So what do I notice in this miracle story? The crowd, as usual was pressing in on Jesus. He could have done some grand-stand preaching event, but instead, he stops, and takes time to notice and attend to 3 unlikely characters, two of these were considered the world’s weakest and least powerful, a child and a woman, and the child’s father, Jarius, a synagogue leader; how unusual it was that he would recognize Jesus’ authority.
We rarely get to hear the Aramaic that was the common language at the time (the bible, of course was written in Greek for Greek readers), but in this story we hear “Talitha Cum”, the spoken language of Jesus which the writers must have considered important to include. Talitha is a word of endearment related to another Aramaic word that means lamb, or little dear one. “Talitha cum: Little one, get up!”
I notice that Jesus was not put off by the wagging fingers, the jeering laughter, or even the weeping mourners. he took the little girl’s hand, and gently raised her. I notice that the woman felt healing in her whole body, and that she spoke her whole truth to Jesus; maybe it was about more than her illness.
And finally, I notice here and in most all of the healing miracle stories that Jesus heals by invitation: the woman touches the hem of his cloak, and Jarius cries out to Jesus in desperation.
The Pandemic has increased my affinity for checking for invitation in my personal interactions. Now that we are in a kind of grey zone regarding mask wearing, I am careful to check to see what makes the people around me comfortable, even if I am ok with being mask-less.
I also have a new feeling about personal space. I don’t like the term social distancing; I much prefer one I recently heard: social spaciousness. Intimacy is very important in life, but it should be by invitation only. I’ve come to see the space around a person as more sacred than it used to be. I will try to always practice social spaciousness.
The word Parable comes from a Greek word meaning “something cast alongside something else”. They are short stories that convey a truth or religious principle, usually by comparison or analogy. For Jesus these were teaching aids, an earthly story with a heavenly message.
A miracle, of course, is an event that is said to have actually happened that we cannot explain, and we know that miracles do happen; the medical kind, in which a person makes an unexpected recovery in spite of a poor prognosis, or the miracle that happens when an earthquake victim is rescued after many days buried under rubble.
Kate Braestrup, an author and a Unitarian Universalist chaplain to Game Wardens in the forests of Maine, ministers to families and law enforcement officials in the wild. She is often called in on search and rescue missions responding to danger and disaster, a lost child, a snowmobile accident.
She says that she doesn’t look for God’s work in either the miracle or the horrible bad things that happen. These are both mostly unexplainable events in which so many things line up a certain way. Instead, she looks for God in how people love each other through it all; it’s not the disaster or the rescue that’s the work of God, it’s the love and care of the helpers involved.
When I sit with a friend who is dying and I wonder where God is in this, I see God in the gentle manner and the shining eyes of the nursing assistant who came in to give morning care. There was a special light in her eyes and face, even above the mask. I see God in the cooks and servers working up a sweat making soup and supper for our Sunday and Monday Community meals, and I saw God in the gentle touch and manner of the veterinarian who ministered to our beloved dog Rosie on her final earthly day.
Where is God in Mark’s miracle story? God is reaching out to the vulnerable, the ceremoniously unclean and the most exalted alike. Jesus is working up a sweat and remaining calm in the midst of chaos and pandemonium. God is in the confession that tells the “whole truth”; much like our prayers for understanding and healing regarding racism, violence and injustice. And God is in the power of resurrection; Get up, God says,
As we consider what I call the “summer questions” which Heather and Molly have asked us to ponder: we ask ourselves how we might recognize the many ways we’ve grown and changed over the last 16 months, as a parish and as individuals. I am challenging myself to look closely for God in the events of the last year; I grieve the tragedies and marvel at the miracles, but my focus will be on the details of the everyday: the special friendship that blossoms when you get to spend every day with a special 3 year old boy, the heroes who helped along the way, the discovery of new ways to stay connected, and the opportunities to spread God’s love way beyond 8 Church St.
I will conclude by quoting the ending of former presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori‘s sermon on this passage from Mark’s Gospel. She delivered this sermon to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2015. She gives good advice, and it is especially relevant today as we discern what it will mean to be a vibrant member of the Jesus Movement in the future.
She says: “Pay no attention to the finger-wagging. Turn around and look for the hem of Jesus’ robe. Go searching in new territory. Reach out and touch what is clothing the image of God. Give your heart to that search and you will not only find healing but become healing. Share what you find and you will discover the abundant life for which all God’s children have been created. And indeed the Lord will turn weeping into dancing. “Talitha Cum”, get up girl and boy and woman and man, get up! Amen.
It was not my only opportunity to reflect on today’s gospel this week. At Vestry meeting we always give time to grounding ourselves in scripture, and this week we took a look at today’s passage. I’ll tell you that our Vestry raised a series of thought-provoking questions about Mark’s narrative of the storm at sea: they were longer on questions than on answers, but raising questions is exactly what the Gospel is supposed to do, so the discussion was lively.
In this morning’s reflection, then, I bring you the combined wisdom of both local clergy and our own leadership group as we take a look at this memorable passage.
It takes place at the end of a day after Jesus has been teaching a great crowd on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had offered a series of parables about sowers, seeds, planting, and harvesting – we listened to two of them last week.
For an unknown reason, even though evening had fallen and travel across the water would be more hazardous that if they had waited until morning, Jesus decided it was time to go to the other side of the lake, about eight miles away. Mark suggests that while it was Jesus who initiated the trip, it’s the disciples who took charge, which probably makes sense as several of them were experienced fishermen who had spent their lives navigating those waters. Mark says
…they took him with them in the boat, just as he was
presumably meaning that they didn’t do a lot of preparation, but rather, hopped into the boat and departed. They were accompanied by other boats, probably sailed by other folks who had been listening to Jesus and were interested in being able to continue doing so at his next stop.
At some point during the crossing things turned nasty, apparently very quickly; Mark tells us:
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.
Here’s where some of the questions from the Vestry begin:
The fact remains that didn’t, and in their panic, as they perceived the boat being swamped, they sought help from Jesus:
But 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?”
More Vestry observations and questions:
Jesus woke, but not in a cheery mood; he issued chastisement all around. He rebuked the wind and commanded the sea to “be still!”. The forces of nature heard and obeyed. Mark tells us that there arose a “dead calm”.
Jesus was not patient or sympathetic with the frightened disciples, either. After he calmed the sea he turned his displeasure on the ones who had aroused him from his sleep: “Why are you still afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Having experienced the trauma of near swamping, I suspect that I would have found Jesus’ criticism frustrating. But rather than being either resentful or remorseful, Mark tells us that the disciples reacted with “great awe’, forgetting their fear and marveling at Jesus authority over the life-threatening storm:
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
So, then, to return to the question raised by my clergy colleagues – is it a miracle story, or a parable?
On the face of it, the purpose of the story seems to be to give witness to Jesus’ power. Listeners in Mark’s time would have noticed that the verbs with which Jesus “rebuked” the storm are the same verbs used when he exorcized demons from those who were possessed. Mark is giving evidence of Jesus’ ability to command and cast aside the forces that threaten life.
A secondary theme is that of the disciples’ foolishness in the whole situation. Beyond the fact that they did not anticipate the storm, we have to wonder why they waited until waves were filling the boat before alerting Jesus. Jesus wonders why they didn’t have faith, but I have to wonder why they allowed the situation to arise in the first place.
Though I don’t deny that this narrative qualifies as a miracle story, I find it most useful as a parable. As it so often does, the gospel in this case serves as a mirror that shows us who we are.
All of our lives are filled with stormy seas and moments when, whether it’s true or not, we feel like we are perishing. I think that most of the things that terrify us in the present world are things that we have brought on ourselves, if not as individuals, certainly as a human race who have been short-sighted and selfish.
The wind whips us, the waves crash and begin to fill the boat, and it is easy to feel, as did the disciples, that God doesn’t care.
To make another timely connection, we can easily enough feel like the young David, in that other dramatic story we heard this morning – small and powerless against forces that are far greater than we are.
And when things get scary, we tend to forget what we know about trusting God; we experience what psychologists call the “flight or fight response” and revert to some primal, childlike part of ourselves that seeks to escape from our fear and pain and re-establish comfort at any cost.
But here’s where the parable reminds us:
We are not alone; Jesus is in the boat with us.
Jesus is in the boat with us and we will get through it. Let’s see if we can’t remember that when the waves begin to crash.
Seventeen centuries ago Saint Augustine of Hippo preached a sermon on this passage that is pretty remarkable, suggesting what it might mean that Jesus is present, but asleep. Here’s what he said in a sermon in the fourth century:
When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind. When your anger is aroused, you are being tossed by the waves. So when the winds blow and the waves mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering… Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten his presence. Rouse him, then; remember him, let him keep watch within you, pay heed to him. (1)
And in our own time, one of our wisest theologians, Frederick Buechner, offered similar insight.
Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we, in whatever way we can, call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we're done, so that even in their midst we may find peace...we may find Christ. (2)
The elders informed Samuel they would like a king to govern them. Yet the driving force behind this request was really a desire to be like other nations. Israel was a tribal confederacy, made up of twelve tribes, led by religious leaders whom God raises up to guide people-- such as Deborah and Samuel. This style of government was unlike their neighboring nations- Ammon, Moab, and the Philistines, who were governed by kings and lords. When the elders looked to the east and to the west, they saw nations with strong military might and clear leadership; when they looked within their own tribal confederacy, they saw Samuel, who seemed to be the last of the judges. In the eyes of the elders, it felt intolerable to live with such ambiguity about their future; how much better it would be to mimic the government of their neighboring nations. That desire to be like others can be so very strong.
To be clear, Samuel did not like this idea. He knew what was driving the elder’s request, and he recognized it was a problem. Samuel prayed to God. And God responded in a somewhat unexpected way. In essence, God says to Samuel: “Do what they ask. Samuel, this is not about you, or a reflection of your leadership. This is about the congregation of Israel. They have, once again, rejected me as their sovereign. This has been their pattern since I delivered them from Egypt. They repeatedly turn to other idols and away from our covenant.”
God advises Samuel to do what they ask, but to first warn the congregation and show them exactly what it means to be like other nations, with an earthly king to reign over them. Samuel returns to the elders, and he warns the congregation what their desire will bring them:
This congregation so longs to be like other nations, that they are willing to give up their freedom and the agency granted to them in their unique and liberating relationship with God, as outlined in their covenant. They believe that if they can simply be like other nations, all the ambiguity and uncertainty about their future will dissipate. The elders believe it will be worth the cost.
From where we stand today, we know that they are sacrificing everything to gain nothing. It feels so foolish, and desperately sad. At the same time, we know how strong that desire can be, to be like others, to want to take control of our lives so that the future feels less uncertain. The allure of such false promises can lead us to turn away from God, and not quite realize we’ve done so until much later.
Maybe it’s not so hard to imagine the elders hearing everything Samuel has to say, and still choosing to have a king. Maybe their desire is not exactly foolish. Their desire stems from fear and scarcity, instead of trust and hope in God.
In many ways, we are at a similar crossroad as the congregation in today’s passage. Like them, we have been through a great deal, as have all faith communities over the last fifteen months. Except the temptations and pulls are different. We are not longing to be like other nations, and appointing a king to make it happen. We are tempted by the false narrative that we can be what we once were, that we can somehow automatically go back to “normal” now that enough folks have shots in their arms. The desire that has the potential to hold us back from following Jesus and pursuing God’s dream is a desire to return to the way things were--whether that be the church of the 1950s, 1980s, 2000s, or even the church of January 2020.
Over these last fifteen months we have grown and we have changed-- as individuals and as a community. As the Rev. Stephanie Spellers writes in her latest book, The Church Cracked Open:
“God is breaking open this church and pouring us out- pouring out privilege, pouring out empire, pouring out racism and human arrogance- in order to remake us and use us to serve God’s dream for the whole world. We are the broken jar. It hurts and it sucks...and I think it is a gift.”
This breaking open may be positioning us to more fully engage in the work of God’s dream for this world, if we are willing to stick it out in the uncertainty, messiness, pain, and grief. Something glorious will grow if we dare stand in this fertile soil.
We are at an incredibly unique moment in time where it would be so easy to turn to God and say:
“Covid is winding down. Thanks for having our backs this past year, God, but we’ve got this under control now. We would like things to return to the familiar, and so, that is what we are going to do. Thanks again!”
Yet we know that is not the way of faith and love.
The way of faith and love is to always, always put God’s radical and extravagant dream of love before all else, and to stick to the mission God has called us into. Our own personal whims, whether they be that of the clergy or laity, need to be put aside. Modeling our church after what we believe we once were, or like other churches are, is taking our eyes off of God, and onto our human inclination to be in charge of our own future.
So how do we stay focused on the dream of God and our mission?
Through prayer. In a self-giving and self-emptying love of God and neighbor. In slowing down for sabbath moments or an entire day of sabbath, so that we might be more fully able to listen. Listen to God. Listen to our own inner voice. Listen to one another.
To that end, I want to invite us into two months of intentional prayer and reflection. To invite each of us to sit with, pray over, and reflect on a series of questions. You do not need to write them down; you will get an email with a Google Form listing these questions later today. You will have the month of June and July to sit with them, pray with them, and respond when you are ready. Then in August the clergy will compile the responses to see what themes emerge that God might be inviting us to pay particular attention to.
The hope is that this season will help prepare us...
...to be open to becoming who God is calling us to be
...to live as God is calling us to live
...to grow as God is calling us to grow
...and to go wherever God is calling us to go
All so we might help further God’s dream as we follow Jesus in the Way of Love.
The first set of questions is about our life as Saints James and Andrew:
The second set of questions is about your own journey. Over the last fifteen months:
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