down. The Moravians had faith that, whether they lived or died, God was with them, and God would have the final say. They had faith that even death is not an end.

In essence, the Moravians acted with the faith of Psalm 107: “The waves went as high as the sky; they crashed down to the depths. The sailors’ courage melted at this terrible situation. They staggered and stumbled around like they were drunk. None of their skill was of any help. So they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. So they rejoiced because the waves had calmed down; then God led them to the harbor they were hoping for” (Ps. 107:26-30 CEB). Faith moves like this: when great storms give way to great calm, the response is supposed to be rejoicing and praise.

For the disciples, it didn’t go that way. When the great storm gave way to great calm, their response was great fear. In calming the storm, Jesus showed the disciples that he is, quite unexpectedly, king over all creation. Our faith holds fast to that truth no matter what fearful things come our way. Faith is knowing that, no matter the storms that come against us, God is greater than the storms. Faith tells us that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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A House Divided | Proper 5

Mark 3:20-35

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (CEB)

A House Divided

This text has always made Christians worry, and maybe for good reason. We’re afraid of the unforgivable sin of offending the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we’re nervous because we don’t know what offending the Holy Spirit is. I mean, what if we do it accidentally? Would God really not forgive us? Would God really send us to Hell because of an accident? I mean, it sounds kind of harsh. I’ve had people come to me and ask what it is because they don’t understand what it is. They wanted me to identify it for them so they could make sure they didn’t do the big oops and wind up in a situation where they won’t be forgiven.

Whenever Jesus says something that we find confusing, we have to look at the context. It’s something Rev. Dr. Mike Rynkiewich and I are teaching in our Bible study classes on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. Context matters. It can inform those difficult-to-understand snippets, especially when we read the snippet as if it’s not related to the stuff before and after it.

We know things had been going on before this text because Mark tells us, “Jesus entered a house. A crowed gathered again…” (c.f. Mark 3:20 CEB). That word again tells us that this wasn’t the first time a crowd had gathered around Jesus. When we come across a word like again, wise students of the Bible will turn the pages backward to check out the previous instances of whatever happened, and maybe the other stuff that Jesus has been up to as well.

When we look at Mark chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Jesus was baptized by John, who announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB). Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then, he started preaching, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14 CEB). Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Dig in your heels” but “Change your hearts and lives, and trust…” He called his disciples to follow him, too.

Then, in one day, he healed a demon-possessed man on the Sabbath while in the Synagogue at Capernaum, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and that evening he healed multiple people of sickness and demon-possession because everyone who knew a sick person was bringing them to Jesus for healing. This was the first big crowd.

Later, Jesus healed a man with a skin disease who blabbed so much about being healed (directly disobeying Jesus’ stern order to keep quiet) that Jesus could hardly enter a town. So, he stayed out in deserted places, but people still went out to him. So, more crowds gathered. Many crowds gathered.

In Chapter 2, Jesus went back to his home in Capernaum, and when people heard it, a crowd packed his house. So many people gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. So a few enterprising people tore a hole in Jesus’ roof to lower their sick friend down to him. But first, Jesus forgave the man of his sins, which annoyed some legal experts who were also present in Jesus’ house. To prove that he had authority to forgive sins, he healed the paralyzed man before the legal expert’s eyes.

Later, another crowd gathered near him at the lake, and he taught them. That’s when he invited Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and he went to eat at Levi’s house alongside many other tax collectors and known sinners. You see, everyone KNEW these people were sinners. They had no doubt that these people were sinners. But Jesus did this incredibly unexpected thing and ate with them. The Pharisees saw it as a violation of purity laws to have fellowship with a sinner of any kind. Jesus was breaking the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus and his disciples also picked grains of wheat on the Sabbath and ate them. And, the Pharisees asked why Jesus was breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law. The Law said that no work should be done but doesn’t specify the nature of the work. Jesus and his disciples are essentially gleaning, which was legal. So, the question is whether or not it was legal on the Sabbath to pick grain, not in order to harvest but to satisfy hunger. The interpretation that Jesus made of the Law is that it was okay for hungry people to feed themselves. The Pharisees disagreed.

Next, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Because this action of healing a person violated their interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees and supporters of Herod went out and sought a way to destroy Jesus.

All of this context points to what happens in the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus entered his house and a crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him or his followers to even eat bread. His family had heard all about it, and they were fit to be tied. They decided it was time for an intervention because Jesus was obviously out of his mind. The word used is a compound word made up of out of and to make stand. So the way they said someone was nuts back then was to say they stood out of their self. (Now, the next time someone tells you you’re outstanding, you’ll wonder if it’s a compliment).

Not only is Jesus’ family coming to get a hold of him, but the legal experts have mobilized in their effort to destroy him. They’ve sent a contingent from Jerusalem, and they were spreading the charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which is a name that means Lord of the Flies. Jesus, they say, throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.

So, what we see here is a group of religious people who held to a certain interpretation of Scripture, and they were so adamant about that particular interpretation of Scripture that they were willing to say anything to denounce Jesus and destroy his reputation.

The thing is, the Pharisees and legal experts had seen with their own eyes the things Jesus did. They saw him heal people. They were drawn to him, too, that’s why they were at his house when he healed the crippled man. According to their own understanding of the Law, God doesn’t listen to sinners. Only someone who was on God’s side could do the things Jesus did (c.f. John 3:2). In fact, these signs were proof that Jesus was a prophet of God. The legal experts and Pharisees knew that. But, now that they felt the need to defend their interpretations and conclusions about the Scriptures and religious life, they actively attempted to make Jesus and his work into something Satanic.

So, Jesus called everyone together and told a parable. The first part is logic, “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for” (Mk. 3:23-26 CEB).

The second part is Jesus describing himself as the one who walked into the strong person’s house and tied him up so he could burglarize it. Remember what John the Baptist said back in chapter one: “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB)? Jesus is stronger than Satan, and that’s why he’s able to throw demons out of people who were possessed by them. He’s not Beelzubul in disguise. Jesus is essentially saying, I tied Beelzebul up and started stealing his stuff. Beelzebul owned some people, I stole them back.

Now, we’re at the part that can worry us, and maybe should worry us. It should especially worry us when we think that we know God’s will so perfectly that we can map out the movements of the Spirit, that we know what lines God will never cross, when we know exactly who and what God accepts and who and what God rejects. Jesus said, “‘I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” Mk. 3:28-29 CEB). Mark lets us know that Jesus said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.’” (Mk. 3:30 CEB).

The unforgivable sin happens when we see the work of the Holy Spirit with our own eyes, or hear of it with our own ears, yet because we don’t like it—because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions and interpretations—we identify it as the work of Satan. The detractors of Jesus saw and heard of his healings, but because certain matters of his Biblical interpretation didn’t jive with their interpretations, they labeled the work of the Holy Spirit as evil. That kind of arrogance can lead any of us to mislabel what God is doing as the work of Satan. Whether the sin is eternally unforgivable is another matter of debate because Jesus used hyperbole all the time. My understanding of the matter is that if we repent of that sin and join in with the Holy Spirit’s work, then God will forgive us.

Now, in the next few years, our church, The United Methodist Church, has some stuff to figure out about human sexuality and whether people who are homosexual are going to be fully welcome among us. And it’s not going to be easy. It was apparent at Annual Conference in Indianapolis due to some of the resolutions we discussed and did not pass. It has been made apparent at several other annual Conferences that have taken place this year based on resolutions they have passed or failed to pass. Lines are being drawn and people are fighting for their understanding of the issues of human sexuality, and for their interpretations of the Scriptures.

But I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. Before we withdraw into our already-firm conclusions and our personal Biblical interpretations, before we start calling one side or the other evil or wrong or sinful—whether aloud or in our internal monologue—I caution each of us to be patient. I hope we’ll listen to perspectives that differ from our own. I hope we’ll open our hearts and minds to see where that unpredictable Spirit of God is blowing.

There was a time when the church was segregated by race, but now all are supposed to be welcome. That’s what our baptismal & membership vows claim. (I think we still have some work to do on that one). There was a time when women were not allowed to be ordained or hold certain other leadership positions in the church, but now we ordain women and every leadership position is open. (I think we still have some work to do on that one, too).

We don’t know what’ll happen at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 or how we’ll move forward as a church. Three plans have been set forth for consideration, and I encourage you to read them. I urge you to speak and, most importantly, I urge you to listen with empathetic ears. What I believe, wholeheartedly, is that if we pay attention—not for that moment when our side wins the debate—but if we pay attention to the movements and urgings of the Holy Spirit and see other people as beloved of God, we’ll move into the next decade and beyond as The United Methodist Church.

But if we fight amongst ourselves in a civil war and try to throw each other out; if we rebel against each other and are divided, then we’re done for. We won’t endure.

When Jesus’ family showed up at the door to his house, they couldn’t even get inside. So people told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” (Mk. 3:32 CEB). The thing is, when Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 CEB), he didn’t reject his family. He broadened his family. He made it bigger. Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:34-35 CEB). Perhaps we can discern God’s will by listening and speaking, praying and worshipping, loving and seeking – together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay