Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

“The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” Clint Smith writes in his newest book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and,” Smith argues, “it must, too, be in our memories” (Kindle Location 4321).

I have just finished a first read of How the Word is Passed, and I want to recommend it without qualification in the highest terms. The book has moved quickly to number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. In my opinion, that status is well-deserved. So, first of all, find a copy of this book and read it. It is beautifully written and masterfully combines history, politics, and personal story. It is the best of how one can combine journalism, scholarship, and memory. I am certain this will be an award-winning work.

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In this book, Smith travels to eight places in the US and to Goree Island off the coast of ancient Senegambia to deepen his understanding of how the people in each of those places come to terms with the history of American slavery and their places in that history. In the process, Smith experiences those places in deeply emotional and visceral ways. And he comes to a deeper understanding, not only of the history of American slavery, but also of his own story and his place in that larger history.

Smith visits and unearths in new ways Jefferson’s Monticello, New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison in Louisiana, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island and the founding of Juneteenth, New York City, and the House of Slaves off the coast of Africa.

The book shares testimony from people who have grappled with the obscenity of enslavement and the institutions that created the American enslavement system. David, a guide at Monticello, gave a clear exposition of the reality.

“Slavery’s an institution. In Jefferson’s lifetime it becomes a system. So, what is this slave system? It is a system of exploitation, a system of inequality and exclusion, a system where people are owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who know slavery is morally wrong. By doing what? Denying the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin.” (Kindle Location 173).

The contradictions of Jefferson as “author of freedom” and holder of slaves is only one example of many such historical oxymorons Smith explores. Jefferson held hundreds of persons as slaves, used them as collateral for his farm, and decreed them to be sold to settle the debts of his estate. “Jefferson believed himself to be a benevolent slave owner,” Smith notes, “but his moral ideals came second to, and were always entangled with, his own economic interests and the interests of his family. Jefferson understood, as well, the particular economic benefits of keeping husbands and wives together, noting that ‘a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.’” (Kindle Location 272).

Smith’s trips to his native New Orleans and the Whitney Plantation contain refreshing notes of hope in a sometimes bleak book. “In a state where plantations remain the sites of formal celebrations and weddings, where tours of former slave estates nostalgically center on the architectural merits of the old homes, where you are still more likely to hear stories of how the owners of the land ‘treated their slaves well’ than you are to hear of the experiences of actual enslaved people, the Whitney stands apart by making the story of the enslaved the core of the experience.” (Kindle Location 839). I would like to see this place sometime.

Then there is Angola Prison. “The average sentence at Angola,” Smith writes, is eighty-seven years.” I had to stop and read that sentence several times. If there’s any sentence that illustrates the rotten core in the Thirteenth Amendment, this is it. Mass incarceration is not only the New Jim Crow. It’s the old slave system as well.

That’s true in literal terms at Angola, where a modern penal plantation is built on top of the old-fashioned kind. But who notices? “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people,” Smith argues, “it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States,” he observes, “such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted.” (Kindle Location 1525).

Smith takes us to Blandford Confederate cemetery and a Memorial Day celebration to understand and experience the mythology, theology, and politics of the Lost Cause. “White Southerners’ commitment to the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether or not they owned slaves,” Smith observes as he reflects on that experience. “The commitment was based on a desire to maintain a society in which Black people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” (Kindle Location 2550).

The Lost Cause, the myth of white innocence, confederate monuments, Civil War re-enactments, the KKK, and history revised beyond recognition all blend together in a surreal worldview that makes white racists the victims and those terrible Yankees and uppity Black folk the aggressors. As we know from contemporary headlines, that worldview is alive and well – and not only in the Old South.

The chapter describing the founding and establishment of Juneteenth is timely and worth the price of the book by itself here in mid-June of 2021. The concluding paragraph of that chapter says it well. “Juneteenth, then, is both a day to solemnly remember what this country has done to Black Americans and a day to celebrate all that Black Americans have overcome. It is a reminder,” Smith continues, “that each day this country must consciously make a decision to move toward freedom for all of its citizens, and that this is something that must be done proactively; it will not happen on its own. The project of freedom, Juneteenth reminds us, is precarious,” Smith concludes, “and we should regularly remind ourselves how many people who came before us never got to experience it, and how many people there are still waiting.” (Kindle Location 3079).

Throughout the book, Smith reminds us of the importance of knowing, studying, and embodying the accurate history of the United States, especially when it comes to race. “How different might our country look,” Smith wonders, “if all of us fully understood what has happened here?” (Kindle Location 2692).

History that reinforces white supremacy is nostalgic mythology, not real information. But the impacts are very real. “It is not enough to study history,” Smith argues. “It is not enough to celebrate singular moments of our past or to lift up the legacy of victories that have been won without understanding the effects of those victories—and those losses—on the world around us today.” (Kindle Location 2747). But learning the real history is a beginning in dealing with and changing how things got to be the way they are.

“Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.” Damaras, the tour guide who led Smith and others through the enslavement history of New York City concluded her tour with those words. In a chapter called, “But We Were the Good Guys,” Smith reminds us that we northerners have been anything but “the good guys.” The tour begins with a journey to the second largest slave market in American history, walking distance from the New York Stock exchange. The story of the historic black burial ground in New York city gives horrifying context to the guide’s moral guidance.

“New York was unique in that, like Damaras had shared, it presented itself to me as a place ahead of its time,” Smith observes. “The pretense of cultural pluralism told a story that was only half true. New York economically benefited from slavery, and the physical history of enslavement—the blood, the bodies, and the buildings constructed by them—was deeply entrenched in the soil of this city.” (Kindle Location 3495). The same can and must be said of every inch of territory north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The chapter was a vivid reminder that while some white people were and are in favor of the abolition of slavery (and its cultural successors), it is quite possible at the same time to continue to be in favor of the outcomes and structures of racism. It was not then and is not now enough to be antislavery. Our call as white people is to live the principles of antiracism.

His visit to Goree Island reinforced the essential realities of white supremacy producing antiBlack racism and the Transatlantic and American slave systems. One of Smith’s conversation partners put it well. Europeans and Americans “considered Black Africans not as human beings but as a simple merchandise. If they consider Africans as merchandise, that is because they understand the necessity to dehumanize Africans in order to work for the acceptance by all the Europeans. The necessity to use Africans because Africans are not human beings.” (Kindle Location 3716). The economic and political practice preceded and required the story, not the other way around.

This chapter contains the most powerful single line in the book. We have often heard that history is written by “the victors.” Another of Smith’s African interlocutors put it clearly. “History,” he noted, “is written by the perpetrators.” We need history written by the resistors.

Smith closes with a trip into his own personal history. He remembers that his family is as much of a resource for telling the story as any of the places he visited. This epilogue is by far the most moving and powerful section of the book. “My grandparents’ stories are my inheritance,” Smith writes with love and reverence, “each one is an heirloom I carry. Each one is a monument to an era that still courses through my grandfather’s veins. Each story is a memorial that still sits in my grandmother’s bones. My grandparents’ voices are a museum I am still learning how to visit,” he concludes, “each conversation with them a new exhibit worthy of my time.”

Worthy of our time as well – I encourage you to read this marvelous, moving, and meaningful work.

Text Study for Mark 35-41 (Pt. 4); 4 Pentecost B 2021

(35-36) And he says to them on that day as it was becoming evening, “Let’s go across into the other side.” And leaving the crowd they took him as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him. (37-39) And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?”  And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (40-41) And he said to them, “Why are you cowering? Don’t you have faith yet?” And they experienced a great fear, and were saying to one another, “Who indeed is this, that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?”

Look, I’m not a “courageous Christian” – never have been. I have plunged into things out of arrogance and folly, and sometimes those things have panned out. I have partnered with brave people who just needed a nudge, a bit of organization, and some financial support to do something important. In more positive terms, I have been compelled by compassion to do the right thing, and that has gotten me into spots that I wish I could have avoided.

But I don’t see myself as either emotionally or physically brave. Even when I found myself piloting a small boat in the midst of gale-force winds, I wasn’t brave. I was stupid, selfish, and simply had to deal with the consequences of my own actions.

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So, I recoil when Jesus looks at his freaked-out followers and says, “Why are you cowering?” For crying out loud! Seconds before they were engaged in a fight for their very lives, and they were losing. They knew the families in their villages who had lost fathers, sons, and brothers, to the impersonal and implacable force of wind and water. Now they have to feel bad for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think?

Yet, “courageous Christianity” is precisely what is called for in this time. I’m in a group that’s reading Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism, and it’s a good experience. But I’m intimidated by the subtitle – Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice. “Courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes, “contrasts with the complicit Christianity that led so many religious people to cooperate with bigotry instead of challenging it” (page 10). I’ve spent a lot more time in the arms of complicity Christianity than in the vanguard of courageous Christianity. (Read Tisby’s The Color of Compromise for more on the history of “complicity Christianity in North America).

“Courageous Christianity moves beyond the numbing safety of church walls and the comfortable Christianity that makes its home in segregated pews on Sunday mornings,” Tisby continues. “Racial justice comes from the struggle of a small but committed group of people who choose courageously to stand against racism rather than compromise with it. Courageous Christianity,” he concludes, “dares to love through action and to risk everything for the sake of justice” (page 10).

Yes, this is the kind of Christianity for such a time as this. But the disciples seem to have an advantage or two. If only, for example, we could cry out in fear (cowardly or not) and get immediate Divine action in response! Pasquale Basta observes that this text may be cruelly disappointing for those who face their own existential crisis, cry out in desperate fear, and hear nothing but apparent silence in return. I wonder how many hearers of this text might say, “All right for the disciples, but what about me?” A fair question for the preacher to keep in mind.

“In the face of these enormous questions,” Basta writes, “it is more urgent than ever to reread the passage of the stilling of the storm, seeking to interpret it in depth so as to grasp its fundamental meaning which does not actually consist in the search for a miracle or the wonderful intervention of a God who frees from difficulty those who turn to (sic) him” (page 34). That is, preachers, let’s not allow the text to sound like it makes promises it will not keep.

While I appreciate Basta’s question, I don’t find his answer compelling. What is the nature of Jesus’ criticism here? It seems that the stilling of the storm is not a positive response to the disciples’ request for help. It is, rather, a concession to their desperate terror. The disciples are, if anything, portrayed here as anti-models of discipleship.

So, is the message that we are not to call on the Lord in the midst of crises? That does not seem to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The issue is about Jesus’ identity. If they really knew who he was and trusted in that identity, then desperate terror – fear grounded in hopelessness – would no longer be an option. Jesus was in the boat with them, and that would have been enough if they were clear about who he is.

But they are not yet clear about who Jesus is. The “advantage” of an immediate response doesn’t seem to make them any braver. The “advantage” rests, in fact, with us the readers. We know who this is. And yet, I join the disciples in their mind-numbing, shutdown-inducing terror.

The construction is a lexical cognate. “They feared a great fear.” And after spending days, weeks, perhaps months with Jesus, they asked the question which anchors Mark’s gospel. Who indeed is this? We will come back to that question in chapter eight, the center of the gospel drama – “Who do people say that I am?” The question for Mark’s audience, as some of them prepare to enter the sea of the baptismal waters is the same: Who is this Jesus?

This final question, Jim Bailey suggests “hints that their desperate fear in the face of the storm has changed to awesome fear in the face of their rescuer” (page 27). He proposes that the story moves the disciples from a great storm to a great calm to a great awe. What, they wonder, have they gotten themselves into?

“We would be wise, therefore, to keep our apocalyptic glasses on as we read about Jesus’ trip on the boat and the stilling of the storm,” David Schnasa Jacobsen writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “That means that this is not just another boat ride, but the apocalyptic boat ride from hell. This is not just another miracle either,” he concludes, “but an apocalyptic revelation of Jesus’ identity.”

Tshehla argues that Jesus’ identity in Mark in thoroughly entangled with “the Teacher’s solemn concern for the others whom the tradition designates as different, lesser, unclean, even unworthy” (page 10). There is always, in Mark’s gospel, an eye to the other – the other boats, the other side, the other ethnic groups. This is present, he notes, in Mark 1:39, as Jesus goes throughout Galilee healing and casting out demons. “The presence of other boats with Jesus is thus not a remnant of some lost message,” Tshehla writes, “but rather a living invitation to every disciple to take up the challenge of experiencing God’s Kingdom outside safe spaces characterized by familiarity” (page 10).

That’ll preach as we come out of Covid-tide and begin to cross to the “other side” of that experience.

But will we take the opportunity presented by a good crisis? That’s the question facing the disciples then and the church now. The temptation in the face of the storm might have been to hold on, pull back, and hunker down. The disciples, on their own, were out of their depth and in fear for their lives. They couldn’t go back to safety, and forward seemed to hold doom and death.

“In crises, doubts about God’s presence and power arise within us,” Bailey wrote several years before the current crises besetting us. “Afterward, however, we might be in a new place to reconsider God’s involvement in this world, so that this rescue story could comfort and challenge us,” he suggests. “Confronted with our limits, this story declares that the saving God we know in  Jesus  Christ  does  not  abandon us. A divine, peaceful presence accompanies our panic-filled lives.”

“But,” he continues, “the story also challenges us to ask whether we truly entrust ourselves to Jesus as the one who will bring peace into our personal chaos and disordered world.  When delivered from an overwhelming crisis, we ponder anew the One who rescued us,” he concludes. “This storm story calls us to discern more deeply who this One is that even the wind and the sea obey him” (pages 27-28).

“This theme, ‘Who is he?’ is perhaps Mark’s major concern throughout his book,” Hurtado writes. “Only God and the demons know the truth until Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Even the disciples, who see his power firsthand,” Hurtado continues, “cannot arrive at the full truth until then” (page 81).

I sometimes forget that the Gospel of Mark was written to be performed before a community of believers and seekers. As the story-teller paused for effect after the question, I can imagine some enthusiastic listener jumping up and saying, “I know! I know! He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of us all!” How I would love to have preached a few more messages that would elicit such a spontaneous outburst of testimony!

Perhaps the antidote to Christian cowardice is, first of all, remembering that Jesus really is always in the boat with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And courageous Christianity is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than doing the next right thing, in this remembering, as we have the opportunity and the vocation. Perhaps it is the discipline of dogged dependence on the One who commands wind and wave and also rests in our hearts in love.

References and Resources

Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.

Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel. “Markan Faith.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2017) 81:31-60. DOI 10.1007/s11153-016-9601-2.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.

Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.

Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.

Text Study for Mark 4:35-41 (Pt. 3); 4 Pentecost B 2021

40-41 – And he said to them, “Why are you cowering? Don’t you have faith yet?” And they experienced a great fear, and were saying to one another, “Who indeed is this, that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?”

Jesus doesn’t ask them why they are afraid. Fear would be natural in this situation. The word he uses is more akin to a desperate panic, a fear that has nearly given up all hope. “Why are you cowardly?” Jim Bailey translates it. “Do you not yet have faith?” That should be kept in mind as we read the second question. It is something like, “Have you given up hope already?”

“How do you not have faith?” Richard Swanson asks. “This is a question that Mark’s story hands its audience. The question is a problem. It is a problem first of all,” he notes, “because it is not entirely clear what he means” (page 176).

Jesus does not refer to an intellectual assent to propositions here. Swanson suggests that most of the time Mark means “faithfulness” when he uses the word, although the translation is not quite so clear in this instance.

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Swanson notes a second problem in Jesus’ accusing question. His implied demand seems unreasonable. Only a fool would not be afraid in the face of apparently certain death. “It is the mark of an experienced sailor to know when it is time to be afraid,” Swanson writes, “just as it is the mark of an adult to know what is impossible. It was time to be afraid,” Swanson concludes, “it would have been impossible not to be afraid” (page 176).

“When his companions wake [Jesus],” writes Matt Skinner, “accusing him of indifference or negligence, they have lost hope; their words reveal that they have already figured out how the story must end.” Even though they have accompanied Jesus and observed his healings and exorcisms, they do not yet trust Jesus, as Bailey notes.

That being said, they know enough to wake Jesus up and implore him to do something. That is, as Swanson points out, a sort of faith or trust in Jesus in the face of hopelessness. The disciples, “like crowd after crowd in the story, look at Jesus and expect great things. They expect not only that Jesus ought to be awake, carrying out his responsibilities,” Swanson argues, “but that if he were, they were would not be dying” (page 176).

As Swanson notes, based on the story so far, the expectation of the disciples is reasonable. And yet, Jesus calls this rational expectation having no faith yet. “How odd,” Swanson observes (page 176).

Daniel Howard-Snyder looks closely at this question about “what kind of faith?” in his 2016 article. He concludes that “the account of faith that emerges from Mark is that faith consists in resilience in the face of challenges to living in light of the overall positive stance to the object of faith, where that stance consists in certain conative, cognitive, and behavioral-dispositional elements” (page 31). Howard-Snyder (HS) is writing in the International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, and his detailed, nuanced, and somewhat technical description requires a bit of unpacking.

HS reports that pericopes concerned with “faith” make up 20% of Mark’s gospel account. Having faith is part of the thematic statement of the gospel in Mark 1:15 – “Change your way of thinking and have faith in the Good News!” HS argues that the gospel account tells stories to show what “having faith in” looks like and does so in large part through commending the “faith” responses of characters in the story.

“Jesus is the protagonist of the story,” he writes. “Nothing matters more in the world of the story than his identity, his relation to God’s rule, and the right response to him and the good news he proclaims,” HS continues. “Thus, when he commends someone for their faith, they are commendable for it” (page 35). Based on the data, he argues that “resilience in the face of challenges to living in light of one’s overall positive stance toward the object of faith” (in this case, Jesus) is “a stellar candidate” for what Mark’s Jesus means by faith.

On the other hand, the data suggests that “belief that relevant propositions are true” is, he argues, “not a stellar candidate” for what Mark’s Jesus means by faith. As illustrations, he describes the faith of Bartimaeus, the friends of the paralytic in chapter 2, and the woman with the hemorrhage in chapter 5. Other examples, he notes could include Jairus, the father of the demon-possessed boy in chapter 9, and (to our purposes) the stilling of the storm.

The latter illustration is a negative case of HS’s hypothesis. HS wonders what Jesus expected of the disciples that would qualify as “faith.” Did he expect them to be patient enough to wait for Jesus to work on his own timetable? Did you expect them to take care of the storm themselves, based on their information and commission as disciples?

“Either way,” HS suggests, “Jesus expected their faith to dampen their fear.” Since it did not, he declared that they had no faith. “Fear can pose a challenge to living in light of one’s faith,” HS continues, “and a lack of resilience in the face of challenges might manifest itself through incapacitating fear. So understood,” he concludes, “Mark closely associates lack of faith with lack of resilience” (page 43).

HS suggests that the understanding of “faith” as a combination of trust/reliance and steadfastness/resilience also fits with the larger cultural understanding of “faith” in Greco-Roman culture. This element of the gospel did not require translation before it could be understood by a non-Christian audience.

In addition to reliance and resilience, HS argues that “faith” entails a positive relationship with the object of faith as one who can meet one’s needs or fulfill one’s wishes. There is no point in reliance and resilience if we don’t believe that Jesus can get anything done!

And “faith” in Mark’s account leads to behavior appropriate to a positive relationship with the object of faith. “Generalizing, in the world of the story,” HS concludes, “faith seems to be closely associated with a disposition to act appropriately in light of one’s positive conative orientation toward its object” (page 49).

Clearly, that’s why Daniel Howard-Snyder gets the big money.

There is some relevance to believing certain truth propositions in connection with Jesus, but that understanding of faith is secondary at best in this context. Faith, according to HS, is primarily resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of challenges and threats. That faith is the primary feature of a relationship with Jesus and shapes the believer’s view of reality and actions in the world.

Just a side note of critique here. HS briefly suggests that the above definition is perhaps different from a “Lutheran” understanding of faith. Given what Luther says in the Large Catechism about what it means “to have a god,” it appears to me that HS is mistaken. Whatever we continue to rely upon in life and in death – that, according to Luther, is our god. That sounds to me like a resilient reliance in the face of challenges and threats.

“Don’t you have faith yet?” That’s probably the best translation of the three Greek words. What an insulting question! “The tension in this scene is between people who know the danger when they see it,” Swanson writes, “and Jesus who is asleep…It will not do to simply make fun of the disciples,” he continues. “No one can stop a storm, no matter what the religious hucksters pretend” (page 180).

Our folks have been told too often and too loudly that the opposite of faith is doubt. In fact, authentic and clear-eyed doubt is, in my experience, one of the most reliable doorways to deeper, more nuanced, more grounded faith (whatever that is). So, perhaps we should take a minute or two to dispose of that limited and modernist notion of faith as intellectual assent to a set of pre-defined propositions. We can release a few people from unnecessary bondage in this way.

Our folks have been told too often and too loudly that the opposite of faith is fear. That has made more sense to me at times, but in the end, I find that problematic as well. Desperation is another reliable doorway to faith (whatever that is). That is certainly the case as Mark tells the story. The difference for the disciples, perhaps, is that they have (in comparison with others in the story) a relative wealth of information and experience at this point and don’t “yet” have faith.

That doesn’t mean the disciples will never have faith. That doesn’t mean the disciples will always have faith. That means that their resilient reliance on Jesus is a work in progress at this point. A failed experiment is not a failure. It is simply more data. Time for Jesus and the twelve to return to the test bench for some more work.

I can pray for the Spirit to give me a more resilient reliance on Jesus in the face challenges and accept the gift as I am able. I can work on habits and practices that enhance my resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of challenges. And I can exercise that resilient reliance to some degree or another even when I struggle with doubt and fear. After all, Mark tells us the story of one who cries out, “Lord, I have faith! Help my lack of faith!”

I resemble that remark.

I find that it’s too easy to declare Jesus the hero and the disciples the buffoons once again. He’s the amateur in this scene, and they are the professionals. If Jesus is allowed to simply lampoon the buffoons through our preaching, I have learned that we will alienate every wise person in our pews who has been through the storms of life. I’m with the disciples on this one.

And then, he stills the storm.

Who the hell is this guy in the boat with us? If we can get to that combination of consternation and contemplation, we may approach what Mark is up to in this text.

References and Resources

Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.

Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel. “Markan Faith.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2017) 81:31-60. DOI 10.1007/s11153-016-9601-2.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.

Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.

Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.

Text Study for Mark 4:35-41 (Pt. 2); 4 Pentecost B 2021

37-39 – And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?”  And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

After Jesus’ words and in light of his ministry of miracles and exorcisms so far, it’s not surprising that a small flotilla might accompany them to see if more fireworks were in the offing. If that’s what they hoped, they got far more than they bargained for. One of the periodic squalls for which the Sea of Galilee is famous blew up, and it was only the words of Jesus that kept them all from finding their way to the bottom of the sea.

Jim Bailey notes that, “For Markan hearers, Jesus’ authority over the wind and waters relates him directly to God, who alone possesses such power” (page 25). He notes several instances in the Hebrew psalms where God speaks to the raging seas and the storm is stilled. I was especially taken by his reminder of the words in Psalm 107:28-29 (NRSV) – “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Photo by Nuno Obey on Pexels.com

Bailey notes that the “they” in the passage refers to sailors on the sea. I detect in Mark’s account of the Stilling of the Storm an echo of events in the Book of Jonah. A fierce storm arises. The sailors exercise all their efforts, including religious ones, to keep the ship safely afloat. The one responsible for the storm is asleep in the hold, oblivious to what is happening above decks. The sailors implore the prophet to do something. The solution, Jonah says, is to sacrifice him by throwing him overboard to appease the angry God.

In the Jonah story, the pious pagans do everything else before they toss Jonah overboard. And when the sea is calmed, they exercise faith by offering prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. A storm, a sleeper, and pious pagans from the “other side” – it’s a delicious intertextual conversation happening here.

The pagan sailors in Jonah’s tale seem to have more faith than the disciples who have Jesus with them just as he was. “The story is told in such a way,” suggests Bailey, “to contrast the sleeping Jesus with his panicky disciples” (page 26). This is similar to the Jonah narrative, although Jesus’ calm is not the same as Jonah’s carelessness. With Mark’s emphasis on the faith of the outsider in the gospel account, the connection to Jonah’s tale seems quite strong and informative.

Oh, if only I were the first one to notice this intertextual conversation, but, alas, it was not to be. This is one of multiple examples of broad allusions to Hebrew scripture that we can find throughout the gospel accounts, and nowhere more so than in Mark’s gospel. In the case of Jonah, it is clear, according to Alistair Wilson, that based on these allusions, the story of Jonah was familiar to Christians when the author of Mark was composing the work.

Scholars differ on the type of relationship between our text and the story of Jonah. Is this a reworking of the Jonah story in a Christian key (which leads some commentators to question its historicity)? That’s probably saying too much. Is it a kind of typological story, one of several such stories that take Jonah as the template? That’s not particularly convincing. Is it an assertion, based on firsthand witness, that in Jesus we have something far greater than Jonah? That’s probably closer to the mark (pun intended).

Wilson suggests “that Mark’s narrative echoes elements of the Jonah story in order to draw a striking and ironic contrast between the rather pathetic Jonah, the reluctant herald, and Jesus, the true and faithful herald of the kingdom of God” (page 4). He notes at least a half dozen thematic connections and nearly as many verbal similarities and identities between the Jonah story and Mark’s narrative of the Stilling of the Storm. The connection is not certain, but it is strong enough to pursue.

Of course, there are differences in the stories as well. Wilson lists and discusses the most salient ones. Jonah flees away from his vocation as a prophet, and Jesus moves toward that vocation, fully aware of the costs. Within that difference is hidden a similarity for our text. Jonah is called to preach repentance to the pagan and hated Ninevites. Jesus crosses to the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee and enters Gentile (pagan) territory. The succeeding account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) confirms the nature of the territory on the “other side.”

“Thus, reading the stilling of the storm narrative in light of the Jonah narrative highlights Jesus as the commissioned herald,” Wilson concludes, “who is faithful to his calling to take God’s message to the gentiles and who carries it out with determination…” (page 6).

Wilson continues by observing that God sent the storm to get Jonah’s attention. Jesus confronts the storm which is not God’s ally in the narrative but rather working in opposition to the coming of God’s kingdom. The fact that Jesus uses exorcism language to address the stormy sea makes this contrast clear. While the storm is a part of God’s creation, it is being used by the Strong One to inhibit the expansion of the kingdom into Gentile environs and must be brought to heel.

On the one hand, the storm ceases when Jonah is pitched overboard as a sacrifice to an angry deity. On the other hand, the storm ceases when Jesus speaks words of command. No sacrifice is necessary here. Wilson notes that the language about the fear of the witnesses is almost identical in the LXX account of Jonah and in Mark 4. The sailors in Jonah witnessed the power of God in a secondhand fashion. The disciples, however, got an up close and personal view of the One whom even wind and the sea obey.

“Mark presents Jesus not using a ‘Jonah typology,’” Wilson argues, “but by drawing an ironic contrast between Jonah and Jesus in a way that makes clear the pre-eminence of Jesus” (page 8).

The description is terse and dramatic. The waves are driven by the wind, overtopping the gunwales, and threatening to swamp the boat. Jesus must have been sleeping on something up off the deck. Otherwise, he would have been soaked since the stern of the boat would be lower than the bow. “The ferocious storm, for the disciples,” Bailey notes, “produces a terrifying and life-threatening situation, similar to that frequently faced by ancient people traveling on the Mediterranean Sea” (page 26).

Jacobsen notes that Mark’s audience was facing their own existential storm – life after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. If Mark’s churches were indeed in Rome as tradition has it, then some of the hearers of this gospel would have witnessed the Roman triumphal parade as General Titus displayed the booty and the captive survivors taken from the burning and looting of Jerusalem.

Jacobsen’s reflection on this reality is worth quoting at length:

“The center of worship is destroyed; the cultural and religious center of the people no longer holds. Identities among Jewish Christians and other Jewish groups are all in play—and at a time when the tide of gentiles is rising. In the midst of all this chaos when the world-as-known is ending, here this Jesus is revealed not as one more therapist or miracle worker but as a revelation of God’s extraordinary cosmic purpose in the person of this ordinary Jesus, “just as he was” (verse 36) and even amenable like you and me to a good nap (verse 38).”

Jesus’ words to the wind and sea were in terms that one would use to address people overwrought with emotion. Get ahold of yourselves! Settle down! Jesus addresses the wind and the sea as persons rather than inanimate elements of a natural order. This makes sense because the Stilling of the Storm is not a “nature miracle.” It is, rather, yet another exorcism.

“Jesus doesn’t calm the storm as much as he overpowers it and brings it to heel,” writes Matt Skinner. “When he rebukes (epitimao) the violent wind and demands a still silence (phimoo) from the chaotic waters, it recalls him doing the same when he compelled unclean spirits (see the same verbs in Mark 1:25).”

“Jesus faces down the storm not with personal bromides (you have to face your fears, friends), but silences the storm and rebukes it (verse 39),” writes David Schnasa Jacobsen. “Those two verbs are exorcism words common to the rest of Jesus’ Kingdom ministry in Mark 1-3,” he observes. “The storm in verses 35-41 is cosmic, demonic, and worthy of Jesus’ scaled up efforts. As strange as it sounds,” Jacobsen argues, “Jesus is not offering therapy for our fears but an exorcism for a world out of whack.”

As Matt Skinner notes, Jesus offers no incantation or extraordinary action. He speaks and it happens. “You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains,” we read in Psalm 104:7 (NRSV). “At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder, they take to flight.” The only one who manages wind and wave with a word is the Lord of all Creation.

He’s in the boat with us, just as he is. How will we respond in the midst of our own wave-tossed journeys?

References and Resources

Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.

Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.

Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.

Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.

Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.

Text Study for Mark 4:35-41 (Pt. 1); 4 Pentecost B 2021

Mark 4:35-41

“Who indeed is this,” the disciples wonder in awe and terror, “that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?” (Mark 4:41, my translation). This text is, it appears to me, the conclusion to the Seedy Apocalypse in Mark 4. It is also, I think, the end of “Act 1” in Mark’s gospel. The question the disciples ask in Mark 4:41, remains hanging in the air, reverberating with wonder and challenge. I can imagine a first-century presenter narrating the storm and the concluding question and then pausing with great effect to take a drink and straighten her robes before moving on.

After the great rhetorical sweeps of John’s gospel during the Easter season, a small lection like this from Mark may seem more like an amuse bouche than the main course for the morning. But given its place in Mark’s plot and dramatic structure, we shouldn’t be lulled into that sort of hermeneutical complacency. This is the kind of scene that rings down a curtain and sends the audience to the snack bar buzzing with anticipation.

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That being said, perhaps it’s the wise preacher who doesn’t wrap up the sermon this week with too tidy of a homiletical bow. The concluding question sets up our reflections for the weeks to come. Perhaps the last words of the sermon should be a question left hanging in unresolved silence.

With just a few verses at hand, we might think there’s not much to process here. But, oh, my friends! A small text like this is an invitation (at least to me) to scratch and dig, to pick and parse, to apply tweezers and scalpel and expose the deep tissue hiding under Mark’s simple words. Most of that detail is not going to make it into our sermons for the day. But that exegetical dissection will give us the depth and detail this text demands and deserves.

35-36 – And he says to them on that day as it was becoming evening, “Let’s go across into the other side.” And leaving the crowd they took him as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him.

Commentators have puzzled for centuries over the observation that “other boats were with him.” Such an interesting phrase. Wouldn’t we expect the text to say that other boats were with “them,” that is, the disciples? After all, they were the ones in charge of sailing the boat. But the text clearly states that these additional boats were with “him.”

It was still the day of the Seedy Discourse. But a new day was (be)coming. Remember that the Jewish day begins at sundown, not at midnight as it does in our construction of the diurnal clock. Jesus doesn’t make a casual suggestion about crossing the Sea of Galilee. It is rather a command, a “hortatory subjunctive” that calls others into a course of action the speaker has already chosen.

“Across” refers, of course, to the Sea of Galilee. The direction is contained in the verb, which can also mean “to pass through” a place. The trip would take them “into” the other side, not merely up to the edge of the Gentile territory on the eastern shore of the lake. The term for the “other side” means something like “the beyond” or “the over yonder.” It’s not just a trip to another location. It is rather a trip also to a different kind of space. “Is this first Markan boat story symbolically implying Jesus’ openness to the Gentile world?” Jim Bailey asks, as he notes this is a major theme in Mark’s gospel.

Maarman Tshehla explores this trip in connection with the mention of “other boats too.” The trip to “the other side” refers to the land east of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Not only is this Gentile territory, but it presents a parallel area of activity for Jesus. “It is critical that the Markan Jesus does in Gerasa or Gedara what he has done in Capernaum,” Tshehla writes, “and that he does in the Decapolis as he did throughout Galilee” (page 8).

The Galilean crowd is left wondering if Jesus is mad or marvelous. That issue is not yet resolved for them, and Jesus leaves them to ponder what they have seen and heard. Jesus had been teaching from the boat, so they took him “as he was in the boat.” He didn’t need to embark for them to head out on to the lake. Nor did anything about him appear to change. So far, he was “just Jesus.”

We listeners know that he was and is far more than “just Jesus.” Mark’s deft irony is apparent here. “This Jesus, who was ‘just as he was’ in the boat, was way more than ordinary,” Jacobsen writes, “He was in his weakness a disclosure, a revelation, an apocalypse of the living God among us.”

“That the Markan community took Jesus just as he was is vital,” Tshehla argues. “It is testimony to a consciousness among them neither to dilute Jesus’ revolutionary portrayal of the kingdom of God nor to clothe him in incongruous garb” (page 8). This move across the sea to the other side was a story about moving beyond the borders of safe, comfortable, familiar, and acceptable territory in order to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to others beyond the borders.

In Mark, there is a parallel between actions Jesus takes in Galilee and those he takes on “the other side.” He feeds crowds on both sides. He cast out demons on both sides. He heals the sick on both sides. He encounters opposition on both sides. He shows compassion to women of all ages on both sides (page 10). “People on the other side, people often identified with swine, tombs and such other defilers,” Tshehla writes, “benefit from Jesus just as much as do groups on this side, groups represented by synagogues and such other religious familiarities” (page 8).

An unoriginal sermon title might be, “Both Sides Now.” Yes, my age is showing in numerous ways.

And, Tshehla reminds us, it is the disciples who take Jesus over to the other side. “To be with Jesus is to be cognizant of and genuinely interested in the welfare of all other boats around you, the sea does not care about the labels you give your fellow voyagers,” Tshehla concludes. “To follow Jesus is to be humble enough to see yourself through the eyes of the different other. Taking Jesus across just as he is,” Tshehla concludes, “means being genuinely concerned about those around you, those in the other boats” (page 11).

This image of “the other boats” certainly has potential for application in our time and space. If we see our congregations (or denominations) as “boats,” then this is an imperative to break those boundaries and embrace the needs and perspectives and strengths of the whole flotilla. If we imagine our ethnic, racial, and cultural divisions as “boats,” there is the same imperative.

There is a danger to the “other” aspect of other boats and other sides. Some scholars wonder if Mark has somewhat uncritically adopted the imperialist, colonial assumptions of the Roman system and simply proposed that Jesus is on the throne rather than Caesar. If that’s the case, then we should exercise great care in our interpretation.

Even if that’s not Mark’s assumption, it can too easily become ours. “Other” quickly translates into strange, foreign, inferior – and then savage, strange, and worthy of elimination. We too often think we’re bringing Jesus in our boat when in fact we are bringing our desire to dominate culturally, racially, economically, and theologically. That does not seem to fit with the mission of the Lord who comes not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

“Otherness is due less to the difference of the Other than to the point of view and the discourse of the person who perceives the Other as such,” Jean-Francois Staszak writes in the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. “Opposing Us, the Self, and Them, the Other, is to choose a criterion that allows humanity to be divided into two groups: one that embodies the norm and whose identity is valued and another that is defined by its faults, devalued and susceptible to discrimination.”

The “Other” is a construction based on centering our own perspective and position as normal and normative. There’s an opportunity in this text to reflect on and encourage the deconstruction of our own “othering” perspectives and practices. That’s especially appropriate during a week when we remember the murders of the Charlottesville Nine and the celebration (or lack thereof) of Juneteenth.

As far as Jesus is concerned, in an important sense, there are no “Others.” I should hasten to say that it takes a bit for this to “stick” in Jesus’ mind and ministry (see the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman). But it is certainly part of Mark’s overall theme for the Gospel. Is it a theme for us as Jesus-followers?

References and Resources

Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.

Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.

Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.

Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.

Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.

Wild and Wonderful Weeds! — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

The Third Sunday after Pentecost; Read Mark 4:26-34

Mark 4 is the “Seed Section” of that gospel. Today we get two small parables and a conclusion from that chapter. The first parable describes the Reign of God as seed that grows on its own. The second parable describes the Reign of God something that starts small and grows to huge size. The conclusion assures us that the Good News of the Reign of God comes to us as we’re able to hear it.

When we Christians read the Gospel parables, we need to read them with Jesus at the center if the story. When we get a parable with a seed falling into the earth, for example, we need to think about Jesus’ death and burial.

Jesus does that himself in John twelve, verse twenty-four. “Very truly, I tell you,” he declares to us disciples, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

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Jesus “falls” into the ground and dies. No one can see what is happening. Everyone assumes that nothing good can come. But soon he bursts forth, and the harvest of the New Creation begins. That harvest continues in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Notice just how little control the farmer has over the crop in that first parable. Jesus says, the earth produces the seed “of itself.” The Greek word there is “automateh”—the ancient root of our word, “automatic.” God is in charge of the growth. We get to help with the harvesting.

For forty years, I have been asked in a variety of settings about how to “make the church grow.” That’s been the subtext of every interview with call committees. It was part of my job when I worked for a judicatory and a denomination. It was the overt focus of my longest-term call. It was the agenda of a whole movement early in my ministry career – the “church-growth movement.”

The question was always the same. What’s the technique, method, structure, focus, philosophy and/or product that will produce reliable growth (usually measured in attendance numbers) in a congregation? People have made lots of money and staked themselves to productive careers proposing a variety of answers to the question.

What I learned the hard way is that the answer is easy. Get out of the way. The Holy Spirit wants the Church to grow in any and every way that facilitates the continued coming of the Reign of God. We don’t have to “make” the church grow. There’s no cultivation technique or theological fertilizer or ecclesial gardening tool that offers the magic solution. The Reign of God is like a seed that grows automatically.

If it’s that easy, why don’t we just do it? Join me for a bit in my garden, if you will. I want things to grow on my schedule, according to my specifications, and for my purposes. I want tomatoes and cucumbers and onions and potatoes (and several other things as well). I don’t want little trees and dandelions and bindweed. I certainly don’t want powdery mildew and Japanese beetles. In order to make the garden do what I want, I have to exert force and effort.

It’s anything but automatic.

Now, growing vegetables is a fine thing. The effort is rewarded, most of the time. But I don’t have to exert that sort of effort in our pollinator garden, where we have native plants that do quite well on their own, thank you very much. If those plants were in my vegetable beds, they would be weeds and would quickly be pulled. Same plants – different agenda.

The Church does not grow automatically, because we seek to maintain and manage and monitor the growth according to our specifications. We guard against any changes that might make us uncomfortable. We weed out any nonconforming species and maintain a monolithic monoculture. We provide only the minimum spiritual and financial resources necessary to sustain the organization as it is, and as we like it.

In short, we often do everything we can to make sure that growth is anything but “automatic.”

We are called to relentlessly root out the roadblocks to growth in and through the Church. That will be quite enough work for any faithful church leader.

Then there’s the mustard seed. Certainly, mustard seed is tiny when compared to other seeds. But size isn’t the real issue. Mustard is not something you have to plant and cultivate. You wouldn’t find mustard plants in the local gardens in Nazareth or Capernaum. Mustard is invasive and persistent. Think crabgrass or creeping Charlie or henbit. That’s the kind of plant Jesus describes.

Notice the outcome of this wild and wonderful growth. The mustard plant is really a large bush. It may grow to a height of eight or ten feet. It will be large enough to provide shelter for birds and other animals. If you were watching closely, you may have noticed that this image takes us back to our first lesson.

The ancient prophets described Israel as the great cedar tree that God would use to shelter the nations. We see that image in our first lesson. When God’s kingdom comes, even the least important critters will find shelter. In the gospels, birds are symbols for rather unimportant things. In Jewish thought, many birds were regarded as ritually unclean. In fact, both Ezekiel and Jesus use the image of the birds to refer to the kingdom-outsiders who now rest in the shade of that magnificent bush.

So the growth is not just for us to have more mustard seed. The growth is not just so the church can be a magnificent bush. Instead, the Holy Spirit gives the growth so the outsiders in our lives can find shelter from the storms of life.

The mustard bush is not, however, a proud and magnificent cedar tree. The real work of God’s kingdom will happen in places where we might least expect it. In Ezekiel seventeen, verse twenty-four, the LORD speaks through the prophet. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord,” writes the prophet. “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”

We may be looking at the great trees for great things. God, on the other hand, works through the wild weeds of the wilderness to bring about wonders of growth. So, for example, a small congregation should never feel bad about being small. This is where the Holy Spirit does its best work.

Jesus doesn’t point to the noble cedar, as does Ezekiel. Instead, this kingdom parable points to “something more ordinary, and yet also something more able to show up,” Matt Skinner proposes, “to take over inch by inch, and eventually to transform a whole landscape.” What a humorous and hopeful image in a world awash with stories of pompous prats who cannot deal with their own fraudulent failures.

The Reign of God among us may well crowd out our own planned church crops and reach out to fowl we wouldn’t welcome on our own. The mustard seed is growing, for example, outside the walls of our church buildings and the boundaries of our worshipping communities, whether we like that or not. Will we chuckle or grumble in God’s garden? Will we regard that extravagant and spontaneous growth as Good News or as weeds to be pulled?

Then, there’s the “conclusion” to the text. Our text points, perhaps, to the reality that the emergence of the Reign of God from mystery into meaning, from darkness into light, will create discomfort and disturbance for the status quo. The seed of the Reign of God grows automatically and with astonishing productivity – if we don’t resist it. That seed grows in places we would not choose, thank God! And the more we do to open ourselves to that wonder, the more of the mystery will become meaningful to us.

When we understand that the bursting forth of the Reign of God from the ground and into the open means trouble for some folks, we may get a clearer sense of how Mark, chapter 4, is finally structured. The Ruler of this world, in all sorts of disguises will storm and threaten to frighten us into retreat. But we are not to back down.

Uncovering the past disrupts the present and challenges the status quo. That sounds like a storm to me. We know that our communal histories as a nation and as church bodes hide unacknowledged stories of abuse and trauma that continue to shape how we act and react as such communities. Surfacing those stories is painful, and necessary, and filled with conflict and violence.

When things come up that have been long submerged, stuff is going to happen. When it happens, Jesus is right there in the boat with us. More on that next week.

Now reflect on the past week. Where did you see the Holy Spirit working in wild and unexpected ways? As you think, prepare your eyes for this week’s harvest. Get ready to look for the work of the Spirit in you and through you. And get ready for a week of wild and wonderful weeds!

Letters to Phil #9 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Yes, Paul does appear to speak in opaque riddles at times, even in the very same letter! Like you, I have puzzled over and been frustrated by the ambiguities and contradictions in the first letter to the Church at Corinth. “For indeed in one Spirit were all were baptized into one body,” Paul writes, “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free persons, and we are all were made to drink one Spirit.”[i]

That does indeed seem like Paul is walking back his bold assertion to the Galatian Christians – that in our baptism there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.[ii] One of our best historians on the topic, Jennifer Glancy, says, “Unlike Galatians, 1 Corinthians does not suggest that divisions between slave and free are obsolete among the baptized. Rather,” she writes, “1 Corinthians proclaims that both slave and free are incorporated into the body of Christ.”[iii]

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If you (and Glancy) read Paul correctly, then he is not telling the enslaved persons in Corinth – or Galatia – that baptism into Christ translates into the abolition of the slaveholder/enslaved relationship between Christians. In your perspective, if I may presume to speak for you, Paul’s counsel to escape enslavement if the chance presented itself could only apply in situations where the slaveholder was a pagan, and the enslaved person was a Christian. Is that how it seems to you?

Otherwise, you seem to argue, Paul counsels Christians to remain in their current life situations. Christian slaveholders are not obliged to manumit their Christian slaves. Christian slaves should not seek to escape from their Christian slaveholders. Single and married people should not seek to change their situations either, as Paul discusses in the first Corinthian letter. Do I have your position right?

From our perspective, it seems that Paul is assuming that Jesus will return in rather short order. So why bother to make major personal, communal, and social changes? Paul may have viewed all that as, in our idiom, a waste of good red tape. To his credit, Paul doesn’t believe for a minute that these relationships will persist into the New Creation. To his detriment, Paul seems to argue that, as a result, it’s not really worth the bother to make significant changes in those relationships now.

I understand you to say (and to believe that Paul says) that our oneness in the body of Christ transcends our mundane human divisions and distinctions. As a result, and in the shadow of the New Creation, those divisions and distinctions no longer matter. It’s not necessary, you seem to argue, to change our social arrangements, since they are temporary and only of this world. I’m not persuaded by that argument, from Paul or from you.

Yes, Phil, I know that Paul told the Philippian church that our citizenship is in heaven.[iv] But I’m just not convinced that this is license to ratify current earthly relationships just as they are. I’m not convinced especially in cases, like enslavement, where the relationships are so contradictory to Paul’s own standards of bearing one another’s burdens for the sake of Christ.[v]

Glancy pushes the issue by examining how it might work out in a Christian household – one where the slaveholder family and the household slaves are all now Christians and members of the same house church. Prior to conversion, the slaveholders could have all sorts of access to the bodies of the enslaved persons without the “permission” of the enslaved persons and with no consequences, either legal or spiritual. Her questions are twofold. Did Paul believe conversion changed that relational equation, and if so, how did that work out in practice?

When Onesimus returned to your household as a baptized member of the body of Christ, did that change your decisions about whether to use a whip on him? Did that change your decisions about whether to discipline him with branding or a slave collar or a tattoo? Did that impact your decisions about whether or not to sell him off as more trouble than he was worth? I don’t mean to be impertinent. These are real questions in my mind.

Paul asks you to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but rather more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me [Paul] but how much more to you – both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[vi] It seems to me that in that sentence Paul moves “from preaching to meddling” (as we might put it in our vernacular). It’s that last phrase – “both in the flesh and in the Lord” – that I suspect caused you great consternation.

It’s one thing to regard all this change in status as “spiritual,” that is, “in the Lord” and not really impacting mundane matters. But what about “in the flesh.” I suppose Paul could be arguing that in baptism, you and Onesimus had become members of one “family,” rather than merely members of the same “household.”

I understand that “family” and “household” are pretty much synonyms for you and don’t carry the same weight the ideas do for me and my time. I wonder if it might be more accurate to suggest that Paul expected you to treat Onesimus as “kinfolk,” in the same way that you would treat Lady Apphia and Master Archippus. That would be a revolutionary change and would be asking a great deal of you and your biological kin. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Paul treads so lightly in his request (command) to you.

Glancy argues that “Paul never stated that he saw slaveholding as incompatible with the gospel. He believed,” she continues, “that within the church community, divisions between slave and free should be immaterial. We may nonetheless infer,” she concludes, “that Paul was insensitive to the actual impact of slavery within the community of believers”[vii] That may have been the case as Paul was writing his first letter to the church at Corinth. I’m not sure it was his position at the end of his mission, when he was writing his letter to you.

It seems that Paul’s certainty of the nearness of our Lord’s return faded with each passing year of his mission. In the Thessalonian letters, that return seemed poised to occur at any moment. The Corinthian letters seem to portray a sense that the return was somewhat delayed but still relatively imminent. The letters to the churches at Rome and Philippi have a quite different flavor when it comes to this certainty of the nearness of our Lord’s return. These letters show a much greater concern for how the Good News of Jesus Christ impacts our relationships and reality in the here and now – our life “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

I belabor this point because it matters much more in my time than it does in yours. We have no reason to believe that our Lord’s return is imminent. Nor are we excused from the responsibility and opportunity to begin living the reality of that return in our here and now. Yet, we white Christians spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to maintain Paul’s early view that changing mundane matters is just a waste of good red tape.

Cornel West, one of our contemporary sages, has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Here’s what we know from our horrible history of enslavement, oppression, segregation, and genocide on this continent. When we try to separate life in the flesh from life in the Lord, we lose our capacity to love in public. And when we fail to love in public, we are certain to fail to love in private as well.

This separation of life in the flesh from life in the Lord (which Paul seeks to overcome in your household, I think), leads us to deform our humanity and our faith, deceive ourselves, and deny the humanity of those we enslave, oppress, segregate, and erase from the pages of history. Paul’s ambiguous and overly careful words about enslavement have bequeathed to us what another of our great contemporary writers, Willie James Jennings, has called a “diseased Christian imagination.”

We imagine that, somehow, we can deny the physical humanity of our sisters and brothers while embracing their baptismal identity in Christ. That diseased imagination has created historical trauma for the heirs of the enslaved as victims and for us heirs of the slaveholders as perpetrators. I can tell you that a Stoic denial of the importance of the here and now is no antidote to that diseased imagination. Nor is the western Christian dualism which pretends that our earthly actions have no cosmic consequences.

I don’t know for sure how you have worked this out. I can tell you that two millennia later, we’re not doing very well. The history of our lives together in the flesh, long buried under the detritus of white supremacy, is rising to the surface, and demanding to be heard. Some of us, me included, find this to be good, if painful, news. But many more of us are exerting every legal, political, economic, social, and violent option to avoid the truth that could set us (all) free.

Nowhere is that more obvious and militant than in our Christian churches. Many of us would rather commit institutional suicide than to hear inconvenient truths about white supremacy. I wonder how that sort of conversation went in your time?

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] 1 Corinthians 12:13, my translation

[ii] Cf. Galatians 3:28

[iii] Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today, Kindle Location 339f.

[iv] Philippians 3:20.

[v] Galatians 6:5

[vi] Philemon 16, my translation

[vii] Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today, Kindle Location 447.

An Excerpt from “Who Knows” — Throwback Thursday Books

The Prayers of Pious Pagans

The Apostle Paul can explain how such a pious pagan might know the potentials of God.  We read in Romans one, verses eighteen through twenty, about the natural law as written into the fabric of Creation.  Paul puts it into the context of Gentile accountability for sin, but the assumption remains clear.  “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made….”  The book of Jonah assumes that everyone really knows how the system works.

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

The sailors use a time-tested method of allowing God or the gods to decide something.  In all likelihood, they used stones or pieces of pottery with a simple yes/no system.  Is the offender in this half or that half of the crew?  Is the offender in this half or that half of the remainder?  Eventually the lot narrows the field to two men, and then to one—Jonah. 

The LORD had indeed spoken, and the mariners listened.  But they did not act immediately.  Notice the change in tempo in the story.  In the midst of tossing all manner of cargo overboard, hauling sails, pulling at oars, and crying out in prayer, the men conduct a board of inquiry.  They are models of patience, compassion and justice.

Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

The questions pour from their anxious hearts, almost faster than the story-teller can record them.  The reply must have been astonishing.  The remedy for their crisis was sitting right in front of them!

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Limburg points out that verse nine is the structural center of this scene.  Ninety-four Hebrew words lead up to this verse, and ninety four Hebrew words succeed this verse (that is, if you allow Limburg’s contention that verse sixteen is a conclusion outside of this structure).[1]  Thus the hinge of this scene is Jonah’s confession of faith.

His confession reflects exactly the terms of Genesis, chapter one.  “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’  And it was so.  God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together He called Seas” (verses 9 and 10).  Jonah gets the words right, but the music isn’t there.  In terms of Jonah’s actions, this confession rings hollow.  But it certainly describes who exactly is in charge of this scene.  The mariners know this even if Jonah does not.

Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.

Every disaster has a “tipping point” at which all the previous errors, mistakes, and broken systems cascade into one massive failure.  We get the sense from the mariners that they have passed the tipping point in their own disaster experience.  Now they must figure out what to do in the face of the inevitable.  Those who lived through Katrina had similar moments.  I wrote in my journal on July twenty-fifth about the testimony of a St. Bernard Parish firefighter.

“On Thursday nights at Camp Hope, local speakers come in to talk about their Katrina experiences. We were fortunate to hear from one of the veteran firefighters from the St. Bernard parish. I took notes as quickly as I could.


Chalmette High School (the location of Camp Noah!) was a “shelter of last resort.” Frank, the firefighter, stayed there with some of his colleagues. Two children in the parish were on ventilators when the power went off, but the fire fighters had generators to provide backup from both department stock and personal resources.


On Monday morning they thought the storm was over. The eye of Katrina had passed and the “right punch” of the storm was not as bad as they had anticipated. They thought they were safe. Then the surge came and the water started to rise. In twenty minutes the water was chest-deep. So the firefighters and others who had gathered there moved to the second story.


There was no FEMA or military presence discernable for ten days. The levee broke in the Ninth Ward and the Mississippi over-topped the local levee–thus the water levels. The folks moved to the Bell South building as the water kept rising. It was the highest local building. The water continued to rise. They stayed in the Bell South building for eleven days. Frank was there five days before he could contact his family in Arkansas.


The mariners knew that accounts had to be balanced.  Jonah had already fled.  The point of no return had been passed.  Actions would now be taken that would never have been considered under normal circumstances.

Now What Do We Do?

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

Let us begin with the last words of this paragraph.  “Nevertheless!”  In the face of the facts, they still resist pitching the troublemaker overboard.  The men are absolute paragons of virtue, justice, and compassion.  The story-teller leaves no doubt that they do everything humanly possible to save Jonah.  But, of course, saving Jonah is not their vocation.  As the waves grow higher and higher, they discover that someone else will have to rescue the stupid seer.

They assume that a scapegoat ritual is the necessary way to resolve the situation.  This point is absolutely critical in my analysis of Jonah, Noah, Katrina and Christ.  I am arguing that the Noah account records God’s commitment to renounce Divine violence as the means of resolving sin and evil. 

This does not mean that humans are freed from the use of violence in the face of sin and evil—at least in terms of the Flood account.  Two bits of poetry contain the tension arising from Noah’s experience.  First is the Divine promise.

As long as earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,

Summer and winter, day and night,

Shall not cease.

(Genesis 8:22).

Here is yet another example of the Divine commitment to renounce world-destroying violence as the means of resolving sin and evil.  But human vengeance shall remain as a mechanism for resolving specific incidents in the history of sin and evil.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,

By a human shall that person’s blood be shed;

For in his own image

God made humankind.

(Genesis 9:6).

This text certainly limits the blood-vendetta cycle to the two human beings involved in the murder and its aftermath.  That limitation is still a revolutionary idea—just think about the cycles of retribution that continue to play out in the Middle East and in our own streets between rival gangs.  Nonetheless, the opening remains for what can only be called the process of scapegoating—blaming another for my own brokenness and then requiring that other to pay the price.

I am arguing that the message of Jonah is the Divine commitment to renounce the scapegoat as the method, Divine or human, of resolving sin and evil.

The idea of scapegoating as a basic human practice has been most fully developed by those who follow the ideas of Rene Girard.  Here is a technical description of this idea.  “When groups are under mimetic stress, the group is on the verge of destruction and must find a way to deal with the negative consequences of all the residual anger that has accumulated from the various internecine conflicts. Lacking the animal world’s way of diffusing hostility, humanity has come up with its own braking mechanism to stop the escalation of mimetic conflict and that solution is the scapegoat.”[2]

One of the simplest ways to deal with group anxiety is to deflect that anxiety on to another individual or group.  Then the “offender” is killed or banished, thus taking away the anxiety for a period of time.  The Hebrew scapegoat ritual is described, for example, in Leviticus 16:6ff.  There the people use an actual goat.  But in most human communities the scapegoat is a person or group of people.  Jonah assumes that he is now required to be that scapegoat for the sake of those on the boat.  Reluctantly the mariners share in that assumption.

Jonah has shared in this assumption from the beginning.  Now we can really start to zero in on the nature of the “congregation” to which the Book of Jonah is “preaching.”  For that may be the most helpful and interesting way to view this book. 

Let us see it as a sermon directed to a set of people with the goal of bringing about repentance.  These (Jewish) folks see others—foreigners, Gentiles and pagans—as the source of all their difficulties.  Those difficulties probably include a destroyed Jerusalem temple, a capital city in shambles, a nation that now exists as a conquered province, and foreigners who laugh at any claims of power on the part of the Hebrew god.

The desire to punish those foreigners must have been intense.  What sense did anything make at this point?  The wicked prospered.  The enemies triumphed.  A system of meaning had to be constructed.  That system involved blaming the pagans for the failings of the people of God.  S. Mark Heim would describe this as “cheap meaning.”  You will recognize that description. 

“…cheap meaning is always derived by positioning oneself over against some ‘other’ considered to be wicked.  Cheap meaning makes life apparently exciting in the short term: it seems to give a purpose, but in fact it is a mirage, an illusion.  There is nothing that can ultimately substitute for the long, patient task of being brought into being as a human.”[3]

For Jonah, Nineveh must suffer and die.  Otherwise life ceases to have any meaning.  Thus it is no accident that every time Jonah is disappointed (due to God’s compassion), Jonah asks for his death.  After all, without the scapegoat, what’s the point?  Without that linchpin in the system of meaning, why would anyone want to go on?

In the Flood story, God cooperates with this strategy.  In fact, God institutes the ongoing system of limited retribution as a way to contain evil and to make such Divine intervention unnecessary in the future.  But the Jonah story helps us to see the God who rejects and renounces such tactics.  They will simply produce more sin and evil.  In fact, I would argue that the Jonah story gives us the most profound hint at the cross found in the whole Old Testament—if we have ears tuned to such hints.

Hall reminds us that the theology of the cross is the end of any and all scapegoating.  He writes, “We are not called to laud and embrace this symbol of violence and torture and death as though it were something splendid.  What is good lies hidden underneath or behind this dreadful reality: namely, God’s concealed presence and determination to mend the creation from within.”[4]

Don’t Make Us Do This!

Even the mariners know that an innocent man cannot be used as the scapegoat.  If they pitch a man without guilt overboard they will certainly be held responsible by the LORD for their crime.  Human beings shall not, in the context of Jonah, execute an innocent simply to meet their own needs for survival.  So they pray that they have discerned rightly what God intends to do with this troublemaker.

Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.

The proof is in the pudding.  Jonah sinks like a rock and the seas are calmed.  Of course, this situation cannot be analogous to the cross of Jesus Christ.  Hall directs our attention to the world’s methods for resolving sin and evil and how God has renounced those methods.

Even as we breathe a sigh of relief with the mariners now resting on a tranquil sea, we can worry about the fate of Jonah the Jerk.  In a moment, we will learn that he has not been punished.  He has a near-death experience.  But near-death is not dead.  The fish will be appointed to rescue him from the watery grave, and he will be used—like it or not—to break the cycle of violence.  Jonah is saved in order to save Nineveh.

Here is a question which Jonah’s narrative raises for that first congregation and also for us.  Do I fear, love and trust God above all else (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism) for what I hope to receive?  Or do I fear, love and trust God above all else for what I have already been given?  Am I like Jonah, obedient to the LORD as long as that obedience fits my parameters, assumptions, needs and priorities?  Or do I abandon that obedience at the first sign that God has, perhaps gone astray?

Hall suggests that our Christian doctrines can paint God into such a box that compassion and forgiveness are no longer possible.  Like Jonah, we may choose to have higher standards than God and thus become God’s enemies in the end.

“Doctrine must never become so drunk on redemption, or rather on its own superlatives and exaggerations of the redeemed estate, that it ends by denigrating the creation that God ‘so loved’ and loves.  The cross is at once, for Christians, the ultimate statement of humankind’s movement away from God and of God’s gracious movement towards fallen humankind.  I think of the cross of Golgotha as the divine determination to claim this world, however wretched its history and however costly its redemption.”[5]

It is the LORD who gets to decide on salvation, and we likely aren’t even let in on the barest outlines of that decision.  Thus we are called to be open to the needs of those who simply do not meet our standards.  Like Jonah, we will often be called to go to Nineveh.  Deanna Thompson draws this conclusion about daily living.  “To live faithfully under the reality of the cross is to live as one who has been justified by God and opened to the brokenness and needs of the world in which one lives.”[6]


[1] Limburg, page 48.

[2] http://www.preachingpeace.org/scapegoat.htm

[3] Interview with James Allison, “Violence Undone” in The Christian Century (September 5, 2006), page 33.

[4] Douglas John Hall, “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), page 11.

[6] Deanna A. Thompson, “Becoming a Feminist Theologian of the Cross,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), page 25.

[5] Douglas John Hall, “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), pages 9-10.

Text Study for Mark 4:26-34 (Pt. 4); 3 Pentecost B 2021

4. Unwanted Growth

Lately Brenda and I have been re-watching a BBC crime drama series entitled “New Tricks” (as in “you can’t teach old dogs…”). It is the ongoing story of the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad (UCOS), a fictional division of the London Metropolitan Police Service tasked with re-investigating unresolved cases. The UCOS team is made up of a Detective Inspector (the character named Sandra Pullman) and three retired (male) detectives who bring their experience and eccentricities to bear on some fascinating cases.

I enjoy the characters and their interactions. The cases are intelligent and creative, and each of the characters has a back story which has the flavor of an unsolved case about it as well. The program has the character of a “drama-dy” with lots of by-play among the characters, highlighting the backlog of dysfunction, misogyny, racism, and mental instability which moved the “old dogs” into retirement in the first place. Part of the subtext of the series is that even in the midst of this interpersonal mess, as a team they can produce remarkable results and actually grow as human beings.

Old dogs can learn new tricks, and it’s great fun watching.

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

I mention this series in connection with the gospel text because the series has this flavor of hidden things coming to the surface and secret things coming to light. Many of the cases UCOS takes on are unresolved because it is in the interest of perpetrators and/or the powerful to leave the cases, the victims, and their families in the dark rather than to deal with the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths that are typically part of these cases.

When something new is unearthed – sometimes a body or a document, sometimes new evidence or the potential for a DNA test (pretty new stuff twenty years ago), things change, and people get upset. It’s not unusual for the UCOS team to have to choose between the expediency of leaving things buried, and the desire to unearth the truth for the sake of justice.

Our text points, perhaps, to the reality that the emergence of the Kingdom from mystery into meaning, from darkness into light, will create discomfort and disturbance for the status quo. The seed of the Kingdom of God grows automatically and with astonishing productivity – if we don’t resist it. The Parable of the Sower is not about preparation but rather about resistance, about things that get in the way of the “natural” growth of the Kingdom among us. That explains the use of the Isaiah 6 quote in verse 12 and the warning in verses 24 and 25.

When we understand that the bursting forth of the Kingdom from the ground and into the open means trouble for some folks, we may get a clearer sense of how Mark, chapter 4, is finally structured. The relationship of “The Calming of the Storm” (Mark 4:35-41, next week’s gospel pericope) to the surrounding material is an open question.

Granted that the chapter and verse numbers are later additions, the question still remains. Is “The Calming of the Storm” the end of the seeds discourse or the beginning of the next section of the gospel? The answer to that question will tells us something about the discourse as well as about next week’s reading.

Timothy Milinovich argues that “The Calming of the Storm” is the conclusion to the preceding discourse. The Calming text is certainly a transition from one section of the gospel account to the next. However, Milinovich suggests, the connections with the preceding material are much stronger in narrative literary terms than with the succeeding material.

 He notes that chapter four continues an “instruction/demonstration” pattern found in the first three chapters as well. He also points to over a dozen linguistic connections between the Seeds Discourse and the Calming miracle. Third, he points to parallels between the structure and emphasis of the Parable of the Sower and the Calming miracle. Thus, these two texts form the outer ring of the chiastic structure of Mark 4 and mutually interpret and reinforce one another.

“The purpose of the parables in Mark 4:1–34 is to express in narrative form the paradox of Christ’s Sonship and death on the cross as a saving activity for humanity,” Milinovich concludes. “It is the person of Christ, God’s Son, by whom God is present with his people, and through whom God effects his plan for salvation,” he continues. “The ministry of Christ already reveals this paradox for those who are willing to hear and see with faith and understanding,” including, Milinovich says, Mark’s community of believers under duress in Rome.

Now, what does story of the Calming miracle have to do with the preceding? Milinovich offers some detailed work that we may review next week. The point I want to make is somewhat different. I wonder if Mark is communicating to his audience that when the seed appears (when the mystery of the gospel is revealed), the faithful should expect storms rather than calm.

Just as the unearthing of new evidence was often disruptive in the stories told in “New Tricks,” so the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, challenges the status quo of power, position, privilege, and property in the first century and the twenty-first century. I wonder if Mark wants us to understand that the revelation of the mystery of the kingdom will cause problems rather than produce comfort.

This leads me to reflect on the things that arise “from the ground” that we in the dominant culture want to resist and suppress. For example, the bodies of 215 Indigenous children have been found on the grounds of a former boarding school. It has taken time and the wait has produced inestimable agony, I assume, on the part of those whose children were “lost.” Yet, the seed of truth lay in the ground awaiting the conditions that would allow it to spring forth.

I imagine there are a number of people who wish that this truth had remained buried in the ground. The harvest of justice for the victims will produce a harvest of consequences, I pray, for the perpetrators.

Another example. I am part of a group in our judicatory reading and studying Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism. He encourages us to explore and write out our personal, congregational, and institutional histories with race and ethnicity. I find that white people resist that idea for themselves and the organizations of which they are a part.

The purpose of such writing is to answer the question, “How did things get this way?” What has transpired historically that has produced all-white congregations on stolen land? Uncovering the real history of our lives, our places, and our communities – for white people – requires a number of reckonings with our past and how that plays out in current realities. Specifically, we must come face to face with the real and conscious decisions on the part of our forebears that have resulted in slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and all the ways we continue to benefit from the injustices produced.

Uncovering the past disrupts the present and challenges the status quo. That sounds like a storm to me.

We know that our communal histories as a nation and as church bodes hide unacknowledged stories of abuse and trauma that continue to shape how we act and react as such communities. Surfacing those stories is painful, and necessary, and filled with conflict and violence.

We can look at the Perpetrator Induced Trauma Syndrome and the multi-generational crimes of white supremacy and genocide that only now are really coming to light, as described by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah in their book, Unsettling Truths. We can research, examine, and acknowledge the economic inequities of colonial and imperial systems that continue to oppress much of the world’s population right here and right now. We can demand to learn the real truth behind the January 6 insurrection, where the blood of the victims cries out from the ground unheard.

The uncovering, the unearthing, the surfacing also applies to things happening among us now. In my own ELCA, the currents of justice and the counter-currents of white supremacy, homophobia, colonialism, imperialism, classism, and ageism clash in storms that often don’t get to the surface of general awareness. But it doesn’t take much reflection to see that our social statements and messages, however well-intentioned, rarely receive the policy support, the judicatory enforcement, and the financial backing required to make the statements more than performative gestures.

When things come up that have been long submerged, stuff is going to happen. When stuff happens, Jesus is right there in the boat with us.

More on that next week.

References and Resources

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

David Schnasa Jacobsen. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-mark-426-34-5.

David Lose. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-3-b-preach-the-truth-slant/.

Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).

Sharon Ringe. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-mark-426-34-2.

Schellenberg, R. (2009). Kingdom as Contaminant? The Role of Repertoire in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(3), 527-543. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709811.

Matt Skinner. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-mark-426-34-4.

Snodgrass, Klyne. “A Hermeneutic of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 14.1 (2004) 59-79.

Timothy Wenger. Luther’s Small Catechism.

Text Study for Mark 4:26-34 (Pt. 3); 3 Pentecost B 2021

3. Seeing and Hearing

Pericope preaching always contains the peril of missing the larger point. We get the two smaller seed parables in the second half of Mark 4. Each of them has more than enough fodder to feed a sermon every three years. But the seed parables are not stand-alone units. Nor is it enough, even, to put them together in some sort of additive analogy. They are part of a larger discourse that moves the plot of Mark along.

Mark 4:1-34 is clearly intended to be viewed as a unit. Verses 2 and 34 serve as the bookends for this set of parables and explanations. In that light, we need to pay some attention to the whole chapter in order to understand the appointed Gospel reading. That would be all well and good if the whole unit were about seeds and soil, planting and harvesting, growth and grace. But it’s not. Right in the middle of all the agricultural imagery is the imagery of the unhidden lamp (Mark 4:21-25). Unless Jesus is talking about some sort of first-century growth light, the connection is not obvious to us.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

The writer of Mark’s gospel is fond, as we have noted of structural sandwiches. On closer examination, these sandwiches are often chiasms, a central point or story surrounded by concentric circles of related images, illustrations, and parables. That appears to be the structure of Mark 4 as it was the main structure of Mark 3 (keeping in mind that the chapter and verse divisions are later features of the text, added by scribes in succeeding centuries). The question in a chiasm is, where is the center?

Scholars propose a variety of chiastic arrangements for the text, each with its own virtues. The one I find most convincing puts the “Unhidden Lamp” section of verses 21-25 at the center of the discourse. This means that our text for the day in verses 26-34 is intended to illustrate, expand, and comment on those verses. That’s why it’s worth spending some time figuring out what those verses mean in order to fully and fairly exegete our assigned text.

He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’” (Mark 4:21-23, NRSV). In a gospel famous for keeping secrets, Jesus declares that the purpose is to reveal everything. Nothing that is “encrypted” that shall not be made apparent. Nothing that is a secret shall remain so.

Jesus comes to reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. The seed may be planted and grow in the secrecy of underground life. But it will come out of the ground and become visible. Not only will it manifest itself, but it will be a riotous growth and magnificent harvest. The light coming into the world will not be under an opaque shade. It will be uncovered for all to see. Jesus is revealing that mystery to the disciples so that they can share the light with others.

That inside information comes by seeing and hearing. Pay attention to that throughout Mark’s gospel. It’s no accident that a number of Jesus’ miracles in Mark have to do with healing the blind and deaf.

“If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear,” Jesus promises in verse 23. He expands on that in verse 24. He said to them, “See what you hear!” That’s the literal translation of three Greek words. The sentence has the sense of “Pay attention to what you are hearing!” Stop, look, and listen closely. That close attention is paid off by deeper understanding, “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’” (Mark 4:24-25).

Klyne Snodgrass describes “A Hermeneutics of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4” (what did I do before Google Scholar, Academia, and JSTOR?). “Jesus’ parables were intended to enable hearing and elicit a response,” he writes. “They assume a hermeneutics of hearing, one that calls for depth listening and includes a hermeneutic of obedience,” he continues. Snodgrass notes that the Greek word for hearing includes “a range of at least eight nuances…: literally to hear a sound; to understand a language; to understand in the sense of grasping meaning or significance; to recognize; to discern; to pay attention; to agree with, accept, or believe what is said; and to obey.”

Snodgrass suggests that God seeks a hearing for the mystery of the gospel that “hears correctly, discerns, affirms, and responds with obedience to what God speaks.” Mark uses the verb for “to hear” 13 times in Mark 4:1-34. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses the parable to assist people to come to that sort of hearing. Snodgrass points us to verses 33-34, where the narrator says that Jesus spoke “the word” to the people in parables “just as they were able to hear.” “The parables were intended to meet people at their level,” Snodgrass writes, “and draw them to the deeper message.”

This is the weight of verses 21-25 as well. These verses “must be understood as commentary on the teaching of the parables,” he argues. “The statement that a light is not to be hidden but is to enlighten and the parallel statements that nothing is hidden except that it should be revealed refer to the parables,” he proposes. “Nothing is hidden in parables but that it should be made clear. This is the nature of parables,” he concludes, “they hide in order to reveal…”

For Jesus in Mark’s gospel, however, there is hearing, and then there is hearing. There is seeing, and then there is seeing. Pay attention to what you are hearing. There is more than meets the ear here. What you put into the dialogue is what you will get out of it, Jesus says in verse 24. “The way people respond to the parables,” Snodgrass writes, “determines whether additional revelation is given. Those who respond with real hearing receive added revelation,” he continues. “For those who respond with superficial hearing,” he argues, “even what they have heard is of no effect.”

I’m going to take the opportunity to go on a bit of a rant at this point. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard from parishioners (my own and others) something like, “I just don’t get anything out of” a sermon, a worship service, a class, or a congregation. “I have to go somewhere else where I can be fed,” is the conclusion to that story. For some years I responded by trying to do more, do better, improve technique and content in order to provide a better product. None of that was wasted effort for my pastoral improvement, but it never kept one dissatisfied customer from looking elsewhere.

What I learned through repeated failure and subsequent reflection was that at least half of the issue was in the hearing rather than in the speaking. Some got nothing out of the content because they simply weren’t listening. Balancing the checkbook and catching up on email are not behaviors that facilitate good comprehension. Some got nothing out of the content because they weren’t prepared to receive the transmission. Biblical and theological illiteracy are tremendous roadblocks to growth in faith, hope, and love.

Some got nothing out of the content because they didn’t like me or the congregation or the denomination. The subtext of their lives drove the listening far more than the text of the moment. Some, in fairness, were traumatized by life in and out of the church – and it’s a wonder they even showed up. And then there were some who simply disagreed with what they heard. They knew the “right” answer, and they weren’t getting it from me. So hearing was not really an option.

If you were listening, you would notice that I just told my own version of the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-9. That parable is followed by a quotation from Isaiah 6 that mourns the hardness of heart of those who look but do not perceive, those who listen but do not understand. Isaiah’s explanation of this perceptual failure is that they are not willing to repent – to turn toward a new perspective, a new way of seeing and hearing, a new way of thinking.

The Sower sows the Word. The Word brings a whole new universe of meaning – the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the mystery of the kingdom, and that mystery will turn everything upside down and inside out (or right-side up and outside in, to use Richard Swanson’s understanding). If we can allow ourselves to be opened to that revolutionary message of newness, we will hear even more. If we harden ourselves into old ways of seeing and hearing, we will remain blind and deaf to the Kingdom.

We will see this process of seeing and hearing work out again and again in Mark’s gospel. And we see it working out again and again in the church. For example, it’s Pride Month. We’ve had a nice proclamation from our ELCA bishop in that regard. That proclamation means squat, however, as long as our welcome of all people is a constitutional option which most of our congregations refuse to exercise.

There’s no point in making declarations when the system is structured to keep eyes and ears closed.

References and Resources

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

David Schnasa Jacobsen. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-mark-426-34-5.

David Lose. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-3-b-preach-the-truth-slant/.

Sharon Ringe. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-mark-426-34-2.

Schellenberg, R. (2009). Kingdom as Contaminant? The Role of Repertoire in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(3), 527-543. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709811.

Matt Skinner. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-mark-426-34-4.

Snodgrass, Klyne. “A Hermeneutic of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 14.1 (2004) 59-79.

Timothy Wenger. Luther’s Small Catechism.