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"The Things We Carry"


Mark’s version of this story has the disciples carrying Jesus with them into the boat, almost as if he were a piece of luggage. As we face life’s transitions, Jesus is all we need to carry with us. What are we carrying that is dragging us back?

 

            In the early 1990s, the U.S. author Tim O’Brien published a collection of short fiction about the Vietnam war. In the book’s opening chapter, entitled “The Things They Carried” (also the title of the book), O’Brien goes into breathtaking detail about the various items of military gear and personal items “humped” by soldiers in a rifle platoon in the Vietnam war — the things they carried.

            Some of those things were carried out of sheer necessity, regardless of how excruciatingly heavy they could be in the dank blanketing jungle heat — for instance, a five pound steel helmet, vitally necessary in an environment in which hot metal projectiles, moving literally faster than the speed of sound, can suddenly come at you out of nowhere. And — to discourage those who were launching said projectiles — an 8-pound weapon, and the ammunition to feed it. In a rucksack on your back, there were also the basic necessities for survival: food, water. And so on.

            Some of the things they carried, they carried out of duty and necessity, each one an exact copy of others. And some of the things they carried were intensely, even absurdly, personal: photographs utterly meaningless to anyone outside a tight knit group of friends back in the States, pieces of a loved one’s clothing, a pebble discovered on a New Jersey beach in a more innocent time. And, yes, in one man’s ruck, a copy of the New Testament, with the cover mostly gone.

            Items as personal as personal can get, some of them also necessary; others not so much, and are eventually burned or jettisoned. Ultimately, each one’s journey defined what that individual soldier needed and what he didn’t.

            But what is going on in today’s scripture reading, besides rote description — and what does it have to do with Jesus and his followers?

            Some distinctions should be made now, among the various players in the story from Mark’s gospel. There is Jesus. There are the disciples. There are those who follow Jesus. And then there is the crowd.

            The crowd is of no interest here and is quickly and summarily left behind. And then there are those who follow Jesus. Finally, there are those who actively “carry” Jesus; who take Jesus with them when they cross over to the other side — who presumably take Jesus with them, wherever they go.

 

Crossing over ...

            Today’s story opens with Jesus giving a command. “Let us go across to the other side.”

            But then it seems that the disciples take over — one might even say that he surrenders himself to the disciples. For we are told that the disciples “... took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”

            They took him with them — it’s almost as if they carry him into the boat like he’s a piece of luggage.

            This passage comes at the end of a chapter that finds Jesus beside the sea, teaching. That “crowd” is there, gathered around him. He has just basically dismissed his mother and his brothers, who have come to carry him home because everyone is saying that he is out of his mind. He stands there beside the sea, teaching. It is at this point in Mark’s gospel that he delivers several of his most famous parables: parables of the sower, the lamp under the bushel basket, of a mustard seed that sprouts and grows. He teaches, we are told, only in cryptic, confusing parables.

 

On to the other side

            We join Jesus and his closest followers today as they cross over to the other side of that sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. Jesus gives the command. And then the disciples leave the crowd behind and take him with them in the boat — he belongs to the disciples at this point, not to the crowd. He is the “property,” the “baggage” of the disciples, not the crowd. But it is not only the disciples and Jesus who are in play here. Verse 36 tells us that “... [o]ther boats [are] with him” — other boats are with him — Jesus — and not, strictly speaking, with all of them! Almost every other translation renders v. 36 “... with him.” The New Living Translation says “[o]ther boats followed along ....” The Message renders the passage, “[o]ther boats came along.”

            There are disciples, who carry Jesus with them.

            There are followers, who follow him, but don’t “carry” him.

 

But first, a storm

            Disciples, followers — where have they come from? Where are they going? All of them are at various levels of understanding Jesus, of being astonished at the way he so abruptly dismisses his family, only to include a much larger family of any who “... [do] the will of God.” Yes, indeed, a much larger family, for who in their right mind doesn’t want to do the will of God? All at various places on the journey are astonished by his dismissal of his immediate family, moved by his invocation of a greater family, curious about the cryptic parables which describe the coming kingdom of God.

            Disciples, followers — where have they all come from? Where are they going? More, perhaps, to the point: what are they carrying?

            If you want to do the will of God, just do it; what is stopping you? Why follow along after this Jesus, being carried away on a boat as storm clouds brew and broil right off the bow? His disciples — those who have consciously placed themselves under his discipline — take him with them, just as he is. They have no expectation that he will change to make things lighter on them. They still haven’t processed what has gone before; they have no idea where they are going, or what is facing them when they get to the other side. These most intimate, most committed followers, the disciples — they have no idea what’s up ahead; they have not yet processed what just happened, but they take him, just as he is, in the boat, at his suggestion that they cross over to the other side.

 

Enough!

            In his book, Enough,1 noted preacher Adam Hamilton calls into question our society’s obsession with stuff, mindlessly accumulating more and more and bigger and better possessions, all the while going deeper and deeper in debt, obtaining and maintaining more and more things to ... carry with us, on a journey that can take us farther from the love of God and love of neighbor, from the life of self-denying service to which Jesus calls us: “When we choose to believe that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions ... [w]e become liberated to the life that God intends for us.”2

            It is truly a challenge of discipleship to distinguish among the things we carry. What of what we carry is necessary to convey us through the situation in which we find ourselves? What is extraneous to that journey?

 

The things we carry

            We stand, now and always, at a transition point, at that near shore of a great sea. We have heard the stories of Jesus. Some have committed to follow him. Some have perhaps gone a step farther and committed to take him up and carry him with us, wherever we may go. What does it mean to take him with us “just as he [is],” without compromise, leaving all unnecessary baggage behind, going where he goes?

            What shall we finally make of Jesus’ rebuke, to those frightened disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” What does he mean by that? How are we supposed to take that? He certainly is not saying that, if we have faith, nothing bad will happen to us. People of devout faith are overcome by natural disasters, diseases, accidents. Innocents — not to mention combatants who had no idea what they were getting themselves into — die in wars ... it’s happening right now! And we all eventually face death, sooner or later. Jesus, himself will suffer betrayal and desertion, followed by the most horrible death imaginable. So, according to this passage, what does faith do for us? What is Jesus saying faith should do for us? What does faith give us as we face these very real transitions from yesterday to an indecipherable future?

            Jesus is telling us that everything happens in its time. He says, to any who care to listen, that God is in control, and that we have absolutely nothing to fear, no matter what happens. We have absolutely no reason to fear in the face of anything!

            In the inevitable transitions of life — from hearing Jesus to following him to carrying him with us wherever. From the joy of Easter to humdrum Ordinary Time, from humdrum Ordinary Time into the growing excitement of Advent/Christmas, through the wilderness of divesting ourselves — a little at a time — of things we carry that we don’t need to carry, casting off the burdens laid upon us by a crowd-society that has lost its moorings and bearings — through all of that, Jesus is with us, aroused from sleep, saying Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

 

 

1 Hamilton, Adam. Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, revised edition. (Abingdon Press, 2018). 

2 Ibid., p. 3


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