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JAFA in Exile

June 25, 2006

Clay Nelson

Second Sunday after Trinity     
Mark 4:35-41


Wimps! Chucks! New Zealand chickens. That's what the disciples were. Maybe that's why Jesus asks them to take a little boat ride as if it was a riddle, “Why did the disciples cross the lake?” Granted it was a change in the itinerary. Instead of just bringing the realm of God only to the Jews like any good Jewish Messiah should know, he wanted to take it to the Gentiles on the other side as well. Why, for God's sake?


Well, whatever his reasons, the trip across the Sea of Galilee showed that the disciples certainly weren't Kiwis. The Sea of Galilee isn't a sea at all and it isn't much of a lake. Lake Taupo is four times larger and deeper. I've seen the Sea of Galilee during a storm, and sure it's choppy, but the disciples should be grateful they never had to cross the Harbour Bridge on a Vespa with a small fuzzy white dog strapped to their back during a southwesterly, like my mode of commuting requires. If the boat ride our Gospel describes brought them to their knees, they should count their lucky stars that they never had to fly into Wellington on a “calm” day.


For that matter they should give thanks that they don't sit in the nave of this church where you have had to repeatedly endure my inviting you into exile from the church's traditional understanding of Jesus and God.


Ever since Palm Sunday when I began my exile by declaring Jesus just a man I have been tossed about in the storm of implications that this has for being a Christian; for being the Church. The result, five sermons later: last Sunday at eight o'clock I brazenly preached--to the four early risers present--that the God we have been praying to all my life and for the two millennia prior is in our post-modern world view both redundant and homeless. Science has given him very little to do and the Hubble telescope that has found the edge of the universe still can't find Heaven.


I've got to hand it to you. I haven't seen any of you jumping ship during this voyage. You could've just dismissed me as a JAFA. Just another you-know-what American. Americans seem to love stormy weather. Look at the Episcopal Church defying the rest of the Anglican Communion by ordaining a gay man as bishop, blessing same-sex marriages, and this week, electing the first woman primate in history. And not just any woman, but a scientist with a post-modern view of God and the church. Maybe you don't dismiss me because you remember that New Zealand was the first anywhere to consecrate a woman as bishop. Maybe you are aware that gays and lesbians have considerably more rights in New Zealand than they do in America. After my first winter in Auckland, it is clear you aren't troubled by stormy weather. Perhaps that because you live in the City of Sails. You know that if there isn't a little weather you're not going anywhere. A lively wind is immensely preferable to the doldrums or certainly to a dead calm.


So, where are we going this week? What does the story of Jesus calming the storm, have to say to those of us in exile? If it does have anything to say, it certainly isn't in Jesus telling the storm to be still. Living here we know how quickly the weather can change. Any resident of Auckland can go tell the weather the same thing as Jesus and have a pretty good shot at looking good. Besides, even Mark whose world view included the possibility of Jesus having authority over the weather didn't think miracles inspired faith in people. At best, faith has the capacity of making miraculous things happen.


For us in exile, it doesn't have much to say to those who don't experience a God who is going to come rushing in to rescue us whenever we find ourselves in rough waters. Sure for Mark that was possible. For Mark this was a classic story of two gods at war. The very name for sea in Hebrew was the name of an evil Babylonian god of chaos and death. The good God of Israel, Yahweh, had often been depicted on one of his wrathful days as being in the storm. Jesus calming both of them was giving a new understanding of God.


This is captured best in the original Greek, where the disciples are described as having two kinds of fear. They showed cowardice before the gods of the sea and storm and fear, as in awe, of Jesus, captured in their question “Who is this bloke?” Since we dealt with that question five sermons ago, what else might this story say to us who are living in a rather fearful exile.


We could use some reassurance from this story. We live in a frightening place where we no longer have a heavenly parent in the sky to take care of us. That is even scarier than that time that eventually comes for all of us when we realise we have no earthly parents to care for us or fall back on. Knowing we are alone, responsible for ourselves and there is no higher power for protection is not a warm, cosy spot to be in. Learning that meaning is not external to life but must be discovered in our own depths and imposed on life by an act of our own will is not place we go voluntarily. We are all too aware that life is not fair and will not necessarily be made fair in this life or in any other.


So how can this story help us to live with this reality now? Is it able to bridge drastically different world views to be of any use to us?


I'll let you decide, but I think ironically the most valuable part of the story is Jesus being asleep at the helm. If he was in the navy, that would be a serious offence. He might be made to walk the plank, but in his taking a nap while all hell breaks loose around him could be a helpful model for us.


Mark was probably writing this in Rome while Nero was busy crucifying Christians along the roadsides, dousing them with pitch and setting them on fire as particularly gruesome street lamps. To Christians at the time it must've seemed like God was taking a nap.


But is it any better now? Is God asleep while innocents die cruel deaths? Why hasn't God intervened to stop AIDS and Malaria, war and terrorism, famine and natural disaster? Where was God when twin infants were being battered to death by a family member in Mangere? Those of us in exile cannot blame a God who never was for permitting such evils and tragedies. We are forced to look to our own accountability.


I am quickly repelled by such a notion. I defensively ask what can I do. I'm not the cause and I don't have the resources to respond.


Here is where a napping Jesus is helpful. He is the picture of calm in the midst of unbridled anxiety.


Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and family therapist, wrote years ago a book entitled Generation to Generation about how to become and remain healthy in dysfunctional family systems. And all families are dysfunctional; it's just a matter of degree. The trick, he explains, is to remain a non-anxious presence in the midst of the hysteria. We refer to it as NAPping. An example of napping is taking your fiancé to a family Christmas dinner to introduce him. Such occasions are fraught with pitfalls. Too many toasts and too many stories that accompany such moments can create a great deal of anxiety in the future bride. What will my fiancé think? I better explain my crazy family before we get there, but how do I explain my mother or Uncle Albert or my nephew Stanley? If the bride-to-be arrives too anxious it is likely to make the event even more bizarre. But if she is a non-anxious presence trusting what is good in her family as well as their idiosyncrasies and trusts her fiancé to sort it all out, it can be a fun and joyful occasion.


This sounds good except those around us don't want us to take a nap. They want us to participate in the craziness. I once asked my mother how she always knew how to push my buttons. She replied, “That's easy dear, I installed them.”


Friedman conveniently uses the analogy of a boat to explain it. When someone decides to be a non-anxious presence, that is nap in the boat, this is seen as confrontational by the others. The person napping is usually the healthiest member of the family. Her healthy behaviour of not getting sucked back into the family's dysfunction is a challenge to the others to either become healthier themselves or jump overboard. Eventually all will do one or the other, but first they conspire to get the napper to wake up. They rock the boat in hopes that they won't have to change. They rock the boat to raise up fear in the non-anxious presence, for it is fear that returns us to our old dysfunctional ways.


Friedman argues that to change a dysfunctional system, be it family, church, community or world begins with the power of one. The more we seek to become and remain healthy, the healthier those around us become.


If you find that hard to believe go back to the disciples' boat. See the man napping. Now do you question the power of one? This is the man who let nothing draw him away from spiritual health even unto death. This man knew that no matter what tragedies or evils befall us, nothing can take that which we experience as God, love, life and being, from us. So there is nothing to fear. We are free to do as he did, seek God in this journey we call life, and offer our healthiest selves to a broken world in need of our compassion, our hope, our love.


To seek to be as healthy as Jesus is our Christian responsibility. It is not beyond our ability. We are no less human than he. We are the second coming of Christ to this broken world so desperate to know a God that cares. We do that by not letting the storms in our life cause us to retreat from our mission to reveal the faith, hope and love that is within us.

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