Monday, June 25, 2012

Batman, Death, Sharks, & Self-Giving

Batman looks to Robin, then back and down to the pool beneath them, sharks circling wildly, the rope on which they’re both bound and suspended inching closer to the waves below them seemingly by the second. Cut to the frenzied sharks. A tight shot of Robin, who struggles, relents, and casts a long, desperate gaze at our hero. Pan now to Batman, who summons all his strength to no avail. The rope slides. A shark chomps. The suspense reaches a crescendo that can no longer be contained when a voice from somewhere unseen interjects: “Will our hero survive? Will he and Robin escape in time to save the others? Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”


Adam West’s Batman perfected, perhaps, the cliffhanger ending. The unrelenting predictability of the show’s format both frustrated and riveted generations of adults and children alike. But Adam West’s Batman was only one of innumerable television shows through at least the early 1990s to master the power and gravity of those three tremendous words: “to be continued.” “To be continued…” because sometimes one episode can’t tell the whole story by itself.

This morning I have two goals. The first is to make the case that Adam West had nothing on the gospel of Mark. Once having established that Adam West had nothing on Mark’s gospel, the second goal is to ask how this fact would inform the way we read Mark and especially our lesson this morning in which Jesus calms the raging seas.

Will our preacher deliver on these two promised points? Can he do so before his thirteen minutes are over? Stay tuned…

First: why Adam West had nothing on Mark.

In Mark’s gospel, the word “immediately” appears a record forty-two times. It’s a record because Mark is only sixteen chapters long. Think about that – it’s nearly three times a chapter. Immediately Jesus did this. Immediately the people did that. Immediately Jesus… I get out of breath just reading Mark. It’s like watching a long volley on a tennis match. Endless action. You almost get the impression that Jesus sprinted through his ministry while James and John kept time.

And yet, nowhere in Mark’s gospel is speed or rapid motion held up as central to Jesus’s life and/or message. Indeed, sometimes “immediately” refers to non-actions, like retreats, as when, after the thousands have been fed with loaves and fishes, Jesus immediately sends his disciples away so that he can be by himself to pray. “Immediately” in this instance is kind of like “hurry up and wait” or the mothers who sends the kids off to the park with dad so she can get some peace. "Immediately" doesn't always equal urgency. Time isn’t exactly of the essence.

So this morning I want to suggest that, rather than strictly referring to what we might imagine as the break-neck pace of Jesus’s ministry, the word “immediately” in Mark’s gospel might be better read “to be continued” or "in our previous episode..." with Mark reminding us at every turn that each individual episode points forward to the next one and backwards to the one before it. Mark uses the word “immediately” so that we will understand that Jesus’s ministry is not simply a series of random, miraculous exchanges but the continuous unfolding of events that are connected and that live in relation to one another. Put another way, it is hard to read the word “immediately” without also asking, “After what?”

Mark is trying to tell us that by watching the whole season, as it were, the episodes better do what they were intended to do, which is show us what it means that Jesus is God’s Son.

Which brings us to the second point. How would watching the whole season – or at least the episodes on either side of our gospel this morning – inform our reading of Jesus’s calming the raging seas?
Let’s take a look.

From the gospel itself: It’s evening and Jesus tells his friends, “Let’s go to the other side of the lake.” The scene is crowded with boats. A wind storm hits and the particular boat with Jesus and his disciples on it is already being swamped. But Jesus himself is asleep. The disciples wake him up: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing (literally ‘being destroyed’)? they ask. An understandable question, but a little over the top. Too dramatic, maybe. After all, these are fishermen, presumably with some experience. It’s curious at any rate. Anyway, Jesus wakes up, says, “Peace, be still,” and the wind ceases and there is, we are told, a dead calm. Jesus wonders about their fear and their faith. The disciples wonder about who he is. End scene.

But are there clues that this scene is to be continued? Or that perhaps it means to continue a previous story? Or both? And what difference does it make?

After the storm and Jesus’s calming it, we read on: “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately – there it is! – a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.

In light of our reading’s sequel, two curious phrases now jump out as we reconsider our original episode.  First, the disciples’ hyperbole at the storm: “we are perishing; we’re being destroyed.” They thought they were dying. Now, as they reach the dry land, a man runs out at them from the tombs. The second curious phrase is “the wind ceased and there was a dead calm.” Ironic, because the disciples thought their own breath was ceasing and that they were as good as dead, bound for the grave. Like Batman on the ropes.

That the story immediately takes us to the tombs is significant. The disciples’ question to Jesus in the middle of the sea – “Teacher, don’t you care we are being destroyed?” – is evidently not a one time thing; but it takes on existential meaning - not unlike Job's wrestling with God in this respect. The storm becomes a reminder of the disciples’ own mortality, the death that was guaranteed them the moment they were born. Now they are in the tombs. The disciples’ question begins to sound like this psalmist; how long will God be silent as his people face the prospect of death? Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?

So the episode after the original allows the honesty of the disciples in a moment of crisis to reach beyond the storm. If this is the case, we would expect to find some overture of death in the prequel, as well as a convincing signal that the prequel and the original are intended to be read together.

As it happens, our passage begins with the words “on that day.” Remembering that “immediately” refers to connectedness more than speed, “on that day” is important. As we look back to determine just what day it is - the previous episode - we discover last week’s gospel: the parable of the mustard seed. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Unlike the two episodes that follow it, this episode appears to be more about spring and life and growth than death - except for an eerie resemblance to this saying of Jesus from John’s gospel: 

Jesus, saying: “Very truly, I tell you, 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me...”

So the storms are raging, but not just on the lake. The disciples are likewise churning within themselves and with Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God but also the mustard seed that will die. Must die. So that the great tree might rise up with branches and shade for birds of all kinds. And as Jesus prepares his friends for his own unimaginable death, they rightly begin to wonder about their own and if Jesus cares. But Jesus hasn’t come to save their lives except by losing his. So for the time being Jesus and the disciples don’t understand one another.

And I am certain there are days that I feel like the disciples, wondering if Jesus cares at all about the sinking boats around me and the wave that one day will swallow me whole. But not every day. Death is not my only thought, much less my all-consuming one. And yet, I think my daily steps have much to learn from Jesus’s contention that my life must be lost to be found. Even not thinking of death, I am frequently asking myself questions that derive their power from death. Questions like, “What do I stand to get out of this?" "Will there be enough for me?" "How will that exchange be mutually beneficial?” I can be content to fear death so long as I am not asked to actively give my life. But if these three episodes connect in the ways they appear to, life-giving rests at the heart of them.

People like you and I sometimes talk about sacrifice in dishonest (or at the very least confused) ways, I think – I sacrificed dessert to lose some weight, for example – but these episodes ask us to consider the the unconditional sacrifices, the losses born of love, the greater love that has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend; the love and forgiveness we find ourselves embarrassingly receiving in the loving-kindness and tender mercy of Jesus. 

And as this storm rages within me, within us, a voice from somewhere unseen interjects: “Will God's People daily walk in the way of the cross? Will they claim the promises of their baptism and step out in faith? Will they risk the self-offering love that only the love of Jesus can justify and sustain?” 

Stay tuned.


[Sermon preached June 25, 2012, St Christopher's by-the-Sea]

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