Job 38: 1-11; Mark 4:35-41
Pentecost 4B; Proper 7
Following a carefully set out structure, Mark’s narrative begins with three chapters that might be called the Capernaum campaign.
In these chapters, Jesus challenges the religious authorities of his time: he performs an exorcism, heals a paralytic on the Sabbath, eats with sinners, plucks corn for his disciples to eat on the Sabbath rather than fasting like the Pharisees, makes a leper clean and, finally, questions the meaning of family (asking in the presence of his own family, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”). With the crowds, we too are amazed: “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!”
After questioning the authorities of the day, we find Jesus in Mark 4 teaching parables about the seed — the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. This chapter is sermonic and full of the interplay of what is hidden and what is revealed, what is mysterious and what is perceived. Jesus seems to be asking his followers, and us, to pay attention. He seems to challenge us to be open to new understandings about our lives, and about life in the reign of God. And the seed parables suggest that the coming of this new way of life will take patience— which, along with our understanding, will come slowly. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Then at the end of chapter four, Mark’s Jesus, having questioned the authorities in something of an assault on the Jewish religious order, begins a new journey that will take him, and us, to “the other side.” His tone changes from repudiation to rebuilding, from criticizing the older order to creating and describing the new. Mark pivots to a new campaign where Jesus lays out life in God’s reign.
Our text begins with the phrase “on that day” — the very “day” that he taught in parables and asked his hearers to listen and pay attention. And the first thing we must pay attention to is a storm! Not just any storm, but a raging storm, as can happen on the Sea of Galilee, with high gales and pounding waves that swamped the boat they were in. Have you ever been in a boat in such a storm? I was on a huge cruise ship during a hurricane in the south Atlantic, and hearing portholes break and seeing sea water rush down the passageway outside my cabin was terrifying. As was being on a small boat to Staffa heading for Fingal’s Cave in the Scottish Hebrides when a storm came up and our captain had to steer us through high waves beside the towering basalt cliffs of a rocky shoreline —an experience that composer Felix Mendelssohn also had and immortalized in the music of his “Hebridean Overture.”
What is conjured here is a cosmic storm — a storm actual or metaphoric that upends our sense of security and meaning. The passage from Job 38 that is paired with the text from Mark in today’s lectionary uses the word “whirlwind,” and ends with this command: “Thus far you will come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”
We know about cosmic storms. Who would not compare the world as we know it today with its racism, violence, pandemic illness and death, economic injustice and environmental destruction to a cosmic upheaval that challenges our very lives, the human race and the world as we know it?
Jesus’ response to the storm was a rebuke: Be still! Jesus silences the storm with his words, just as he earlier rebuked the demon. The Greek translated here as “be still” is closer to “be muzzled” or even “shut up!” This is not a quiet Jesus, but a strong – even apocalyptic – Jesus who speaks with authority. A rebuking, destroying Jesus who speaks at the border between an old order and a new one.
And in the quiet that follows, as the disciples’ fear begins to wane, the journey continues to the other side of the sea. A boundary is being crossed, a border of sorts. Jesus crossed into the country of the Gerasenes — in other words, to the Gentiles, as Gergesa was one of the few areas that Jesus visited where a majority of the population were Gentiles. Jesus is journeying toward the “other.”
Mark takes us to the precipice of a new world order, to the dawning of the reign of God. The chapters that follow are full of stories of compassion, of healing, of feeding, of inclusion, of radical hospitality. When we travel to the other side with Jesus, we reach the other side of our decision to join in the task of kingdom-building. The other side of a decision to follow the authority of Jesus rather than the other authorities that vie for our loyalty. And if we understand that Jesus is himself the very revelation of the living God, the other side of a decision to be the ones that God created us to be.
The imagery of crossing boundaries or borders is rich. I think of those who canoe in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota, actually entering a wilderness from which some do not return. Or the boundaries between countries, where immigrants wait after fleeing from violence in their own nations, unsure if they will be admitted, welcomed or even live. Or the boundaries between races that might restrict where one can live, work, attend school or even drive safely without being arrested. Or boundaries between species, where humans have squeezed out the lives of animals, plants, waters and clean skies in adoration to the economy and convenience of fossil fuels. How will we cross these boundaries? How will we cross to the other side?
As a nation, although not as a world, we are coming to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. What will the other side be like? Will there be more compassion, less consumption, more simplicity, less profit-taking, more neighborliness, less racism? Will it be more like the realm of God? Can we imagine a “cosmic transformation,” as American theologian and poet Amos Wilder calls it?
The texts leave us with questions, as is so often true in Scripture. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks. “Have you still no faith?” And the disciples, filled with great awe (likely meaning fear) answer with their own question: “Who then is this?”
These are questions echoed centuries earlier in Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.” “Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” Questions posed out of the whirlwind.
- Who then is this? Who is Jesus in your own life? In the life of the congregation? Who is this one who stops the storm with his words, and continues on the journey to a new land? Or turn the question around: Who is this not? What images or understandings of Jesus are challenged by the Jesus in this text?
- Who am I? The disciples in Mark vacillate between being slow learners and falling short, and being faithful and understanding. Where do you fall right now on the discipleship spectrum? Where would you place members of the congregation?
- How has your life changed since the pandemic began? How would you like it to change? How has the life of the congregation changed? How would you like it to change? What new commitments have you made?
- How do you relate to the image of the storm? Where are you experiencing storms in your life as an individual, and in our corporate life as a church, a nation and a world? What fears are associated with those storms? What do you think would calm them?
- Does the vastness of the universe as expressed in the passage from Job give you comfort? Does it overwhelm you? Does it make your feel small and ineffective? Does your understanding of faith feel large or small? How do you relate to the vast scale of the poetry in Job, and the strong rebuke of God for those who do not understand the divine power?
- Where or what is “the other side” for you? For the congregation? For our nation and world? Are you willing to go there? If so, what are some specific steps you can take on this journey right now?
- Sunday, June 20, 2021, is celebrated as Father’s Day in the United States. How might the cultural celebration of fatherhood, and the image of Father to describe God, be helpful in the journey of faith? How might they be unhelpful or even harmful? How does the concept of father have authority, and how might that be similar to or different from the authority of Jesus in the new realm of God?