What's Tony Thinking

My June 23 Sermon, “Who Is This?”


Who Is This?

Mark 4: 35 -41

June 23, 2024 

Joseph United Methodist Church

It’s so good to be back in Wallowa County, and so good to be back at Joseph United Methodist Church. We were here to open up the old family cabin around Memorial Day and were in church that Sunday. What a lovely Memorial Day service so many of you planned and led. Thank you for that.

And thank you — and thanks be to God — for your amazing Dinner Ministry, offered this winter and spring. With Beth’s leadership you brought to fruition a dream Robin and others of you had with the first Magic Garden and when you built The Place next door. Through you, God fed both the body and soul of so many here in the County. Very wonderful!

Linda and I spent the spring in a small city in Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, where I served, for a second stint, as “minister in residence” at the Community Church there. Hence my nice, white Mexican shirt. 

I preach from the given or assigned texts of the Common Lectionary of the Ecumenical Church. During our time in Mexico for Lent, Easter and Eastertide, the Lectionary readings were entirely from the Gospel of John. So I went deeply into the Fourth Gospel this spring. 

But now the Lectionary thrusts us into a different Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. So to prepare for this Sunday, I re-read the Gospel of Mark, which isn’t all that hard to do. You might try it. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, and the first to be written. You can read it all in a two hour sitting.

What struck me in my re-reading of the Gospel of Mark, especially after being so long in John, is just how action-packed Mark is. One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately.” Especially compared to John, it feels in Mark as if Jesus is rushing from one healing or exorcism to another. He’s on the move, even at one point, disappearing from the disciples who grow frustrated as they have a big crowd waiting to hear from him, but he says, “No, let us go elsewhere.” On the move.

And so in today’s passage, Jesus keeps things on the move. “Let us go across to the other side,” Jesus says to the disciples, that “other side” being across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gentiles, a land of foreigners and outsiders.

So, and even though night is falling, they set out on the inland Sea of Galilee. He’s been so busy that Jesus decides to take a nap in the boat. But that Jesus must be a pretty sound sleeper because he manages to keep on sleeping when a fierce storm comes up and the disciples fear for their lives. Anxiety turning into anger they say, “Don’t you care?” “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Well, you know what happens next. Jesus commands the wind and the waves, “Peace! “Be still!” In fact, he uses the same word he used earlier in the synagogue when he encountered a man possessed by a demon. He said to the demon, “be muzzled.” So now he says to the storm, a demonic force, “Muzzle it.” Kind of like a parent to kids getting into it in the back seat. “Muzzle it!” 

And, immediately, the storm did cease, and a “dead calm” — Mark’s words — fell upon the so recently storm-tossed waters. That must have been quite eerie. To go from a roaring storm, their boat tossed on the sea, to dead calm.

The reaction of the disciples says as much. They do not say, “Gosh, thank you Jesus!” They don’t breath a sign of relief and then give Jesus or each other high fives. No, if they had been frightened before the stilling of the storm, now they were really scared. “They were filled with a great awe,” says Mark, or literally, “they feared a great fear.” And they said, “Who is this?” “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” 

On re-reading the Gospel of Mark — witnessing the rush of healings and exorcisms — and on hearing this story, that is the question, “Who is this?” Who is this Jesus? 

I was on a back-packing trip a year or two ago with several people, some of them pretty much new acquaintances. One of the hazards of being a minister is that people feel as they should talk to you about religious things. Among clergy, we sometimes joke about the “white lies” we tell on airplanes when someone asks, “What kind of work do you do?” Wanting to avoid what is often a long lecture on the problem with religion, we may say, “oh, I’m a lawyer,” and stick our nose back in our newspaper. 

So on this backpacking trip I’m hiking with one of the people I don’t know all that well, but who seems to feel an obligation to take about things religious because he finds himself with a minister. He says, “I really think a lot of Jesus. He was a great teacher.” In fact, says my acquaintance, “I’ve studied all the world’s religions and Jesus’ teachings are very much like those of all the great moral and religious teachers. I find his teachings to be good common sense, don’t you?” 

I thought, “Actually, no. ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out,’ ‘I did not come to bring peace but a sword, to set father against son, son against father,’ ‘if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well,’ or ‘whoever loses his life will find it,’ do not sound to me quite like common sense.”

I found myself recalling a section in C. S. Lewis’s little book Mere Christianity where Lewis says, 

“ . . . people often say about Him, “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That,” says Lewis bracingly, “is the one thing we must not say. A man who is merely a man and says the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level of a man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. 

“You must make your choice,” continues Lewis. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.” 

Because I am more or less a chicken in such conversations, I did not say what Lewis said to the acquaintance with whom I found myself on a dusty trail as he patronizingly told me that he, having studied all the religions, certainly regarded Jesus as a great moral teacher whose teachings made good common sense about how one was to live life. 

Note that when the disciples themselves spoke, before the stilling of the storm to Jesus they addressed him as, “Teacher.” But after he told the storm to “muzzle it,” they did not say, “Thank you for bringing your great common sense to bear.” No, now really fearful they said, “Who is this?” 

The problem with reducing Jesus to a great teacher and moral example is not only, as Lewis said, that it is patronizing but that it puts us, not him, in charge. 

If he is simply a great teacher and moral example, then it’s kind of all up to us. Perhaps we will implement his good ideas and perhaps not. Perhaps we will follow his teachings or not? It’s up to you. Something to consider. And Christianity itself becomes our human effort to live up to what we think is his excellent but common sensical standard. Christianity then becomes about us striving to be good and to show ourselves worthy. 

From there its just a hop-skip-and-jump, to Christianity boiling down to all the things that you and I must do to get on God’s good side or to show that we are the one’s who are on God’s side, and not like those icky or wrong-headed people who aren’t. From there faith quickly devolves into moralism, to admonitions to be more righteous or spiritual or virtuous than we really are or ever can quite manage to pull off. Christianity becomes all about our doing as we strive to live up to the wisdom and morality of this great teacher.  

And going to church? That’s about being reminded to be good, to be nice, to be caring and to get our assignments for the week. 

No! Going to church is where we hear news, good news, that God has in Christ done for us what we cannot do for ourselves, that Jesus has taken the world’s sin and evil upon himself to set us free from the chains of shame or self-righteousness.

I recently read an interview with Bono, the Irishman who is the lead singer with the group U-2. Great interview. In it Bono contrasts karma and grace, which is very much like contrasting Jesus the Great Teacher with Jesus the Divine Savior. The interviewer says to Bono,

Q: As I told you, I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Q: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma and into one of Grace.

Q: Well, that doesn’t make it any clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal and opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so will you sow’ stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Q: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s*it. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Q: The son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: ‘Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s mortality as part of your very sinful nature and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions.’ 

“The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humble…It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven..”

Karma is what you get if you simply think Jesus was a great teacher and moral example. Christianity is then all about following and living up to his example. If you are totally righteous and truly spiritual and super nice and always loving, then you’re good, the gates of heaven open to you . . .

But that actually isn’t Christianity. It certainly isn’t the gospel. “You must try harder” isn’t good news. Christianity isn’t about Karma, it’s about Grace. It’s the news that God’s Own Son loved us and died for us while we yet sinners. It’s about the war Jesus has won over the powers of Sin, Death and the Devil and the freedom that is ours as we trust in him.

This past week we celebrated “Juneteenth.” It is a relatively new national holiday, though long known and celebrated in the African-American community as “the Second Independence Day.”

You probably know the Juneteenth Story. President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, setting free all who were slaves, on January 1, 1863. And the Civil War had formally ended when Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. But word, news, of the end of slavery and the end of the Civil War did not get everywhere when those things happened. No internet, cell phones or social media then to spread the word instantly.

In fact the news of freedom and the end of the Civil War did not get to Texas until much later. On June 19, 1865, the Union Gen. George Granger announced the end of slavery in Texas. And that is what became known as Juneteenth. 

Our situation as Christians and as the Church has something in common with Juneteenth. In Christ victory over Sin, Death and the Devil has been won. Grace has come, the war has been won. 

But as Bono put it, love interrupts, has interrupted, common sense. Grace has intruded upsetting the world of Karma, the world off of eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, of revenge and retribution.

So our situation is kind of like that of the people, the slaves, in Texas. Christ has won. The war is over. Sin and Death are defeated. But the world hasn’t heard the news. Possibly, we ourselves haven’t heard the news. Of course, affirming that victory has been won, doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do. After the Civil War, there was Reconstruction, which sadly was largely a failure. For us there is the ministry of reconciliation. 

Here’s the good news: you and I are not defined by our worst deeds or by our crappy failures. Our failures this very week, the things we’ve said or done that weigh upon us this morning . . .  these are not the last word. The last word belongs to God. Victory is the Lord’s.

When the high winds of judgment and strong seas of shame threaten to sink our boat, when we are anxious about our fate and our future, when we are beside ourselves convinced that no one cares about us or for us, that even God doesn’t know or care, Christ speaks into the storm, “Peace! Be Stil!”

Jesus is speaking this very day, this hour, in whatever storm threatens you. He is speaking to you in this time of worship. He says, “Peace. Be still. Know that I am God. You are mine. I love you. Nothing can undo that. Nothing, nothing, shall ever separate us.”

Jesus rebukes the waves that threaten to engulf us. He silences the wind. He muzzles all the voices that tell us we aren’t enough or will never be enough. By his grace, you are enough. By his cross, you are redeemed. The war is over. Death is no more. There is grace. There is a new creation in Jesus Christ our Lord and our Savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.








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