— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
The story in today’s reading of Mark’s gospel has such a mythic and legendary quality that I can’t help but wonder, “How did it get in there?” “Why was it included by the writer of Mark?” “What was this story’s purpose?”
Jesus and his disciples were on the shore of Lake Galilee or Gennesaret with a large crowd of people. As he often did, he was using parables to teach them. When the evening came, the disciples and Jesus decided to cross the large lake, leaving the crowd behind. As they were making their way across the large lake, Jesus was sleeping in the back of the boat. A strong wind began blowing such that water began to come over the sides threatening to swamp the boat. At that, they woke Jesus. Jesus spoke to the wind and sea, saying, “Peace! Be still!” and there was dead calm. Filled with awe at Jesus’ lack of fear and his prevailing power, they quietly said to each other: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Their question should regularly be our question: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It is the question the Church should never grow tired of asking, nor grow tired of trying to answer. Why? Because trying to understand this Living, Creative Spirit and following the ways of this Jesus changes life. It had the power to change the lives of those followers in the first century who followed him. It has had the power to change the lives of countless individuals for two thousand years. It had the power to change the life of one of Jesus’ greatest critics—Saul of Tarsus who received a new name, Paul. And, asking the question, “Who then is this that even the wind and sea obeys?” and following the ways of this Jesus has the power to change anyone’s life for the better.
I note the importance of the disciples’ question from Mark’s gospel, but want to turn to comments in a letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Those comments are similar to comments Paul made in his letter to the church in Galatia and comments in the New Testament letter to Ephesus. The Corinthian passage is preceded by the words you heard after our unison prayer of confession and renewal: “Anyone who is in Christ, is a new creation: everything old has passed away…everything has become new!” Then comes this nugget of wisdom from the 2 Corinthians passage in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased translation: “Our work gets validated, or not, in the details.”
This string of characteristics is Paul’s “must have” list. “How have I survived all my difficulties?” Paul asks rhetorically. It is by striving for these essential qualities:
…a pure heart (purity)
…a clear head (knowledge)
…steady hands (patience)
…holiness (holiness of spirit)
…honest love (genuine love)
…truthfulness (truthful speech)
…allowing God’s power to be seen (trying to be a worthy mentor)
…always trying to do what is right (righteousness)
To ease your mind, I am not on the front end of a nine-point sermon. Paul’s list of character traits that helped him get through the hardest points of his life are the same as those that seemed to permeate the life of the Galilean whom even the “wind and sea obeyed.” The list is similar to what we know as the “Fruit of the Spirit” characteristics in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
This list is similar in nature to the metaphor of putting on the whole armor of God to fight the inner battles for integrity and inner peace which we read in that Ephesians chapter six passage.
Why are some people more successful than others, especially when they are sometimes less skilled, less experienced, more poorly equipped, and lacking in pedigree? Why are some people happier than others when they have every reason in the world to be discouraged, angry, envious, resentful, and ultimately destructive? The answer, I think, lies in these characteristics to which Paul held and which were at the very heart of the life of Jesus. They are all bi-products for letting the mind of Christ become your own mind…for allowing the Spirit of God to live through you. “Thou shalt keep him [or her] in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee,” a composer quotes Isaiah 26:3.
My sermon title is an obvious takeoff on Stephen Covey’s 30-year old management bestseller: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “There is no real excellence in all this world which can be separated from right living,” says Covey and David Jordan, the co-author. Listen to the words of other contemporaries:
- Colin Powell: “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude. “
- John Gardiner: “Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude.”
- Steve Jobs: “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
- Vince Lombardi: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” (Lombardi’s famed Green Bay Packers quarterback, Bart Starr, who died last Sunday, was said to have been the motivating spirit in their huddles…and is the only professional quarterback to lead his team to three consecutive championships.)
- Or to quote the former Navy Seal Admiral William McRaven from his commencement address to the graduating seniors at the University of Texas in Austin: “If you want to to change the world, start off by making your bed.” He continued: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
Our nation’s 26th President has long been one of my heroes. Baptized from the font of First Presbyterian Church of New York City, Theodore Roosevelt was one of our nation’s most outstanding leaders. His political ethics that dogged corruption in the government of New York City and the Civil Service System of the United States over a hundred years ago would be even more unpopular today. His tenacity to study, comprehend, and develop expertise is an inspiration to any student today. His commitment to nature and ecology resulted in the largest purchase and protection of land for public parks of any president, and he, himself, founded and served as the first president of the Boone and Crockett Club, established to manage and guard wildlife (though his passion for hunting would not be received as politically correct in the 21st Century).
As a boy, Teddy Roosevelt’s life was plagued with serious physical problems—lung problems, heart problems, eyesight problems…. He spent many months during the first fifteen years of his life convalescing in bed. He decided to spend his time as a kid studying insects and became an expert in entomology. When his doctors told him he would have to forgo strenuous sports, he determined to either improve his health and strength, or burn himself out. Among other things, he took up boxing and was on Harvard’s boxing team. In the course of those college days, he wrote The Naval War of 1812, which quickly became the authoritative textbook on the subject.
During his early 20s as a state representative of New York, in one day’s time he experienced the death of his young wife after giving birth to their first child. And on that same day, living in the same house, his aging mother died. Edmund Morris chronicles one unbelievable episode after another in his first book on this amazing American icon who became our nation’s 26th President. Even after his presidency at age fifty-five, Theodore Roosevelt co-led an expedition of the uncharted River of Doubt in South America in 1913. “It was my last chance to be a boy,” Roosevelt later remarked.
But what struck me as strongly as anything else in Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt was his enthusiasm and good cheer as he greeted and shook hands with over eight thousand people at the front door of the White House. Everyone in the nation was invited to greet the President on this New Year’s Day in 1907. All, with the one stipulation of being “sober, washed, and free of bodily advertising.” What a contagious spirit. What an ethical model. What an exemplary leader. What a follower of the ways of the first-century Galilean. Far from being perfect, Roosevelt lived much of his life serving others and the world at large with integrity.
Letters to the congregations of Corinth, Ephesus, and Galatia encouraged excellence in their life styles. What words do you think Paul would have for us today? Personally, in what ways do you think he would encourage you today? “Our work gets validated, or not, in the details,” Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul before Paul begins listing his string of nine admirable characteristics. How do we measure up as a follower to the Way of Jesus? Well?
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 (NRSV)
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return — I speak as to children — open wide your hearts also.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 (The Message)
1 Companions as we are in this work with you, we beg you, please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us. 2 God reminds us, I heard your call in the nick of time; The day you needed me, I was there to help. 3 Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing. 4 Our work as God’s servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; 5 when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; 6 with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; 7 when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; 8 when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; 9 ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; 10immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all. 11 Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. 12 We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way.
13 I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!
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 he was in the stern, asleep on the 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?”
1 2 Corinthians 6:4b, Eugene Peterson’s transliteration, The Message.
2 Galatians 5:22 NRSV.
3 Ephesians 6:7-10.
4 Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 15.
5 William H. McRaven, commencement speech, University of Texas, May 17, 2014.
6 Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York, The Modern Library, 1979).
7 John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville, Thomas Nelson: 2007), p. 33.
8 Ibid. p. xii.
9 2 Corinthians 6:4b.