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

Transfiguration | Last after Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead. (CEB)

Transfiguration

Human beings have a fascination with power. The entire comic book industry, and a lot of movies and books, are about people who have powers. Star Wars is about Jedi and Sith who have the power to manipulate the Force.

On the DC side of comics: Wonder Woman has super strength, she can fly, she has indestructible bracers and a lasso of truth. Vixen has her ancient Tantu Totem that lets her harness the powers of animal spirits. Batman has his wealth, his tech gadgets, and his fearlessness. The Legends of Tomorrow have a variety of skills, abilities, and cool technology. The Flash has his superspeed. Green Arrow has his fighting skills and perfect accuracy with the bow. Superman has his array of powers thanks to our yellow Sun. And Supergirl has everything Superman has, and I watched her beat him in a straight-up fight on the CW.

In the Marvel world of comics: Black Panther has his super senses, strength, speed, agility, stamina, and healing abilities, plus Wakanda’s advanced technology. The X-Men (and Women!) have all kinds of powers and abilities based on their x-gene mutations. Captain America has his serum-induced strength and self-healing. Iron Man has his wealth, tech, and an awesome suit full of weapons that lets him fly and make things explode. Spiderman has his web-slingers and spider abilities.

We can find worlds full of magical powers in books and movies: the Harry Potter series, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, The Waterfire Saga, and The Lord of the Rings series. And when it comes to computer games, my favorite class is the Elementalist, which uses earth, water, air, and fire magic to blow bad people and monsters to pieces.

But our human fascination with power isn’t limited to fiction and imagination. Our president wants to spend a few million of our tax dollars to put on a grand military parade to show off our military might, as if we need to put it on display. He certainly wouldn’t be the first president or world leader to do so. Lots of modern nations do them. The Roman Empire liked their military parades, too. For some reason, leaders of nations like to flex their muscles and display their elegant tail feathers to show everyone else how big and tough they are.

Jesus had some pretty cool powers, too. He could heal people who were sick. He raised a few people from death. And this Transfiguration thing, that was God’s power on display for all the world to see, right? All of a sudden, everyone knew that Jesus had the power of God in the palm of his hand, and he was the new guy to be afraid of…

Except, that wasn’t how it went.

Jesus didn’t put his power on display the way nations and leaders of nations like to do. He only took three of his disciples with him as witnesses to the event. In fact, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from death.

When we put the Transfiguration in context with what Jesus had just taught his disciples in chapter 8, and with the rest of what happened in the Gospel of Mark, we see a completely different picture of power, and a different picture of purpose for those who would follow Jesus Christ. It’s chapter 8 where Jesus tells the crowds that any who want to come after him must take up their cross and follow him (c.f. Mark 8:34). While it’s never explained what cross-bearing looks like for the rest of us, it’s the story that follows and the example of Jesus that teaches us what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The Transfiguration becomes the first important lesson of cross-bearing. It shows us that power is not something we pursue or wield so much as something we expose. Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth is what provoked the powers to make their oppressive, murderous response by killing Jesus. The powers of this world rule by fear, greed, and falsehood. They use violence, hatred, and despair to turn people against each other and distort everything we’re meant to be as human beings who are created in God’s image.

Jesus wasn’t the first prophet to die by exposing the corruption of earthly powers. He stands in a long line of prophets who were persecuted and murdered by the political and religious establishment for daring to speak the truth about their misuse of power and fraudulent, unethical operations.

Jesus came so that he could be the anointed-one who would be rejected and murdered by the corrupt powers that rule through fear, backhandedness, and violence. Several times throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll be killed and raised from the dead (c.f. 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).

At the same time, the disciples had their minds set on earthly things that didn’t allow them to see God’s reign on earth as anything more than human powers, such as the restoration of Israel as an independent kingdom. You might recall that, when Jesus told the disciples that he would “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (Mark 8:31), Peter’s response was to take hold of Jesus firmly, as if Jesus were a child, to scold and “correct” him.

Peter couldn’t see beyond the things of earth, which is why Jesus turned and corrected Peter in front of the other disciples by saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33). The disciples were thinking about power, but in the same twisted way that we humans are so fascinated with it. They intended to make Jesus-the-Messiah into a hero of their nation, the savior of the earthly kingdom they desired. And, they would ride the coattails of their hero to fulfill their own this-worldly ambitions.

James and John even asked Jesus to let one of them sit at his right hand, and the other at his left, which angered the other disciples because the request got in the way of their ambitions. There could only be one right-hand-man, and one left-hand-man, but there were twelve disciples all vying for Jesus’ favor, and they acted and argued as rivals (c.f. Mark 10:35-45). Really, the other ten were mad that they didn’t have the boldness to ask that favor of Jesus before James and John did. They were thinking earthly things. Their minds and actions were stuck on a horizontal plane.

One scholar even suggested that, for Jesus’ first disciples, resurrection was more of a scandal than crucifixion. Death was something they could understand. Lives ended all the time. But resurrection? The glory of God? Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that that was downright scary stuff. Notice that every time the disciples are confronted with God’s glory—Jesus walking on the water (6:50), the Transfiguration (9:6), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the women at the tomb (16:8)—the word used to describe what the disciples felt is terror. This isn’t the kind of fear that a person can heroically overcome, but the kind of terror that incapacitates and turns the bravest among us into a useless blubbering heap.

These glimpses of glory remind us that there’s more to the story of Jesus than human ambition and earthly power. The fact that Jesus didn’t use that power to his own gain tells us that followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom should live and act differently from the world. In Philippians 2, Paul’s hymn says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.” (Phil. 2:6-7a CEB). Paul also tells us to have the same mindset (c.f. Philippians 2:5).

That’s why Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John not to talk about the Transfiguration they had witnessed until after Jesus had risen from the dead, until after he had exposed the corrupt earthly powers for what they were. Then, the disciples could talk about the display of power and glory they had seen at the Transfiguration. But even then, sharing what they had witnessed wasn’t a way for the disciples to seize earthly power or prestige. Instead, it encouraged the followers of Jesus to take up their cross and follow Christ, and live in a way that will inevitably provoke the powers against us by insisting on the values of Jesus.

Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, and he told us that, if we want to come after him, we have to take up our cross and follow. Taking up our cross means we die to ourselves. We set aside our earthly ambition and desire for power and live for others as Jesus did. It also means that our love as Christian people is not a passive thing. We don’t get to keep our distance and love others from afar.

It’s almost hard to believe that earthly powers would act so violently against love, nonviolence, acts of mercy, and acceptance of those the world rejects. But the values of Jesus, which are the values of God’s kingdom, end up exposing the corruption earthly powers.

Nothing exposes the hatred and viciousness of earthly power like people working on behalf of refugees or undocumented immigrants and demanding that the world recognize them as human beings worthy of our love, compassion, and direct assistance. Nothing exposes the injustice of earthly power like someone working on behalf of people the world would happily sweep under the rug: the poor, incarcerated, homeless. Legality is defined by the powers, and Christians have long recognized that what is legal is not always what is right, just, loving, or good.

Jesus ate with sinners to show them and the establishment that he was their friend, that he accepted them, and that he loved them. Those actions exposed the fact that the establishment had rejected and ostracized people.

As a glimpse of God’s glory, the Transfiguration reminds us that God is bringing a new world into being. The ways and values of this new world stand in stark contrast to the ways and values of the earthly powers. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to set aside the games of domination and exploitation that earthly powers like to play. And, we have to set aside the violence, hatred, greed, and deception that such powers use to win those games.

The voice of God which came from the cloud told the disciples to listen to Jesus. Are we listening?

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

~Pastopher