Danger at the Boundary (Jonah 1; Mark 4:35-41)
From time to time, I mention books that I have found useful in my life in teaching and preaching,. As I look back, I find that most of these have not been, strictly speaking, about biblical studies nor pastoral work, or, even necessarily religious books. I think I have mentioned before that one such book is the slim volume called Purity and Danger by the late British social anthropologist Mary Douglas. In this book Professor Douglas discussed how various cultures have defined what is “clean” or “safe” to do, and what is “unclean” or “dangerous” to do. One of the marks of a great book is that, when one repeats the insights in them, they seem rather simple and obvious. It is a profound insight, however, that what a culture considers “clean and safe” is what it considers “normal” or “usual.” For us, dirty dishes in the sink are normal, clean, and safe (at least to a point). Dirty dishes on the floor or in the bed? Not so much. On the communion table, not good at all. Unclean.
Another insight that I came across in Douglas’s book (though she was not the first to have it) is that this danger of uncleanness almost always crops up at gateways, or boundaries of the community. Danger is found at the places where we go from “in here” to “out there.” Or, equally, when we bring what is “out there,” “in here.” These ideas were, first, important to me as I worked away at some of the “Clean and Unclean” regulations found in the Old and New Testaments. They have also been important as I have attempted to lead communities of faith to think about the significance of what we sometimes call “rites of passage,” like blessings of children, baptisms, marriages, and funerals. The insight of “danger at the boundaries” is also important as we think about mission “out there,” and bringing those “out there” “in here.” We see that right now in the very emotional and heated immigration discussions. We seem to be, at least culturally, hard-wired to think about danger, abnormality, and uncleanness at the boundary moments and that mixing “out there” and “in here” is a threat. So it’s not surprising that many of us are cautious when it comes to change in how we think of doing mission, much less other things. Our Old Testament and Gospel Lessons really concentrate on what happens when God’s people go “out there,” but it also applies to what happens when people from “out there” come “in here.” Of course, one goal of going “out there is to bring people “in here,” in a missional sense. Whenever we do either thing, we encounter danger and what is sometimes called “uncleanness.” Remember Mary Douglas’s insight about danger being what we consider abnormal.
For the Hebrews, one place that was really “out there,” “abnormal,” and “dangerous” was the sea. They never were very good at sailing or being at sea. In the Bible the sea is often a symbol for chaos, lack of control, and great danger. Our two stories set out what happens when people go to sea. In the Old Testament, Jonah the Hebrew prophet, is convinced that God was mistaken in sending him “out there” across the “sea” to Nineveh to get the Assyrians to change their ways, and be included in the family of God. When this story was actually written, centuries after Jonah’s time, those who read or heard it would have known that the folk in Nineveh (who had, by then, passed into insignificance) had been vicious to many nations, and had conquered Jonah’s people with great cruelty. They and we can understand that Jonah couldn’t believe that God wanted him to go and offer these devils a chance to go from “out there” to “in here.” It would be like inviting Hitler to a synagogue service. So, although Jonah was really convinced he ought to stay at home and keep the faith pure within the confines of the existing community, he left home to go “out there,” but not to Nineveh, but in the opposite direction. While at sea, out there, Jonah and his shipmates encountered a great storm that threatened them all. Danger at the boundary. The heroes of Jonah 1 are really the non-Hebrew sailors who tried every trick they knew to save the ship and its stubborn passenger, but with no success. Now, in the midst of the danger Jonah was asleep in the hold of the ship. The captain thought it was passing strange that anybody could sleep through such a storm. Might Jonah have been able to sleep because he was convinced within himself and comfortable that he was doing what he had to do to keep from being the instrument of God’s shocking error of including nasty Ninevites in the community? In any case, Jonah, when he came to, knew that God was doing this to get him to turn around and go the other way (to Nineveh). The Hebrew word “repent” means just this: to turn around and go the other way. Before Nineveh repented, Jonah needed to.
He didn’t think so, and Jonah’s plan was much simpler. “Throw me overboard and save the ship.” This is only the first time in the book that Jonah preferred death to going “out there” to rub shoulders with Ninevites. in God’s community. In the last chapter, Jonah asked God to kill him twice more rather than change his view of God, of Nineveh, and of himself. Going out there is dangerous. Even if the danger is self-inflicted bigotry.
It may be hard for some of us to think that there could be parallels between Jonah and Jesus. Nonetheless, Mark coloured his story that is otherwise, similar to secular Greek miracle stories, with themes and language found in the story of Jonah chapter 1: Danger at sea en route to non-Jewish territory, the attempt of sailors (in this case fishermen) to save the boat unsuccessfully, the main character asleep in the boat during the storm, etc. In the cry of the disciples: “Don’t you care if we’re dying right now?” there is a reminiscence of the captain’s words to Jonah, “What’s up with you?.” In Jesus’ rebuking of wind and water, there is a reminiscence of what God says and does to the sea in many places in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 1:1-10; Psalm 107:23-32; Job 38:8-11). The major way in which Mark has changed his story from a typical Greek miracle story, however, is that the focus is not on the miracle as such, but on the one who performs it. This is, also, rather typical of the way in which the Old Testament handled so-called “miracles.” Miracle stories in the Old Testament emphasize God more than the miracle. To say this a different way, Mark has transformed a miracle story into a story about the kind of man who did it, and following him.
We see this at the outset. We begin on the same day Jesus had been teaching in a boat on the seashore of the Lake of Galilee (Mark 4:1). When that day was over, Jesus’ first words are, “Let’s go across to the other side” (35). Those words, “the other side” generally indicated the side where the “others” are – the non-Jews, the outcasts. Let us remember, yet again, what Mary Douglas taught us: going from “in here” to “out there” is dangerous. We’re likely to find storms and danger at the boundary places, as our sailors do. In response to Jesus’ word, the disciples all got into the boat and went off (into the storm, as it happened). But, don’t miss the point that the disciples are with Jesus in the boat.
The boat or ship very early became a symbol of the church of Jesus, sailing through the storms to cross to the other side. The little symbol on the lower right hand page of your bulletin is the symbol of the World Council of Churches, of which American Baptists are charter members. It reminds us that we are, with other disciples, all in the boat with Jesus, or he in the boat with us. Now, storms come when we don’t play it safe, and sail out to the boundary, and beyond, when we follow Jesus’ command “Let’s go over to the other side.” Let’s find the others, let’s share good news with others, let’s be the vehicles of including others in the circle of God’s love and grace. It’s interesting that, like Jonah, Jesus is asleep in the storm-tossed boat. Would it be too much to suggest that Jesus, like Jonah, is sleeping because he is confident and at peace? If that’s right, Jesus would have been at peace not only about the direction, “to the other side,” but also to the fact that storms would come. That would be confidence that was opposite to Jonah’s that God had made a mistake by including others. The story doesn’t tell us any of that for sure, but we can wonder.
What happens next is that the disciples awaken Jesus. Perhaps they thought that he could do something about the storm. Otherwise, why do it? They said, “How can you sleep at a time when we’d be dying before your eyes, if your eyes were open at all”? Jesus rebuked the storm. The old translation is “Peace, be still,” but closer to what Jesus said is, “Quiet! Shut up!” The last word is a verb made from the noun for “muzzle.” So, like Archie Bunker used to say to Edith, “Stifle yourself.” And, as the storm does just that, it all gets very quiet.
Then, let me translate what Jesus said to his disciples: “Why are you still (right now) so pitifully afraid, do you not yet have faith”? Belief that Jesus, or God, can do miraculous things is “not yet” (in Mark’s words) faith. Believing in miracles isn’t faith, believing in miraculous, spectacular success isn’t faith. Faith rests in the person of God in Christ who’s in the boat with us, or it’s not yet faith. It may become faith someday, but not yet. Somebody in the boat says, “What kind of person is this, that even wind and sea obey him”? In spite of much unclarity, the disciples seem to understand that it’s not about the miracle, but about the kind of person that’s with them in the boat.
It was difficult, in Mark’s time, to follow Jesus to the other side, because the storms they encountered were real. In Nero’s persecution, which had happened a few years before Mark was written, many Christian people died horrid deaths. So they would have been asking questions about the dangers, the storms, of life. Also remember that Mark was written at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. When people heard Mark’s story, they surely would have understood Mary Douglas’s point that danger comes when one follows Jesus across to the other side; “out there” in other words. But note Jesus’ command. He says, “Let us go across to the other side.” Let us go across. Jesus is with his disciples over to the other side, and is in the same boat when the danger comes.
Today the specific challenges for us as a community of faith are different, but we still need to hear that inclusive command, “Let us go across to the other side.” When we sail in the boat with Jesus, we will not play it safe “in here,” just to worry about taking care of the ship, but we will sail across to the other side, where the “others” await good news of God’s love, grace, mercy, and peace. Of course, such a voyage beyond what is normal and safe means sailing into the unknown and danger. It is crucial that we remember, too, that, as we sail on to include more and more in the circle of God’s love that storms will keep coming. The presence of God doesn’t stop coming either. We’re still in the boat with the Master of the sea, and with one another, too. This is also a part of that boat symbol I mentioned a few minutes ago. You can see the word oukoumene just over the boat. That’s the Greek word for “the world full of people.” From it we get our word ecumenical. Together with one another we are in the presence of God with one another in the storms – as we bear one another’s burdens. It’s the presence of God in Christ and one another that gets us through.
The early followers of Jesus knew that the storm sometimes even sank the boat, but that didn’t stop Jesus’ being in the boat. We need to know that, too. But this didn’t. and doesn’t, stop the mission to include the excluded, and to be bearers of Jesus’ life and teachings even to our enemies. We, like they, can learn that storms are not punishment, but part of sailing together with Jesus and one another, to the other side, where the others await the good news of God’s embrace and ours.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.