Sermon: “Fuller Shades of Meaning”

The following is the sermon preached on September 19, 2010 on Mark 5.

Starting at the end of Mark chapter 4 and continuing through the end of chapter 5, there is a series of seemingly supernatural events.  As we consider each one in turn, I invite you to hold gently any preconceived notions about what these stories mean — as if any ways you have understood these stories in the past were resting gently on your open palm.  Allow yourself to be open to how God may be inviting you to hear some fuller, richer shades of meaning in these stories for your life today.

At the end of Mark 4, Jesus and the disciples are in a storm, their boat is getting swamped with water, and Jesus is famously sleeping through the gale-force wind. When the disciples wake him, Jesus says, “Peace! Be Still!” And we are told that the “wind ceased.”  The disciples ask in wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Since we are studying the Gospel of Mark one chapter a time, the first thought that comes to mind when I read this story is its location in the Gospel of Mark.  For instance, the disciples’ question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” is not an isolated inquiry. Instead, the  interrogative “Who” is preparing we, the readers, for, among other things, the hinge of Mark’s Gospel that is to come a few chapter from now in Mark chapter 8 when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Remember that the Gospel of Mark is not a precise chronological record of the events happened in Jesus’ life; instead, Mark is weaving together the oral tradition and the written sayings about Jesus into a narrative form.

For example, consider the Gospel reading from Mark 4 that we considered two weeks ago: it is unlikely that Jesus told the various seed parables in Mark 4 only one time, using only these words, and in this exact chronological order.  Instead, Jesus likely told these seed parables many different times and with many different variations, depending on his setting and audience.  But Mark seemingly judged that collecting all these seed parables together would be an effective way of achieving his goal of telling the good news of Jesus in narrative form.

Similarly, Mark’s tale of Jesus calming the storms seems to me directly related to his goal of convincing his audience that Jesus’ life remains relevant.  Mark’s original audience was in the middle of a storm — not a wind and rain storm, but a years-long siege against Roman occupation.  And in the middle of the Roman-Jewish War, there were undoubtably potential followers of Jesus who felt like Jesus was asleep when they desperately needed him.  Wasn’t the messiah supposed to overthrow the Romans like Joshua overthrew the Canaanites and re-establish the Davidic monarchy?

In my understanding, stories like the storm calming emerged as followers of Jesus reflected about who Jesus was — and particularly as they studied their scriptures for insight.  Consider, for example, the book of Psalms, which served as a individual and communal prayer book.

Pious Jews would have been intimately familiar with Psalm 107, which speaks of crying to God in times of trouble and God saving the people from their distress. Starting in verse 23 we read:

Some went down to the sea in ships,

doing business on the mighty waters;

they saw the deeds of God,

God’s wondrous works in the deep.

For God commanded and raised the stormy wind,

which lifted up the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to heaven,

they went down to the depths;

their courage melted away in their calamity;

they reeled and staggered like drunkards,

and were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried to God in their trouble,

and God brought them out from their distress;

God made the storm be still,

and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Then they were glad because they had quiet,

and God brought them to their desired haven.

There are other scriptural precedents for this story — but Psalm 107 is the most striking to me because of the remarkable parallels to Jesus’ storm calming. So scholars invite us to consider the ways, as the decades passed, that the scribes wove the Hebrew Scripture tradition into the oral tradition about Jesus as they reflected, worshiped, and searched the scriptures for insight into how to understand their memories of Jesus in light of their experiences since his death.

When I first learned that the language of Psalm 107 — written centuries before Jesus was born — was the likely inspiration for the story of Jesus calming the storm, my initial reaction was both anger and confusion. Why have I been lied to all these years? Why did someone make up that story?  But as I have continued to reflect on the process through which we arrived at the final form of the Gospel of Mark, I have come to see at least two important points.

One, Mark was writing, not for us 2,000 years later, but for his immediate audience.  In the midst of horrific Roman military retaliation for Jewish revolts four decades after Jesus, Mark’s community of Jesus’ followers desperately needed to hear Jesus saying “Peace! Be Still!”

Second, I have come to see that Mark and the other early Jesus followers are often operating at a much more sophisticated level than we sometimes give them credit for. We have seen that Mark’s audience, many of whom would have been intimately familiar with the Psalms, would likely have immediately recognized the echos of Psalms 107 in the story of the storm calming.

To see another example of Mark’s sophistication, let us turn to the story of the Gerasene demoniac.

As I began to study this exorcism story closely in college, I had the experience of feeling as if scales were falling off my eyes and I was seeing this story sharply, in crisp detail, for the first time.  One word unlocked the meaning for me: the name of the demons inside the man — legion.  As I read commentaries on this passage, I saw immediately what I had failed to see my whole life: in a time of Roman occupation, what would the word legion immediately signify? A military unit of the Roman army, the famous and feared Roman legions.

And with that clue of the word “legion,” scholars began to notice that this exorcism story is replete with allusions to the Roman military.  The story refers to a “herd” of pigs, but pigs do not travel in herds; however, there are numerous examples from the 1st century of the word “herds” being used as slang for a band of military recruits.  Further, in verse 13, the Greek words for when Jesus “dismissed” the pigs and for when the pigs “charged” into the sea were both commonly used for “dismissing” troops and for when troops were being ordered to “charge” into battle.

We are reading too simplistically if we think that the story of Jesus exorcising the legion of demons is merely about whether or not Jesus had the power of exorcism.  Instead, notice where the demon herd named Legion is drowned: in the sea.  To Jewish ears, the story of a Roman legion being drowned in the sea would have almost inevitably invoked a memory of the Exodus, in which Moses famously drowned a unit of Pharaoh’s army in the sea.  And what story did Mark place immediately before this exorcism? The nature miracle in which Jesus controls the sea by calming storm waves.  Mark has paired these stories together because each gives the other enhanced meaning beyond the meaning they would have in isolation.

To continue to connect each of these seemingly supernatural events to their larger context, two more events remain in chapter 5: a healing and a resurrection.  To begin to reflect on the healing of the hemorrhaging women, I invite you to listen to a recent clip from National Public Radio’s program StoryCorps:

StoryCorps 180: “When No One Else Could”:

Carlos Mosqueda and his daughter, Cindy, talk about Carlos’ father,

Bartolo Mosqueda, and the work he did as a traditional healer.

NPR ran a similar story in early August titled, “India’s Mentally Ill Turn To Faith, Not Medicine,”

from which I would highlight two facts:

  1. “In India, there is only 1 psychiatrist for every 400,000 people . . . one of the lowest ratios anywhere in the world” and
  2. “Faith healers and temple doctors are by far the most socially acceptable way to try to cure mental illness in India. There are hardly any psychiatrists — and a mere 37 mental institutions to serve the country’s whole population of 1.2 billion.”

To me, these recent NPR stories set a context for understanding how we may begin to understand the events in Mark’s Gospel from our point of view in the 21st century.

First, the StoryCorp interview reminds us that, both before and after Jesus, there have been individuals gifted at traditional healing.

Second, the lack of psychiatrists in India today reminds that there were no mental health professionals in the 1st-century, and much of what the New Testament calls “exorcism” may well be related to what we call mental illness.

Third, many have proposed that modern Western medicine can help us understand Mark 5:39 in which Jesus curiously says, “The child is not dead but sleeping.”  Indeed, perhaps the young girl was not dead, but, instead, in a coma, a diagnosis not yet discovered 2,000 years ago.

But these explanations still leave partially unanswered the calming of the storm from a 21st century perspective.  Yes, we can understand the story as weaving together oral tradition about Jesus with the liturgical prayer in Psalm 107 in order to comfort early Jesus followers in the midst of the storm that was the Roman-Jewish War.  But I think we need to tread carefully in regard to any potential 21st-century understanding of nature miracles like the calming of the storm for at least two reasons.

First, even more than the charlatans who impersonate traditional healers in order to con individuals who are sick of their limited financial resources, we should be wary of unhealthy theology that seeks to con entire groups and societies into believing poisonous ideas like God caused a storm like Hurricane Katrina to smite New Orleans as a punishment for the city’s “debauchery.”

Second, stories of one-time, unrepeatable nature miracles like the storm calming can lead us to think that the way of Jesus is merely about believing in the things that Jesus did 2,000 years ago.  In contrast, the way of Jesus is much less about admiring Jesus and much more about imitating Jesus in our own time and place — that is choosing the way of love, mercy, and compassion in our everyday lives over the way of hate, revenge, and selfishness.

And as I consider how the events we have studied in Mark’s Gospel applies to us today, I am reminded of the controversy that has arisen in recent weeks in the wake of physicist Stephen Hawking’s latest bestseller The Grand Design, in which he claims that we do not need God to explain the origins of the universe.  Hawking is undoubtably a genius, but was tragically diagnosed with a motor-neuron disease in his early 20s, which has now, decades later, left him almost completely paralyzed.  He communicates almost completely by use of a predictive data entry system, which he controls by twitching his cheek.

On one hand, I completely disagree with Hawking’s conclusion that we do not need God to explain the origin of the universe.  When physicists like Hawking make such statements they move from the relatively-stable, scientific ground of theoretical physics to the even more speculative field of philosophy known as metaphysics.

On the other hand, too much so-called Christian theology has either glibly dismissed modern science or made implications such as people with disabilities are somehow being punished by God.  With so much unhealthy theology out there, I can sympathize with why someone like Hawking would look for meaning without God, in physics alone.

Our challenge then as Christians in the 21st-century is to do theology in a way that takes seriously the experience of traditional healers as well as the insights of modern medicine, that is open to the experience of a God that is beyond the bounds of our limited logic and perspective and that is equally open to the insights of modern science.  We, in short, need both science and religion. Stephen Hawking, for instance, may be a world-class physicist, but he is, at best, a second-rate theologian.  But we who are more invested in theology need to learn from the best of the scientific world, even as Hawking could stand to read some more sophisticated theology.

So, in closing, we have reflected together this morning about a storm calming, an exorcism, a healing, and a resurrection.  I invite you to continue to hold gently any notions about what these stories must mean — as if your understandings of these stories are resting gently on your open palm.

How is God speaking to you this morning through these stories?

What has excited you or disturbed you?

How do the ways you are coming to understand these stories intersect with your life or the life of the world?

In the following moment of silence, I invite you to open your heart and mind to how God may be inviting you this morning to hear fuller, richer shades of meaning.

APPENDIX

The Call to Worship (from Richard Rohr)

Will you surrender to God? A spiritual search often requires a surrender.

A primal acceptance that there is meaning out there, that history does have a direction, and that love is somehow the meaning.

The necessary surrender is less a “leap of faith,” than a letting go. If you rely solely on yourself, with skepticism alone as your guide, you may never get beyond our own limited vision.

If we begin with surrendering to love — “falling” into love — we will fall ever deeper into love: with God, with one another, with ourselves, and with creation.

We begin with surrender because only afterwards — after the experience of loving and being loved — can true understanding emerge.

Many of us go at it backwards: we try to understand first, then we never experience for ourselves the mystery of love or faith.

Love and faith and meaning is a falling, and often we are afraid to fall. Will you surrender to God?

If we begin with “falling into love,” we will fall ever deeper into love: with God, with one another, with ourselves, and with creation.

NOTES

1 There are parts of the Christian tradition in which the Psalms have remained central such as many monastic traditions, some of which pray through the entire Psalter as frequently as once each week.

2 Marcus J. Borg, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark (2009: 42-45).  See also Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (1988/2008: 195-197).

3 For more examples of scriptural echoes see Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard B. Hays.

4 Myers 1988/2008: 191.  I am also grateful to my wife Magin LaSov Gregg for her suggestion that the Levitical story of the scapegoat is likely also part of this story’s deep structure: the pigs parallel the goat who is sent into the wilderness carrying the sins of the Israelites.  She made this connection after hearing this sermon preached the day after attending Yom Kippur services — an experience that helps demonstrate the interplay of liturgy, scripture reading and personal experience that is at work in both the act of interpretation as well as the construction of historical imagination.

5 http://storycorps.org/listen

6 Miranda Kennedy, “India’s Mentally Ill Turn To Faith, Not Medicine” (August 10, 2010).  Visit http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126143778&ft=1&f=1004.

7 For more on a 21st-century application of traditional healing see Bruce Epperly and Katherine Gould-Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch: And the Way of Jesus.  Or, Tilda Norberg and Robert D. Webber, Stretch Out Your Hand: Exploring Healing Prayer.

8 Psychiatrist and bestselling spiritual writer M. Scott Peck famously published a book in 2005 titled, Glimpses of the Devil : A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption, which addresses his personal experience officiating at a what he calls a late 20th-century exorcism.

9 To see a short clip of Hawking using his cheek-operated, predictive speaking device, visit

http://www.ted.com/talks/stephen_hawking_asks_big_questions_about_the_universe.html

10 In regard to Hawking’s move from physics to metaphysics, a fellow physicist has written, “Contemplating a final theory is inconsistent with the very essence of physics, an empirical science based on the gradual collection of data. Because we don’t have instruments capable of measuring all of Nature, we cannot ever be certain that we have a final theory. There’ll always be room for surprises, as the history of physics has shown again and again. In fact, I find it quite pretentious to imagine that we humans can achieve such a thing. As I argue in my book, it’s much more realistic to take science as a self-correcting narrative where new theories spring from the cracks of old ones. There is no indication whatsoever that such modus operandi is close to completion due to the advent of a final theory” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2010/09/08/129736414/hawking-and-god-an-intimate-relationship?).  Relatedly, “As the great Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) rightly remarked, ‘science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists’” (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/09/14/3011163.htm).

11 For an accessible introduction to how religion and science may supplement one another, see John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life.  For a more advanced introduction, see Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action by Philip Clayton.

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2 Responses to Sermon: “Fuller Shades of Meaning”

  1. Pearson Cross says:

    Very interesting insights. I’ll share with Lisa.

  2. Pingback: Carl Gregg » Sermon Series Retrospective: “The Gospel According to Mark”

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