Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Let Us Go Across to the Other Side

A sermon delivered at Plymouth United Church of Christ,
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on 24 June 2012, Year B, Proper 7
by George J. Stecher
Scripture text: Mark 4:35–41

“God shows no partiality,” wrote the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, but despite this—and though I may be wrong to do so—I have a favorite among the gospels. While I don’t want to take away from the other three, Mark’s gospel resonates with me more than any other book in the Bible. In part, it might be because Mark’s was very likely the first gospel to be written. Mark is about as close as we can get to the life, teaching, and work of Jesus in a single source and, as a result, I can’t read Mark without a sense of awe.

Mark is, in some ways, strikingly original. Matthew and Luke each copied large sections of Mark, much of it word-for-word. And not just the text but also the format. Although he likely started with oral and written accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, Mark probably invented the literary form of the gospel. Mark’s gospel isn’t just a biography, nor is it just a set of teachings, but it is something new—a blend of narrative and teaching stories, Jewish and Greek literary traditions, history and metaphor that was the first of its kind.

Mark’s gospel is also brief. There are no long genealogies—no who “begat” whom chapters—and there is no Christmas story. You can read all sixteen chapters in one sitting. It was written not to be read silently, but to be read aloud and listened to as a whole. As a result, Mark made each word count. He was a master storyteller—parable and plot are woven together so that each passage often carries several meanings. And so, when Pastor David asked me to preach while he was away at Moon Beach, I was delighted to find that the gospel passage in the lectionary came from Mark.

In chapter four of Mark, Jesus has been teaching to a large crowd by the Sea of Galilee—a crowd so large that he sits in a boat a short distance off shore so that all can hear him. He teaches the using parables, which he explains in greater detail to his closest followers. Finally, as evening begins—and here starts our present scripture passage—Jesus directs his disciples to cross the sea and, while they travel, he falls asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. A terrible storm ensues, the boat is swamped, and his disciples, frantic, wake him up. Jesus calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.

My first thought, upon reading this passage, was that it had a simple interpretation. One of Mark’s main points throughout his gospel is to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Remember that the Messiah had been expected to be a military leader who would liberate Israel, and Jesus did not fit that description. The ability to control the weather, however, certainly adds to one’s messianic résumé. And while I think that Mark certainly had that purpose in mind—that is, to show that Jesus was powerful enough to be the Messiah—this one story does not make the case. Jesus was not the only Jewish holy man of that time purported to control the weather. Ancient Jewish writings tell us of Honi the Circle-Drawer, who lived in the century before Jesus. In the midst of a drought, Honi drew a circle in the dry dust, stood in it, and told God that he would remain in the circle until it rained. It did rain, but only lightly, so Honi told God that that was not enough. Then it rained in torrents, and Honi again told God that he was not satisfied, and that he wanted a calm, steady rain, which God then granted. So, although control of the weather is very impressive, and gives you good holy-man credentials, it was not unique in Jewish stories of the time, and that story alone may not have convinced early listeners that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. So I suspected that Mark, so efficient with his words, had more to say in this passage.

A second look at the passage bring us a metaphorical view of the storm. Jesus can calm storms, not only on the Sea of Galilee, but in us. The storm represents the problems in our lives. All you need to do is ask Jesus, that is, ask in prayer. Wake him up in the stern of the boat. Although it doesn’t reference this passage, I think of the old hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Here are a few lines: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain to bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” This is a valid interpretation as well, and another that I think Mark intended, but I suspect it’s been the point of most sermons on this passage and that you’ve already heard one or more from that viewpoint. Since I think there are even more lessons in this passage, I will simply mention it and move on.

I want go a little farther in Mark’s narrative, because I think the next section is relevant to the understanding of today’s scripture. After the storm is calmed, and immediately upon reaching the other side, Jesus and the disciples encounter a man with an unclean spirit, the Gerasene demoniac, who lives among tombs and is so wild that he has broken the chains and shackles that had been used to restrain him. Jesus drives out the spirit and cures the man. Now let’s consider those two passages, the calming of the storm and the curing of the demoniac, together.

Dennis R. MacDonald, a professor at the Clarement School of Theology, has an interesting take on these passages, and on Mark as a whole. MacDonald suggests that Mark’s gospel is an anti-epic. The “scripture” of the official religion of the Roman Empire, as far as there was a scripture, included Homer’s epic, the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, the hero, Odysseus, takes a sea voyage in which he falls asleep on rugs in the stern of a boat and awakens during a storm. Sound familiar? Odysseus encounters not a demoniac who lives among the cave-like tombs, but a monstrous cyclops, who does live in a cave. I won’t go through the details here, but I will tell you that MacDonald lists twenty-five parallels between these stories in Mark and their analogs in Homer. But Mark adds a twist—whereas Odysseus violently blinds the cyclops, Jesus heals the demoniac. While Odysseus endures a storm, Jesus calms one. Just as Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down kingdom in which the last are first—the opposite of earthly kingdoms—Mark’s Gospel is an anti-epic. Jesus is the nonviolent anti-hero who heals rather than harms. The message is clear: Jesus is superior to the Greek and Roman heroes, including the great Odysseus.

Perhaps you are bothered by the idea that Mark may have adapted an existing, non-Christian work to tell the story of Jesus, and you think it makes Jesus’ story more fiction and less reality. This connection does not mean that Mark just made up the story. Bear in mind that Mark was writing decades after the crucifixion. He probably had an eclectic collection of stories about Jesus and Jesus’ teachings and no definitive order to put them in. Mark, like most writers of the Greco-Roman world, was likely trained in the technique of mimesis, the art of adapting the patterns of existing, successful works in one’s own writing. And Homer, the most successful writer of the ancient world, was imitated more than any other. Mark, however, not only imitates Homer, he turns Homer upside down. If MacDonald’s account is correct, Mark was using a standard literary technique of the day to tell the truth about Jesus as he understood it. Jesus was the Messiah and a hero greater than any of the Greek and Roman heroes. Mark was trying to tell the truth of Jesus and not facts about Jesus. Sometimes with a little poetic license a much deeper truth can be told than in a simple historical account. I think that if you listen to Mark this way, you will arrive at a richer, and not a poorer, faith.

Nevertheless, MacDonald’s arguments are controversial among biblical scholars, so I want to give you yet one more interpretation—the last one for today; I promise. A fourth meaning to this passage, and one relevant to us. (Remember, I’m not claiming that any of the previously mentioned meanings are wrong—I like them all. I am claiming that Mark’s gospel is rich enough support many correct teachings, even from a single story.) Let’s look at the first sentence of today’s passage. Jesus says “Let us go across to the other side.” What would the listener hear? A listener familiar with Judaism would know that “the other side” was the land of the gentiles—a land that was scary and full of ritually unclean practices. Perhaps they had heard the story of the Gerasene demoniac that awaited the disciples. In this way Mark’s gospel may have been like the first century version of a cinematic suspense thriller, where the viewer knows the monster is lurking around the corner. Perhaps an ancient listener even shouted out (in Greek), “Don’t do it! Don’t go there!”

And what about the disciples themselves? What were they thinking? Many were fishermen—rough, tough, and seaworthy. Were they really that afraid of the storm, or were they more afraid of what was on the other side? Did they awaken Jesus and think they could fool the landlubber carpenter? Jesus—we had to wake you. We have to turn back. We can’t go on in this storm. Trust us, you’re just a carpenter. We’re fishermen and we know this lake. The weather’s too bad—we have to turn back. Sorry. No gentiles and demoniacs today. Maybe some other year. Perhaps it was a bit like the husband reluctantly driving with his wife to the ballet, when to the chagrin of one and the repressed joy of the other, a tire goes flat. Gee honey, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think we’ll be able to make it in time. It would take too long to change that tire. Darn.

But if that’s what the disciples were thinking, Jesus didn’t buy it. Listen to what Jesus says: “Why are you afraid?” Or translated differently: “Why are you being so cowardly?” Or, in modern vernacular: “Man up!”

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit here. Mark tells us that it was a bad storm, and perhaps I shouldn’t minimize it. But I do suspect that much of the fear of the disciples has to do with the destination. And I think it’s that way with us. Have you ever felt the call, “Let us go across to the other side” and wished you hadn’t? Have you ever noticed that if you follow Jesus you are constantly asked to do things you don’t want to do?

Over the past few months I’ve been a part of the “Five Practices” group here at Plymouth. “Five Practices” is a highly regarded program for church revitalization and growth. According to the program’s creator, vibrant congregations practice Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. The four of us in the group read a book, attended two meetings at the Wisconsin Conference headquarters in DeForest with groups from other churches, and brainstormed through five two-and-a-half hour sessions, each with its own workbook. We learned that we, as a congregation, are doing many things very well. We also learned of areas where we can improve, and one of those is Risk-Taking Mission and Service. We do some wonderful mission work here at Plymouth and should continue it, but we could do more that is risk-taking. According to Robert Schnase, the author of the Five Practices program, mission is most meaningful when it involves risk-taking, when we leave our comfort zone. Risk-Taking Mission not only helps the poor, needy, or oppressed, but helps us as well. It grows our faith; it grows our love; it grows our relationships with others, ourselves, and Christ. Jesus did not tell the disciples, “give money to a national organization that will help Gerasene demoniacs.” No, he said, “Let us go across to the other side.” Go yourself. Go where the scary stuff is.

I have to admit, that, during our workbook session on Risk-Taking Mission and Service, when Darrick suggested we consider street mission work among the very poorest, I was just like a disciple of Jesus. Just like one of the disciples in the boat, that is. I was skeptical and reluctant. Street ministry? Going out and meeting homeless people and drug addicts in the street? Plymouth doing this? It just didn’t seem like our style. We should leave that to professionals. The four of us on the committee, after many long sessions, got to know one another, and I’ve learned that Darrick has a very good sense of the right thing to do, but I was still not ready.

Now that I’ve embarrassed Darrick, I’ll embarrass someone else in the congregation. Mike Henry is that quiet guy in the back who has been attending Plymouth for the last few months. He used to live in Chicago, where he did—you guessed it—street ministry. Work among the sex-workers and drug addicts in the roughest areas of Chicago. Helping those who are afraid to visit even food pantries and free clinics. First Darrick puts the uncomfortable idea in my head. Then Mike shows up with the same idea. And Jesus is telling me through both of them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

A few weeks later Mike, Darrick, Joy, and I met in Egg Rolls Plus with Jason, a member of the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Department and a gang expert, discussing how to safely meet with homeless people in the street, how to serve those who are so outside the system that they avoid the various service agencies. I was a bit overwhelmed, but I learned much.

Then, on Tuesday, just five days ago, Mike, Pastor David, and I clambered into Mike’s van with a cooler full of bottled water and drove around the city. Our first stop was at the Community Table, where we ate with the down and out. The goal was simple. Share a meal with them, listen to them. Treat them as humans and not Gerasene demoniacs. I’m rather introverted, and feel awkward talking with people I don’t know well, but I must say I enjoyed the meal and listening to the—sometimes a bit crazy—story of the talkative gentleman who sat next to me. After our dinner, we handed out cold water bottles to those leaving. People on the street are often dehydrated. We then headed to Sojourner House, a downtown homeless shelter. It had not opened yet, but a crowd was waiting outside in the 90 degree heat. We handed out many water bottles to very grateful recipients. I thought of Matthew: “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.”

We then drove downtown, where we spotted an elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk on Barstow Street, bent over. We parked and walked over to her. Next to her were two small plastic grocery bags of clothing. She looked emaciated, dehydrated, and weak. She could only talk quietly, but with a lot of patience, Mike was able to learn her name, and discovered that she had traveled from the Twin Cities a few days ago, had no family in the area, and hadn’t eaten at all that day. She was difficult to understand. She refused our offer to take her to a hospital or to a local shelter or to get her a meal. Mike finally convinced her to allow him to call someone to help her. David found the non-emergency number of the police, and soon a kind officer stopped by. He was very patient, and was able to talk her into letting him take her to Sojourner House. The officer, too, thought she needed hospital care for dehydration, malnourishment, and confusion, but she had refused this. We were relieved when she finally accepted a ride to the shelter.

We talked to others, but I don’t want this sermon to drag on longer. We distributed around 50 bottles of water, and considered it a successful first start. I thought of the woman, and the many, many who passed by without helping. I wondered what I would have done had I been alone. Would I, too, have passed by and pretended not to see her? Before us, only one person had given her a little money for a meal. I had taken a risk, a very small risk, but I could feel growth within me. Jesus now had another face for me . . . that of an emaciated woman on Barstow Street.

We hope this mission at Plymouth will grow, and, if you choose, you will have plenty of opportunities to join in. Now perhaps you think that kind of mission isn’t for you. If it isn’t, consider some other risk-taking mission. I don’t mean putting your life or physical safety on the line, but risk-taking enough that you are uncomfortable. That’s when spiritual growth occurs. You can start by helping to serve at the Community Table next time Plymouth’s turn comes around.

The boat is leaving for the other side. Will you get in? There will be storms. The boat will take on water. There may be demon-haunted people present when it lands (and the demons may have names like drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness), but I suspect that there are more demons in our stereotypes than in the people you will meet. Jesus will be there in the back of the boat to help us when we need it. Will you get in?

Jesus said to them “Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus says to us “Let us go across to the other side.”


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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