Whirlwinds and Liminal crossings
Mark 4: 35-41
Colleen D. Hartung
Our readings today start with God speaking from the heart of a mighty whirlwind and end with Jesus calming a storm that threatens to swamp the disciple’s boat and end their lives before their ministry even begins. In both cases, for Job and the disciples, the storm is disorienting and meant to signal the possibility of some transformation or reordering that might allow the protagonists in these stories to see their lives, their relationships, their faith and their ways of being in new ways. As a way of considering the transformational possibilities suggested by these stories, I begin today by taking a bird’s eye view of the Gospel of Mark and where today’s reading is located within the context of the entire gospel. It actually sits in the middle of Mark’s parade of Jesus’ miraculous healings. It is preceded by the healing of the man with an unclean spirit, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and others sick or possessed by demons, the healing of an unclean leper, a paralytic, and a man with a withered hand. It is followed by the healing of a demoniac, a woman suffering from hemorrhages, Jairus’ daughter, the sick in Gennesaret, the Syrophoenician woman’s little daughter, a deaf man and the blind man at Bethsaida. It also follows directly on the heels of the series of parables we heard last Sunday. At the beginning of the day, the crowd gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilea as Jesus sat in a boat teaching them through parables about how the reign of heaven takes root and proceeds to spread, unpredictably, like an invasive weed. And then, on that same day, when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us cross over to the other shore.” This is the first of 4 such crossings; back and forth across the Sea of Galilea from the western Jewish side to the eastern Gentile side. Jesus’ healing ministry that we have just delineated will take place on both sides of these crossings.
Up to this point, Jesus has called his disciples to follow him. They have witnessed him healing and eating with the excluded and outcast of Galilea. They have sat at his feet as their teacher. And they have assisted in his proclamation of the reign of God. However, it is one thing to be sent out to proclaim a message, to heal and even to persuade those who, though down on their luck or fallen from grace, are still shaped by the faith and world view that shapes you. It is another thing to commit to a discipleship that crosses over to the other side and reaches out to engage with and offer healing to those whose beliefs are different and who you are conditioned to see as foreign, strange, ignorant, less than, and unworthy. If it wasn’t clear before when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and when he touched the unclean and healed them (stories told in the first three chapters of this gospel), this crossing makes it evident that Jesus’ messages is not just for those who adhere to Jewish laws having to do with cleanliness or legacies of power. The disciples have heard Jesus’ parables. They are his favored followers and they have received special, secret instruction. And still, they cannot see. They cannot get their hearts and minds around the expansive, inclusivity that is the good news of the reign of heaven. And so, it is reasonable to think that at this juncture, they might find themselves confused and fearful.
When the disciples depart in the boat to cross to the other shore, they are, in a sense, unmoored. They are betwixt and between their familiar expectations and old ways of seeing and being and a newness that is good news and meant to transform them, their personal relationships, their communities and those Gentiles on the other side. The crossing in today’s gospel becomes, when seen in a certain way, a liminal space of sorts between the worldly structures and beliefs that have formed and oppressed them and their identity as bearers of a disruptive, inclusive message that proclaims the healing, sustaining life of the alternative reign they have glimpsed through Jesus’ healing ministry but not understood. This reign of heaven is not only for the Jews, it is for the Gentiles as well.
In the crossing we are told about today, they are tested. A fierce gale arises. The waves break into the boat. They lose their bearings and fear reigns. Crossings like this – the traversing of liminal spaces – are not for the faint of heart. Ask Job. Everything that gave his live meaning is lost to him. In his encounter with the testing, transformative powers that stir within the reign of heaven, he loses everything that he thought gave his life meaning. His 7 sons and 3 beautiful daughters are killed in a whirlwind. His crops, his herds, his home, his health, his friends and his faith in God. All of it. Job is angry but more than that he has lost his bearings. His self-centered way of making sense of his world isn’t working anymore. From the whirlwind, God reminds Job of the majesty and grandeur of creation and its unfathomable nature in terms of time and space. He humbles Job. And then God says “Gird up your belt like the fighter you are.” And Job does. He braves the storm. And he comes out on the other side restored but also transformed.
The disciples on the other hand, don’t fare as well. At least not in this part of the story. In the face of the storm, Jesus has to prop them up because they still don’t get it. They are frightened; first by the power of storm and then by the undeniable, transformative power of the kingdom embodied by Jesus. Driven by fear, they cannot see themselves as the kingdom they seek. They fail the test. However, there will be another crossing to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilea with its own storm that will show them again the inclusive nature of the love they desire and there will be the Jesus’s death on the cross that turns their whole world upside down. They will have other chances to lean into the transformative grace of this liminal space. Ultimately, the stories told in the Christian Scriptures are mostly stories of transformation that show us how fearful, resistant disciples become the good news Jesus proclaims.
So, what does this story of a liminal crossing in today’s gospel have to do with us. Perhaps you could see this coming. Perhaps not. But I suggest that this past year and some of a worldwide pandemic has been like a destructive whirlwind; a tumultuous storm that brought and continues to bring our familiar ways of doing and being to a grinding halt and turns our world and our ways of ordering it on its head.
Effective vaccines and high vaccination rates make a return to “normal” seem like a tantalizing possibility…. For some. Yet, the global death count form Covid in the first 5 months of this year exceeds the number of deaths reported in the whole of 2020. Much of the world remains in the throes of this crisis. And the divide between those who on one side are celebrating with fireworks, picnics, concerts and indoor gatherings and those on the other side who remain locked down and dying mirrors the familiar divide between those who traditionally have and those who do not. Many countries on the African continent have only a 1% vaccination rate. My friend Jayesh from India lost 5 family members in April and May. Which brings me to another throwaway line in today’s gospel; “There were other boats with them.” What happened to those people? The disciples cry to Jesus for fear of their own lives. And it’s possible that the calming of storm experienced by the disciples reflects the experience of those in the other boats. But perhaps not. Maybe their boats were swamped. We don’t know. The focus of the story and the focus of the disciples remains self-centered. The disciples are not transformed by this particular crossing and so we do not see beyond their narrowed perspective.
And what about us? Have we been or are we being transformed by the liminal space created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the global tragedy that’s left us confused, fearful, and disoriented? Has the disruption of our traditional self-centering ways of ordering our lives allowed us to realize a more inclusive way of being where our personal wellness might be intimately tied to the well-being of other people and the planet? Or are we hell bent on getting back to our familiar pre-Covid ways of being and doing; in denial of the ongoing turmoil and suffering that is the continuing reality for so many?
Has there been any room in this liminal space for us to be touched again or to be touched differently by the message of the reign of heaven that is realized in a healing grace that includes those we love and those we consider foreign and unworthy? In the face of the whirlwind that made the past year virtually unrecognizable, have we cowered like the disciples? Or do we hitch up our belts like Job?