24 June 2018, Sherando Presbyterian Church
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But 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?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Walk Toward Your Self
I want to begin by thanking all of you for asking me to be here as you move from Rose’s leadership toward some new way of being together, the shape of which isn’t yet clear. Transitions like this can be unsettling because, as Thomas Merton says, we can’t see the road ahead and we don’t know where it will end. I’m in a transitional phase, too, from the life I used to live toward something that isn’t clear to me yet. You all have been part of my transition over the last couple of years, and for the next six weeks, you’ll be a bigger part, and I just want you to know that I’m grateful for the chance to go through the process of transition with you.
I’m still in the early stages of learning how to do this, so it’s likely that what I share with you on Sundays will be little more than reflections on the farm work I do during the day and the seminary work I do at night, filtered through the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, but I’ll try to be clear about what I’m learning and what I’m thinking, and about what happens when I read the Bible.
So here’s what happened this week:
One of my seminary courses focuses on techniques for increasing your awareness that God is present, or even just that God exists. I forget that. I’m a seminary student, and I forget that God exists every day. One of those techniques is to bring God into whatever task you’re performing by repeating a centering prayer while you work. Eventually, the thinking goes, you will perceive God even in those parts of your life when you used to perceive only your own needs, or the needs of your employer.
I decided to try that last week. While sorting cherries, I repeated this simple prayer: “I’m with you” — or just “with you,” over and over, the you being God. I believe that’s true — I’m with God — but it’s a truth I have to cultivate or it gets buried under everything I have to do.
It’s more common to say that God is with us, but I find it easier to make a claim about myself — I’m with God — and when I shift the statement into the second person — I’m with you —that truth begins to make a claim on me. This week it made a claim on me while I was sorting cherries, five thousand pounds of cherries, about half of which were rotten, because we got 18 inches of rain in the last 18 days of May, while the other half were more plump and succulent than any cherries I have seen in years, for the same reason.
Rotten cherries ruin perfect cherries quickly, so you have to open every bin and scoop out all the cherries and turn them over in your hands and look for bad spots, which glisten just like ripeness does, so you have to bend over and get your face down close to all those cherries. It was too dark inside the barn, so I dragged the sorting table out onto the porch, and there I sorted some 250 bins of cherries — reaching in with both hands, lifting handfuls of cherries toward my face, bending over them, turning them, smelling them while praying: with you, with you, with you.
It wasn’t long before I began to see the cherries as a manifestation of God: with you in the perfect cherries, with you in the rotten cherries, with you in the rain that perfected the good ones and rotted the bad ones. With you the source of all cherries and all rain, glancing up at the orchard on the side of the mountain with you, feeling the breeze come down the mountainside with you, hearing the bluegrass station on the radio with you, high and lonesome, God incarnate in the swirl of all those things: it seemed so clear, so obvious, like how could I ever miss it?
Then I went home and sat down praying with you with you to the lectionary readings for today, a passage from Mark and a passage from Job.
Here’s what seems to be going on in the passage from Mark: the disciples are trying to figure out how to think about Jesus: who is this guy, and what is being with him going to mean for us?
Now, I’m reluctant to treat the Bible as a kind of answer key for the puzzle of our lives. That makes both the Bible and our lives seem simpler than they really are. However, sometimes Bible stories invite us to look at our lives through a lens that changes what we’re able see. And I think this story does that for the current circumstances of this congregation.
“On that day, when evening had come, he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” In other words, after spending the day ‘teaching’ the crowds who have gathered around him, Jesus says to his disciples, Let’s row across the Sea of Galilee — which is eight miles wide — in the dark, while we’re tired. Let’s go from what we know, our home and our people on the western shore, to what we don’t know, the eastern shore, which is home to people we have never met, who do not see the world the way we do, and let’s do it at a moment when such a journey is likely to be most difficult.
I would bet those fishermen, who may well have spent their whole lives on that body of water without ever seeing the other side, would be like, “Why would we want to do that, in the dark?” But they must also have inside them something like that prayer I’ve been using to heighten my awareness of God: with you, with you, with you — he’s right there. So they go.
We can add a layer of complication here: Mark would have expected his readers to see that body of water both as an actual borderland between the realm of the Jews and the realm of the Gentiles, and as a symbol of primordial chaos, the condition that existed before the beginning of Genesis, before God decided to separate night from day, land from sea, good from bad — the condition God corrected, they might have said, so people could live in the world. After ‘teaching’ all day, Jesus asks his little congregation to spend the night rowing across the surface of that condition — in order to what? Have breakfast with strangers who probably won’t like them? The only way to explain their willingness to go is that they must be perceiving the presence of God — right there, in the boat. So they go. And when the chaos which they must have feared would overtake them actually overtakes them, the presence of God, which they must perceive to be right there with them, is asleep.
How does that make you feel about crossing from the known into the unknown, from one way of life together as a congregation into something new that you can’t see? Probably like they feel: they feel like the welter and the waste of the unformed void is going to destroy them, or at least make them forget that God exists. “Wake up!” they holler. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
Do you ever feel like asking that question? When you look up from the ecstatic vision of the God-infested cherries, and you see the challenges of moving forward as a congregation, or you look beyond your congregation to the world around you, do you ever feel like asking whether God cares that we are perishing?
That’s the fundamental question of the Book of Job.
If we read this gospel story by itself, we might take comfort in its ending: Jesus wakes up, and rebukes the wind, and tells the ocean to be still — which we might take to mean that even though it sometimes feels like we are drowning in the chaos that divides the world we’ve known from the new thing we can’t see, we should remember that God is with us in the boat, even when we forget that God is present, or fail to understand what being with God means.
All of that is true, and it would be comfortable to stop there, in that truth, but we’re in transition, which means we have to move on. One of the tools God uses for moving us on, for cultivating truth, is the Revised Common Lectionary, which turns us from that story about Jesus to the Book of Job.
Do you know that book? At the beginning, God is holding Job up like one of those perfect cherries to show what perfect goodness looks like, and Satan says, “Well, of course he’s good: you’ve built a hedge around him; but take away that layer of divine protection, and he’ll rot like all the other cherries.” To prove that Satan’s wrong, God opens the hedge, and Satan goes through. He burns down Job’s house, and kills his animals, and kills his children, and then covers his entire body in a plague of oozing boils.
Don’t you care that we are perishing?
“You must have done something to bring calamity down upon your head,” Job’s friends insist, but they’re wrong about that. Job keeps telling them they’re wrong, and they keep saying they’re right, and then Job begins to suggest that in a better world, God would step out of the wings and confirm that Job is right and they are wrong. Because Job is right, isn’t he?
Finally, after 37 chapters of argument about the nature of suffering and loss, God shows up, because Job’s right. “Who is this?” God asks. That’s the same question the disciples ask at the end of gospel passage — who is this? — but here the question is a rebuke. “Who is this that darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?” God demands.
And I’m like wait — isn’t Job right?
The lectionary’s decision to partner that question in Mark with the same question in Job would seem to suggest that the disciples shouldn’t be asking that question, and neither should we. But it’s the only question that matters. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have spent entire nights reciting this prayer: “Who are you, O God, and who am I?” The next logical question would be, “And what does being with you mean?”
Apparently it doesn’t mean we’re going to be protected by a hedge.
I would suggest that by setting these two passages beside each other, the Revised Common Lectionary is engaging in a kind of teaching similar to the kind Jesus used himself on that day. Before asking his little congregation to set out across a realm of dangers toward an unknown destination, Jesus had been speaking to the crowds in parables, which are stories or juxtapositions that reflect some aspect of our lives. But the pairings fit together in ways that distort the reflections — it’s like looking at your life in one of those curved mirrors. “Jesus’s parables have a way of reordering conventional assumptions and values,” the scholar Matt Skinner says. “They don’t explain how one is supposed to recognize the reign of God, but they make it clear that we will need to adopt or receive new ways of perceiving in order to do so.”
I like the way he says that: receive new ways of perceiving. They have to be given to us, we know not how.
I’ll close with a transitional moment in the Book of Genesis, one of great consequence for all Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Apparently God has been watching a guy named Abram go about his ordinary business in a place called Haran for about seventy years, and one day God says, “Abram, lech lecha,” in the original Hebrew text. English translations of the Bible, all of which reflect the conventional assumptions and values of the English-speaking world, together with our way of perceiving, render that command as, ‘Go forth from your father’s house.’ But the words really mean something quite different from that: lech lecha means, ‘Walk toward your self.’ So the transition that ultimately results in the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam begins with the command to walk toward your self, a command so strange to our conventional perception that we English speakers make God say something else.
Walk toward yourself, God says, and Abram does, for a long time. I would suppose that he spent his first night on the road, and many nights thereafter, lying awake and praying Francis of Assisi’s prayer: “Who are you, O God, and who am I?”
Connecting those two questions to each other unsettles my perception of myself, and my perception of God. Who am I, that God should tell me to walk toward my self? For Abram, the answer to that question is: you’re Abraham. And what does telling me to do that suggest about God?
The only way to answer that question is to walk toward our selves. In the dark, when we’re tired, and we don’t know what’s on the other side. My wish for all of you, and for me, is that we might be willing to do that, without trying to make God say something that conforms to how we see the world, or where we think the road should go.