Lifting Our Eyes

October 20, 2013

20131020_serm

NORTH BALWYN UNITING CHURCH
PROPER 24
SUNDAY 20 OCTOBER 2013
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
Mark 4: 35-41, Psalm 121, Mark 8: 29-35

“Lifting Our Eyes”

The gospel of Mark was written at a difficult time for the Church and designed to encourage and support
people who had every reason to lose faith in the face of devastating challenges. The temple in Jerusalem
had recently been destroyed and faith communities that had depended on its leadership and support had
imploded with it. Institutional Judaism was all but wiped out as a consequence and the fledgling Christian
Community, still very much connected and identified with it, had come under severe pressure to die with it.
At the time it must have seemed, to any sensible soul, that it would be only a matter of time until they too
would die and disappear from the religious scene.

It is good to realise this, when we read the gospel of Mark. That it is a gospel written at a time of great
distress, with future prospects for the Church bleaker than we can even begin to imagine. And realistically
so. Humanly speaking there was no hope, no future, nothing but maybe a few hundred people who were
still finding their way into a faith that lacked coherence, definition, clear vision and competent leadership.
The letters of Paul testify to this. Division, miscommunication, discord, jealousy, incompetence, human
ambition, pride, arrogance, ignorance to name but a few, were trying their hardest to undermine and
destroy the Christian Community. Put fear of persecution and loss of personal and social security on top of
that, and you’ll get a picture not unlike, but much worse, than the one we are facing right now under the
yoke of “Special Circumstances”.

I guess what I am saying is, even though to us it may feel as if the Church is crashing down around our ears,
the Church has seen worse than this. And that it may be good to listen to the voices speaking into an
equally or even more difficult time way back then to gain some wisdom and insight to help us with what we
are facing now.

So what does Mark do when he and his community were confronted with difficult circumstances two
thousand years ago?
First of all he invents a new genre. The good news genre.

Not a biography, not a history, not a book listing the wise words of the Master, or to pay tribute to a
revered hero, event or god, but a book designed to give guidance and support to a community, inviting
them to enter into the story and to start living it, following in the footsteps of its main characters.

That had never been done before. And it is likely it was done because of the pressure, and the despair that
was on the author and his people at the time. The stories about Jesus and his words, were, with the death
of many of the original disciples, disappearing fast. While the Christian community was small and
vulnerable, it was in need of more than just stories and wise words at the same time. And so Mark invents
the gospel, preserving precious memories of Jesus and, at the same time, putting them in a framework that
will support his community in their time of trial.

He shapes his writing carefully. It’s not “just” a gathering of memories. No, the memories are gathered into
a framework designed to build the faith of his audience and help them find their way towards a deeper
understanding of what it means to be a follower of the man his writings portray.

He very cleverly layers his gospel and enables each person at different stages of their faith to engage at
their own level. He carefully designs the end of his gospel at what is now, in our bibles chapter 16:8. An
open end cleverly inviting people to go back to the start of the book and read it again. And again. Every
time to discover more and deeper truths about Jesus and what it means to be following him.

Linguistic analysis of the text shows that the gospel is organised along several different story lines that all
interact and interweave to form a complex and rich tapestry of meaning.

One such framework is the geographical one. On the surface this is easy enough: The gospel tells the story
of Jesus traveling from Galilee, where his ministry starts, to Jerusalem, where it finishes. If we look closer,
however, we see that there is more to that than one might think at first sight.

Galilee, the place where it all starts, is the place of success, of people joining, of carefree and happy times
of flourishing ministry and growing recognition of Jesus. With Jerusalem, the place where it all finishes, the
place of the dead occurs, of enemies and growing trouble and derision, of death. It is important to realise
those two places are not arbitrary, not “just” places, they stand for something, something more than “just”
geographical locations.

Galilee, known as a place that many gentiles called home, and where people weren’t too strict about their
faith, and Jerusalem, the place of the (soon to be destroyed) temple, the heart of law abiding, pious
Judaism. These are positioned at either end of the gospel to tell their own story about what happened.
With Galilee and the gentiles, “the others” receiving and supporting Jesus with enthusiasm, and “the law”,
“the temple”, traditional, institutional Judaism, putting him on the cross.

Look! The gospel says, the temple may be destroyed, with traditional institutional Judaism collapsing with
it. It may look like the faith community, as we know it, is on the brink of extinction, but look at what
happened when Jesus was around. The time of inspiration, of miracles, of growth was not with organised
religion and faith, with traditional faith communities and traditional piety, but somewhere nobody thought
anything good could ever come from: Galilee.

And, we, here and now, may well take that message to heart. If we expect miracles and inspiration from
institutional faith, organised religion, established faith communities and traditional piety we may well be
looking in the wrong direction. Jesus was never there to start with, and we should not be surprised if that is
not where we will find him now. Perhaps now the institution is failing, and our traditional piety has lost its
potential for growth, the time has come to go back to Galilee, where it all started, and look outside the
traditional framework of our faith.

That’s one story.

Then, in between Galilee and Jerusalem something interesting happens in the gospel. There is a lull,
bracketed by the two passages we read today. The storm on the lake, and Peter’s denial to accept Jesus’
words about his future suffering.

While the words Galilee and Jerusalem fall away as indicators of geographical location, the word “grave”
starts turning up in disturbing quantity in this section. There is a feeding of 4000 people and then 5000.
With 12 baskets of leftovers and then 7, 12 signifying there is enough for all the tribes of Israel, and 7
signifying there is even enough for all the nations of what Jesus has to offer.

Then there is another story about the disciples weathering a storm in a boat. And in between we hear how
illness and death lose their power where Jesus appears. At the heart of the gospel, between the
enthusiasm and success of Galilee and the failure and death of Jerusalem, we find Jesus in amongst graves,
on the water in stormy weather, in charge of the elements, feeding ever larger numbers of people, healing
and conquering death left right and centre.

When he asks, after all of that, “Who do you think I am?” Peter thinks he knows the answer: “You are the
Christ!”

Most of us would have done the same, wouldn’t you think? It’s clear after all of that isn’t it? The success,
the huge numbers following, the power over the elements, the victory over the forces of death, the
miracles, the feedings, of course, who else could he be?

I am too young to have experienced the glory days of suburban Christianity as most of you have known it.
Numbers in Sunday school had already started to dwindle when I got to that age, and I was never part of a
flourishing youth group. I’ve only experienced full Churches at Christmas and Easter and as a minister I have
forever been battling declining numbers and increasingly bleak future outlooks. As a Christian I may have
experienced a little bit of the tail end of Galilee, but most of my Church life I have been on the road to
Jerusalem: To decline, destruction, devastation, and death. A journey where it was never easy and became
increasingly difficult to claim “you are the Christ”, because it was no longer as obvious as it had been
before. I have been, for most of my life, part of a dying institution, a declining faith community, a fast
disappearing traditional way of faith.

My experience of faith is, to speak in Mark’s terms, the imminent threat of Jerusalem, and not the success
of Galilee, the unsettling feeling that all may not be well, instead of the confidence of backing a winning
horse. But, like for both Jews and Christians in the first century the destruction of the temple and the
collapse of institutional Judaism was unimaginable, the death of the institutional Church, and the collapse
of what seemed so strong and indestructible, of tradition and a way of doing things so deeply embedded in
our personal and communal lives has, even for me, hitherto been hard to accept as a possibility.

Even in the midst of the current crisis I have heard others say, and have myself at times found clinging to
the thought that surely any minute now Jesus will wake up and put the storm to rest so we can continue as
before. As a faith community, doing our job, and following him. That surely any minute now Jesus will
come, walking across the waves that threaten to sink the ship of the Church and pull us out and lead us
back to the days of growth and glory? I find myself hoping against hope that surely any minute now we will
find ourselves once more on a green hill, breaking bread with plenty left over to share around. God is still
with us, isn’t he?

Lifting my eyes to the heights, as those pilgrims of old on their way to Jerusalem singing psalm 121 and
other pilgrim psalms. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see that many hopeful signs of renewal of our way
of being. As didn’t they! The road of the pilgrim people of old was treacherous, full of dangers, wild animals
and steep, narrow paths making the journey exceedingly hard. And when they lifted their eyes? They’d see
the heights, where the pagan gods of fertility and success were ever popular and worshipped with
abandon. Drawing them to join in their much easier ways and rites. Just as we are. Feeling pressure from all
sides to abandon our God and his ways and join with those who worship the forces of nature and the law of
the jungle.

I believe that with Special Circumstances our Church has, to a degree, let herself be forced to cave into
those forces and that law. It has lifted her eyes to the heights, despairing of the difficult and narrow path it
was called to follow, and has given in to the worship and leadership of other powers than Christ. With
devastating effect. Heartbreak, trauma, sorrow, division, confusion, anger, and grief abound in a Church
that has lost control and direction and seems to be randomly tossed on the waves of the storm it has
unleashed.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”,

Jesus responds with a question: “Why are you so fearful?” Haven’t you seen what I can do? Don’t you
understand I even have death under my feet? Don’t you see that what I offer is stronger than the forces of
death? Can’t you trust me?

No! In the face of death and destruction, of a great storm threatening to destroy what we have and what
we know, in the face of imminent disaster, we, like the disciples, find it difficult to muster faith. In Galilee,
when all was going well, even with the odd fight and crisis of faith, “You are the Christ” came much more
easily to our lips. And even after a couple of major crises, still, like Peter, we found the words, the faith, the
certainty, the confidence to confess Jesus as Lord.

But in the face of death, feeling the Church is disintegrating around us? It becomes a lot harder.

The Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected and killed, the temple destroyed, the unthinkable,
unimaginable may have to happen, death unleashed in all its terror before there is a way back to that place
where it all began, the place of inspiration and faith, of growth and strength, of healing and resurrection.

I lift my eyes to the heights and see nothing but threat and danger. Feel the pull away from the road I’m on,
as a pilgrim, as a follower of the way of Christ. Find it exceedingly difficult to hold on to the next sentence:
“My help is from the Lord, who… ”, and the next, and the next… until I feel and know what the end of it
says: “That the Lord shall preserve my going out and my coming in from this time forth, and even
forevermore”.

That is faith, that is being a follower of Christ. Not the easy going of Galilee alone, not the ups and downs of
storms and miracles alternating with spells of wonder and success, but a journey through the depths of
despair and even death where we may feel utterly deserted and alone, at the mercy of forces beyond our
control and discover that somehow, somewhere the voice of love, of peace, of justice is still speaking with a
power that is much stronger than anything else in all creation. Amen.