Whenever I feel overwhelmed by my life, with lots of very important things that need prompt action, I put all of it aside and…I clean stuff. I vacuum the floor mats of my car, using every single attachment for the vacuum. I go through my sock drawer and make sure every sock has a mate and that they’re in three rows: dress and casual and workout. I attack the spice cabinets…yes, there are two full cabinets of them…and I combine duplicates, discard old ones and sort them by categories: savory vs. sweet; Arab vs. American; pickling and canning vs. normal eating. My big projects, of course, have not been touched, but the little universe of spice storage, underwear care and responsible car maintenance is in Divine Order. Unless, of course, I happen to leave the house and run into unforeseen troubles.
Actually, I don’t have to even get in the car for trouble to find me: it finds me wherever I am. We live in constant threat of chaos from life, nature, our government leaders who apparently sleep quite well enforcing their policy of keeping children in cages and forcing them to take adult doses of psych meds. We also face trouble from family and friends as well as our own unruly impulses. Allstate Insurance has those great commercials featuring actor Dean Winter as “Mayhem”. I just love the ads! Mayhem represents the unexpected and the disastrous in daily life, the times that test the kind of insurance we carry. I’ve driven through a hailstorm once in Wisconsin that left my car looking like someone had beaten it all over with a ballpeen hammer. Storms happen.
Jesus’ seed parables assure us that God is working 24/7 to combat mayhem. God is working overtime to bring about the Kingdom in small ways, even during the storms of life. The seed parables, which deal with how to live on dry land with faith in God, are delivered from a boat on the sea. The sea, for Mark, connotes the powers of chaos, which the Bible connects with the forces of evil. Chapter 4 of Mark begins and ends with a reference to the sea: “Again he began to teach beside the sea” (4:1); “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41).
Looking at this parable, we find three characters in this chapter of Mark. There are the disciples. There is Jesus. And there is the sea. Characters have personalities and they have a role to play as the plot unfolds. The sea has quite a role in Mark and it certainly isn’t a bit part or a cameo.
People who think of the sea as a scenic view from the boardwalk as they slurp Hawaiian shaved ice have no idea what the sea is all about. Mark gets it, though. People who’ve survived a hurricane or a tsunami get it. Those men on Wicked Tuna get it as do all the people who make their living from the sea. These people realize that the sea is unpredictable and potentially deadly. Throughout the Bible the sea is a metaphor for the place where chaos and the demonic reside. Moses leads the people from bondage to liberation through a sea. The sea threatens all those who want to follow God (Ps. 69:1, 14-15). God’s power to calm the sea is affirmed (Ps. 46:1-3; 89:8-9; 93:3-4; Rev. 21:1). Many scripture experts assert that, for Mark, the sea is a metaphor for the demonic and apocalyptic chaos that confronts Jesus, terrorizes his disciples and threatens the future of the gospel.
The sea, the location of chaos and the forces that threaten God’s purposes, is the context for Jesus’ teaching of the seed parables. They cluster around the theme of trusting God’s hidden purposes and what God can make possible with faith the size of a mustard seed. Seeds are a perfect metaphor for a persecuted, vulnerable community like Mark’s—a sign that great things can come from small beginnings and that none of the results are under our control.
Each of us is trying to live by the seed parables’ message in the midst of a chaotic life. Each of us is surrounded by chaos, realizing that our attempts to order our lives are legitimate, but precarious. Hailstorms are just around the corner. Drunk drivers are speeding home on our streets. Grandmas and teens are addicted to a host of legal and illegal substances. Cancers come out of remission and return with a vengeance. People in power create destruction and violence in order to keep themselves in power. Allstate is right: Mayhem is here. We all have aspects of our lives that are currently not under our control. We cannot control the behavior of others. We cannot even control our own behaviors at times, as Paul says, knowing what we should do but then doing the opposite anyway.
So what the heck can we do? It’s simple: we need faith the size of a mustard seed to withstand the storm. Any storm. That’s even more than the disciples seem to have, although that will change as they come to believe more in themselves and in their own ability to co-create the Kingdom with Jesus. Jesus says to the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” In other words, they don’t even have faith the size of a mustard seed. They’ve seen the healings, the exorcisms, and they still don’t get it. Jesus has shown them power over the demons in people’s hearts and bodies, so now he demonstrates his power even over the demons of the sea, the primordial forces of chaos.
I’ve said that the sea as the third character in this story. Its role is to threaten the disciples and to test their faith. The demonic forces that reside in the sea’s underbelly stir the waters and wind into a squall, and the disciples fail their test of faith. Miserably. Notice that Jesus doesn’t call them out for being afraid in a storm, he finds fault with them for thinking the powers of chaos are more powerful than he is. While the demonic sea pays attention to Jesus, the disciples still do not understand. “Who is this that the wind and sea obey him?”
On October 17, 1735 John Wesley and his brother Charles set sail from England to Savannah, Georgia. John’s goal was to preach to the Indians (feathers, not dots) and lead them to Christ. On the four-month-long trip, a storm came up suddenly and broke the mast of the ship. The Englishmen were terrified and crying, but a group of Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. John Wesley was impressed by their personal faith in the face of a dangerous, life-threatening storm. He realized he was weak whereas the Moravians had an inner strengh he very much wanted. He later wrote in his journal, “It was then that I realized that mine was a dry land, fair weather faith.”
This parable from Mark offers us a better way. At the heart of it, the message lies in our coming up with our own answer to the disciples’ question: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”