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Man Overboard!

Australian Country Landscape

Week of Sunday  24 June - Pentecost 4
Gospel: Mark 4:35-41

 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But 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?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Jonah 1:4-6,15

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ ....   15So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 

In my first parish, the wind became too strong, and the waves too great.  There is always too much to do, for a minister. I had been deceived into thinking I must save the place, so I was exhausted; no sleeping in the back of the boat for me. I had also been trying to carry us through a family crisis for many months, and was beginning to crumble.

The final shame was to ring my parish colleague, Cliff, at 6pm on Sunday night, and say I could not take the evening service. It was all organised, there was a sermon fully written out, prayers fully scripted, projector slides produced, but I could not do it. It would all be waiting for him at the church. I drove across to Clovelly Park swamped in pain, and rage, and shame, knowing I would never be able to stand in front of a congregation again.

I rang another colleague, Stephen Koski, the next morning; it was probably his day off, poor bloke, and asked to see him. Could he help me put myself on sick leave, and try to sort out the mess I was in? I was not “at the end of my tether”; the rope was broken and I was sinking fast!

Stephen threw himself overboard for me. He gave me his sermons from the past six weeks, and said, “See if you can just read one of these out at church next week. Can you do that, and choose four hymns? Don’t do anything else. Just go home and stop. Come back and talk to me next week. Don’t go on sick leave.”

The storm stopped. Except that it didn’t! Nothing changed except that I went home, and found a place of calm in the back of the same boat, and read his sermons. I can’t remember them, but I am still astonished at how his simple act of charity and generosity, and the hours he gave me in the next weeks, stilled the storm for me, and helped me begin to climb back on board. Nothing had changed, but the wind had lost all its power. 

The genius of the Gospel of Mark—its inspiration, we might say—is that it invites us to join our own stories to those of Jesus. We can interpret what has happened to us through his story and find echoes and similarities everywhere. Mark himself reflects the stories from which Jesus comes; the story of Jonah adds depth to our thinking about the storms of life!

In beginning of Mark, Jesus announces the coming of the Kingdom of God; a justice and peace so radically grounded in the will of God that even the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. (Isa 11) The fundamental enmities of our world will be overturned.

Jesus is not just talk; he has the goods! People are healed, evil spirits are cast out, and people are enthralled. They flock to him in joy because they see the kingdom is indeed at hand!

Of course, the powers-that-be do not want the kingdom of God. It means they will lose their kingdom! So, at the beginning of Mark 3, the Herodians go out with the Pharisees to work out how to destroy him. Old enmities are overturned as they unite in a blasphemy against the kingdom of God. (3:6,28) How symbolic are those words... “the Pharisees... went out!?”

If I could draw this in a graphic novel, the sun drenched colours of the Australian bush would begin to gather the deeper hews  that come at the end of summer, when bushfire and thunder threaten us. In chapter four, as Jesus teaches with the parables of the seeds, those who have come out from the city to listen, keep wondering about the rumbling of a freight train, where there are no trains. And the country folk say, “No. It’s thunder. No clouds yet, but it’s brewing.”

At the end of chapter four, hell breaks loose. Out on the deep, in the place of elemental evil, something greater than the power of Pharisees and politicians, seeks to destroy him. In the terror, though, Jesus is asleep! Not asleep at the wheel, as the disciples think, but at rest, in the safety of God.

 “Don’t you care we are perishing?!” is both  fear and accusation. It fears what life throws at us, and it accuses the God who seems to be unconcerned. Jesus is not merely unconcerned that a storm is brewing; the boat is already being swamped! (4:37) We’re sinking; it’s over, and he’s asleep! And yet somehow, when we go to see him, he is just as Stephen was for me: Peace, be still.

So in my graphic novel, there will be a panel, just one, of idyllic calm on the lake. Then, as the fifth chapter begins, the Gerasene Demoniac will be there, the colours lurid and the shadows deep, as evil, defeated for a moment, lashes out again.

Again, Jesus will resist, and there will be calm as the demoniac sits at his feet, clothed in his right mind. Jesus will get back in the boat, and cross back to his own people across  the same lake, which is now tamed for the moment. How do you draw triumph?

He will go calmly to the house where the girl is dying, not quite asleep on the cushion, but with time to stop and heal a woman. And when it seems this calm pause has given time for evil to extinguish the life of the little girl, he will raise her from death. It’s the ultimate reversal of evil; instead of taking away life, this man gives it. But his own town reject him, anyway. (6:1ff)

How do we find Jesus for ourselves in this great drama that can seem far removed from us? It can seem like another world, while we are here, on our own, in a sinking boat. Perhaps our hope lies in reversing the attitude of Jesus’ own town, which knew he was just the son of the carpenter. (6.3)

The people who found calm in the midst of the storm “took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” (4:36) I’m relying on a particular English translation here, (NRSV) but it holds a truth. Will we take Jesus just as we find him?

As a “go getting” young American minister in Adelaide in the nineties, Stephen Koski was the source of some good old Aussie prejudice and scorn. “Isn’t he the American? We’ve had them here before...  and they took offense at him.” (6:1-6)

I was desperate, and had to take him as he was.  And for a few weeks, he was Jesus to me, and the storm was stilled.

We don’t use the word very often in the Uniting Church, but the Nave—is the body of the church. It’s where the pews are, where we sit. It’s has the same root as the word Navy. It’s the boat of the church. Jesus gets into the boat with the church in the story this week. We will find him in the church, in those odd folk we know only too well...

Dorothy McCrae has written an affirmation of faith which ends in the church. Beginning with God, “source of all life, source of all love,”

it concludes like this:

We believe in the church;
born of our struggles
open to changes
centred in loving
the  moving and growing
heart of the community turned to the world

Jesus is here.

Brewing

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

 

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