Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary
The Gospel of Doing
John the Baptist was the sort of man who would get extra attention at airport security. Wild, bearded, long haired, wearing odd clothes — he showed every sign of being outside mainstream society.
Of course, he was outside the mainstream. While Jesus would later walk the streets of the cities and sit to teach in the synagogues, even venture into the Temple itself, John left the company of society. He went out into the wilderness to the edge of his civilization. John believed, hoped, that someone else was coming, someone who would come from a world away, and maybe out there, away from the cities and the lights, it might be easier to keep watch on the horizon.
In the wild places near the murmur of the river, John began to catch the attention of anyone who passed, and he began to preach. It may have been what he said, or maybe how he said it, or maybe simply the appearance of this man who happened (that is the word the gospel accounts use — John ‘happened’ — a way of describing the acts of a prophet) somehow drew people to him. They left their towns and villages, left their familiar paths and streets, and they made their way into the wild places to see this wild man.
”What shall we do?” That was the question the crowds put to him when they found him.
His answers were remarkably simple. Share your food with the hungry. Share your clothes with the poor. Do not take what is not yours. John taught a practical theology.
Only his last answer was abstract. Be content, he told them, an injunction not so simple as the others. How should one be content? He didn’t give out instructions.
Perhaps we are content when we choose to be.
That is the implication behind John’s mandate. It is only reasonable to tell us to be content if it is possible for us to comply. We must be able to choose it.
Contentment, then, is not a feeling to be desired—that is a result, not a cause. Contentment must have more to do with how we see the world, what we choose to do in the world or apart from it.
John the Baptist never told anyone to believe certain tenets. The closest thing to dogma he taught was the need to change. The people who came already knowing how to pass a theology exam, those people he called snakes and vipers. It was not an endorsement of mainstream religion.
He didn’t preach what people should believe. He preached what they should do. Rather than admonishing people to be right, he urged them to do right. Perhaps he was confident that faith would follow action, or perhaps he saw no difference between the two.
John preached a gospel of expectation — God is coming into the world, always, perpetually. He preached a gospel of doing — feeding, clothing, sharing — and oddly enough, according to John, these are the things that make smooth the paths on which we might see God approaching. He told people to give. He told them to share. He didn’t tell them to love one another: he told them to act as though they did. He told them to live like Jesus was going to live.
On the Sunday matching this lectionary reading in 2015, I was invited to speak at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Instead of the usual weekly reflection on the Gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary, I have posted a transcript of what I shared with them.
Tell No One: Being Made Again in the Gospel of Mark
I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to go ahead and tell you the point that I hope to make right up front. That way, if you fall asleep or your mind wanders off to more interesting things, or if I fail at getting back around to the point, well, you’ll already have it. No harm done. And if anyone asks you what I talked about, you won’t have to make up anything.
The point is that Context Matters. Where and when and how we read, hear, see, say, or do something changes the meaning and the value. Context Matters.
Here’s another way of saying it. We have become experts at the Little Picture. Not the Big Picture, but the Little Picture. We are masters of finding saplings in the forest of spirituality.
That’s it, the whole shebang. See how great that is? We’ve got our point out there in the open, I’m free to ramble on for the rest of the time we’ve have, and you only need to listen if you think I might sneak in something else.
Meanwhile, we could take Sharpies, those permanent marker thingies, and write the idea on the backs of our hands or our arms, maybe on our children, so that we can see it this week and think about it.
Ok, I realize that writing on ourselves with Sharpies may not be a suitable activity in the context of church. Of course, there are plenty of things in that category.
Have you ever participated in a swim meet? Even better, ever been a parent at a swim meet? They encourage the kids to take permanent markers and to write on themselves. If you’ve been to one of those things, you’d remember—think summer heat, mobs of irritated parents, partially engaged kids, half eaten snacks, unintelligible announcements on the PA system, damp towels, damp chairs, damp clothes, a hundred children disguised in similar swimsuits and scalp covers and swim goggles, and you’re there. You can’t even recognize your own child. You keep looking at the exit gates, wondering whether someone has already kidnapped her and taken her away while a lookalike in goggles is dripping pool water onto your chair and eating watermelon from your cooler.
So they insist that you write your child’s number on her arm in permanent marker. That way the volunteered parents standing at the end of pool lanes, holding clipboards and a timing device and trying to remember what they were told about insuring fairness and recording swim times for each wave of identical children swimming toward them, can try to make out which kid is which.
It’s a nightmare.
Oh, I know, some people enjoy that sort of thing. You can tell I’m not one of them.
In that context, though, it is perfectly fine to write all over your child with permanent marker. It is encouraged. It is mandatory.
And somewhere in your mind you know that taking the cap off that Sharpie is like taking the lid off Pandora’s box. A few marks scribbled on your child’s arm, and the next thing is tattoos, drugs, motorcycles and a hippie commune somewhere in Oregon. I know, I worry too much. There are worse things than tattoos—some of those are beautiful statements of who a person is, and they are on the outside where you can see them, not hidden on the inside where you can’t. And there are worse things than a hippie commune somewhere in Oregon. It could be a commune in Alabama, but that is almost unimaginable.
Context changes things. It changes things.
Yet here in the Church, when it comes to reading scripture, we often ignore it. We as a community of faith agree that within the pages of Scripture we find stories and laments and prayers and prophecy that tell us about God, and yet we don’t often take the time to examine the context.
You might be wondering what I mean by that. It’s not hard to explain. Most of us could go home and look at our refrigerators, or think of the refrigerators that we grew up around, and we’d know what I’m talking about.
We take our favorite verses, or maybe even part of a verse, and we put it on a refrigerator magnet. Down here in what’s left of the Bible belt, we put verses on bumper stickers. Sometimes we get enthusiastic and we use billboards and T-shirts. One little verse, taken out of scripture, taken out of context, and we think we know what it means.
We do a little better with Sunday School and with sermons. There we at least take a few verses at a time—a longer passage—but we still seldom pay attention to the context. We pull a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, but we don’t stop to think about what was going on with the church in Rome and Paul’s relationship with it (they didn’t really know him at that point) in order to get something of the meaning.
If someone were to write an actual letter to us, using the antique method of ink on paper, it would never occur to us to say, Here, let’s turn to the third paragraph on the second page and read just that part. Yet we do that with scripture, which we contend contains nothing less than a revelation of spiritual truth about ourselves and about God. It is unthinkable, isn’t it, when we put it that way?
Take the Gospels. This passage was chosen as the Gospel reading for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary, and it is an interesting passage. Left to our own devices, though, we’d likely read one of these miracles or the other, not both of them together as we actually find them, and we’d almost certainly not look around before or after these two miracle stories to see what was going on—to see why Mark put these two stories together, to see why Mark put them together immediately after the story of some hypocrites who thought more of their rules than they did of people, and to see whatever else may be going on in this Gospel besides those things. Pulling verses out of their context, we cannot help but miss part of the meaning.
We should pay attention to the context of the scripture that we claim to cherish. Yet often we can’t be bothered to read more that a verse or two. We can do better than that. We can look around, try to get an understanding of what is going on with the passage that we are reading.
A verse on a T-shirt is fine. A magnet on the refrigerator is fine. Bumper stickers are generally tacky, but if you like that sort of thing and its your bumper, go for it.
At the same time, we need to pay attention to where we get the words. Context matters.
This first miracle, now—this lady is not a Jew like Jesus and his immediate followers. She is a gentile, a Greek speaking foreigner, not well looked upon by the Jews.
And Jesus calls her a dog. Some people will try to soften it and tell you that Jesus was calling her a puppy, a sort of pet name, but it isn’t true. He called her a dog, and she was used to it, because that is how many of the Jewish people living near these gentiles thought of them. Unclean. Outside the door of the chosen people. Dogs.
She knew all of that, and she came to Jesus anyway.
The Jesus she finds is not the kind Jesus, the one suffering the little children to come unto him. This is nearer to the Jesus who went on a tirade in the temple and threw out the money changers and animal salesmen.
But this lady had some spunk. She would have held her own at a swim match. She certainly knew how to speak up for her daughter, who was not well. The Gospel says that the girl had a demon inside her.
Now we can get hung up on the idea of demon possession. I will tell you this much—within the context of this culture that we are reading about, in the first century, many diseases were regarded as having supernatural causes. Jesus does not appear in any of these stories to be particularly interested in improving anyone’s scientific understanding of the universe. That is not why he was there.
He was surrounded by these people, in this time, in this place, for the sole purpose of expanding their understanding of God. His work was in the area of practical theology. Applied spirituality.
For that matter, that is why we are here this morning—practical theology, applied spirituality. There are lots of people in the science community today who completely reject anything having to do with faith, or the spirit. And there are far too many people in the faith community who seem to subscribe to the same notion that it is either one or the other, science or faith.
Science tells us how things work. Faith tells us why, and why we should care. Both areas address the same subjects—the origin of the universe, our place in it—but for very different purposes. Two points of view. It is like identical twins. In the beginning, they started from the same place, but now they’ve made their way into the world and each sees things from a different perspective. Neither is intrinsically wrong, each is paying attention to different aspects of their world, and I suspect that in the end they may come to walk much more closely together than either of them believes possible.
So, in this context, Jesus does not quibble with the way the woman has characterized her daughter’s illness.
Whatever was wrong with the girl, and whatever caused it, Jesus cured her with a word. He sent the mother back to her daughter without ever needing to see the child or touch the child.
That is powerful medicine. Science may one day posit an explanation for such a thing. This story is not a science lesson. It is a people and God thing. It is a lesson in applied theology.
In the second miracle story, it is as though we are reading about a different Jesus. The crowd bring him a man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment. The crowd wait to see what happens next, but Jesus does an odd thing. He takes the man aside, to a private spot, puts his fingers in the man’s ears (literally it says he threw his fingers into the man’s ears, but than sounds a little too disturbing in English), spits and touches some of the saliva to the man’s tongue.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. I get that. I’ve got half a dozen bottles of hand sanitizer stashed in the car. I might even have some in my pocket. It is possible that I could be diagnosed OCD based on hand washing alone. So yes, I get the whole “oooo” factor with the saliva.
Here’s the thing. Context. This is the first century. Saliva is considered to have medicinal properties.
We’re not so far from that, you know. Suppose you cut your finger. What is the first thing most of us would do? Suppose you hit your thumb with a hammer? What is the second thing most of us would do?
I’m not going to ask you what the first thing is, because that kind of language is not acceptable in the context of church. If you are out there building a ramp for someone who is disabled, and you hit yourself with the hammer, nobody is going to mind if you mutter a choice word or two. Here in the middle of church though? Let me bang my knee on the corner of this pulpit, and I’d better be careful what comes out of my mouth.
This man whom Jesus takes aside, he understands what Jesus is doing. He may even have expected it—to be touched, to be healed in this way—this is what he had been hoping for, and this is an experience that is meaningful to him.
It is odd, though. With the woman, Jesus never touched anyone. He just told the woman that her daughter was well, and that was that. With this man, he takes him aside, touches his ears, touches his tongue, for heaven’s sake. He even tries to keep the man from becoming a one man freak show by forbidding anybody to go telling the story of what happened. Tell no one, he said, not that it worked, not that they listened.
So why? Why the different approach in the two miracle stories.
I think it is because this woman is a firecracker, but the man isn’t. We know she could take care of herself—we see her boldness and we hear her quick wit. This man is a different creature. Other people bring him. And we can imagine or perhaps we know the difficulties of integrating with other people when you can’t hear and you can’t speak plainly. It makes human interaction difficult, and it makes the people carrying those burdens less likely to step forward with the self assurance that this first woman has.
Jesus reacted to each of these people, the foreign mom and the deaf man, as each of them needed him to react to them, as each of them could handle him reacting to them. A gentle, friendly Jew would have thrown this woman off her stride, would not have met her expectations. Likewise, the sharp tongued Jesus who bantered with the woman would have thoroughly discouraged this deaf man.
Why did he only speak a word to the woman, and yet he touched this man’s ears and his tongue? Was any of it necessary for God? No. It was necessary for them. In the place where Jesus found them. In that time in their lives. In that place in their understanding.
The woman understood the power in his words. The man was deaf and words meant nothing to him, but he understood the power of touch.
Jesus met them where they were. God meets us where we are. No matter where we are.
God finds us, and we find God, in different places. It may be in our homes, or at our jobs. It may be in America, or Thailand, on a park bench or on Park Avenue.
It may be washed up on the shore of Turkey.
Jesus dealt with people as he found them. In their own context. And that is what we need to learn to do.
There is a saying. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” We don’t know who first said it. Some say Plato, some say a Scottish minister named John Watson (writing as Ian Maclaren.) Whoever said it first, it is true enough.
We have to start with people where they are. If Christianity has anything right at all, Jesus was God revealing God to humanity, and Jesus started with people where he found them. Not even God can start anywhere else.
We keep trying, though. We keep expecting people to be where we are, to think like we think, to feel like we feel, and we take them out of context.
The trouble is that I don’t always know the context of the people I meet. I don’t know what burden they are carrying. I might assume that they are like me, but appearances are deceiving. Or I might look up and see someone with skin of a different color, speaking a different language, and I might assume that they are not like me, but appearances are deceiving.
When I run into people—the sharp tongued self-assured ones and the ones who cannot speak for themselves—it is up to me to try to discern who they are, what burden they may be carrying. And it is up to me to react to them in their context.
Jesus didn’t give these people a bumper sticker. He didn’t approach them with T-shirt Christianity. He paid attention to who they were. He paid attention to what they needed. And he started with that.
He never asked the woman to explain her religious beliefs. By her answer, he knew that she had some, and that was enough for the moment. He did not ask the man whether he might become a good Jew and start attending synagogue. He didn’t ask the man whether he knew how to recite the Shema, the central confession of faith of the Jewish people:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה’ אֶחָד
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
It would fit on a magnet, but Jesus didn’t even ask for that. Jesus never missed the forest for the trees.
Does it mean something that a story about hypocrites—these people who cared more about following the rules than about the well being of the people themselves—is placed just before the two miracle stories?
I think it does. Mark is telling us that Jesus was more interested in the people he met than he was in the rules of their religion. He was more interested in what was going on inside than in how they posed themselves.
Jesus even commanded that they Tell No One about what he had done for the deaf man. Tell no one. Was that best for the spread of the Gospel? No. Was that the way to get the word out, to reach more people? No.
Perhaps it was what was best for this man. In this place. In this moment.
Mark is known to have enjoyed sandwiches. Not that kind of sandwich. In this Gospel Jesus has just announced to some rule followers that nothing going into a man can make him spiritually unclean, so I think Mark might have been thinking about a nice barbeque sandwich. Hot sauce and slaw. Messy but good. Something surprising stuck in between something that looks simple.
Mark did that in writing this Gospel. Oh, I don’t mean he ate barbeque sandwiches. He may have. I don’t know. But he did write that way, wrapping one story inside another one. You may remember the story of the Jairus and his daughter, where Mark interrupts their story to tell about a sick woman in the crowd. One story wraps around the other, and one tells us something about the other.
Mark has done something interesting here.
If we widen our view, we see that before this string of stories about healing and about touching and about rules and about inward and outward things, there is the story of the feeding of the five thousand and of Jesus walking on the sea. And guess what? If we look at the end of this string of stories about healing and about touching and about rules and about inward and outward things, there is the story of the miraculous feeding of another four thousand people.
Did you know that was in there at all? Did you realize that while every Gospel tells the story of the feeding of a multitude, Mark—the oldest Gospel, the first Gospel ever written on the earth—tells it twice? Matthew does as well, but it doesn’t count the same way—Matthew tells it twice because Mark told it twice. Luke and John edit the thing down to one multitude and one miracle.
But here we have Mark, famous for putting bookends around his little stories, and we find great big miraculous bookends around this passage.
So what do we make of it? A miracle to feed a multitude, then a miracle of walking on the sea witnessed by the inner circle. Hypocritical rule followers. Crowds come to be healed, a woman finds him to get her daughter healed, a man is taken to a private spot to be healed. And in the end, another miracle to feed a multitude.
It may be a stretch,, and I may be missing something far more meaningful, but it seems to me that all of these things, every single part of this narrative, has to do with what people had or needed within them. On the inside. Many were simply hungry. Others, like his disciples who saw him walking on the sea, needed more faith. Some needed to replace their outward rituals with inward reality. Spirituality instead of rules. A spoken word to heal an inward sickness. An outward touch to heal an inward malady.
And though Jesus commanded them to tell no one, they could not keep the story a secret. They were changed, they were healed, they were amazed.
We do not know why Jesus told them to tell no one. It remains one of the mysteries of the Gospel of Mark—why Jesus throughout this Gospel tells both his followers and those he has healed to tell no one of what they have seen or learned. We do not know the reason.
One thought is that Jesus was waiting for the right time to reveal his identity to the world. Another is simply that he sought to be able to move around without becoming a rock star.
Perhaps Jesus wanted to meet people where they were, without struggling through the crowds, without struggling through their expectations.
Then he wanted to change them.
We say that Jesus healed people—the woman’s daughter, the deaf man. I don’t think so. At least I don’t think that is the best way to understand what he was doing.
He didn’t just heal them. He made them different. He didn’t just make them whole. He made them new.
Think of walking through life with demons inside you, destroying you from within. Some of us don’t have to imagine it. Now think of what it is like when those demons are gone, banished, never to return. That is not simply healing. That is being made new.
Think of going through life without being able to hear or to speak to other people. Again, some of us don’t have to imagine it. Now think of being able to hear everything. Think of being able to speak as plainly as I am speaking now. That is not being healed. That is being made into somebody new.
There is an ancient word for that experience. It is palingenesis. Palin—again or over. Genesis—being made. Being made again. Being made anew.
The phrase “to be born again” became lame and rejected by much of society decades ago. It has turned into church-speak, one of those phrases only used by people who have already drunk the Kool-Aid. It has become a phrase that conjures images of tent revival Christianity. Well, there are worse things.
In his wonderful work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell points to this same concept—palingenesis—as the work of the hero in human stories from ancient times to the present day. It is what the hero does—make things new, help things to be reborn, remade.
Campbell summed up the story line this way:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
A perfect summary of the Gospel, without a word of church-speak.
That is what Jesus, the hero of Mark’s Gospel, was doing. He didn’t just feed the hungry and heal the sick. That could be done with charity or medicine. He did much more—he made people new.
When he touched their lives, they were reborn. Re-creation. Palingenesis.
This was no longer a girl with a demon—she was finally herself. This woman was no longer the mother of a sick and disturbed child. She was the mother of a new girl, someone full of life and joy and hope. This was not simply a man who could speak well. This was a man beginning a new life.
In this Gospel story, that is what it means to encounter Jesus. That is what happens when we encounter God. We are not patched up. We are made new. We are made into something and someone different than we were.
God is always waiting to meet us exactly where we are. Whatever the context.