A Sermon preached July 12, 2015 at St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, MT.
Reading the Bible is not easy. Sometimes the very mention of reading the Bible causes eyes to glaze over and yawns to break out, like the time Howard, a poor soul suffering from early dementia, but still driving to church, leaving dents and scratches on the other cars in the church parking lot without every noticing he hit them, interrupted a sermonic pregnant pause with a loud “Ho-hum!” True story!
But the Bible is far from a Ho-Hum book. The Bible’s staunchest defenders are often its worst enemies because they read it so poorly that potential thoughtful readers looking for something more interesting than painting by numbers are turned away before they give it a try.
The story of Jesus walking in the water is a story like that. The story has many layers discovered by mining the text for the rich metals that lie just below the surface with clues in the words and the Hebrew Bible material out of which the story is carefully crafted. Often, like Marcus Daly, you find something far richer than you ever expected.
The last thee weeks here at St. Timothy’s we’ve read passages from the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Each of these biblical texts from Mark’s Gospel is like that. They all have hidden, and not so hidden, references to the economic-political-cultural-religious context of the life of the historical Jesus and the struggles of the early church. The hints of a clash between the Kingdom of God and the claims of the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Caesar, are there for the searching eye to see. They glimmer like nuggets of gold in a panhandler’s stream; once you see them, you want more of what’s there. These are not just any old rocks, any old stories, these are powerful stories filled with both conflict and comfort, despair and hope, doubt and faith.
We see the clues in the previous weeks’ texts in words and phrases that triggered the deeper recognition of value and meaning beneath the surface understood by the New Testament’s original readers. Before moving to today’s Gospel reading, take a look at the no “ho-hum” allusions to the collision between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar in the twin stories of the Stilling of the Storm and the healing of the demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs, the Gerasene Demoniac.
The casual reader of Mark 4 and 5 will not know the deeper meanings of the stories. They will not know, without help of biblical research and scholarship, that the Stilling of the Storm and the Gerasene Demoniac stories are told during the time when the Roman 10th Legion, (“the 10th Fretensis”) occupied the streets and alleys of Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish-Roman War in 70 A.D. They will not know what the earliest readers knew: that the occupation forces – 10th Fretensis – wore two insignia on their helmets, shields, and the bricks of their barracks.
One insignium was a ship. The other was a wild boar. The occupants of Jerusalem and Palestine were under the heel of the Roman Legion – the legion that sailed the seas and acted as ferociously as a wild board. The people for whom the first Gospel was written are under Roman occupation, totally defeated. They had hoped for and expected the coming of the Kingdom of God. Instead they got the Roman Legion. The whole community is living, you might say, among the tombs, possessed by the Legion. “What is your name?” asks Jesus of the man who lives among the tombs. “My name is Legion (a LATIN world in a Greek text, a clue to the heart of the story), “for we are many.” Jesus calls the demons of the Legion to leave the man; the demons cease to occupy him; they go into the swine/boars (an anti-Semitic symbol without parallel), and rush headlong toward the sea where they plunge into the sea, all 2,000 pigs, the exact size of a Roman Legion’s battalion.
Mark has taken the old Exodus story and done with it what the Hebrew Bible and Rabbi Jesus had done so often. He has resurrected the original story of the Exodus where the Hebrew slaves in Pharaoh’s Kingdom safely pass through the sea, as if on dry land, and Pharaoh’s armies (the Roman Legion) drown in the sea.
Which brings us to this morning’s reading of the endangered disciples alone in the boat on the sea, and Jesus coming to them walking on the sea.
As biblical scholar J.J. Von Allman notes, along with others, that the sea in biblical cosmogony is not what it is to us. The sea is a place “thought to harbor the enemies of God, and the impression is received that in speaking of it one is assured on each occasion that God is the stronger; it is so dangerous with its tempests…and with its monsters…that it is important to state, with expressions of thankfulness, that God is its Master: He is its creator.”
Thus, at the end of the Stilling of the Storm, the disciples ask of Jesus, “Who can this be that wind and waves obey him?”
Just so, again in today’s reading, there is a tempest on the sea, the haunt of demons from which the nations come. But this is not just any sea. It has a name. This is the Sea of Galilee, as the indigenous population called it. But in the time the story was written, the Sea of Galilee had been renamed with a Roman Imperial name. So the text says that it all took place on the Sea of Galilee – parenthesis, “the Sea of Tiberias.”
So, is this just another Ho-Hum sermon that leaves dents in the cars of the parking lot, or does it have something to do with our lives in 2015?
Were it not for a preacher’s vanity, I’d leave it to you and Howard to decide. But things as they are, it seems to me the deeper significance is everywhere to be found, and you don’t need to be Marcus Daly to recognize the treasure.
Whatever waves your personal world is making, God is the redeemer yet. Whatever storms batter your little boat, God is the Master still. However lonely, sad, or forsaken you may feel or be in the wake of some great tragedy, there is yet One who comes to you walking on the sea of terrorism, the sea of drones, the haunt of demons, the enemies of God. However much we live in the kingdoms of domination and violence, the community and peace of Christ are with us. And, as the disciples of Jesus, imperiled on the sea, we look to Jesus to show us the way.
Is your boat on the Sea of Galilee or on the Sea of Tiberias? Are you rowing on the Seas of Empires or are you pulling on the oars toward the Kingdom of God
Let us pray.
O, God of sea and wind and wave, who stills the stormed-tossed sea and treads upon the waters of the demonic powers of national divisions and imperial aspirations, grant us the courage and peace of Your Spirit to live as disciples of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Way, our deepest Truth, our Life. Amen.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Southern Cross, MT, July 12, 2015