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Politics of Scripture

Crossing Over to the Other Shore—Mark 4:35-41

Christ is the Lord of the storm. We can leave fear behind and cross over to the other shore.

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

I dreamed this after a very long and difficult day at “my” ER. I was standing on a rope bridge, trembling and shaking, full of fear that I would tumble into the abyss with my next step. On the other side of the bridge stood my baby sister Ute. She waved to me and asked me to come to her, but I stood there like I had grown roots, full of fear and terror, and said, “I can’t do this.”

So she appeared by my side and spoke into my ear; she said, “Big brother, you can do this. Trust yourself and everything God has given you. Look at the bridge and with your faith trust that it is solid as a bridge made from wood. Go alone; I will stand here and watch you.”

I did as told, and it worked, but only for three steps; then I looked down and fear got the better of me again. My sister came up behind me and said, “But I know you can do this. Dismiss your fear; fear is only your mind tapping in the dark bumping its head. Obey the voice of your heart. Trust yourself and the God who wonderfully made you. Step out into the void by faith alone, and leave your fear behind.”

I started walking again and, although my knees were buckling, I once again looked at the shaky bridge with the eyes of faith and found it solid. And so my slow walk toward Ute began. When I finally arrived at the end of the bridge, she hugged me and said, “So, now you know what to do when things get tough.”

As in my dream, the themes of “fear” and “the other side” are central in our Gospel text from Mark 4. Nestled between a string of parables and a series of miracles, Mark tells his version of the story often called “The Stilling of the Storm”. Drawing on the tale of Jonah, he recounts how the disciples get caught up in a “great storm” when Jesus asks them, “Let us go across to the other side” (verse 35).

As hot air rises and cool air falls in the Sea of Galilee (700 feet below sea level), high winds can result without warning, along with waves that can top thirty feet. When the “perfect storm” makes the disciples fear for their lives, Jesus, having been asleep, rebukes the wind and addresses the raging elements as though they were unruly demons. As a serene silence surrounds them, Jesus scolds the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (verse 40), in essence calling them cowards.

Where Jesus actually “stills” the storm (in verse 41), the NRSV’s translation with “awe” is misleading. Mark uses a bold grammatical construction to describe the disciples’ complete and utter terror, and the power of that construction is preserved when Mark Davis, in his blog “Left Behind and Loving It”, translates: And they were afeared great fear, and said to one another, “Who the hell is this that even the wind and the sea listen to him?”

Ched Myers et al comment on the fact that, between Chapters 4 and 8, Mark tells us of four “crossings” to the other side: “The function of this crossing pattern is to dramatize the fact that, despite their cultural and political ‘otherness,’ Mark’s Jesus is determined to bring liberation to those on the other side” [Ched Myers, Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 56]. Seen this way, our story is not just one of many miracle-over-nature stories: It is about trusting Jesus in crossing over our usual boundaries.

This is the first time the Jesus movement ventures into gentile land. The other side represents hostile territory. Jesus invites the disciples to detach from the familiar shores of Capernaum toward the strange and foreign shores of the Gerasenes. Mark’s harrowing sea stories suggest that the task of social reconciliation was not only difficult but virtually inconceivable.

In New York City, June 24 is Pride Sunday; one big theme of this Sunday is indeed “the task of social reconciliation”. You see, before I was a pastor’s kid, a Lutheran pastor, therapist, musician, and teacher, first and foremost I have always been a child of God, beautifully created as a gay man. I remember distinctly my first few experiences of homophobia; we in the LGBT community have always faced strong headwinds simply because we hail from “the other side”, or as they say in Germany, “vom andern Ufer” (literally, from the other shore).

When I became a hospital chaplain in Brooklyn many years ago, Ute, my out-and-loud-and-proud baby sister, was angry with me because I was connected with what she had experienced all her life as wounding and shaming and excluding: Church. Because I, too, had experienced Church as homophobic, I kept it at arm’s length, but then one day at the funeral of one of my patients who had died of AIDS, Jesus slipped into the shoes of a Puerto Rican man and called me to speak and to heal.

It was then that I began to believe that there is space in God for a gay man. As I engaged in the process to become ordained I said, “And if there is no space for me in Church, then Jesus will make space, for he just called me.”

I’ve been ordained twenty-eight years, and Jesus has indeed made space for me time and again, and in turn I have tried to make space for my LGBT sisters and brothers. Even though I wasn’t able to create space for Ute (she committed suicide during my early NYC years), at least I was able to begin an ongoing conversation in my family: about Ute, but also about what it means to be gay in our “churchy” sort of family.

When Church has wounded and shamed and excluded us LGBT people, it followed the narrow-mindedness and prejudice of the surrounding culture. Church is slowly growing up and remembering that its job is to be counter-cultural, but it is doing so kicking and screaming.

I believe there are people sitting in every congregation this morning who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and who aren’t so sure that God is on their side; they are afraid that they might just not be righteous and acceptable in God’s sight because of whom they love or how they express their understanding of their own gender. If you are one of them, I am here to tell you that God created you just as you are and loves you individually and uniquely.

Part of our struggle is to expose the violence that is done to our spirits by the bigots and homophobes inside and outside of Church, the suffering and pain that does not leave wounds on our bodies, but kills us just the same. Being LGBT is not our “lifestyle”, but our biology. We are a gift from God to the world just the way we are. The Good News is that Jesus rebuked the stormy sea and transformed it from a barrier into a bridge to the other side.

As Myers suggests, Mark uses the powerful storm at sea as a symbol for the disciples’ resistance to cross over. Jesus is Lord over all the storms, and he made it clear to the disciples that they were indeed crossing over, whether they liked it or not. The Church is slowly learning this lesson, but the headwinds are still blowing all over the world, as homophobia and heterosexism are alive and well: as of August 2017, 73 countries had laws criminalizing homosexuality, with most of them being African and Islamic countries.

But those headwinds are raging here at home as well: our current administration continues to harm our community as it cancels specific protections put in place previously. Also, while the Obama administration consistently reminded the nations of the world that LGBT rights are human rights and must be protected, the Trump administration has ended that practice. By giving tacit approval to those who violate such rights, the US indicates that it will not interfere. In his recent meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, our President didn’t mention human rights at all.

When Mark wrote his Gospel, people feared the many-tentacled, unavoidable reach of the Roman Empire; our experience of empire today isn’t much better. Bigotry and prejudice have had a comeback under Mr. Trump, but as the People of God we follow Jesus who is obeyed by “even the wind and the sea.”

As a gay man I remind you on this Pride Sunday that Jesus is Lord over all our storms,

  • even the storms of your fear and resistance,
  • even the storms of hostility we experience from our own government.

We from the other shore are waiting for you to cross over. If the disciples could do it, you can too. My sister’s words are important: “Fear is only your mind tapping in the dark bumping its head. Step out into the void by faith alone, and leave your fear behind.” As we journey toward God and God’s new world, we are invited to leave fear behind, so we can embrace each and every part of God’s creation.

Let us pray. Breath of Life, soften the hearts of your people. Teach us to love fully and radically, all of your children as their whole selves. As you have sent us your advocate in the Holy Spirit, help us learn what it looks like to be advocates for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

In the name of our storm-stilling and liberating God. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Crossing Over to the Other Shore—Mark 4:35-41

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautifully prepared sermon with me. It is good to hear your voice as I guide others in crossing over- to a shore where love is for all of God’s people.

  2. Thank you, Fritz, for this powerful witness and message to both communities; gay and straight, reminding us that Jesus is with both because he loves both, equally. (And I do love it also when people quote from “my” book of the Bible.)

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