stranger things: the upside down

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Scripture
Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 107)
Be grateful all you who are being redeemed.
And as you are being gathered,
from north and south of us, and east and west—
as you are being gathered
into the truth, presence, and grace of God and God’s people,
give thanks for the goodness of God.

Many wander various wildernesses,
longing and looking for a better life
with and for their children—
hungry and thirsty—their souls fainting within them—

crying out to God in their despair.
And it is God who answers them
when they find others who will care for them—
be an oasis for them.
Let them then thank God for steadfast love—
for wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many are prisoner
to their own responsibilities, schedules, and priorities,
who work so hard—sacrifice so much,
and are yet invested in that
the returns of which do not fulfill.

It is God who offers them alternatives
to the miseries of “just the way things are.”
Let them then thank God for steadfast love
which breaks down walls and opens doors
in wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many in our culture are addicted
to substances and fashion and image and things—
phones and devices and “likes”—
to an easy escape from the work of being true.

And there are no easy answers to addiction.
There are no quick fixes.
But God’s desire is ever for health and wholeness
and the honesty and courage it takes to claim them.

Let them then thank God for steadfast love,
naming the commitment to work for healing and freedom,
God, in songs of joy
because of wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many work within chaos
(the chaos of business, politics, people).
Others are lost within the chaos of our systems.
But they all ride the very surface of chaos,
tossed by the winds and waves,
propelled this way and that
by the strength of the currents of the deep,

and can yet in the chaos,
turn to the one who creates within the chaos—
who brings order out of chaos.
Let them then thank God for steadfast love,
which maintains a vision of something else
through wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Remember, ours is the God of inversions—of surprise,
and much of what the world sees
as productive and profitable—desirable,
God sees as foolishness.

While in much of what the world sees as weak
and pitiful—foolish,
God sees strength and wisdom.
So those who hunger in our world for another way
gather and form community and seek to follow
ever more closely in the way of God
and grow in and through their living
the fruits of justice and grace.

To see this deep truth is to be glad,
and such gladness stops wickedness in its tracks.
For true wisdom is but the consistent consideration—
the persistent celebration—of steadfast love.

Pastoral Prayer
God,
I don’t even know what to pray for.
So much seems to be going so wrong.
Too many people hurting.
Too many people being hurt.
And to be honest,
the implications of the affirmation
that You so love the world give me a headache.
The implications of Your working to redeem all creation
complicate—everything.
It’s such a big picture
for us who are such a small part in it.
And part of the problem, of course,
is that we can’t conceive of ourselves
as a small part of much of anything.

And to take ourselves out of the center
is utterly overwhelming.
How do we then consider
our care (or lack thereof) of the earth,
the way we walk right by our neighbors in their ditches—
often ditches we dug,
often suffering at the hands of bandits we’ve supported?
How do we consider our rejection of You
in our rejection of the least of these?
How do we consider the fact that we ignore
Your teachings on violence toward others,
Your warnings about money and riches—
pretty much Your teachings on anything
that that has to do with what we’re doing
as we focus, instead, on what they’re doing wrong?

So in Your gathering of us into Your presence—
in Your gathering of us into Your stories,
remind us to love each other.
Remind us of grace.
Remind us of the community for which we were created—
the community that transcends the limits we place on it—
the borders we draw, the walls we put up,
the so very local priorities we choose.
Teach us humility.
Leave us with a taste of more and beyond.
More possibility. More hope.
Beyond all we know and see.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Sermon
On that day—that long day of stories by the sea—
on that day when evening had come …
which is interesting.
Because by Hebrew reckoning, a new day begins at sundown.
Y’all probably know you start Sabbath-keeping Friday at dusk
and end at sundown Saturday
So if it was evening that day,
it was the next day.
It was most specifically the transition time to the next day.

And Jesus said to the disciples,
“Let us go across to the other side.”

What does that mean?

Um, literally? They crossed the Sea of Galilee.
Presumably they were still up in the Capernaum area—
the northernmost part of the lake.
And they probably crossed not to the southern end,
but to the eastern shore,
for in fact, the gospel story goes on,
They came to the other side of the lake,
to the country of the Gerasenes.

And while we’re not absolutely sure who the Gerasenes were,
the cities of Gerasa and Gadara
(because in some of the stories it’s called the country of the Gadarenes—
compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8)
the cities of Gerasa and Gadara were both to the east of the Sea of Galilee—
part of the Decapolis, a grouping of ten Greco-Roman—Gentile cities—
more heavily influenced by the hellenist culture than the semitic one.

Now does that mean there weren’t any Jews
on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee? No.
Does that mean everything was different and foreign? No.
But it means there probably is something intended in the symbolism
of Jesus crossing from one side to the other.

And leaving the crowd behind,
they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.
What does that mean?
Well, it was an old Hebrew hymn, “Just As He Was!”
Just kidding!
It may simply mean the boat he was already on.
This day begins, you may remember,
with the narrator describing how
such a large crowd gathered around Jesus
that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there,
while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land (Mark 4:1).

And they headed out into deeper water—
headed out into the watery boundary area between
this shore and that one.
It’s another transition, isn’t it?
A spatial transition—geographic—
to go along with the temporal transition from one day to another—
the transition from light to dark.

Other boats were with him, we read.
Of course four of the disciples were fishermen,
so it’s possible they had more than one boat between them—
except when this one boat got to the other side,
nothing is said about not all the disciples being there.
Maybe there were other fishermen
who seized the opportunity to remain with Jesus.
In any case, there’s a wider community.
As you may know, the boat was widely accepted
as a symbol of the ancient church,
so what we have here is a local association.

A great gale arose,
and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.
We’re in a symbol for the church that’s being filled with water.
Too much of a stretch to suggest baptismal imagery?!
Baptism too, of course, a passage between—a transition.
We are baptized into death to be raised to newness of life.

Now the other boats aren’t mentioned.
In fact, they’re not mentioned again at all.
Maybe the storm separated them all.
Maybe each church goes through significant transitions on its own!
And when boats are being tossed around,
it’s best not to have a bunch together in close proximity.

What’s happened in the story though,
with water representing chaos in Hebrew thought and writing,
is the chaos factor has been upped.

When you cross to the other side—
when you cross the border—
when you go from one way of doing things to another—
when you go from where they speak this language
to where they speak that one
(even if it’s the same language, you understand what I’m saying?)—
when you go from these traditions to those—
these beliefs to those—
these people in charge to those—
when you leave behind what was and embrace what’s to be,
it can get a little chaotic
as you venture out into the unknown—
out into what’s legitimately scary.

But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.
The storm didn’t bother him a bit.
He was sound asleep—reclined—
hovering, as it were, over the surface of the deep.

There are multiple levels of possible meaning here—
or of association.
He was really, really tired and there was nothing more to it.
He was completely out.
Or, he trusted his disciples who were fishermen—
who knew the water, knew its moods, knew their boat.
Or he trusted God.
And there are undeniable parallels to the story of Jonah
another prophet to the gentiles—
another Jew who crossed to the other side—
who was asleep in a boat during a storm—
a storm that ended up being miraculously calmed.
And it’s also true, that in Hebrew thought and writing,
the absence of God in the chaos of history
was often depicted as God being asleep
(Psalms 35:23; 44:23-24; Isaiah 51:9a).
Or at a completely different level—at that symbolic level,
crossing what scared so many, didn’t scare him.
He had a vision of wholeness
that undermined the fear of the other and of otherness.
I trust you know me well enough to know
I’m not suggesting there’s one answer.
These associations are all there,
and they’re all important.

The disciples woke Jesus up and said to him,
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Interesting.
That’s fairly blunt phrasing—aggressive and rude—
so much so that Matthew and Luke
both make the disciples a little more respectful—
clean up the story a bit.
But as blunt as the phrasing is,
it’s not, “Wake up! It’s getting dangerous out here.
We need to figure out what we’re going to do—
how we’re going to get out of this.”
No. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
And they address him as “Teacher”—
as if this were a lesson,
not as “Master”—the one in charge.

Now, true confession, I’d’ve been scared too.
If fishermen were afraid on the Sea of Galilee, I would have been too.
They had to have known what they were dealing with.
There was obviously good reason to be afraid.
But honestly, here’s where the story gets iffy for me.
Because I’ve been around experts in a crisis.
They tend not to panic.
They tend to swing into action.
They know what to do, and they do it—
even if it ends up not being enough.

Well, as the story is told, Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind.
It’s the same word he uses to rebuke the man possessed with an unclean spirit.
And he said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
Another command paralleling the silencing of the man with the unclean spirit,
and the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

We totally miss it in our translation.
The word translated “dead” (“dead calm”) is the same word
earlier translated “heavy”—the “heavy” gale.
It’s an absolute. The best translation would be:
The great storm on the sea becomes the great calm of the sea.

It’s called that in both Old and New Testaments, by the way—the sea,
even though the Sea of Galilee is not a sea.
Technically, it’s a lake—freshwater surrounded by land.
A sea refers to a saltwater body, connected to the great oceans.
The sea can even refer to the world ocean—
the waters that covered the earth over which hovered the Spirit of God—
as if it’s such depths reached in Galilee—
that level of primordial chaos—
in which sense, Jesus and his disciples—Jesus and the church
cross all borders into all lands in the creation of a new world
and are not afraid—or aren’t supposed to be.
In that sense, it’s a re-creation story,
and there was evening and this day became the next,
and it was good.
They were crossing from one side to the other,
and order was brought out of chaos.

And Jesus said to the disciples,
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Seriously? Jesus contributed to lousy theology?
If you have enough faith, you too,
can bring great calm to the great chaos?
Faith isn’t going to keep anyone safe in the storm.
I’ve been through too much. Seen too much.
Been with people through too much.
Life brings storms from which no faith will protect you.

And the disciples were filled with great awe.
Now see, that’s just downright misleading.
That’s just wrong!
That’s translators cleaning up the story again!
The Greek, literally, has nothing to do with awe.
The text literally reads they “feared a great fear.”
Little different from they were filled with great awe, don’t you think?

Notice as well, by the way, the verb tenses.
It’s not, notice, why were you afraid (during the storm)—
not, why didn’t you have faith (during the storm),
but have you still no faith (after the storm)—
why are you afraid (now that the winds have ceased
and the water’s still)?

And the disciples said to one another,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
As if that’s what scared them.
As if, more than the storm, which was initially frightening,
it was, in the end, Jesus calming the storm
that was most frightening.
Who is this? Who does that?

Another true confession, I’d’ve been scared too.
As many super hero movies as I’ve seen,
and as much as I like the super hero Storm,
if someone were to actually command the weather,
I would be majorly freaking out.
That’s not anything I’ve experienced—
nothing I expect to ever experience.

And I know, consistency with my experience and expectations
is not determinative of the truth of Scripture.
However, you know, I’ve said it enough,
when I affirm the presence of God with me,
it’s hard for me to say that that presence is experienced differently now
than it was by people in the past.
I look for the ways in which a story is still true,
not for justifications for why it used to be as it is no more.

So what if it was never about the storm?
For if their fear was of the storm,
when the storm ceased, what would have remained?
Awe. Gratitude.
But the story says fear.
Mistranslated into awe—right?
But not awe. Fear.
And maybe they were afraid of Jesus—
of the growing awareness that he was other—
that there was an inexplicable, incomprehensible dimension to him.
Maybe.
But what also remained, in the aftermath of the storm,
was still the chaos of crossing to the other side.
The chaos of not avoiding them—of possibly encountering them
of having to have a conversation with them.
And the questions “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
do still make sense.

Maybe some of you wonder with no little frustration,
“Why do you always have to explain away the miracle?”
I didn’t. I don’t think I did.
What’s the miracle?
Something none of us have ever experienced
and have no expectation we ever will? Maybe.
I don’t—can’t rule that out.
But it could also be the miracle of people overcoming fear and prejudice
and crossing the chaos of boundaries and borders and customs
to reach the other side of what’s known and familiar that feels safe.
Who is this who remains calm in face of that?
That’s actually a richer miracle to me—
one full of more meaning, more possibility, more relevance, and more hope.

Getting back to the story,
there’s actually an easy answer to the disciples’ question:
“Who is this then?”
For according to Scriptural tradition,
“the commanding of the sea is something only God can do”
(see Job 26:11-12; Psalm 104:7; Isaiah 51:9-10)
(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2001] 176).
Who can take chaos, and in an utter lack of fear,
speak words of order and creation, hope and possibility?
Only God.

Susie reminded me of a time in Waco,
we were at the home of an Old Testament professor and his wife,
and they had had a flood in their house.
Jim, as he told the story, had been of absolutely no help—
flailing around helplessly—cluelessly—
until Donna got home, figured out what was going on
and restored order, calming both the waters and Jim.
And he lauded her and named her by the name of an ancient goddess
for it is only by divine power that the waters are controlled!

But what if the chaos of fear can also be overcome by followers of God—
those who maintain faith in grace even in fear
and co-create with God in and out of the chaos hope and possibility?

We live amidst chaotic times
and lots of people are afraid these days—
of different things—
of very different things.
Some are afraid of x,
others afraid of what we’re doing because of x,
still others afraid we’re ignoring y that’s part of the equation too,
and some know we don’t even know about z!
Afraid of different things,
but the fear, seems like we all have in common.

How then to have faith amidst the chaos—
How to get to the point where you’re not afraid of people?
Where you’re not angry? Where you’re not always blaming someone else?
You decide, do you not, that in spite of your fear—
your uncertainty, you will trust God—who God is.
You decide to hope in love and grace.
Are you still afraid of them?
Have you no faith in initiatives of grace? In reconciliation?
Have you no faith in those others—so different—
who are nonetheless also created in the very image of God—
just on the other side—just across the border?

And that’s it.
The story goes on, as mentioned, on the other shore—
in the country of the Gerasenes. You see, they did cross over.
They did come into contact with them.
That’s the ever unfolding story, isn’t it?
In the chaos of our borders and our living—
in the chaos of what it means to cross to the other side,
do we calm our fears and claim our faith and say,
“We will welcome the stranger.”
“We will be responsible for the least of these.”
“We will help our neighbors.”
“We will love our enemies.”
Because we believe in God’s future of reconciliation
not anyone else’s future of domination.

In the TV show Stranger Things,
the chaos of the inter-dimensional monster
that was brought into our world
creates an alternate dimension within our own.
The upside down, it’s called.
And though it was a chaos thought to be contained,
it tunnels underneath the surface of things
and rips inter-dimensional holes through the fabric of reality.
There’s one such hole in the hollow of a tree.
And it’s gooey and squishy and you have to ooze through it.
And Nancy does. Looking for Barb.
And I’m thinking “No way!
I am not crossing through that to get to the other side.”

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
faith not in what’s expedient, but what’s right.
not in what makes sense, but in what honors love.
not in what makes you more secure,
but in what secures hope for more than you.
not in our salvation,
but in God’s ongoing work for the redeeming of all creation.

How we live our lives, my friends,
as individuals, and as communities of faith,
and as citizens of our country,
is the best (and only) indication of our faith.
When our world sees what you support—what makes you angry—
what you deem worthy of your investment—what excites you,
do they see God’s love for all?
God’s hope for all?
God’s working for all?

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way,
“Every human interaction offers you the chance
to make things better or to make things worse.”
(Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
[New York: HarperCollins, 2009] 114).
Set before you and us, multiple times
this and every day, that choice.
Choose better.

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