Sunday, June 24, 2018

What's Next? (Sermon)

“What’s Next?”
Mark 4: 36-41
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Jesus has just told the parables of the sower, the lamp under the bushel basket, the growing seed, and the mustard seed. After telling the parable of the sower, the disciples ask Jesus why he uses parables. To keep you on your toes, he says. And to teach you about the subtleties of faith.
I hear Jesus saying that recognizing, trusting, and inhabiting the kingdom of God takes more in the way of contemplation and creative awareness than information management. Faith’s native tongue involves the subjective nuances of metaphor. And while thinking metaphorically isn’t the same thing as mastering multiplication tables, it still takes practice. We have to learn to open ourselves to metaphors, to see more than is apparent on the surface. As part of the fabric of life, metaphors surprise us when we’re not expecting them. They lurk in gardens, oceans, families, and storms.
Metaphors are like portals into a parallel universe, a place that is as real and compelling, even if not as immediate as the world of our five senses. And metaphors allow us to see this parallel world as not only real, but deeper and longer-lasting than the world lying on the surface of things. The point of parables, then, is to train us to think symbolically and creatively, and, while inhabiting both worlds, knowing which is our true home.
Immediately after teaching in parables, Jesus says to his disciples, Let’s “go across to the other side” of the lake. Unaware that they’re walking into a parable, the disciples ready the boat, and load up.
36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm 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?” (Mark 4:36-41 NRSV)
While parables point to a world that may be more real than the one in which we live, our world is by no means unreal. Indeed, it’s relentlessly and all-too-often painfully real. When their storm hits, the disciples are not thinking, Wow, what a lovely near-death experience this will be! Surely, it will bless us with a splendid opportunity to learn some helpful life lessons. No! They are barking orders at each other, bailing for their lives, cursing, and crying out, God help us! We’re dying here!
When the peril is immediate, no one’s thinking about some bigger picture. They’re just trying to survive.
Stories like this, are more than memories. They’re mirrors. They’re snapshots of the human experience that reveal something enduring and true about us, something we may need to be reminded of, or something new and either encouraging or humbling– or both. Imagine what the disciples might say today if they looked at themselves in the mirror of their own story:
Peter, look at you! All confused and mad but trying to look serious and important. You look like a camp counselor trying to stop a food fight on the last night of camp.
Always the comedian aren’t you, Thaddeus? Well, just look at you, huddled in the floor of the boat like Bartholomew’s dog during a thunderstorm!
Hey, it WAS a thunderstorm!
Hey, y’all look at Levi, heaving more than sea water over the sides! Ha! You can tell the tax collectors from the fishermen at a time like that can’t you!
Oh, cork it, James. You Zebedee boys always did think you were Jesus’ favorites.
During all of this, Judas sits in silence thinking what might have been had the storm just swallowed him that night like some shamefaced Jonah. Maybe he could have saved everyone instead of wrecking everything.
While Jesus chuckles at the banter, he sits right next to Judas, as if to remind him that all is forgiven. All is well. And to say that Judas’ death would not have changed a thing.
When Jesus looks at the mirror, he hears himself saying, “Why are you still afraid? [After all our talk,] have you still no faith?”
He didn’t mean that there was nothing to fear. He meant that there was even more to trust. And once again, he sees and feels the panic in the eyes of the men he led and loved, and he wants to cry out all over again, “Peace! Be still!” But he lets everyone keep looking into the mirror and reliving that terrifying night, because he knows that they’re telling themselves, Jesus saw us through that storm, and through all the storms that came afterward. Even through our own stormy deaths. And while we’re different now, we’re still bound by the same love that brought us together in the first place. After that storm, we looked at Jesus and said, ‘Okay, what’s next?’
The most obvious metaphor here is Jesus’ presence in life’s fearful storms. Granted, though, you and I have less to fear than many others. In his song Relatively Easy, Jason Isbell says that “compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy.”1 There are far more dangerous storms rocking places like Syria, Somalia, Central America, and the slums and public schools of US cities. Nonetheless, in some way, every home and every heart gets rocked by something that feels life-threatening. And where is Jesus in our storms?
One angle on today’s story says that Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, a disinterested and disengaged God who has to be awakened by us. And who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another? But maybe a sleeping Jesus isn’t a metaphor for God’s absence. Maybe it’s a metaphor the presence of God’s peace. Somewhere in the storm, there’s a place of reassurance and calm, a place to find strength and purpose for the journey. It may be a prayer – The Serenity Prayer for example. It may be a stalwart relationship. It may be a walk in the woods. Whatever that place is, that’s where we find Jesus, who calms our minds and our spirits.
That’s not to say that our storms will end as quickly as Jesus saying, “Peace! Be Still!” It’s just to say that Jesus is the source of whatever helps us to endure and thrive because he can redeem even our most terrifying experiences. When fear, anger, or loneliness have us in their grip, so does God.
That Jason Isbell song is a song about a human relationship, but because it’s a metaphor, we can co-opt it for our purposes. In the last line of the first chorus, Isbell sings, “And here with you there’s always something to look forward to. Our angry heart beats relatively easy.”2
Even in the storm, Jesus gives us something to look forward to. So, through faith, our angry hearts [can] beat relatively easy.
Now, the arbitrary luck of being born into relative ease is no excuse for claiming God’s special favor. To people of faith, it’s a call to bring our abundant gifts to bear as we enter some besieging storm to work for justice, to help reconcile important relationships, or simply to be with people for whom storm is a way of life.
In the midst of these experiences, metaphors and mirrors surround us. They reveal a new and different life. They give us language to bear witness to our faith in the promise that, come what may, Jesus was, and is, and always will be with us.
So, what’s next?

1Jason Isbell, Relatively Easy, from his CD: Southeastern. Southeastern Records, 2013.

Serenity Prayer
Reinhold Niebuhr

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will,
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him forever in the next.

*Prayer by Rienhold Neihbur (1892-1972)