Monday, June 25, 2012


Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Phalacrophobia: the irrational fear of becoming bald.
Gelotophobia: the irrational fear of being laughed at.
Ablutophobia: the irrational fear of bathing.

Perhaps you’ve seen lists of strange phobias like those. You might also be familiar with the more common phobias: arachnophobia (spiders), acrophobia (heights), claustrophobia (enclosed spaces). Fear – both rational and irrational – is a huge part of the human experience. We struggle with it, come up with silly names for it, even make film after film after film about it.
Fear is an overpowering emotion, an emotion that takes hold of us and makes it hard for us to think clearly, breathe deeply, and act rationally. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that in our scripture, angels so often greet humans with the words “Fear not!”

Fear plays a big role in our Gospel text for today. Although our story today is not a parable – it is a story about Jesus, not a story that Jesus told – it reminds me of my colleague’s words from last week about parables: they are multi-layered, multi-dimensional stories, with many possible meanings and layers of interpretation that can all be true at the same time. As I studied today’s text, I started to see several layers to this story of the storm at sea, layers focused around the fear of the disciples: what are they afraid of? I’d like to suggest to you three phobias, and with them three interpretations, all of which might be true, although the last is my favorite.

The first phobia I would like to suggest to you is thalassophobia: the fear of the sea. The beginning of our story finds Jesus and the disciples at the end of a long day of preaching and teaching. The crowd is so eager to be near Jesus that he has gotten into a boat, sitting there and teaching the crowd on land to prevent them from crushing him. The day is over, and Jesus calls on the disciples to go with him across the sea of Galilee (which is actually a large-ish lake in the northern part of Israel).

They set out in the boat, but a great windstorm arises – the words there actually mean “a great whirlwind of wind.” The waves batter the boat so that the boat “is already being filled up,” the Greek says. The story is mostly in the present tense, which isn’t unusual for Mark, but the narrator adds immediacy with the word “already.” And through all of this, Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, with his head on a pillow, until the disciples wake him up in a total panic, with these words: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

The direct cause of their fear is the storm, but that fear is heightened by the way the sea was perceived in their culture. For ancient Israelites, water was a place of swirling primordial chaos. Think of the image of the Leviathan, the mysterious beast lurking in the depths of the sea, that we hear of in the Psalms. Think of the formless void of waters that exists before God institutes order, creating light and darkness, sea and dry land, in the Genesis account of creation. Think of the parting of the Red Sea, and the parting of the Jordan River, God’s miraculous acts of pushing water back to make a path of safe dry land so the Israelites can cross over. A storm is bad; a storm at sea is terrifying.

The most straight-forward interpretation of the disciples’ fear, then, is that they fear the storm at sea, as we all fear storms in our lives, whether they are literal storms like the one that came raging through the city on Friday, or metaphorical storms of financial trouble, or family crises, or health issues. When we fear storms, perhaps this story can remind us that Christ has the power to still storms, commanding “Peace! Be still!” to the storms of anxiety and hopelessness and fear that rage in our hearts in times of trouble.

So that is one phobia, and one layer, but maybe you’ve noticed something: after the storm stops, the disciples remain afraid; so I’d like to suggest a second possible layer of interpretation.

Perhaps the disciples are suffering from exousiphobia: the fear of power or authority, specifically the authority that they come to realize Jesus has over the elements. Having been woken up in the midst of the storm, Jesus rebukes the wind and says two words to the sea – words that are translated in our Bible as “Peace! Be still!” but might be more aptly rendered as “Shut up! Shut up!” The storm stops.

I very much doubt that that is what the disciples were expecting; perhaps they wanted him to grab a bucket and start bailing, or to help with the oars. Maybe they were turning to him because it was his stupid idea to get in this boat in the first place. I doubt that they realized that they were in a boat with one who had the authority to control the weather. The Greek word used for storm in this passage is “lailaps,” which can mean whirlwind; the Greek translation of Job uses that same word when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, the passage we heard just a little while ago. It is a passage that evokes the overwhelming power of God, reminding us that the all of the vastness and mystery of the universe comes directly from God’s hand. It is one thing to be in a boat in a storm at sea; it is another thing to be in a boat with one who has power to control the storm. They think they’re in a boat with mild-mannered Bruce Banner, only to find themselves with the Hulk. They start to realize the scope of Christ’s power, and they are frightened by what they see.

Perhaps sometimes we, too, underestimate Christ’s power to redeem, transform, and save. Commentator Mike Baughman invites us to consider whether, like the disciples, we sometimes ask God only for things that seem realistic. Do we shy away from praying and hoping for real peace and justice for this world? Do we sometimes ask for just a little bit of healing, just a modicum of reconciliation? Do we hand Jesus a bucket instead of asking him to still the storm?

Perhaps we do, sometimes. But I think there is more going on here, and so I would like to suggest a third phobia, a third interpretation. Perhaps the disciples are suffering from epitychiphobia: the fear of success. You see, Jesus has actually proposed a pretty outrageous plan; they have gotten into a boat in the Galilee, and Jesus has declared that the boat is heading for the other side: the land of the Gerasenes. These are not particularly hated people, like the Samaritans; they are not people who are really on the radar. They are Gentiles, and they are Gentiles from way over there. Perhaps when the disciples see Jesus still the storm, they suddenly realize the scope of what God was about to do; this is not some oddball itinerant preacher heading off on a crazy quest. This is the Messiah, heading out to minister to Gentiles, and they are going with him. It is a fundamental change in everything they thought they knew about God and how God works in the world, and maybe that scares them.

They would not be the first; the text hints at another story of God reaching out to Gentiles, another story of a storm at sea: the book of Jonah. Like Jonah, this story involves a word from God, brought to non-Israelites by Israelites. Like Jonah, this story involves a man asleep in a boat. Like Jonah, this story involves a storm at sea.

There is a more subtle connection, as well: when our translation says that the disciples were “filled with great awe,” what the Greek actually says is that they “feared a great fear,” using both the verb and noun forms of “phobia.” First of all, “filled with great awe” is not a very good translation of that phrase. But second and more important, “fearing a fear” or “rejoicing a joy” or “lamenting a lament” is weird syntax in Greek; it’s not how people talked. But it’s not uncommon in Hebrew, and it is downright characteristic of the book of Jonah. If we know how to listen for it, the narrator is evoking a story of a man reluctant to participate in the vastness of God’s love. He references that story as he tells us this story of the boat bound for the land of the Gerasenes, carrying the love of God incarnate and a dozen men who are just starting to realize what they’ve signed up for.

So perhaps, when the disciples “fear a great fear,” their fear is the fear of success: they fear that they are really, actually, going to go and bring the Good News to the Gerasenes. They fear that the man they are following is truly the Christ, and the radical plan he has proposed is actually going to happen, and they don’t know what that means for them. They don’t know what it means for their lives or their families, they just know it will turn their worlds upside down -- and it will. They fear the unknown that lies on the other side of transformation. The text tells us they are frightened not when the storm comes, but when they find themselves in a boat riding over calmed waters toward a foreign land with Jesus Christ.

Sometimes perhaps we feel that way as well. I think there are times when we are afraid of the storms of life, but more afraid of the strange and uncomfortable places God might be asking us to go when the storms subside. Change, after all, can be disorienting and terrifying. It can be more frightening than the storms of rush and hurry, busy-ness and workaholism. More frightening than the storms of our familiar anxieties and habitual neuroses. More frightening than the dysfunctional way we’ve always done things, more frightening than the job that makes us exhausted and bored, more frightening than the relationship that brings out the worst in us. Change is certainly more frightening than the swirling storms of things that are urgent, but not important.

So let me suggest a question for us as individuals, and for us as a community: what would we be afraid of if the waves settled and the wind calmed? What land, what work, what mission is there on the other side of the sea, far away from the familiar, that would cause us to fear a great fear, a fear of transformation, a fear of God doing a new thing, a fear of success? Because perhaps, friends, that is where God is leading us.  

May we have the courage to follow. Amen.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Passing the Peace & Christ's Ministry of Physical Touch

Have you ever thought about the word “incarnation”? Our Christian tradition teaches that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, God coming to us in this world, in a body. The roots of the word “incarnation” highlight the sheer physicality of this miracle: the word “incarnation” comes from the Latin word caro, which means flesh. The word “incarnation” is related to the words “carnage” and “carne” (as in chili con carne – “with meat”!)

The word “incarnation” asserts that Jesus really, truly had a body, experiencing all of the joys and nitty-gritty realities that we know come with being embodied people. A workshop I attended recently at a conference for UCC clergy in their 20s and 30s highlighted one aspect of Jesus’ incarnation: his ministry of physical touch. We focused on the many stories of physical touch in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ life. Sometimes he touches people for healing: in one story he heals the eyes of a blind man by making mud out of dirt and saliva, and applying it to the man’s eyes! Other stories show Jesus communicating love through touch: stories of washing the disciples’ feet, or placing a child on his knee. A third kind of story shows Jesus being touched by others, such as the woman who anoints him in Bethany. 

Many Christian worship services contain a moment where we celebrate the ministry of physical touch: we call it the Passing of the Peace. In my congregation, the passing of the peace is an extended affair; we make time for one another, smiling and greeting and rejoicing as we make our way up and down the aisles. It is a moment of joy in community, and it is our own way of celebrating the ministry of physical touch as we embrace, shake hands, pat shoulders, and sometimes even kiss cheeks. 

Of course, harmful physical touch is widespread in our contemporary world, and the Gospels also tell negative stories of physical touch: Judas’ kiss is a gesture that communicates not love, but betrayal. As we pass the peace, it is important to remember that some people may not wish to be touched because of past experiences of harm. There is another story of a woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment for healing, and the scripture says he “feels the power go out of him.” For those who are shy or introverted, sometimes physical touch can be exhausting rather than invigorating. As we pass the peace, we can respect each other’s differences by paying attention to see who wishes to embrace, and who would prefer to shake hands. 

One of Paul’s letters instructs the early Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16). When we pass the peace with one another, we participate in this tradition of Christian love and community expressed incarnationally -- in the flesh. Furthermore, we celebrate that we are empowered to extend love and peace on Christ’s behalf, remembering that we are members of the Body of Christ!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Confessions of a Biblically Illiterate Seminarian

This may sound strange coming from a minister, but I really never knew much about the Bible growing up. Sure, I went to Sunday school every week, but we spent a lot more time gluing sequins to cardboard crosses than we did delving into scripture. I had a Bible story book that told some of the more child-friendly biblical tales. (And also some less child-friendly ones: I was fascinated by the story of Samson, whose eyes were gouged out.) I memorized the twenty-third psalm and learned to sing the books of the bible in order (I can still do it), and in Sunday school we would usually read a verse or two. But I never really got a handle on what the different books of the Bible were, or where to find the familiar parts, or what to make of the rest. Wisdom books, epistles, apocalypses… it was all Greek to me!

In my youth group experience, a talented lay leader helped us learn how to wrestle with biblical texts.  Rather than having someone tell us what it said, we were encouraged to study and think and question and pray and explore, and scripture began to take on new meaning as I was given the opportunity to interpret it for myself.

In college, I learned a little more about the Bible in some of my religion courses; I started to learn about the historical context: the monarchy, the Babylonian exile, the Roman Empire. I learned how to find the Jordan River on a map, and I figured out that there’s not much snow in Bethlehem. In seminary, I finally (!) undertook the task of reading the whole thing, and I learned biblical Hebrew and Greek, as well as different interpretive methods.  But none of that means much if it's just an irrelevant old book... I came, eventually, to see scripture as an ancient witness to the Living God.  Interpreting together with congregants and seminarians, asking the question, "what does this mean for this community, right now?" was the key that finally unlocked the doors of scripture for me. I began to find joy in being part of a People of the Book.

I still don’t know everything about the Bible, but I love being part of a tradition that is gathered around the life of Jesus and the witness of scripture. I love turning the stories and poems and letters over and over, seeing them take on new meaning as I approach the texts from different standpoints in my life, using different methods, with different communities, reflecting on different events and issues in our contemporary world. One of the founders of congregationalism, John Robinson, told the passengers of the Mayflower that there is always “yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s word."  I guess a more contemporary take on that is the UCC slogan: "God is Still Speaking!"

God of Word and Wisdom, help us to hear your message for us today in the ancient words of scripture.  Bless us with words of challenge, comfort, and promise.  We ask this in the name of Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.