Monday, June 24, 2024

The Fear of Miracles


Mark 4:35-41

Proper 7 / Year B

In the reading we just heard Jesus calls his followers to join him on what we might call a missionary journey.  He wants to go across the Sea of Galilee to the other side.  Up until now they have been in and around what for them is familiar territory - Capernaum.  They have been among family and friends, sometimes with mixed results (remember some think Jesus has lost his mind while others posit he is possessed by a demon).  Now they are headed to a strange and unknown new place – Garasenes.  What it holds for them must be a cause for speculation and concern, but at least they are travelling on what for many in the group is a known confine – the water.

Jesus falls fast asleep while a small flotilla of boasts makes its way forward during the night hours.  But the weather changes.  It goes from bad to worse to life-threatening.  Even those who make their living on the sea are in a panic.  You heard how the story unfolds.  They wake up Jesus and he rebukes the wind (as if it is possessed) and tells the waves to be still.  With this, we are told, a “dead calm” sets in.

According to the version we heard, the disciples are filled with “great awe”, but this is a misleading rendering.  A literal translation of the text would be they “feared a great fear.”  Some bibles read they are “filled with great fear,” others “feared exceedingly”, and still others they are “absolutely terrified.”  We might want to ask why.  Why does Jesus’ dramatic display elicit such immense dread from his followers?

You may be surprised to learn there is actually a name for the fear of miracles – thaumatophobia.  It is a subject touched on in Leif Enger’s 2001 book Peace Like a River.  Written to amuse his children and often filling its plots with story lines suggested by them, it tells the story of Reuban Land who, born with a chronic lung condition, is miraculously saved by his father at childbirth.  The book is littered with various kinds of miracles – like a bowl of soup which never runs out and a car with a gas tank never in need of refilling. 

Now, admittedly, most of these ‘miracles’ are more like oddities, but a few are truly confounding.  Reuben, the story’s narrator, says this:

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature.  Its 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 can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time.

Reuben concludes his thought with this insight: “People fear miracles because they fear being changed.”

I understand what Enger is getting at.  Miracles force us to grapple with the fact the world is not what we think.  Its predictability can be suspended by a Being beyond us or, as is the case with today’s reading, by a person among us.  And if this is correct than we must face the reality we are walking in the unknown, misguided by a comforting disillusion the way in which we have ordered things still holds true.

Here is how I would have liked today’s gospel reading to unfold:

They were out on the water and Jesus was asleep when a great storm arose and the boat was being swamped.  In a panic they awoke Jesus who immediately organized his followers.  The sailors sailed while the land lovers grabbed buckets and bailed furiously. The struggle was tremendous but Jesus was not afraid and kept encouraging them to persevere.  After battling the elements with all their might and near exhaustion, the boats reached shore and safe harbor.  Jesus looked at his followers and said, “See, I knew you had it in you.”  The disciples were filled with a great sense of accomplishment saying, “Look what we can do when believe in ourselves and we work together!”

Wouldn’t this be a more comforting way for all of this to have unfolded.  Jesus – the motivational speaker who keeps our spirits high, even when the going gets tough.  I could preach a hundred different sermon on a story like this.

But this isn’t what happened, is it.  The people in those boats come face-to-face with a person who is more than a good storyteller and more than someone who can heal all manner of infirmity.  They are confronted with the reality Jesus possesses the ability to alter natural forces – literally to change the course of reality.  It is no long possible merely to follow Jesus as a teacher or rabbi or great physician.  He holds power over all creation, as only God does.  It changes everything – realigning how they (and we) are in relationship with Jesus.

When the Reuben Land character says “People fear miracles because they fear being changed” he adds, “though ignoring them will change you also.”  How will today’s story change you?

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