A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 20 June 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
Readings of address: Mark 4.
You don’t need me to tell you that life can be hard. The past year and a half has stretched most of us beyond what we thought we would ever have to bare. When we face turbulence we are often left with questions rather than answers.
The disciples in our Gospel passage are faced with 3 questions and this passage aims to look at them more than even the answers. The first question is “Don’t you care Jesus?” Its easy to see why they ask this.
It was the evening.
It was the evening literally – the disciples were tired after a long day walking, talking to people, managing crowds, handling people with desperate needs clambering to get near the miracle worker. But it was also evening in the time frame of the Jewish nation. They had been going at the toils and troubles of life for a long time. It had been a long time since they had won anything. A long time to be suffering under Roman occupation. A long time waiting for the promised help from God. Their entire nation needed a long holiday.
But instead of heading towards Galilee, towards Jerusalem, towards home, Jesus points them outwards towards Gentile territory. Just when they want to be comfortable and retreat Jesus points them towards caring for those who have been excluded by faith. “Be with them, let’s make our home with them” Jesus calls. “Rest is sweetest when it is shared.”
And what’s worse, this rest was to be found over the sea.
Jewish people in the first century were suspicious of the sea at the best of times. They depended on it for food and livelihood but it could rise up without warning and swallow whole boat loads of people, never to be seen again. Have you ever had to depend on something or someone you couldn’t trust? It wears you down. The word for storm is better translated squall or even whirlwind or tornado. In this particular case the words for storm match the words used in the passage straight after this talking about a man who is demon possessed. That night the sea seemed to have a personality, an evil personal being behind it. There was something focussed about the life threatening, relentless bully that was all around them. They were helpless and it had no mercy. They are too far from Jewish land to go back and the Gentile land is nowhere in sight. And it is dark now. In the ancient stories of Moses, when their people escaped slavery and discovered a new future, God had held the sea back. They had walked through on dry ground. The sea was not permitted to come near them. But now the sea was rising up around them. Pounding down on their little vessel over and over until it was almost full of water.
And where is Jesus? Where is God now?
The awkward truth is that God is asleep. What’s more, and I love this detail, Mark specifies that Jesus is sleeping like a baby ‘on a cushion’. Could you get any further from the tumultuous reality of the disciples, exhausted and soaked to the skin grabbing buckets, oars, anything to fight the invading water that threatens their lives.
Have you ever been in a situation where it seems that God is asleep? Have you ever been in a situation where it seems that God is alright up there in heaven having a lovely time but you are down here dealing with the storm? Have you ever asked God “Don’t you care?”
I can’t imagine the disciples asked Jesus this question in a very polite way. It’s not a polite question. You can see them shaking him. Trying to drag him into their reality. “For Goodness Sake Jesus! Don’t you care?”
So why was Jesus asleep in Mark’s story? And why has Mark included this in the introduction of his Gospel. We often forget the writers of the Bible had no idea what they were writing was going to be broken up and preached on. They were used to the idea that churches were places where people would gather and listen to the ENTIRE gospel or letter being read aloud in one sitting. What is going on for the churches it was written for? In a strange way Mark is starting his story with something comforting for the first hearers.
He notes their suffering. It was evening for the Jewish people. God had promised to care for the Jewish people but here they are floundering under Roman occupation, beleaguered and exhausted. But it turned out the salvation of the idea of the People of God was to be found in reaching out to the Gentiles. This wasn’t a new call. They were never supposed to be this comfortable in Jerusalem. They had been called to be a light to the gentiles, but they had stayed insular and safe. They had focussed on preserving what they had before rather than reaching out to grow.
It turned out they needed those they had excluded if they were going to survive. In the disciples mindset everything was wrong but in Jesus’ mindset now was the time to rest because they were finally heading in the direction they needed to. They were heading towards the excluded. Jesus cares a great deal about the floundering Israel but now is the moment the clouds are starting to clear. Now is the moment they are finally heading towards the thing that will fulfil their mission.
What is more, Jesus asleep in this wooden boat is Mark’s way of telling the story of how Jesus comes to our world, not in power but sleeping like a baby in a wooden manger. Jesus’ fate is now bound up with the fate of the disciples. Jesus is not having a lovely time on a cloud in heaven. Jesus’ fate is bound up with their fate. Jesus never asks us to do something without coming along for the ride.
Perhaps our church is in need of a holiday after a year and a half of Pandemic. Perhaps we would rather retreat and just care about those who are nearest and dearest to us. But Jesus is calling us to go to the other side. Jesus is calling us to be with those who are excluded from his church, those who are unable to access the church because they are housebound, those who have been put off faith because of the anxieties of others. The Nazareth Community are starting a branch of outreach oasis on Wednesday afternoons from September where anyone passing by our church is welcome to come in and taste their meditation and worship. The Being With course reaches out to those who long for community but assumed that the church didn’t value what they already have learned about truth, beauty and meaning. The Inspire to Follow course invites
reflection on art that is already around us in society and discovers God’s meaning woven into the fabric already. All of us in our friendships, our families, our workplaces are invited to be attentive to those around us and what God might be doing to highlight God’s goodness and beauty and meaning in their lives. Jesus is calling us to go over to the other side.
And this may involve travelling over the sea. What is it that you are afraid of? What is it that you would rather avoid given the choice?
The second question in this story turns this back to the disciples?
“Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
The disciples have seen Jesus at work. They have seen the sorts of things Jesus does to care for those who are sick or in peril. But its easy to lose your anchor in the face of a personal storm.
Jesus calls the disciples to be people who are not so easily tossed around.
This was in Mark’s mind as he wrote to the early church. Don’t loose your footing. Bring back to mind what you have seen of God when you are tempted to think God doesn’t care about you. I’m told car sickness is found when your ears tell you that you are moving but your eyes tell you that you are not. One of the ways to reduce it is to wind down the window and let yourself feel another sense to remind you of reality. When do we need to wind down the window of our experience? To recall what has lead us into trusting Jesus, to speak to those who are seeing Jesus transform their lives for the first time or in the middle of a storm. God does care about you. Jesus has never left your boat.
Then the final question in the passage.
Mark has earned our trust by telling us that he understands what it can feel like to be a first century Christian, away from the safe shore of well trodden faith practice and heading across a very stormy sea, a sea of financial uncertainty, a sea of lack of understanding and stability. He knows how it can lead them to want to shake God to wake up and do something. Mark’s Jesus has asked them, aske the early church “Why are you afraid? Even after everything you’ve seen me do, do you still have no faith?”
And now Mark invites his readers to ask one more question.
It’s interesting that the first place it says that the disciples were very afraid is now. Presumably they were afraid before. I would be. But here they are notably afraid. We too should be careful what we pray for. Sometimes when God does act we are left reeling because it is so far from what we imagined.
The disciples were set on external stability – the way they had practiced their faith all their lives.
But now, if Jesus can do this, if Jesus can bring a new physics where like Moses perhaps there’s more to the world than they realised. Like Stephen Hawking discovering the probability of Dark Matter or Einstein discovering the theory of relativity – there’s a fear that goes with the awe when you realise that the world might be built on different principles than you thought. When you realise that God might have a very different way of seeing things.
Their world they had been used to, the routine and X+Y=Z predictability had been shaken by the storm.
The world of the early disciples who this book was written for had been shaken by their rejection by their Jewish faith.
Our world, our church, has been shaken by the pandemic.
But the only way forward is over the water to those who are excluded. For them it was the gentiles but who are the gentiles for us? Who are those we need to include in our community? Who are those who we assume we don’t need but will turn out to be the key to the future?
Those who are housebound and need the internet to access us?
Those who have been excluded by the church but are looking for a way back through outreach programs?
Those who are in our business and have a different perspective on faith but are willing to help us achieve our values? Perhaps like the early church reaching out to those who are across the sea might mean the dawn of a new day for us. The early church, those small beleaguered community is now the largest institution on the planet because they reached out to the gentiles.
This wasn’t the end of the story for Mark. He included this story as a way to end the introduction to his Gospel. Maybe it feels like evening for us but maybe this is just the end of the introduction for St Martins?
So I have three questions to ask you this morning.
Do YOU care?
Why are you afraid?
Who is this?