March 22, 2009
Last Sunday, our teacher, Joseph Deck, mentioned his enthusiasm for preaching. Preaching is not a gift that I claim, but I do love and treasure stories. Our human story as it unfolds in scripture is one I’ve learned to receive as a gift if I am willing to engage, question, imagine and struggle with the story. We know many of the stories in scriptures well, or think we do. We sometimes tune out because they are so familiar and faded. Some of us never had teachers who understood how to help us make these stories intersect with our lives. Joseph did that last week. The Syrophonecian woman and Jesus came alive as two humans in creative conflict. Jesus learned and grace became real in a tangible way for the woman.
This morning I want to revisit one of the earlier Lenten scriptures from Mark, the story of the transfiguration. It’s appeared twice in our lectionary so I didn’t want to let it go. Second, I want to talk about the first perilous sea crossing in Mark’s gospel and share some reflections on it.
Throughout the liturgical year we journey through a theological landscape. It’s a landscape of making meaning of stories that invite us into a very human, yet cosmic, journey of birth, growth, testing on many levels, metaphorical and literal death, rebirth, discipleship and relationship at a self-sacrificial level, betrayal, questioning and doubt, and a continuing challenge to live fully and compassionately in a very imperfect and dangerous world. And, we are to do this at the same time we affirm a realm that is present but still to come; visible but invisible.
The Mountaintop (Mark 9:2-13)
Several weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that one of the themes in the transfiguration story is that of Jesus’ identity. “Why is Jesus’ identity that important?” I was asked. Well, how we understand and image the presence of Christ should matter to followers of Jesus. And, “during our short lives the question that guides much of our behavior is: ‘Who are we? Although we may seldom pose that question in a formal way, we live it very concretely in our day-to-day decisions’ [and actions]. (Nouwen) ” Mark, our storyteller, thought this matter of Jesus’ identity critical to the faith journey of the disciples. “Mark writes for people living in a time of severe conflict and violence who already believe, not ones who need things explained, and therefore it’s who Jesus was, rather than what he said, that Mark’s gospel is bursting with--who Jesus was and what he did with what little time he had. He was ‘the Son of God,’ . . . Mark says it right out in the first sentence of his gospel so we readers and listeners won’t miss it” (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, 110-111)
“Here begins the gospel of Jesus Christ the son of God.” Mk. 1:1
In this story it’s six days after Peter, James and John had witnessed the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Now they are with Jesus on a high mountain. Mountains in scripture are traditional places for holy encounters and revelations in scripture. I also think that if these three disciples are to continue Jesus’ ministry or provide future leadership in that ministry, that this mountaintop experience will affirm for them Jesus’ position and relationship to God. Wouldn’t that strengthen them in their discipleship and future leadership? Now the listeners to this gospel and the disciples know about God’s voice in the baptismal story (“At the moment when he came up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice spoke from heaven: You are my son, my beloved; on you my favor rests.” Mk. 1:10-11). The three disciples hear this voice again on the mountain and are told to “listen to him.”(9:7)
Listening to Jesus is important, not just for the three disciples but also for Mark’s community of readers and listeners, both ancient and contemporary (that’s us). Earlier in Mark Peter has been castigated for rejecting the necessity of suffering (8:33). James and John will soon show themselves preoccupied with who is the greatest rather than with servanthood (10:35, 37). All three will fail to watch with Jesus in the garden. These failures become all the more striking because the divine voice in this story has instructed them to listen, echoing Deuteronomy 18:15. (“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your own people; you shall heed [pay careful attention to] such a prophet.”) Mark casts Jesus as the promised Mosaic prophet. Prophets listen to God. In (re)reading the Gospels I often marvel by what appears to have been Jesus’ attunement to the voice of God. He always seems to be listening in for God’s voice. We may know people, ourselves included, who do this; they, like Jesus, are countercultural, appearing to be more interested in being good followers than in just being spiritual leaders. This appears to be one lesson that Jesus’ disciples struggle to learn and live out.
Peter, bless his heart, wants to hold on to this ecstatic experience and institutionalize this it with a building project. He doesn’t understand what this epiphany is about. Building booths doesn’t really make sense anyway since Moses and Elijah supposedly dwell with God in heaven. Jesus wisely doesn’t respond to Peter’s suggestion that they stay on the mountain and continue the ecstasy.
The changing of the clothes to “dazzling white” signals a divine manifestation and calls to mind one of the foundational stories of Exodus, Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:12, 16) As the transformation of Jesus takes place, Moses, the law-giver and Elijah, the prophet, appear and are talking with Jesus. Mark doesn’t tell us the topic of conversation so I imagine a dialog among these three, to ponder the questions Jesus might have asked Moses and Elijah: questions about living with vulnerability, about leadership, about trusting God, about facing death knowing that one’s work is not yet finished, of sowing and then leaving the harvesting to others. I find this part of the story moving and poignant because I easily recall friends and mentors like Julian Nichols, Marilyn McDonald, and my former literacy colleague, Mike Fox, all whose journeys ended prematurely, in mid-life.
Jesus and the three disciples eventually descend from the mountain. The action is no longer on the mountaintop. The movement down from the mountain reminds us that ongoing engagement with human life doesn’t seem to happen on the mountaintops. Mountains are metaphorical places of preparation and of strengthening; places of clarification; and of revelation of God’s purpose. Like the three disciples, we must face the fact that we cannot hold on to transcendent experiences or to those who physically journey with us. But, we can keep ideas of the transcendent in front of us in a heart-breaking and perilous world of land mines and sea storms, a world that too often denies transcendence.
The Stormy Sea (Mark 4:35-41)
In late February of 2003, I received an email from my long time friend and literacy colleague that started off with the words, “Bad news sometimes gets worse. There is a second brain lesion at the base of my brain, and I have lung cancer which has obviously metastasized. Basically, we're talking brain surgery for the tumor on the surface of the brain. After all of that misery, I will have a great big fat 14-15% chance of being alive five years from now. Consequently, I've decided to forego treatment.” Several days later, he left DC to return to upstate New York and live with his sister. Eight months later he died on All Saint’s Day.
His devastating diagnosis and sudden departure profoundly grieved and panicked me. I asked “How can I/How can we carry the burden of reality? How do I/we remain open to human tragedy and suffering without becoming depressed, terrified, or mentally and spiritually paralyzed? How do I/we live in this chaotic, surprising, and dangerous world? And, I turned to the stormy sea crossing stories, stories that had first caught my attention in seminary some years before.
Mark’s harrowing sea crossings dramatized the chaos, threats and dangers facing his kingdom community. If we had been part of Mark’s community, we would have been living in the midst of dislocation and war about 40 years after Jesus death. As this story opens, Jesus is seemingly exhausted after an intense stretch of teaching and healing. He wants to cross the sea to the other side. The “other side in Mark means gentile territory . . . the unknown, the foreign, the ‘other side’ of humanity.” (Myers, BtSM, 195) Once in the boat, Jesus lies down in the stern, the back, with a pillow under his head and goes straight to sleep. These two details are ones that only Mark includes in his version of this story. Jesus doesn’t just doze off in the forward part of the boat where the spray might refresh him. And who provided the cushion? Not important really, but these details reveal a good storyteller’s touch. Jesus must have gone out like a light because he sleeps through the rising wind and waves heaving over the side of the boat until the terrified disciples wake Jesus up and scream at him, accusing him of not caring that they are drowning. Jesus first speaks to and rebukes the wind; maybe he hollered, “Cut it out”. Then, he more gently tells the waves to take it easy and calm down.
I wondered why Jesus first dealt with the natural elements, not the disciples’ terror. My conclusion is that external events, natural and human-made disasters are normal features of life. They’ve always been with us; they come, and then they go.
When the sea calms down, Jesus then asks the critical questions: Why are you afraid?
Have you still no faith?” (4:40) These two questions captured the heart of this story for me. They forced me to look inward and ask myself. What do I fear? What is this faith that I’m supposed to have? If someone were to ask me to talk about my faith or you to talk about yours, what would we say?
Over the past 8 years, I confess that I have found more reasons to be afraid. Storms come more often, and bad news frequently seems to get worse. Each morning, I say to myself, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it.” I really want to rejoice, but at times it’s so hard. As I’ve worked with this story over the past years, I’ve reflected a lot on the fear question, observing that my two deepest fears are of abandonment and powerlessness. Those, also, are the fears of the disciples in the boat, I think. Dealing with the fear relates to the second question of faith.
In Mark’s gospel, the non-understanding of the disciples is a constant thread. What is it that they don’t understand about the sea journeys, the mountaintop revelation, the healings, the feedings and the inclusive table fellowship? A new social and spiritual realm is emerging, and the unfolding of this community is like “a harrowing voyage across deadly waters.” (BtSM, 226) The harrowing journeys of life force us to confront our deepest fears, to move into foreign and uncomfortable “lands” and to treasure and then integrate the moments of ecstasy and of joy into our daily lives on the ground. A piece of good news is that the disciples finally do understand the new realm that Jesus was modeling for them, probably not perfectly but enough so that they did grasp hold of a different reality and lived it out. Their faith animated and energized others as Jesus’s had theirs.
So, I return to the question of faith: what is it and what would I talk about if asked to talk about it. I would talk about my journey because I think faith is inseparable from the story of what has happened to each of us. Faith is not belief, not a creed. Faith is not theology; it’s not reasoned and orderly. It’s not ethics which mostly concerns itself with relationships to other creatures. Perhaps it’s most like worship or contemplation because it’s a response to God and involves emotions, the physical senses, and the mind. I think faith is better named as trust. It’s a hunch, a movement toward. It grasps hold of a different reality and says that I am/we are on a purposeful journey of seeking, changing and growing. If we are not seeking, changing, and growing, faith dies. (Buechner)
The disciples never got to answer Jesus two questions, but we can try to.
I think our C of S culture understands faith as a journey of trust and growth, not just as individuals but as people in relationship. The storms of each day are often out of our control, but as Henri Nouwen reminds us “they should never be out of our hearts”. Like Jesus we can commit to be with each other in the boat. And, perhaps we can bring along some pillows and life jackets for each other.
Binding the Strong Man by Ched Myers
Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version
The New Interpreter's Bible: Mark by Pheme Perkins
Peculiar Treasures by Frederick Buechner
Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen