Archive for June, 2015

In the Same Boat

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on June 21, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 4:35-41

Phobos megas.

In today’s Greek lesson, class, we find a noun and its modifying adjective.

The noun is phobos.  It is related to the English word phobia.  And we all know what a phobia is, right?—in part, maybe, thanks to that movie from 1990 called Arachnophobia.  Did you see it?  In this movie, a species of killer South American spiders hitches a ride to the U. S. in a coffin and begins to go to work here, provoking an outbreak of fear.  Arachnophobia: fear of arachnids, or spiders.

Then we have the adjective, megas.  This Greek word is related to the prefix mega in English, especially used in technical language: there’s megabyte, megaton, and megameter.  In technical English, it’s the prefix for a million: 1 megabyte = 1,000,000 bytes.  In Greek, however, it’s not so precise; it simply means great.

Put these together and you have phobos megas: great fear.  If you like the technical take, it’s something like fear magnified by a million.

Have you ever experienced phobos megas?

I related a story to you some time ago about my childhood, having to do with a seven-foot man.  That story involved a good deal of fear for me, my older brother Andy, and our neighbor Donny.  We knew phobos for sure.  But I’m not ready to say it was phobos megas.

Phobos megas suggests much more, something along the lines of the expression “giving up the ghost.”  Have you ever experienced a time of such great danger and fear that you wanted just to give up?  That this was it?

Maybe you’ve been in a terrible car crash, and there was a moment within it when you said to yourself, “There’s nothing more I can do.  The situation I am in is totally out of my control.  Whatever happens to me, happens.  I’m in God’s hands now; but I won’t be surprised if it all ends right here.”  Have you ever been here?  A time of great fear, of phobos megas?

Something along these lines is what the disciples experienced that day on the Sea of Galilee; that day when a sudden windstorm arose, kicking up fearsome waves that began even to swamp their boat; that day when Jesus—what!—he’s asleep, on a cushion!  Oh, good grief!

Yes, there he lies, wind, fearsome waves, and thick anxiety all around him. And he’s asleep!  Probably dreaming up another parable.  Like that one he taught recently.

There once was a man, a sower, who went out to sow some seed.  This man had so much seed that he flung it heedlessly everywhere.  Here, there, on the road, on the rocks, in the weeds, on good soil—it didn’t matter!

Oh, but the soils matter!  For one of these soils is the road, basically impenetrable; and the seeds that fall here are quickly snatched up by the birds.

Another soil is rocky and shallow.  The seeds that fall into it take root quickly and grow a little; but they’re soon scorched by the heat and lack of moisture in the shallow, rocky soil.

A third soil seems decent enough.  The seeds take root; they find moisture in the ground; and they begin to grow.  But as they reach a certain height they encounter weeds with thorns and thistles—weeds that stifle and suffocate their productivity.  In the end, sadly, these third-soil seeds give up, never reaching maturity.

It’s only the seeds that fall on the fourth soil that establish firm roots, grow productively, and reach maturity.  That is, they eventually bear fruit that yields more seed for the generous sower.

And, don’t you see, we need to be like the fourth soil.  We need to be disciples of Jesus that grow to maturity and thus produce more disciples of Jesus.  The first, second, and third soils don’t do this.  Only the fourth soil does.

And look at him now, asleep on that cushion!  Isn’t he just the picture of the perfect fourth soil!  He’s not affected at all by the cares and concerns of this world.  Why, the boat is swamping and he just keeps sleeping!  But neither is his faith shallow, easily withered; nor has his faith been quickly snatched away by the birds.  Isn’t he just the picture of fourth-soil faith!

So we should not be affected by the cares and concerns of our world!  So we should not be affected by phobos megas!

It’s not just this parable either. Did you hear the psalmist’s words this morning (107:23-30)?

Some went down to the sea in ships and plied their trade in deep waters;

They beheld the works of the LORD and his wonders in the deep.

Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose, which tossed high the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths; their hearts melted because of their peril.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.

He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.

Then were they glad because of the calm, and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

God turns our chaos into stillness; our phobos megas into gladness.

Or at least that’s how it should be for us, right?

We’re disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are fertile ground for God’s Word, for Jesus Christ and his teaching.  We should therefore be like Jesus—who, when the storms of life rise up; when the chaos of our daily routines seems to overwhelm everything else, we’re just like Jesus, right?  We’re calm.  We’re free from anxiety.  Though the boat of life is being swamped by the overwhelming and chaotic storms at hand, we’re able to sleep through it all peacefully—just like Jesus!  Because we’re faithful disciples.

Or! Are we more like the disciples of this story?

They don’t seem to share the psalmist’s sentiments.  A severe windstorm rises up and begins to swamp the boat.  Jesus is awakened and he shouts, “Peace!  Be still!”  And immediately the wind and the waves cease.

According to the psalmist, the disciples should have been glad because of the calm Jesus brought!  Instead, they were seized by phobos megas and said, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

We should be like the psalmist, glad when God brings order to our chaotic world.  But we’re more like the disciples.

Though they should, the disciples don’t share the same sentiments as the psalmist.

And though they should have a fourth-soil faith, they seem instead to have a faith of one of the other soils.

Think about this.  The disciples are mostly fisherman.  And today they are merely going through routine motions.  They’re on familiar turf when they hop in a boat and cross the Sea of Galilee.  A squall comes up.  So what!  It’s nothing too out of the ordinary.  These are fisherman.  They’re accustomed to this sort of thing.

But the man Jesus?  Well, he’s a carpenter.  He’s used to working with wood.  This is not his turf.  This is not his daily routine.  The truly amazing thing here is that he is able to sleep in the first place.  He’s the one on the boat not accustomed to this sort of thing.  How can he sleep at all?

Throughout, Jesus is a model of the fourth-soil faith he so recently taught in the parable about the sower and the seeds.  But the disciples aren’t!

Instead, the disciples are either choked out by the cares and concerns of the storm or—worse!—show rocky-soil faith or even no faith at all!

More often than not, aren’t we more like the disciples than like Jesus?

We all have our daily routines, our familiar turf.  And as we cross this lake of life daily, many days are in fact just routine for us.  Fine and well.  But what happens when a little chaos confronts us?  What happens when a sudden windstorm arises that we didn’t see coming?  Do we trust Jesus with all our heart?  Or, more likely, do cares and concerns choke out our faith?  Does our faith become shallow, or even non-existent?  Does phobos megas take faith’s place?

Here’s the thing about fear—a picture I want to leave with you, a familiar one: maybe it will leave an indelible impression.

A young child is suddenly frightened awake out of a terrifying dream in the middle of the night.  Mom runs into the room and scoops her son into her arms.  He is wide-eyed, crying, stammering unsuccessfully to put into words what he has just witnessed behind his eyelids; she shushes and soothes gently, wiping sweaty locks from his forehead, holding him reassuringly.  And then she says, “Dear boy, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

A familiar scenario, right?

But, as endearing as this picture is, this is not the message Jesus is giving us today.  He does not tell us that there is nothing to fear.  Quite to the contrary, there is a great deal to fear, and he knows it.  I merely have to say a few words to prove it: ISIS; Sandy Hook; Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But Jesus’ message to us, thankfully, is not, “There is nothing to be afraid of”; rather, it is, “Dear sons and daughters, do not fear, for I am with you.”

In your daily routines, storms will arise; chaos will confront you.  Do not be seized by phobos megas.  Instead, remember that you are not alone; remember that Jesus Christ—along with your fellow disciples—is right there with you, in the same boat.

Eating a Gospel Hamburger

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 3:20-35

Palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms are cool.

Now, you might think I’m geeking out when I say that these things are cool—palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms—especially if you don’t know what they are.  “Oh dear,” you might be saying already, shifting uncomfortably in your seats as my captive audience; “the preacher’s going off on some pedantic tangent again, making some esoteric point that no one really cares about except him.”

And if you are, well, I can’t say I blame you.  But give me a minute.  This “pedantic tangent” will bear on the rest of what I’ve got to say.

That said, I return to my (perhaps esoteric) point: palindromes, hamburgers, and chiasms are cool.

Palindromes are words, or strings of words, spelled backwards the same as they are forwards.  One-word examples include: “Hannah” (my daughter’s name); “mom”; “dad”; “radar”; and “deified.”

String-of-word examples include: “M’adam, I’m Adam”; “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” (from Teddy Roosevelt days); “Sit on a potato pan, Otis” (a personal favorite); and (one I once made up in a friendly competition) “Loop a red nun under a pool.”

I think palindromes are cool because they’re fun.  They are clever, orderly, and symmetrical.  There’s a focal point in each, something like an axis around which the word or string of words revolve.  In the word mom, the M and M revolve around the O; thus making the O a point of focus.  What’s the axis in the longer example, “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!”?  Yes, the letter C.

I also mentioned that hamburgers are cool.  And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, for hamburgers are easily accessible to all.  Why, right here in Yuma we can drive down 16th Street and see an In-N-Out Burger on one side and a Five Guys Burgers directly across from it!

But the reason I think hamburgers are cool has little to do with how they taste.  Rather, hamburgers are a sort of visual palindrome.

You’ve got a bun; some stuff; a patty; some more stuff; and another bun.  Turn it upside-down and it’s essentially the same thing as it was right-side-up!  A visible palindrome!

Granted, it’s not an exact palindrome.  The top bun is not exactly symmetrical to the bottom bun.  Also, the stuff in between is usually not totally symmetrical.  It may be that the vegetables are above the patty and the condiments below.  But, generally speaking, we’ve got symmetry, order, and focus when we’ve got a hamburger in our hands.  And the focal point—the axis around which the sandwich revolves—is the patty.

So then, palindromes are cool; hamburgers are cool too.  But, though hamburgers are like palindromes, they’re not as precise.

Which brings us to chiasms.

Chiasm is the name of a certain literary form, or structure, that is symmetric, focused on a specific axis, or focal point.  An author might want to bring home a major point.  Before getting to the patty of the argument, however, she offers a lesser point, something attractive and maybe even enticing (like a soft, fluffy, freshly baked bun).  Whether or not the reader (or eater) is aware, this is not actually the main point.

She’ll get to that soon.  But before, she offers another, an even more tantalizing, taste-bud teasing subpoint, the condiments.  And now the reader (or eater) is thoroughly hooked.

And so the time has come.  Now, here, at the proper place in her argument, she offers the meat, what she’s really wanted to say all along.  It’s the focal point, the axis around which her mouth-watering argument revolves.

Even now, though, she’s not done.  Now that the meat of the argument has been tasted and otherwise considered, the author returns to a variation of her second subpoint, the vegetables—and maybe a slice of gruyere cheese—in order to bring the focal point to bear more strongly upon her complementary yet nevertheless significant subpoints.

But even now she’s not quite done.  There’s still the top bun!  So the meat of the argument must be considered again, now in light of the first subpoint and its variation.  And when it is, at last, the reader finds himself content and happy, with satisfied literary tastebuds and tummy.

In the world of literature we say chiasm looks like this: A-B-C-B’-A’.  But to me it looks like a hamburger.  And I think it’s cool.

Incidentally, many psalms are chiasms.  And, on a larger scale, Augustine’s Confessions is one great chiasm.

Anyway, all this is to say we encounter a chiasm in today’s Gospel passage. Think of it as a Gospel hamburger if it helps.  But this chiasm is important to note.  For through it, Mark is giving us readers a clue.  There is a focal point, an axis around which the passage revolves, which Mark wants us to take note of.

Jesus and a crowd are inside a house.  The buns of this passage—the A and A’—are Jesus’ family.  At the beginning of the passage (v. 21), we read, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for the people were saying, ‘he has gone out of his mind.’”  Now go to the end of the passage.  There we read the radical—maybe even unsettling—statements about Jesus’ family being outside; yet Jesus says that those with him inside, those who do the will of God, are his family.  A and A’, or the buns.

Next, we see the condiments and the vegetables of this passage—the B and B’—in the contrast between Beelzebul and the Holy Spirit.  (In v. 22) Scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by demonic forces they call Beelzebul; whereas a little later (in vv. 28-30) Jesus says that all will be forgiven except blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  The condiments and vegetables here are contrasting spiritual forces, yet complementary in that they both focus on the spiritual.

And this brings us to the patty, the meat of the passage—Section C in terms of literary form.  What is the main point here that Mark wants us Gospel hamburger eaters to know?

Remember, this passage starts with Jesus’ family being outside of the home and wondering if he’s gone out of his mind; followed by religious leaders accusing him of demon possession.

Now Jesus says these words:

  • “How can Satan cast out Satan?”
  • “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”
  • “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”
  • “And if Satan . . . is divided, he cannot stand.”

What is the main point of this passage?  Anything divided against itself—whether kingdom, household, or person—will not stand.

If Jesus is indeed throwing out demons by a demonic power, as the scribes accuse, then the kingdom of demons will fall.

And if Jesus is in fact out of his mind, as his family wonders, his household will be divided.

And if Jesus is out of his own mind, he is divided against himself; and he will fall apart as an individual.

But what if he’s not?

What if, instead, Jesus is of sound heart, soul, body, and mind?  What if everything he teaches and preaches is true?  What then?

What if his household truly consists of those who are completely unified with him, of those who do the will of God—and not his blood relatives?  What then?

Or what if Jesus actually is casting out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit through God the Father, and not through some demonic power?  What if Jesus really is a part of the triune, indivisible God?  What then?  Eh?

Maybe then—just a thought—those who deny that Jesus is divine, who say that he was just a wandering mystic or just a good teacher or just insane—maybe to deny Jesus’ deity is what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.

Whatever the case, there’s the meat of this passage. But, admittedly, meat by itself is too Spartan.  That’s why we dress hamburgers up—most of us anyway.

As a brief aside, I had a burger the other night at Prison Hill Brewing Company.  It just might have been the best burger I’ve ever had.  If you’re into this kind of thing, it has onions, mushrooms, and a patty all drenched and sautéed in red wine.  Delicious!  Anyway, back to my point: we like to dress burgers up.

So, what can we learn today from the other layers of this Gospel burger, from the condiments and vegetables and buns?

Just this: a caution.

From today’s passage and many others we know, two groups of people come to mind.  There are those who stand for Jesus, who follow him unreservedly as Messiah; and those who stand against Jesus.

On the one hand—the stand-for-Jesus hand—we see tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and sinners.  Outcasts and vagabonds accompany Jesus wherever we see him.  His disciples, too!—largely uncouth commonfolk, uneducated fishermen.  Yet none of these people questions Jesus.  None of them says he’s out of his mind, or that he’s possessed by a demon.

Then there are those in this passage who stand against Jesus.

It’s easy for us to think in terms of good guys and bad guys.  We love Jesus, we say; so we’re obviously the good guys.  We’re obviously like the riff-raff in this story, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, and the other sinners and outcasts, right?  We’re not like the bad guys in this story—like the scribes and the insensitive family members—are we?

But wait a minute!  We’re not outcasts.  We are the religious leaders.  We are the church.  In fact, we define the church today.  And so, whenever we think we’ve got it right when the others—the bad guys—have it wrong, we kick them out; or we ourselves leave and form a new congregation!

We’ve also known Jesus for a long time—some of us for a very long time.  He’s family to us!  So we know things about him that other, newer believers, don’t know: what he really meant when he said his hard sayings.  We know what he really meant, what he’s really about—or what he would be about if he were here in our midst today.  So we form organizations to promote what we’re sure we know: “traditional family values,” for example.

But wait a minute!  In reality, most of us align much more closely with the family members and scribes of this passage than with the riff-raff.  We know Jesus.  He’s family.  We’ve become comfortable with him.

And thus we end up opposing him—and each other!  We don’t mean to do it.  We often don’t even realize we do it.  But we do.

And, doing so, we divide.

A kingdom, a household, a person, or a church divided against itself will not stand.

When it comes to following Jesus, don’t be one of the religious leaders or family members left outside at the end of the story.