whether spoken or not
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on January 5, 2020
There are times when I read scripture and I am uplifted. There are times when I read scripture and I find comfort. There are times when I read scripture and I am convicted. There are times when I feel a whole host of other emotions and I don’t think I am unique. Reading scripture can produce a number of different emotions and this week was no different.
In fact, I am deeply challenged by our reading today. “They were astounded at (Jesus’) teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”[i] You see, I am afraid I am one of the scribes for whom the writer speaks. But not only me — I fear it’s all of us.
And here is why. In preparing for this sermon, I came across something Professor Mike Graves wrote. Now I don’t know who Mike Graves is — he could be the next gentlemen to walk through the door — he could be highly respected — he could be on the fringe of academia — I don’t know. What I do know is that his writing has a hold on me. He writes, “Perhaps the most devastating temptation (in regards to this story) is to assume the story is about someone else, rather than about the organized religion of which most of us partake. Like it or not, we are the scribes who profit from the scholarly work of others and bring forth our teachings in an assembly we call church.”[ii]
That maybe doesn’t sound so bad to you, so why you may ask, is it so challenging that we are the scribes? Let me share with you an exchange from one of my favorite movies to lead us into that conversation.
In The American President, there is a scene in which the President and his staff are in a heated conversation. Voices are being raised. Frustration is thick in the air. The chief of staff tries to rein everyone in, but one staff member will not be stopped. This staff members steps forward to challenge the President and suggests that the President is not leading. The staff member says, “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
What I love about this particular scene is at this point we expect the President to lash out. We expect the President to ratchet up the emotion. We expect the decibel to raise another 10 notches, but instead after a bit of silence the President calmly responds. “We’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”[iii]
Of course, cognitively we know we are not Jesus — and so we also know we can not teach with the same authority as Jesus teaches with. Yet I am not sure those outside our walls would agree. I am not sure we live lives that suggest this is true.
Listen to those who are religious. Listen to our discourse. When people speak, they most often speak as though their voice is the one and only authority. When people speak it is as though they alone hold the key to the truth. It seems as though any other thought holds no value. And having wrestled with this text and one of my favorite movie scenes, it has me wondering if we know the difference between the mirage of sand and the true pool of water. In other words do we recognize there is an authority in Jesus that we don’t possess or control?
Because Jesus’ authority is not based in power. It is not a special kind of charisma. It is something different than that. It seems to me the authority Jesus speaks with has everything to do with seeing justice served. In that light, Jesus’ authority is not about him, as is often the case in our day and age in political and authority contexts. Rather Jesus’ authority is derived from seeing those around him. And that would seem to be the big difference between us and him — more often or not, it seems we miss the marginalized in front of us.
Think back for one second over our reading today. What was the first thing that came to mind? What held your attention? Was it the people being astounded? Was it Jesus’ authority? Was it the disciples going home? Was it Jesus healing and curing people? These are all important pieces of the puzzle — but how many of us took the time to think about the man with the unclean spirit? How many of us reflected upon his condition? How many of us thought about Simon’s nameless mother-in-law? How many of us considered the leper and the sorrow and solitude his life has been?
And I wonder if it is possible this is what we do in life as well? That we see the outlying pieces, we see the circumstances surrounding the situation, but miss the actual condition of the person before us? Consider, what thoughts go through your head as you see the person on the side of the road holding the cardboard sign? Do you think about the condition of their life? Do you consider what their daily existence must entail? Or what about the people we see on Sunday mornings? Do we consider the conditions of these folks worshipping beside us that might be hidden from us?
Suffering is a mystery, but what we can say is that God bears suffering with us through the cross. God does not find a way around suffering, but rather God goes through it. Suffering is real. Some of us have or will experience it much more than others, but no matter the severity, we all face suffering in some way, shape or form. And yet the prophet Isaiah proclaims God will wipe away every tear from our face so we can rejoice and be glad in the salvation of God. Isaiah proclaims that suffering is not the end, rather God’s ultimate hope for God’s beloved people is healing. Which is perhaps why right after recruiting his first disciples, Jesus goes on an immediate healing spree.
Mark wants us to know from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry that the cross is no isolated incident. Rather the cross is indicative of Jesus’ entire ministry. From the opening act, Jesus will suffer in God’s love for us. Demons will curse him. Humans will oppose him. This is what God will endure. This is who God is. God is present in times of suffering. Which is why the cross gives such a clear view into the heart of God.
So it is of no surprise that when this man who is sick and in need of help stands before Jesus — Jesus acts with authority. The healing words Jesus speaks cause things to happen. And when Jesus heard Simon’s mother-in-law was sick — Jesus acts with authority. The unspoken, yet healing words of Jesus cause things to happen. And when a man with leprosy kneels before Jesus and begs — Jesus acts with authority. Again, his healing words cause things to happen. And perhaps that is the astonishing thing — that is what is astounding. Jesus words were not just informative — they were performative. And perhaps that is the true authority through which Jesus acts and speaks.
I stated earlier that we are not Jesus and we cannot teach with the same authority Jesus’ teaches with. I absolutely believe this is true. Yet I also believe that the words we speak can at times be infused by the Holy Spirit. The one who chooses to speak through us — the One in whom true authority lies — can use the words uttered from our mouths or spoken silently to in fact cause things to happen.
“(There was) a member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, but (who) stopped going. After a few weeks, the preacher decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening. The preacher found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his preachers visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited. The preacher made himself at home but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs. After some minutes, the preacher took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. As the one lone ember’s flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and dead. Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting. The preacher glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave. He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately (the ember) began to glow, with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. As the preacher reached the door to leave, his host said with a tear running down his cheek, ‘Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.’”[iv]
“What is this?”[v] the people asked. It is words that are not just informative — they are performative. Not just information sharing — but transformational. Jesus’ words, whether spoken or not, bring healing and cause things to happen. It is an authority ultimately rooted in the cross.
Now we are only at the beginning of the story — we only just celebrated Jesus’ birth — but let me tell you about the end. This story will not end with Jesus riding off into the sunset. It will not end with Jesus and his friends relaxing in the sun. Jesus’ story will seem to end in the pain and suffering of his death upon the cross. An end that no one deserves — but an end that serves as a reminder of the depth, width and breadth of God’s love. For God does not and will not stay in the safe confines of heaven, but rather comes to walk and live among us — to proclaim with authority — through word and action — that God is for you. God is for me. God is for all. Amen.
[i] Mark 1:22 (nrsv)
[ii] Mike Graves, “Mark 1:21-28 – Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, editors David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor , Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 311.
[iii] Found at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112346/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu on December 31, 2019.
[iv] Found at http://ralphmiltonsrumors.blogspot.com/2009/01/r-u-m-o-r-s-538-ralph-miltons-e-zine.html on December 31, 2019.
[v] Mark 1:27 (nrsv)