Saturday, June 27, 2015

Discovering Hope

Devotions at Discovering Hope Event 6/27/2015

Mark 4:35-41
“On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?’ 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. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 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?’”

Sometimes when people ask me what my parents did for a living I reply:  “They were professional gamblers.”

That’s one way of talking about farming, “dirt farming” (to be specific), which my dad and mom did together for over 30 years in southern Minnesota, from 1943 through 1974.

Farming the land has always been akin to an annual high stakes poker game— predicated on a host of assumptions about soil fertility, favorable weather, dependable machinery, unflagging human energies and an at least “good enough” economy.   Every growing cycle, each crop year entails risks and unforeseen twists in the road that could make or break a farming operation.

I think there is something paradigmatic about this way of “framing” the enterprise of agriculture that still impacts all of us who care about and serve the gospel small towns and rural areas across the upper Midwest.   That gamblers’ sense of “living on the edge” marks so much of our approach to life on the Great Plains.

And perhaps that’s why it’s so easy, for small town and rural folks and their congregations to see themselves always hanging on, dangling from a precipice, wondering if they can make it one more growing season, one more year….

How effortlessly we jump to the worst possible conclusion, like the disciples in their little boat, about to be swamped:   “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

I used to think that what STaR churches (small town and rural churches) needed most was more money and people…but then, along the way, I realized that people and money mean nothing without a healthy dose of imagination fired by hope!

So we are always hankering for hope, which is what got us all out of bed early on a Saturday morning in the summer.   We hunger and thirst for hope--hope that is usually already present, right under our noses—the way the disciples discovered Hope comfortably snoozing on a cushion in the  hold of their small ship!

May that be the hope, in Christ Jesus, that discovers us today and in all our tomorrows!

Lord Jesus, it is so easy to hit the panic button, so natural for us to assume the worst.   Surprise us with signs of hope that will stir up our imaginations.   Teach us how you are always right beside us, out ahead of us, calming storms, renewing your creation, making us new, and tuning us to sing your praises. Bless this day and all that we will learn together, as agents of your Hope.  Amen.     

Saturday, June 20, 2015

In the Same Boat

Northwestern Minnesota Synod Council
June 20, 2015
Mark 4:35-41

One of the reasons I find the Bible so that it includes all sorts of stories one wouldn’t expect to find there. 

The Bible wasn’t edited by some public relations spin doctor who wanted to round off all the rough edges....make every character appear admirable....or include only episodes with proverbial happy endings.

Garrison Keillor likes to say that all of us carry around a back stage view of ourselves—a side of ourselves that we go to great lengths to keep others from seeing.

But the Bible has no such pretensions.  The Bible lets it all hang out.  The Bible airs all the dirty linen of its leading characters.

Take, for example, this story from Mark 4. 

This is hardly the disciples’ shining hour.  They come off here like something of a cross between the Three Stooges and a troop of Cub Scouts in the woods on their first overnight camp out.  The disciples’ foolishness here seems matched only by their fear.

Although at least four of the disciples were fishermen by trade--stalwart men of the sea!-- you wouldn’t know it from this story.  They venture out onto the unpredictable Sea of Galilee as darkness is coming on, apparently without checking the horizon for storm clouds.

Then, when a storm does blow up....they quickly forget basic rules of seamanship--like lowering the mainsail or tossing out excess baggage.  Instead, they do the last thing seasoned sailors should do: they panic!

In the pandemonium, the disciples frantically shake their sleeping leader and confront him with a question: “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?  Don’t just lie there--do something!”

Then, at the conclusion of the story....after Jesus has handled the situation, effortlessly commanding the storm to cease....the disciples aren’t much farther along than they were at the only to stammer the question: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

What a bunch of duffusses! They can’t sail, can handle a storm, can’t see Jesus for who he obviously is.

Like so many other episodes in the gospels where the disciples are blind or doubting or slow to see the obvious or just plain mixed up....this story might have been one they’d have preferred to forget.  It could have been discreetly edited out of the final draft of Mark’s Gospel--but it wasn’t.


With all the other tales that could be told...why did Christ’s first followers cling so tightly to a story that made them--its tellers--look so bad?

The short answer to that question is that this story of the stilling of the storm wasn’t merely a “once upon a time” event. 

This story was treasured in the early church.....because it was the kind of thing that kept happening to the fledgling community of the crucified and risen Christ.

The first Christians held on to this story because they saw themselves “in the same boat” as the disciples out on that windswept evening on the Sea of Galilee.

Tradition has it that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome, a vast empire,  ruled in the first century by tyrants like Domitian and Nero--who not only fiddled while Rome burned, but who blamed the Christians for striking the match.  As one ancient Roman author put it: “If the Tiber river rises too high, or the Nile too low, the cry goes out:  ‘The Christians to the lions!’”

Mark’s gospel was, in all likelihood, written in Rome, by one who hoped to proclaim Jesus’ story in such a way that his persecuted sisters and brothers would be strengthened by it....even as they prepared themselves to be baptized with Christ’s own baptism of suffering and innocent death.

That raw experience of brutal oppression left the community for whom this gospel was first  written feeling small and alone and helpless against the might of a cruel empire....whether they were waiting in dungeons or being carted off to the arena to become appetizers for lions. 

The believers in the church of Mark could easily imagine themselves adrift on a raging sea, tempest-tossed, threatened with certain, slow, agonizing death.  They might well have wondered where their Lord was when they needed him the most.

Why was this unflattering portrait of the disciples kept in the New Testament by the early church? 

Because it was a mirror which, when the members of the early church looked deeply into it, saw themselves--their peril, their danger, their doubts, their fears.

Perhaps that is why this text has burned its way into our consciousness as well....even as it has found its way into our own churches, especially in the art and architecture of our church buildings.  
There’s a reason why we call the place where the congregation sits on Sundays the “nave,” as in “navy.”  The place we gather on Sundays is like that little craft on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee!

There’s a reason why the altars in so many of our synod’s churches include paintings of Peter sinking in the waves....or of Mary crying at the tomb....or of the disciples adrift in a storm in their wind-swept little boat.

Those paintings adorn our altars because they are mirrors which--when we look into them deeply--allow us to see our predicaments, our perils, our doubts, our fears, our faithlessness....faithlessness which seems to go hand in hand with faith itself.

This morning it is hard not to think of our sisters and brothers in Christ at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC—a church where I had the privilege of worshiping (with Joy and our daughter Kristen) in the spring of 2003.  

What is it like today for the members of Emanuel—who have good reason to wonder whether it is safe to attend a Bible study or a prayer meeting as their fellow members were doing this past Wednesday evening?  

This is America in the 21st century, not Rome in the 1st century, for crying out loud!   And this is not the first time an African American congregation in our country has been targeted by racist extremists.
I’m guessing that our friends at Mother Emanuel church are clinging to stories like this one, of Jesus stilling the storm, rescuing the infant church once again.

But there is more here in Mark 4 than a “mirror” showing ourselves as we truly are.  There is Someone else here in each of these embarrassing pictures of ourselves.

We see Another who is always there in these pictures, standing alongside us in our perils and fears, sticking with us in our faithlessness.

Jesus is there--in each of these unflattering portraits of ourselves as believers.  In our treasured altarpieces, Jesus is always there, yanking the sinking Peter out of the water….drawing near to the inconsolable Mary Magdalene at the tomb…peacefully asleep in the hold of a boat that’s likely to be swamped at any minute.

These snapshots of the faith community—Jesus is in all of them!

These same scriptural images that cast us in a most unflattering light…make Jesus look awfully good.  Stories like this one say lots about us, but also speak volumes about Jesus.

…and that’s the real reason we’ve come to treasure these stories.  For each of them tells the same story: when we are weak, he is fact, our weakness, magnifies his strength.

Jesus is not ashamed to be found among fearful doubters who panic at the drop of a hat.  Jesus does not withdraw from the company of folks whose fickle faith can turn to mush--just like that.

Jesus hangs in there with you and me and the whole human family....ready always to rebuke our faithlessness even as he admonishes all the forces of evil that cause us to lose faith.  Jesus hangs in there with us, in the bottom of every sinking ship we find ourselves order to keep opening our ears to hear his own sovereign Word: “Peace, be still and know that I am God.”