Sermon on Jonah and Mark 4:35-41 for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, June 21, 2015
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 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?”
One of the things I love about living here on the Gulf Coast is the drama of our thunder storms. I grew up in Ohio, where it could rain all day in a mediocre way and just make things seem depressing. But down here, it is different. Storms can come up quickly in the middle of an otherwise sunny day. The wind blows, the lightening flashes, and the rain comes down in force. If you get to watch the storm from a safe place, it is a powerful experience.
Of course, if you are caught out on the water when a storm breaks, it can be deadly, as we all know from the recent Dauphin Island race tragedy. Ever since ancient times when early humans ventured out onto the water, storms were feared. Stories of storms at sea abound in ancient literature, including the bible.
We just read two of them, and they are remarkably similar. In both the Jonah story and in Mark’s gospel, there is a central character, a man in a boat, asleep during a dangerous storm. In both stories there are other people in the boat, all men, all afraid that they are going to die. In both stories they wake up the sleeping man, and in both stories, the storm is calmed, and God gets the credit.
You can read this as you wish, but I take all these parallels as an indication that Mark is using the Jonah story intentionally. He wants us to see the similarities. The Jonah story, then, becomes key to the meaning of the Jesus story.
The Jonah Boat Story|
Jonah is the story of a miserable man. He is a Jewish man and proud of his heritage. He knows who his friends are and who is enemies are. The people of Nineveh live in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where Israel’s nightmares come from: the Assyrians, the Babylonians. Both of these empires killed a lot of Israelites; thousands and thousands of them. The ones who survived were captured and hauled away.
As the story goes, God tells Jonah to go to them, and preach. So he got on a boat going the opposite direction. That is a direct “No” to God, so God makes a big storm arise at sea. Since these are the days of appeasing angry gods by means of sacrifice, and Jonah knows it, he offers himself as the sacrifice; man overboard, the sea calms down, the storm is over.
Then, the fish swallows Jonah alive, and he lives to have a second chance. This time he does go to Nineveh, the enemy, and he preaches about their impending destruction. They unexpectedly repent, however, and God relents from punishing them, which makes Jonah angry. Jonah wanted his enemies eliminated, not saved. Jonah was a racist. An angry racist.
The Jesus Boat Story
In Mark, when people get into a boat to cross over to the “other side” as it says, they are going from Jewish territory to non-Jewish territory or back the other way. Think about that for a moment. There is something deep going on here. (see Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man)
They got into the boat because Jesus specifically asked them to, and it was at an odd time – already evening. This was not like catching the last bus home; they were not going home, they were crossing to the “other side”. And the other side was a place where impure Gentile people were. They were the worst kind of Gentiles, from a Jewish perspective; the were pig farmers. Now think about what all of those details would mean for the Jewish men in that boat as they crossed over to the “other side.”
This is very much like Jonah going to Nineveh. It is about going to the “other”. The ones who are “them,” when you divide the world between “us” and “them.” And this was Jesus’ specific plan; to cross that border to the “other side.” It would be like getting in a boat to cross the Rio Grande. The “other side” is not America.
So, on the way to the people who are, the “other” kind of people, Jesus and the disciples encounter a huge storm. Of course they do. Storms at sea are perfect symbols of problems, oppositions.
Every person who has stood up for crossing over to the people on the “other side,” that is, for unity, for justice and for equality in places where discrimination and division are the accepted rule of the day, has faced storms of opposition.
The Brain Storm
Notice, there are always two storms happening at once. There is the storm outside: the wind, the waves, the environment; the things going on that you have no direct control over. And there is also the other kind of storm; the internal storm. The storm going on in the mind, in the heart.
We all have storms of both kinds going on, practically all the time. I believe that racism comes from the same place most of our problems come from: a storm-filled mind.
Scientists tell us that there is a primitive part of our brains that operates by instinct and emotion. If a cat walks by the window of our home, my dog Heart goes crazy, and although she can be trained not to bark, her instincts take over. The hair on the back of her neck and spine stands up. She trembles. She has no control over it. And, similarly, she has no control over her panic when she hears the vacuum cleaner. She thinks it is going to kill her. She is hard-wired to think of herself as either predator or prey, the hunter or the hunted.
Humans have these same instincts. Evolution prepared us to survive and to keep safe by living cooperatively in family and clan groups. In our evolutionary history, it was important to know who “your people” were because clan groups were often in territorial competition for game and plant-based food sources. The competition was not symbolic; it was deadly.
So, we developed instincts of recognizing and preferring our kind of people to other kinds of people; we prefer people who look like us, act like us, and speak like us. And we developed fear, loathing, and disgust for people who were different.
This instinct comes from the same part of the brain that anger comes from. It is the same place that gives us a black and white, all or nothing way of looking at the world. We call that dualism. You are for me or against me. You either please me or you are my enemy. This is the judgmental part of the brain.
We humans, because we are self-conscious, can even turn this stormy mechanism on ourselves. We can fill our minds with storms of self-judgement, self-criticism, failure and guilt narratives.
These mental storms become all the worse if we believe in a judgmental god-narrative to go along with it. Then, my problems are God’s punishments and curses. I’m getting what I deserve. God becomes my biggest problem.
In the Jonah story we have a conflicted God. On the one and, God gets angry enough about disobedience to cause a life threatening storm. He is appeased, however, by the man-overboard sacrifice. On the other hand, God has another side. God calms the storm, gives Jonah a second chance, and forgives the people of Nineveh after they repent. In the end, mercy seems to triumph over judgment, without leaving judgment completely behind.
Jesus had a profoundly higher view of God, and it changed everything for him. For Jesus, God was best pictured as a loving heavenly Father. The kind who would long for the return of the prodigal son, and forgive him the moment he showed up.
For Jesus, there was no mental storm that included an angry God. There was no fear of punishment, no need for appeasement; no man-overboard sacrifice.
And neither did Jesus have a need for dualistic thinking. The categories of “us vs. them” seem to vanish. Look at how Jesus lived his life, crossing over to the other side in every way there was an “other side.” As a man, he crossed over to women, and as a Jew, to Romans, to Samaritans, and even to pig farming Gentiles.
Jesus was a person who was characterized by acceptance and welcoming embrace of the “other.” His life was filled with compassion. He cared about people – poor people, sick people, hungry people, impure people, excluded people; there was no “them” for him; it was all one big “us.” How could it be otherwise if God was the loving, merciful heavenly father of us all? It makes all of us family.
Calming the Brain Storm: Spiritual Practices
It is not insignificant that Jesus spent all those times in silent prayer. Scientists know that meditation and contemplative silent prayer changes us. It actually does still the storms in our heads.
I cannot believe how helpful adopting this practice has been for me. I have a long way to go, but now, I have an even clearer picture of how far I have to go. I notice myself, when I let the mental storms clouds build up. And now I know what to do about it. I can become still, I can take a deep breath and become present to the moment, and present to the God who is present for all my moments, and say to the storm, “peace, be still.”
There is no room for racism in a peaceful mind. It is just another useless storm. Just as there is no room or need for anger and vengeance storms. When there is calm instead of internal storms, there is no opportunity for resentment and bitterness or jealousy and pride.
Leaving the Monkey Mind Behind
We are not monkeys, living in the trees anymore. We no longer put bones in our noses or wear animal skins on our backs. We have no need or use for tribalism. In fact, we survived, us humans, precisely because we learned how to cooperate. We became super-cooperators; eu-social as E.O. Wilson explains (The Social Conquest of Earth).
Our very willingness to not see each other as enemy, even though we do not come from a common clan, is exactly what helped us to achieve civilization, from which comes democracy, freedom and the rule of law, instead of the brutality of instinct.
But the primitive dualistic instinct is still in us. In the same week that nine people were gunned down in their symbolically important historically black church in Charleston, by a white man trying to start a race war, here in Alabama, in the city of Anniston, two police officers were placed on administrative leave for belonging to white supremacist hate groups.
I have seen the video of one of them expressing his views. He speaks freely about “our people” to a room full of white people. The League of the South to which they belong dresses up their beliefs in Orwellian Christian language claiming biblical support. Storms turn things upside down and wreck them. This is a perfect example.
Our Vision; the Jesus Vision of the Single Boat
We have a different vision. We are followers of Jesus. That means something. It means that we are in the boat that is continually crossing over to the other side. We are willing to face the outward storms that we cannot control, the storms of racism and hostility because we have faced the internal storms.
We believe in a God who is not ambivalent. We believe believe that mercy triumphs over judgment, and that God’s will is redemption and reconciliation.
So, we grieve over the horrible tragedy of hate crimes, and now, especially we grieve with our sisters and brothers in Charleston. And we stand with them in their struggle that is not finished. They are us, and we are them. We are all in this boat together. This is the Jesus boat. And it is always headed to the “other side.”
For this cause we commit ourselves to the Christian practices that still the storms in our heads and open us to compassion to all who are “other”, to contemplation, to meditation, to prayer, that we may join Jesus in his project of reconciliation on the other side.