Pentecost 4 B: On Miracles and Change
Dear Partner in Preaching,
A question: Do you think the disciples were more frightened before the stilling of the storm or after?
I realize the answer may seem obvious. After all, not only does Mark describe the “weather event” the disciples are experiencing out on the See of Galilee as “a great windstorm,” but he also tells us that the boat is so swamped with water that the disciples are frightened for their very lives.
And yet consider: after Jesus stills the seas and wind with his voice, after the disciples recognize that even the elements of nature obey their teacher, and after all that was once terrifying has been banished, the disciples experience another kind of fear altogether: the fear of being in the presence of the living God.
Sometimes this fear is described as a reverential awe, and it’s important to distinguish that kind of emotion from a more base terror of some known or unknown threat. Yet I’m guessing the reaction of the disciples was somewhere in between those two poles. And, truth be told, I think that’s often the reaction that accompanies an experience of God.
Last week I shared a quotation from one of my all-time favorite books, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. In the opening pages of that story, Reuben Land, the narrator of the story, tells of the apparent miracle by which his father saved his life when he had just been born. He then reflects on how often we tend to domesticate miracles, using the word to describe all manner of things that merit our attention and appreciation but that are not, finally, truly miraculous. He then goes on to press that distinction:
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave — now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time (Peace Like a River, 3).
Then comes the quotation I shared last week as, quoting his sister, Reuben says, “People fear miracles because they fear being changed.” Which is the source, I think, of this other kind of fear that stands somewhere between a holy awe and mighty terror: the fear of being changed. And make no mistake, Jesus is asking the disciples to change. In this very moment he is drawing them from the familiar territory of Capernaum to the strange and foreign land of the Garasenes. And he is moving them from being fishermen to disciples. And he is preparing them to welcome a kingdom so very different from the one they’d either expected or wanted.
The change they are facing is real, and hard, and inevitable, and all of this becomes crystal clear as they realize the one who is asking them to change has mastery over the wind and see and is, indeed, the Holy One of God. That change, of course, will also and ultimately be transformative, but I doubt if they see that yet.
Anyone else fear change? Not the kind of change we anticipate and plan for. And not even the kind of change that is unexpected and can seem life-threatening. No, I mean the kind of change that happens when we are encountered by the living God and realize that life will never be the same again. Perhaps it was this kind of experience that prompted you to seek a new call. Or maybe your congregation realized that it just couldn’t keep doing things the same way. Whatever it was, when you realize that it is God who is calling, things actually don’t get better because God’s call is one you can’t ignore for long. In fact, the uniform response across Scripture to an encounter with the living God is just kind of feeling that stands midway between a reverential awe and a holy terror.
“People fear miracles because they fear being changed.” Interestingly, we will, over the next few weeks, be encountering a number of miracle stories. And each time we will be challenged with how to treat them. Living in the modern world, we have a hard time with miracles, wanting either to overlook them as somewhat embarrassing elements of a by-gone worldview (treating demon possession as mental illness, for instance) or to make sense of them rationally (the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is really that all those people hoarding food were suddenly motivated to share). But I wonder if we might avoid either perhaps understandable but not finally helpful strategy and instead just live and linger in the story. And in this story, the disciples witness a miracle, and they know in a flash of terrifying insight that this miracle will change them forever. And that frightens them.
Back for a moment to Peace Like a River, as Reuban Land wasn’t quite finished with his thoughts on miracles: “People fear miracles because they fear being changed,” he said, and then continues, “though ignoring them will change you also.”
So what is the miracle that confronts you and your congregation, Dear Partner? Or, to put it another way, where is God encountering you and calling you to the other side of the lake, to change, to a new and different imagination about what it means to be a people of faith in your particular community and circumstances?
A preacher might certainly address this question to the individual hearers present on Sunday, asking folks where God might be calling them in their relationships and work. And the thought that God is calling us in our individual lives to change that may be real and hard and inevitable yet also transformative might make a powerful sermon. But on this day, and with this passage where no disciple is singled out but all together cross the lake and cry out in fear and finally stare in wonder, awe, and fear… on this day perhaps there is also room to talk about our communal vocation, our call as a community of faith into deeper relationship with the God who never leaves us unchanged.
Because here’s the thing: we may fear encounters with God because we fear being changed, but ignoring these encounters will change us also. There is no choice about whether we’ll be changed, it’s what kind of change, and whether we seek God’s help that it may ultimately prove transformative. And so perhaps you might set people to wondering and dreaming (and maybe even talking…in this very sermon) about where they sense the presence and call of God and what changes this encounter may bring and what is frightening (and even hopeful) about what is coming.
No answers this week, Dear Partner, because this story – the one in Mark and the one in your congregation – is really just getting started. But spending a few minutes on God’s awesome, frightening, but ultimately miraculous and transformative call to new life is a great way to get the story rolling. Thanks, as always, for your faithful work.
Yours in Christ,
Post image: Kees de Kort, “He Calms the Storm,” 1993 (The Netherlands).