Cross to the Other Side

Mark 4:35-41

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

Welcome back!  Welcome back to the world!  Welcome back to gathering together!  Welcome back to seeing each other’s faces without masks—well in most cases anyway. Welcome back to church in church!  Welcome back to life as almost normal.  Almost.  

I think today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is a good one for us to think about as we sail into a new reality.  And let’s face it, we’re not going to simply sail back into our old reality.  Too much has changed in the past 15 months.  

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples set out in the evening, of all things, to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  A great windstorm blows up and the boat is being swamped.  We know it’s a serious storm because even the fishermen who are out on this water all the time are frightened. Through all of this, Jesus is sleeping soundly on a cushion in the stern of the boat. Finally, the disciples cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?!?” At that point, Jesus gets up, rebukes the storm, the sea becomes dead calm, and the disciples are left wondering just who Jesus is, now that they’ve seen this new dimension of his power and abilities.

When we read or hear these stories, these episodes from the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s natural for us to ask ourselves, “Okay, what does that mean for me or for us?”  Yes, we’re also supposed to try hear it in its original context if we’re able, but we also hope there’s something in the story that we can take home with us, some lesson that fits our lives right here and right now.  That’s why we do this little exercise with the Gospel every week.

With this particular story, it has been far too tempting for far too long to personalize it a little too much.  And I confess I’ve been as guilty as any preacher out there in doing this.  That message goes something like this:  “When storms arise in your life, just remember that Jesus is in the boat with you…even if he’s taking a nap at the moment.  He has the power to quiet the storm.  Maybe he’s asking you, ‘Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?’  Muster up some courage.  Maybe it’s your turn to stand up and tell your storm, ‘Peace!  Be still.’”  I have preached that sermon.

Listen, there are probably worse ways to go with this story.  We’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve wanted to join the disciples in yelling, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?!?”  I know I’ve been there a few times.  But the fact is, there is something greater at stake in this story than a bromide to help us face our fears.  There is something greater at stake here not just for them in their time, but for us in our time.  But to know what that is, we have to range beyond the boundaries of these six verses.

From the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been announcing that the Kingdom of God is imminent.  Actually, imminent is not quite the right word.  The Greek word is engikken.  It’s often translated as “has come near,” but there is an even greater sense of immediacy in the word.  Think of it as a train coming into the station.  It’s not all the way into the station yet but the engine has already reached the edge of the platform.  That’s the sense of it.  The kingdom of God’s engine has already reached the platform.  Get ready to board.

Everything Jesus says and does in the Gospel of Mark is said and done to demonstrate the power and presence of this new reality he calls the kingdom of God.  He is not just telling people about the kingdom, he is showing them what it looks like and how it acts.  When Jesus calls the disciples, he is recruiting them to build a new community, a Beloved Community, based on the ideals and principles of “The Way,” which is another name Mark uses for the kingdom of God.  

Another thing to understand about the Gospel of Mark is that everything that happens in the Gospel is heavily weighted with myth and symbolism.  That’s not to say that the events in the Gospel didn’t happen, but that it is important to pay attention to how Mark is describing and using them as he tells the story of Jesus, and what kind of language he is using.  We need to ask questions.  What other scriptural connections does he make—or expect us to be making?  What apocalyptic expectations and understandings are at  work in their culture?  What mythic stories are at work in the background as he tells the story of Jesus?  What cultural boundaries and expectations are being crossed?  If we don’t catch all these clues, then we might not get the point Mark is trying to make. We’ll get some other point instead.

When we see the disciples and Jesus set off from the shore in a boat in the evening, Mark wants us to be nervous.  We’re supposed to remember that in their mythic understanding the sea is the home of Chaos and Destruction.  Dread, unpredictable, cosmic forces hide in its depths and the only thing that could tame it at creation was the Spirit of God hovering over it.  That they are setting out as night falls with the intention of crossing all the way to the other side—well, if we were Mark’s first readers or listeners we would know they’re heading for trouble.

As the story unfolds, Mark assumes that somewhere in the back of our minds we are maybe remembering Psalm 107: “Some went down into the sea in boats…then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves were hushed.” (107:23,39)  When we read that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, Mark wants us to remember how Jonah slept as his boat was about to break up in a mighty tempest. (Jonah 1:4, 10).  Mark puts all these things together so that we will understand that this storm that the disciples face out there on the sea of Chaos is not just a metaphor for the troubles of life.  This is a Cosmic storm.  They are pitted against cosmic forces.  Some great elemental power wants very much to keep them from getting to the other side of the lake.  But what?  And why?

To understand that, it’s important to understand why Jesus wanted to cross the lake in the first place.  

The Sea of Galilee, was also called Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias.  It depended on who was talking about it.  It served as a clear geographic boundary between the territories of Philip and Agrippa in the tetrarchy when the Emperor Augustus divided up the region between the sons of Herod the Great, and it continued to serve as a clear social boundary between the Jews of Galilee on the south side and the Hellenized Jews and Gentiles of various nationalities of the Decapolis on the north side. 

Why did Jesus want to go to the other side of the lake?  Quite simply because that’s where the gentiles were.  

Jesus was fighting racism.  He wanted his new kingdom community to embrace everyone—Jew, Gentile, people of all nationalities and types.  People who had differences in how they worshipped. So he took his mission of healing and exorcism and teaching across the sea to invite them to be part of “the way.” He also wanted to teach his disciples that in the kingdom of God there simply is no room for such nonsense as racial division or historical division or anything like that.  In the kingdom of God no one can call anyone else “unclean.”  

That storm that rose up against them was symbolic of all the storms that rise up to resist our attempts at reconciliation and renewal.  It was the elemental, cosmic something in our world that wants to resist healing and unifying humanity.  And I want you to notice something here.  The words that Jesus speaks to that storm are the words of exorcism.  Most of our translations make those words prettier than they actually are, but they are the same words that Jesus speaks when he casts out the demon in Mark 1:25.  “Peace.  Be still.”  Sure.  But the full force of the words is more like “Silence!  Shut up!  I muzzle you!”  

Maybe  this is how we need to speak to racism.  Maybe this is how we need to speak to the forces that try to dissuade and discourage us from reaching out to each other to make new bonds of friendship.  Maybe this is how we need to speak to those voices who keep dragging up tradition and history as reasons to preserve symbols of hatred and violence in public display.  Maybe this is the plain kind of speech we need to use with those who continue to pursue paths that have done nothing but separate us and poison us against each other.  Maybe instead of trying to be reasonable and persuasive against such divisive winds it’s time to simply say, “Silence!  I muzzle you. I will not let you speak hate.  I will not let you keep us from getting to the other shore.  I will not let you stop us from building the Beloved Community.”

We have had fifteen months to sit apart and consider all the things that are dividing us.  We have had fifteen months to witness as 600,000 people have died from a disease that could have been curtailed much more easily and much earlier if we had been more  unified.  We have had 15 months to watch as unreasonable political forces have assaulted the foundations of our democracy and truth, itself.  We have had 15 months to see racial tensions repeatedly exacerbated by hate and violence and unfortunate systemic conditioning.  We have had fifteen months to sit apart in our homes and miss each other and think about what it means to be friends, to be church, to be disciples of Jesus, to be people of The Way.  

And now the doors are open.  We’re back together.  We get to be “us” again.  But there are people “not like us” across the road, across town, across the lake.  And Jesus is saying, “Let’s go across to the other side.”  So how about it?  Shall we take this boat out for a ride?

You’ve Got To Be Taught

Matthew  15:10-28

In 1953, the year I was born, during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, a Broadway musical touring in Atlanta got the people of Georgia so upset that some state legislators introduced a bill to outlaw any entertainment having, in their words, “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”  What really got them going was one particular song in the musical.  State Representative David C. Jones said that a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.  Oscar Hammerstein replied wryly that he was surprised by the idea that “anything kind and humane must necessarily originate from Moscow.” 

The musical that caused such a fuss was Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the song that ignited such political and social anger was You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

When I was about 10 or so my aunt and uncle adopted a mixed race baby boy.  This was a highly unusual thing for a white couple to do in the early 1960s, especially in the kind of rural areas where my uncle and aunt served as Pastor and Church Organist.  

That baby, Jon, was a truly beautiful child with café-au-lait skin, curly brown hair tinged with blond, and the most unusual blue-green eyes.  I remember, though, that at the big family summer gatherings some of my mom’s and my aunt’s cousins would act a little differently around him—not exactly hostile, but a little stiff and stand-offish.  I wondered if it might be because he was adopted, but my little sister was adopted, too, and nobody treated her like that.  Nobody gave her sidelong glances and muttered little comments when they thought my mom and dad weren’t looking or close enough to hear.  

Then one day one of my second cousins, one of the kids my age, cleared up mystery.  A bunch of us were playing by the barn and Jon wasn’t with us.  I don’t remember exactly why.  What I do remember is that my second cousin said some pretty ugly things about Jon and “his” kind of people.  I remember him using the “N” word to talk about Jon.  Our cousin.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

“Listen and understand,” said Jesus.  “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions… These are what defile a person.”

And when those things come out of someone’s mouth, they tend to go right into someone’s ears.  Like, say, a child’s.

What is it about the human mind that makes it so easy to absorb negative, awful, malicious, even untrue things, and so hard to purge those things when you learn better?  Why is it so easy to pick up biases and prejudices and bigotries and so hard to unlearn them?

When my second cousin used that ugly, racist word to describe our other cousin it was there in his vocabulary with all the hideous ideas behind it because he had learned it somewhere.  It was a word he had heard his dad use while talking to other Kansas farmers.

Kurt Stroh, a K-4 teacher and librarian from Grand Rapids wrote in his blog a few years ago about something he observed on a trip to the movies:

“My wife and I decided to go to see The Greatest Showman. It was an afternoon showing and there were quite a few kids in the theater. In fact, there was a lady with her two kids, who looked to be 8-10 years old, sitting right next to us. As always, there were previews prior to the movie. In one of the previews, the teenage boy character was coming out to his parents. The family on the screen was having a loving, understanding conversation. The lady next to us loudly ordered her kids, ‘plug your ears…now!’ The kids looked confused, but did as they were told. Sadly, it didn’t end there. A minute or so later, when it looked as if the boy character might kiss another boy character, the lady actually reached over and covered her kids’ eyes. Ears plugged, eyes covered, she was bound and determined to make sure that her kids did not witness this preview…and quite honestly, make sure those around her knew exactly how she felt.

   As the feature movie started, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes and ears of the children were not covered during violence. They were not covered during hatred. They were not covered during infidelity. In addition to being angry, my heart broke for these kids. They were being taught to be judgmental …carefully taught to hate.”

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

It’s so hard to unlearn the hate, especially when it doesn’t feel like hate, when you just grew up with it, when it’s part of your culture, the way of your people.  

It’s a constant struggle to silence the vocabulary, those ugly words that float up in your mind, those words you wish you had never heard in the first place, those unkind names for all those other people who are “those other people.”  

It’s a constant internal cleansing to flush out all those insidious bigoted ideas that infested your thinking before you were old enough and smart enough to prevent them.

It’s work. 

It’s work worth doing.  It’s work that makes you healthier and makes the world a healthier place.  But it’s still work.  You have to think about what you’re saying.  You have to think about what you’re thinking.  You have to think about how you’re thinking.

And sometimes, when you’re tired or distracted or both, you forget to do that thinking.  You forget to do the work.  And that’s when your culture, the unedited voices in your head and heart, the voices you grew up with, might suddenly pop up and do the talking for you.

I suspect that maybe something like that is what’s happening with Jesus when the Canaanite woman comes to him and begs him to heal her daughter.

He’s tired from travelling.  He’s in foreign territory.  She keeps shouting and won’t go away.  When he finally does respond to her, he’s abrupt and more than a little rude:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

For a moment he’s not the Jesus we’re used to.  For a moment he’s not the Jesus who feeds multitudes, heals everyone within reach, chastises Pharisees for their rigid piety, and welcomes all comers.  

For a moment he’s just another Jewish man talking down to a Canaanite woman, one culture and gender speaking disdainfully to the other.  

“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  He had forgotten his own words.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she knows he’s better than this.  She knows she deserves better than this.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It takes work to change the heart.  Sometimes it even takes confrontation.   Sometimes someone has to hold a mirror up to you if you won’t hold it up to yourself.

Sometimes you need to be reminded of your own words. 

It takes work to flush out the bigotry we grow up with and replace it with a broader love and understanding.  It takes work to see the ways the world around us is trying to normalize the ugliness and division and keep us from making our own hearts more expansive.  We may not always get it right.  We may have lapses.  But it’s work worth doing.

After all, what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.  In Jesus’ name.

Make a Wish

Make a wish—

If you could make one wish, not for yourself, but for the world, what would it be? If you could make one wish for your significant other, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids, all your friends and neighbors and family, for your town, for your state, for your country, for the world—what would it be? What would you wish for?

How many of you would wish for Peace? That’s a pretty good wish. I think that’s what most people in the world want. Almost everybody wants to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about violence erupting around us at any moment. There aren’t too many people who actually enjoy conflict, and those who do usually end up getting some kind of professional help or incarceration, whichever comes first—although some seem to go into politics. A good debate is okay. Fighting not so much. Sometimes opposition can help us sharpen and clarify what we’re thinking or planning, but opposition can be friendly. It doesn’t have to disintegrate into aggression. Competition has it’s benefits. It can bring out the best in us, it can even be fun when you know it’s part of a game. But it’s pretty destructive as a lifestyle. Debate, opposition, competition, they all have their place but they can all too easily degenerate into conflict if we don’t learn how to rein them in. And we have to rein them in if we’re going to have peace.

What does it take to make peace? What does it take to remove the seeds of conflict? If you’re going to wish for peace, aren’t there other things you need to wish for first?

If you want peace, wouldn’t you first have to wish away greed? Wouldn’t you have to eliminate coveting? Wouldn’t you have to find a way to short-circuit the human tendency to always want more, even if it means that someone else gets less? Wouldn’t we have to find a way to fill that endlessly hungry place in the human heart that never feels like it has enough? Wouldn’t you have to remove the desire to keep score by means of money and possessions and status symbols? Wouldn’t you, in fact, have to eliminate the desire to keep score at all? And wouldn’t you need to find a way to take away the fear of running out of money before you run out of life?

And what about Tribalism? Wouldn’t we need to wish that away if we’re going to have peace? How about our tendency to be fiercely territorial? Wouldn’t we have to tone down nationalism? Wouldn’t we need to develop a healthier kind of patriotism, pride in our country that’s rooted in a deep respect for all that’s good and reveres the price that others have paid to create and sustain and maintain that goodness but at the same time a patriotism that isn’t blind to our faults and defensive about our shortcomings? And wouldn’t we need to open our eyes to what’s good and worth celebrating in other countries and cultures, in other histories? Shouldn’t we wish for all that if we’re going to wish for peace?

For peace to happen, what would we have to do with religion? Wouldn’t every religion have to dial back their tendency to insist that they’re the only ones—that we’re the only ones—who get it right, who understand God, who really get Jesus? Wouldn’t we have to learn to find some peace in our own ranks with the idea that our voice is a valuable and important instrument in the symphony, but it’s not the only instrument playing the music of heaven? Wouldn’t we all, for the love of God in whom we live and move and have our being, for the love of God who is among us and within us and beyond us, for the love of God who transcends all knowing and yet is more intimate with us than our most dearly beloved fellow passengers on this earth—shouldn’t we learn, for the love of God, to practice some sincere humility in our God talk? Shouldn’t we wish for understanding and cooperation between religions if we’re going to wish for peace?

To have peace, wouldn’t we have to first get rid of every last vestige of racism so that nobody feels put upon simply because of their color? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the existence of our own latent or not-so-latent bigotries?  Wouldn’t we all have to purge ourselves of all those lingering internal voices and habits and conditioning that want to assert that some people are better or even more human than others simply by virtue of the color of their skin?  Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge that some of us have blithely and blindly lived lives of privilege simply because of the color of our skin while others have had to develop stringent habits of caution for the same reason in another color?  Wouldn’t we have to take a hard look at the painful history of racism and not simply suppress it deep in our collective psyche if we want to be healed of it? If you want to have peace, wouldn’t you have to wish away all those ugly words we have used to describe each other when the other doesn’t look like us? To have peace, wouldn’t we have to wish for something the opposite of color blindness—a what?—a celebration of color? a gratitude for color? a love of color in every shade of humanity? Shouldn’t we wish for that if we’re going to wish for peace?

If we really want peace, if that’s our deepest, truest wish, wouldn’t we have to first wish away sexism and paternalism and patriarchy and every other ism and archy that wants to maintain systems in which half the human race has more value, more power, more rights, more freedom than the other half simply because of gender, as if that’s some kind of accomplishment? If we really want peace, doesn’t it mean that we have to discard archaic and primitive structures of our societies and cultures and religions that not only have outlived their usefulness, but that were, in fact, never really useful at all, structures that evolved simply because one half of humanity was generally more capable of physically dominating and subduing and forcing its will on the other half? Isn’t it time, for the sake of peace, for us to take a step above our cousins the chimpanzees in this particular matter? If we really want peace, should we not wish first for real parity between the sexes?

And doesn’t our endless focus on differing sexualities undermine our quest for peace? Doesn’t the fact that someone is always ready to hate or censure or exclude or diminish someone else because of who they are attracted to or who they love or even because they are still trying to understand who they are kind of get in the way of peaceful coexistence? Aren’t we all children of God even if some have different love interests? Just because some men wandering through Judea 4000 year ago found certain things distasteful, are we bound to their prejudices forever? They also didn’t care for shrimp, barbequed ribs and pulled pork and we seem to have got past that okay. So wouldn’t it be a step toward peace if we could all just stop worrying about sexuality and realize that in God’s creation it seems to come in a variety of flavors?

If we’re going to wish for peace, wouldn’t it make sense to also wish that there would not be so many weapons at large in the world and that they were not so readily at hand?

If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish away hunger and homelessness? Don’t people fight for food and shelter?  Wouldn’t you be tempted to if you didn’t have it? If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish for health and healthcare? And should we not wish for equal access to systems and medicines and technologies that heal and sustain life? If we’re going to have peace, shouldn’t we eliminate the possibility of people ruining their financial health just to maintain their physical health?

If we’re going to wish for peace, shouldn’t we first wish for justice? When the people are chanting “no justice, no peace” in the streets, isn’t it more than a slogan?  Isn’t it a prophetic voice calling us to make the rough places plain and the crooked straight so that peace has a straight and easy pathway to our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation and our world?  If we’re going to wish for peace, don’t we first have to wish for equity and fairness and level playing fields? If we’re going to have peace, don’t we first need to eliminate injustice and replace it with restorative justice? In fact, isn’t justice the one word that encompasses everything we need to have peace?

Of course, there is another way. You can simply eliminate everyone who doesn’t see things the way you do. You can eliminate everyone who doesn’t look like you or think like you or worship like you or vote like you or love like you or contribute as much to society as you think you do, or isn’t the same sex as you, everyone who you think is competing with you simply because they want the same basic necessities that you want. In the end, if you’re really diligent, you would, in fact, eliminate everyone who is not you.

How peaceful would that be?