Toorak Uniting Church

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Living faith with wonder and awe

Mark 4:35-41
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 4
21 June 2015

Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith. ~Paul Tillich

Dr David Tacey spoke at TUC last Thursday evening. David is a well-published author and lecturer at LaTrobe University and has a great interest in Spirituality and Faith. His latest book is titled Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor. Among the interesting things David said in his launching of this book was that we often see the ancients as inferior to us moderns. And of course we have the edge when it comes to technology, but in the area of understanding life and its meaning they have a stronger connection to the inner world of hope, faith and belief. In fact, the ancients lived whole lives that were connected by a great chain of being that brought all this together; and all was interrelated.

I order to achieve what we have now and for the sciences to expand, the link between the material world and the sacred world had to be severed. So we now live in a world where it is relatively easy for us to see the scientific world as fact and to a large degree the "spiritual world" can easily be relegated to fiction. So when it comes to the reading of the Bible, the attempt is made by theologians to "factualise" the stories and parables of Jesus. However, this tends to calcify their meaning and provide just a surface reading of the stories.

Tacey stressed that the ancient mind had strong understanding that the great stories and parables about Jesus were too important to be told as just everyday tales. They were wrapped in the language of poetry and mythology and given the grandeur of awe and wonder.

But they were only accessible through faith. That is, the story like the one read earlier demands a willingness to see beyond the physical and material parts of the narrative and grasp a wholeness that embraces me and draws me into the story.

Job is Saved by Grandeur
The two readings this morning reflect on the presence of the sacred in the natural world. But both are poetic and mythical in their grandeur. The first reading from Job comes at the end of the book. Job, having survived his many trials, and advice from his friends, now is confronted with the God of the universes.

Job 38:1-11
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

"Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? - when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped?'"

Science will tell us that the world didn’t come into being quite like that. But that doesn’t matter because here is a world formed and shaped by the inner imagination that calls us to see this created order with the eyes of a poet and the ears of a sage. It is wisdom and not information that these words impart.

Saving the Story and the Boat
Now I think that the second story from Mark’s gospel of Jesus stilling the storm can be treated in much the same way – with poetic imagination. You may not have heard many preachers use this story in this way. Some will see it as proving Jesus has the power of God to stop the rain. Or that the disciples’ weak faith was overcome by Jesus’ strong faith. And at a literal level that could be the case. But it robs the story of its rich and deep layers:

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 Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a 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?"

I have mentioned before that there is a remarkable connection with the stuff of the earth and everyday life used in Jesus’ stories and parables. And yet those everyday events and items take on mythical power when they are put into the narrative. Just to be clear, when I use the word 'myth' I don’t mean falsehood as it can be commonly used, nor do I mean magical, like mythical dragons. I mean in the classic sense that the story is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. (A bit like the Tardis in Dr Who, I suppose.) Karen Armstrong prefers the word mythos:

Mythos refers to those broad frameworks of value and meaning in terms of which we conduct and evaluate our lives and experience the universe as a whole.

And that is what the writer of Mark’s gospel wants us to see. And that is that the natural order, the storm and the rain, are actually connected to the realm of the sacred and what holds them together in the individual and the community is Faith…. Not belief, but trust, meaning and life experience. It is doubtful that anyone gathered here today has seen a storm stilled by the words of a man. But look at the poetics of these words:

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.

Is it likely that these words are directed to the ruffled followers? Can they transcend the centuries and speak to our/my fearful and fractured lives? " still."

And then the pathway to that inner peace, or peace within our world:

"Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great awe.

Job was overawed by the notion that the God he worshipped could shut in the seas with doors…. That would shape his mind and his religion. Those first disciples wrapped their fear in a blanket of faith and awe once they had overcome their fearfulness.

We are robbed of a sense of awe and wonder when the sacred story is reduced to the literal. The stories themselves beg us to reflect more deeply and more personally than at a first reading. Just as we will come together to break bread and drink together, we will take the stuff of the earth and see in it through the eyes of faith and poetic imagination the life-blood of Jesus - not literally, but as a symbol that what is on the inside is larger than what is on the outside.

"Jesus never asked anyone to form a church, ordain priests, develop elaborate rituals and institutional cultures, and splinter into denominations. His two great requests were that we 'love one another as I have loved you' and that we share bread and wine together as an open channel of that inter-abiding love." ~ Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2015

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