Lessons: Mark 4:35-43; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
When I chose these passages we hadn’t yet planned to celebrate the ordination and installation of new officers today. This morning, I’m wondering whether Paul’s description of his experience as a leader in the early church might send our brand new elders and deacons running for the door: “[A]s servants of God,” he writes, “we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger …” Yikes. Maybe it’s not just the new officers that are looking around for the exit right now.
In the 1st century church, Paul had to deal with persecution, whether you had to convert to Judaism in order to be a Christian, and here, with the Corinthian church, whether some Christians were just more spiritual than others and deserved special treatment. In the 21st century, we face other issues: How do we deal with entrenched racism and privilege? How do we respond to the climate crisis? What is our role when our own government authorizes cruel policies like putting small children into detention centers without their parents? Who do we become when the culture around us seems to prefer individualism and consumerism to community, a livable planet and the flourishing of the human spirit? I’m not saying any of that is worse than beatings or imprisonment, but it makes perfect sense to me that our church leaders might be afraid.
So – what moves people from fear to faith? That’s the question raised by the story in Mark. This is the kind of story that gives some people fits because they just don’t believe it really happened. But “Did it really happen?” isn’t the question. The question is, “What does it mean?” What does it mean to the 21st century church?
Both fear and faith make sense only in relation to something that’s unknown, challenging, difficult, or threatening. Those are the kinds of things that make us afraid, right? And when you stop to think about it, it’s those same things that summon us to have the faith to face them. I don’t think fear and faith are mutually exclusive. Faith doesn’t so much overcome fear as it does make it possible to cope with it. Maybe that’s the issue here: Not whether you’re afraid, but how you respond when you’re afraid. So what allows us, even if we are afraid of something that is unknown, challenging, difficult, or threatening, to act in faith rather than be paralyzed by fear?
What struck me about the Mark passage is that it isn’t the miracle Jesus performs that makes the difference. The disciples actually seem more afraid after the miracle. I’m not so sure they weren’t just complaining rather than panicking when they woke Jesus: “Hey, Jesus, don’t you even care? This trip was your idea, and you’re supposed to be steering this boat!” We might think a miracle or two would help us find our faith when things are scary, but that’s not the case here, or throughout Mark, for that matter. The disciples have seen plenty of miracles so far, but they still don’t know what to expect from Jesus or even who he is. Miracles, it turns out, are ambiguous.
There is a poignant scene in the otherwise extremely violent film “Pulp Fiction,” when two hit men, Jules and Vincent, are in a diner, trying to come to terms with a narrow escape from death. Jules thinks it was a miracle, but Vincent disagrees. After defining a miracle as “God making the impossible possible,” Vincent argues that their escape from death earlier that day doesn’t qualify. Jules answers, “Don’t you see, Vincent, that…doesn’t matter. You’re judging this thing the wrong way. …. You don’t judge [stuff] like this on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch. God got involved.”
“I felt God’s touch. God got involved.” Something like that, I think, is happening in Mark’s story. The shift in the disciples’ reaction, from “don’t you care” to “who is this,” is a shift from what (the miracle), to who (Jesus). David Lose points out that this shift might lead us to conclude that maybe the answer to our question, “What moves us from fear to faith?” is relationship. It’s the move from what to who, from event to person, from ambiguous miracle to the actual person of Jesus.
Faith, after all, isn’t believing in certain doctrines about when or how God created the earth, whether or not Jonah lived in the belly of a whale, the nature of Scripture’s authority, or even Mary’s marital status when Jesus was born. Trust is a much better translation of the Greek word that our Bibles translate as faith because trust implies an action – it’s a verb – and a relationship. So that means faith is about a relationship, a relationship with the God revealed by the words and actions of Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, the Jesus we meet is relentless in his pursuit of caring for all of God’s children. Jesus insisted on this trip in the first place because he was determined to get to the other side, to the land of the Gerasenes, a place few rabbis would venture. There he will meet and heal a man possessed by a demon and return him to the community from which he’s been ostracized.
These early chapters of Mark describe again and again Jesus’ determination to free people from all the things that keep them from the abundant life God promises: disease, social exclusion, hunger, even death itself. Jesus reveals a God who cares passionately for the wellbeing of all God’s people. Jesus invites people to trust in that God, and trust, in the end, is the only thing that overcomes fear. Ultimately, the question isn’t what moves us from fear to trust, but who. The answer Mark offers is Jesus, the one who will not rest until we see and hear and experience and trust and live into God’s passionate love for us and all the world.
There is a second “who” involved as well, because when we have a hard time trusting, a hard time believing that God still loves us or that God is still present in our lives, at those times we gather as a community to read again these stories and remind each other of God’s promises. When we do that – when we remind each other of God’s steadfast love – we are stepping into the biblical story to play one of the great roles assigned throughout Scripture. At critical moments across the biblical drama, apostles, angels, and prophets will be sent to the people of God to say the four powerful yet simple words that are the most frequently repeated command and promise in the Bible: Do not be afraid.
That, my friends, is the task of those you have elected as your leaders, including the deacons and elders we ordain and install today. To say to each other, and to the larger community, “Do not be afraid.” They do that by extending God’s touch to others, witnessing to God’s involvement in our lives through the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary ministry we share as we face these uncertain, challenging, difficult, and threatening times in which we live; times like this past week. This past week, police shot and killed yet another unarmed young Black man; Antwon Rose, who was just 17 years old. There’s the outrage at the border; the executive order accomplishes some things but not others. White nationalists announced they’ve scheduled a rally in Washington, D.C. in August. It seems there’s plenty to be afraid of right now, and that’s just on the national scene. In their private lives, folks in our congregation face loss, family turmoil, illness, and trying to figure out how they can afford to stay in Marin. It can be tempting to bury our heads or turn our backs. I imagine that Paul thought about washing his hands of those troublesome Corinthians but instead, he stuck with it, and did the hard and humbling work of mending broken relationships.
A helpful image is “servant leadership.” Max DePree was Chairman of the Board of the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller until his death last year. Depree, a Christian, wrote extensively for the corporate world about servant leadership. In his book, Leadership Jazz, DePree remembered visiting his new granddaughter, Zoe, in the hospital. She was born prematurely, weighing just one pound, seven ounces. The neonatologist told him that her chances of living were 5 to 10 percent. She had two IVs in her stomach, another in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth. Her biological father wasn’t in the picture. A wise and caring nurse named Ruth told DePree, “For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I’d like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.”
DePree said, “Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf … and without realizing it, she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader. At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice with one’s touch.”
To the officers who will be ordained and installed today: As leaders in our congregation, your voice is the expression of your trust in God, your relationship with God. That means, my friends, that you need to have a relationship with God. What that looks like is very individual and changes over time but it certainly means that part of your calling is spending time with God. That will be your fuel, your resource. Your touch is your relationship with God’s people. God has called you through this congregation to use both your voice and your touch to say, “Do not be afraid. God loves you. God is present, and God has ways of making the impossible possible.” To say, “God is determined to free people from all the things that keep them from the abundant life God promises: disease, social exclusion, hunger, even death itself. And so God continues to call us, to call all of us, to imagine, hope for and create new possibilities.”
These wonderful people will come to connect your voice with your touch. And – you will need to remind them, and to remind each other, that when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, as Edward Everett Hale put it, “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can.”
God bless us all in doing what we can. And God bless your voice, your touch, and your leadership. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 2 Corinthians 6:4-5.
 Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 112.
 “Pulp Fiction” (1994), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, stories by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary; Miramax (presents), A Band Apart, Jersey Films. A video clip of this scene, which contains much foul language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ-y3kDkF6w.
 Pistis (Πίστις).
 Darran Simon and Hollie Silverman, “The Death of the Unarmed Teen Killed by an East Pittsburgh Police Officer is Ruled a Homicide,” CNN, June 22, 2018,
 Richard Gonzales, “Trump's Executive Order On Family Separation: What It Does And Doesn’t Do,” NPR, June 20, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/20/622095441/trump-executive-order-on-family-separation-what-it-does-and-doesnt-do.
 James Doubek, “’White Civil Rights Rally’ Approved For D.C. in August,” NPR, June 21, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/21/622144455/white-civil-rights-rally-approved-for-d-c-in-august?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social
 Elisabeth Johnson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=327.
 Max Depree, Leadership Jazz (New York: Doubleday, 1992; revised 2008 edition), 2.