We Knew Before We Asked

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 10:17-31

It is sothe that synne is cause of all this peyne,
but al shal be wele, and al shall be wele, and all manner thing shal be wele.

It is truth that sin is the cause of all of this pain,
but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

—The Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, c. 1416

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

We Knew Before We Asked

He knew the answer, but he asked the question anyway. It wasn’t casual. The fellow put some effort into the asking.

He ran to catch Jesus before he left on a journey, just to get an answer that he already knew. Maybe the young man had connections among the disciples and learned about their impending journey. Maybe he just came walking over the crest of a hill in time to see this bunch of people heading out on the road. Maybe he was simply so anxious that he started running.

At any rate, the Gospel tells us that he rushes up, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and asks what he must do to live forever. How do I get to heaven?

Jesus starts with the answer the young man is counting on—keep the commandments, follow the rules, do the right thing. And the man is happy to hear it, because he has always been a very decent sort of fellow. He must have been. We hear that Jesus looks at the young man, sees something in him, and loves him, not in the Jesus-loves-everybody way, but in a stand-out-of-the-crowd sort of way.

And then Jesus gives the young man an answer he does not want to hear. Go sell everything and give the money to the poor. Go let go of everything that ties you to this world. Go bet the farm on heaven, and then you can count on it.

Shock. Grief. Those are the fellow’s reactions. He goes away grieving, but nothing is said about running, not now.

He wanted to know what the ticket to heaven would cost. The answer was everything he didn’t want to let go.

Julian of Norwich
Statue of Julian of Norwich, holding Revelations of Divine Love

In the fourteenth century, a woman we know as Julian of Norwich entered a small room attached to a wall of a church, and there she lived for years, an anchoress, letting go of the world and holding only to God. She wrote down her experience of a series of ‘shewings’ or ‘revelations’—visions, ecstatic experiences of God. Her writings are known as The Revelations of Divine Love.

Perhaps the best known quote from her writings is this one: “…it is well, it is well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It is less known that in her vision these are the words of Jesus, comforting her in her contemplation that God would permit the existence of sin.

Somehow, within that small room, she experienced the kingdom of God.

It’s hard, Jesus tells the ones who stay with him. It’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples didn’t seem to understand why, but that is no comfort to us: the disciples in this Gospel do not seem to understand very much at all.

What is this kingdom of God, and why is it so hard to enter? Why is it especially hard for a rich person?

Maybe it is the luggage limitation. It’s hard to walk if you are holding onto everything you have, and it’s hard to go anywhere when you’re attached to the place where you are. Maybe it is the limits of our imagination. It is hard to set our minds on something we don’t even understand.

The kingdom of God—what is that? When is it? Is the kingdom a place, a real walk around sort of place? Is it a state of mind? Is it heaven, one day, some day, some place? Is it present, like the laughter of a child?

No one can do it, no one can get in, Jesus tells them. It is impossible for mortals, he says, but it is not impossible for God.

For God all things are possible.

Like those early disciples, we miss the point. We think we must either hold onto something or give it up, or do the right thing and avoid the wrong one, and surely in one way or the other we can find our way into the kingdom of God. We do not even understand where it is, but we think that if we walk long enough, we can get there.

We have all the world, life itself, riches unmeasured, and we cannot get into the kingdom of God. One does not get in with a good deed, or pick the lock with remorse. There are no gates, no doors, no tent flaps. Opening a door that does not exist is as preposterous as shoving a camel through the eye of a needle.

We can’t go inside because the kingdom of God is already all around us. We can’t buy a ticket because they are free. And none of it, nothing of the kingdom of God, can be attained. It can only be received, a gift, and neither begging nor earning have anything to do with it.

The kingdom of God is a gift, the grace of a God who is present despite all things, a God who opens doors where there are none, a God who will make all things well.

Julian of Norwich Window

You Probably Think This Verse is About You

Garden View

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 10:1-16

You Probably Think This Verse is about You

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Way back in 1972 (and yes, I remember it) Carly Simon released a song called “You’re So Vain.” Here are the words of the refrain:

You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?

Album cover: The Best of Carly SimonIt was a huge hit. Since the song came out, plenty of people have tried to figure out who the subject is—Warren Beatty? Someone else? Several people? All of us?

It should have been playing when the Pharisees came asking Jesus about the legality of divorce. And it should be playing while we read the story in the Gospel of Mark.

We tend to think that the story is about divorce. We may even think it is about us, especially if we have been divorced (or if we’re contemplating it.)

Divorce is the subject matter, that’s true. There is even a followup by way of a private conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples. So you could argue that the passage really is about divorce.

Fair enough. It is just not what I’m hearing in the story.

Still, if you’d like to read more about divorce and about making sense of the various views of divorce in the Bible, you should read Craig S Keener’s book And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. (The link will take you to the Amazon page where you can find it.) Keener’s approach is clear, interesting, and best of all helpful (unless you are looking for ways to beat people over the head with rules—then you’d be happier reading something else.)

In Mark, context matters. The way parts of stories are matched up or put together matters.

Here, we begin with a journey in verse 1 and end with another journey in verse 17. Let’s take those journeys as our bookends and look at what Mark has bound together.

In the beginning we have Pharisees and laws about marriage and divorce. Afterward, we have Jesus being indignant, perhaps even angry, that his disciples were shooing the small children away, keeping them from approaching him. This isn’t about rules or law. This is about relationship and acceptance.

Take Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. He points back to the creation stories, which are overwhelmingly relational: the relationships of God to creation and of human to human are the most foundational theological expressions of the creation stories.

God has joined us all together. It is not just about one marriage, or one relationship, or a handful of people. It is about grasping the relational aspect of God, the relational aspect of the Gospel.

We are all in this thing together. Like that garden in the story of Eden. Like a married couple. Like children running to someone they love.

That’s the point.

Maybe we were right. Maybe these verses really are about us.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Tell No One: Being Made Again in the Gospel of Mark

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 7:24-37

This Sunday, 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.

IMG_2548Here’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.

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.

Ridiculous.

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.IMG_2779

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?Mt Mitchell 2

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.

Where has God found you?

cropped-Lilies-of-the-field-Lrg-031.jpg

Stories Matter

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 5:21-43

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stories matter. One might argue that it is telling stories, more than opposable thumbs or raw intelligence, that makes us human.

An encyclopedia or some other repository of scientific knowledge may inform us, give us the tools to examine the biology of a flower or to create the structure of a bridge, but we would lack the notions of why we would want to do such things in the first place.

Stories tell us who we are. More importantly, stories tell us who we ought to be, who we want to be.

A galaxy on the edgeTake the book of Genesis. The whole of Judeo-Christian scripture begins, fittingly, with two stories, one right after the other. It is as though someone took Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, put them where they could witness everything from the bang that started our watches ticking to the emergence billions of years later of human beings on the plains of Africa, then asked each of them to sum up the meaning of what they had seen in a short story.

The Asimov version, Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, tells us that the universe unfolded over time, in an orderly fashion, and that life emerged and evolved into ever more complex forms over that time. It’s a pretty good summary, one that still matches up well to the timeline scientific investigation gives us—so long as one realizes that a day in a story may last a long time.

The Ursula Le Guin story, beginning in Genesis 2:4, focuses on relationship and choices. (That is no surprise for anyone who ever enjoyed her Earthsea novels.) Hearing this story, we realize that we are connected to everything that is, that all living creatures are dependent on one another, that with great ability comes great responsibility, that our choices follow us like shadows, that mortality is the price of living, and that our children and our work are what remain.

Le Guin always does manage to pack a lot into a story. That’s the wonder of symbolism and metaphor—one can say a great deal with a few words.DragonFinal

There are also two interwoven stories in Mark 5:21-43. It is what scholars describe with the sophisticated term of ‘sandwich’—one story contained within another one. Mark uses the technique a number of times, but that should not surprise us. Many other writers have interwoven stories which seem unrelated until we reflect on them.

Desperate to get help for his dying daughter, a man named Jairus is urgently guiding Jesus through the crowds to where his daughter is waiting when Jesus stops. He is distracted it seems because someone else in the crowd has managed to tap into the power that Jairus wants. A woman is healed, and Jesus stops to engage her in conversation, all while Jairus’ daughter lies dying. It is a fascinating study in love and faith and expectations.

Jairus is waiting upon the Lord, and it seems that the Lord dawdles.

In the end, Jesus accomplishes both things, of course, healing the unnamed woman and the girl. Though the girl had died in the meantime, Jesus brings her back to life. It was never an either-or proposition for Jesus, nor was the timing of his response limited by the expectations of the people in the house of Jairus.

There is no explanation, though. We only get the story, marvelous as it is. That is one of the most common complaints about scripture—so many stories, so few explanations, and even those explanations as exist are often just parables or metaphors. The Church certainly has managed to come up with plenty of explanations and rules in the centuries since Jesus walked along the street with Jairus, but those were made later by men. (A few women as well, but most of the explaining and rule making was done by men. I hope it is clear that the result is not a compliment to men.)

The best stories, the ones with the most meaning and usefulness, get told over and over. The stories change in the telling, sometimes helping us to think of an old tale in new ways. Rather than join with the crowds of folk who have and will happily tell us what we should get from the story, I’d like just to tell it again.

Here is the story of Jairus and the woman in the street, as retold in my novel I,John. The story is retold from the point of view of the disciple John, of course. I hope you enjoy something of the different perspective.

John

The streets were crowded with people and animals. A donkey’s hoof brushed my foot, and I was still holding to the animal for balance when I heard a man calling to Jesus. The man pushed his way through the crowd, and he somehow managed to kneel in front of Jesus. The people nearby pulled back a bit, seeing such a spectacle as this man kneeling in the street.
They knew him, this man. I had seen him in the synagogue myself, and here he was kneeling in the dirt in front of Jesus and begging him to come and to touch his daughter.
“She is sick, master,” he was saying. “You must come, you can save her. You have the healing touch.”
Jesus was looking at him. For a moment I wondered whether Jesus even heard what the man was saying. Then Jesus reached out and touched him on the shoulder, and Jesus leaned forward to tell the man something. I never learned what he said, but the man smiled and stood and began to beckon for Jesus to come after him.
The crowd parted somewhat, curiosity driving the ones who knew nothing about Jesus. This man they knew from the synagogue ran in front of Jesus, urging him along. The noise from the crowd was mixed with the dust from the street. It was difficult to see any distance ahead or to know where we were headed, except that we were following a man whose daughter was unwell.
Suddenly, Jesus stopped. A woman lay in the street, blood dripping down her cheek.
“Woman,” said Jesus. “How long have you lain there bleeding?”
She looked around, dust on her face along with the blood.
“I do not know, my lord,” she said. “The crowd has walked around me.”
“Who has touched this woman?” Jesus asked. I realized that there was no knowing who had touched anyone in this great crowd.
“How can she tell, there are so many?” I asked. Jesus turned and looked into my eyes for a moment, then turned away again. I felt like I had missed something obvious, that I should pay better attention.
“Then I will touch you,” he said to the woman, and he bent down and reached a hand to her face. He pulled her up from the ground, and she fell against him, holding him. I could see her face over his shoulder. The blood was gone.
“Come, my Lord,” said the man. “There is little time. My daughter may die if we do not reach her.” He was pulling at the arm of Jesus’ robe, wanting the woman out of the way. Peter was looking harshly at the man, though I knew that Peter understood about the sick child and the urgency. He just never wanted anyone shoving or pulling at Jesus, as though he could not take care of himself.
I heard raised voices and some curses from further down the street. Since we were on a small hill I could see over the heads of the people between to see that another man came pushing his way up the street, garnering the resentment of the crowds as he came. When he reached us he knelt in the street, his head down, and said, “My Lord.”
The man pulling Jesus’s arm stopped for a moment, then began to turn toward the kneeling servant. I could see that the man knew the voice, and I realized what the meaning of it must be. At least I was not so dense as to miss that.
“Your daughter, my lord.” He stopped. “She is dead.”
The man was still standing and holding to Jesus. The woman in Jesus’ arms looked at the messenger and understood as well. She pulled back, her hand on Jesus’ other arm. The servant looked up at his master and around at the rest of us, saying nothing. Then, a moment later he added, “I am sorry.”
The street seemed quieter, people realizing that something was happening, some of them recognizing Jesus, some recognizing the man himself or this woman. There were tears now on the man’s face, though he said nothing, his eyes sharing the sorrow before his mind had grasped it.
Jesus touched the woman’s head, a sort of caress or blessing, and then he in turn took the man by the arm.
“Come,” he said, as much to us as to this man. “Let us go up to your house together.”
The servant rose, and turning back led us in a procession through the crowd. Somewhere we heard the wailing of women who had already heard the whispers of grief. We walked as in a funeral line.
I have always hated funerals.
After some time we reached the house, a good one set back from the crowded marketplace. Family and neighbors were gathered around it, the women weeping. They surged forward when they saw the girl’s father, crying and saying that she was gone.
Jesus paused then, before entering the house. He took hold of the man’s arm the same way that the man had formerly held him in the market.
“Why are you crying?” he asked them. We all stopped and looked at him. I stole a glance at the crowd who were trying to work out whether this man was an idiot. Finally, the old women seemed to assume it was simply that Jesus did not know.
“The girl, his daughter, is dead,” they began to tell him. Jesus set his face, and I looked around to find Peter.
“She is only sleeping,” Jesus said. The words froze me in place, for I knew that they were not true. The crowd paused for a moment, and the father began to stare at Jesus. Then the crowd turned and began to jeer and to insult him, asking whether he were blind or simple. The father himself said nothing, only watched Jesus’ face.
Jesus pushed those in front of the doorway aside, which surprised them. It surprised me. I looked back down the street, wondering where we might run when they found some loose paving stones to throw at us. Peter stood staring, his mouth open, his expression lending no credence to Jesus.
“Out of the house, all of you, mourners and trespassers,” Jesus was saying. “Out.”
Shocked, the visitors looked to the father who, still staring at Jesus, slowly nodded to them. They began to leave, though I could not tell whether it was by Jesus’ authority or by the respect they had for this leader of the synagogue. Taking the man by the shoulder, Jesus looked around at Peter, my brother James, and myself, and indicated that we were to follow them.
We entered the house, suddenly far too quiet except for the sound of a couple of women crying, genuinely, upstairs.
“Take us to her,” Jesus told the father. He nodded once more and began walking up the stairs to the sleeping rooms. It was a spacious house, and cool, and these upper rooms could be opened to receive what breezes came blowing across the roofline of the town.
The girl lay on her bed, and it did appear as though she were sleeping. Beside the girl her mother sat crying, tears covering her face. Genuine grief does not care about appearances. Perhaps nothing genuine does. Another woman stood weeping in the room, though I never knew whether she was a servant or family. The mother looked at us, then at her husband who took her by the hand and lifted her from the chair. Jesus stood at the girl’s feet. Suddenly I realized that he, too, was crying, the quiet tears falling across his cheeks.
I thought that Jesus must have been wrong, and that he now saw as we did that the girl was dead. I was mistaken once again.
“Little girl,” he said. “Wake up.”
For a moment, all of us stopped breathing. I heard it, the quick catch of breath in our throats, all of us for a moment wondering what would happen and whether the girl was, indeed, only sleeping. Then, in the next moment, all of us realized that she was not, that she was dead, that this was perhaps the worst and most shameful moment of our lives. I started to feel the enormity of our imposition on their grief.
Peter’s eyes widened as he watched the girl. I turned back to see.
The girl caught her breath, much as we had, and we could hear the sound of air surging through her lungs and from her mouth. Jesus reached across and held her hand.
“Little girl, get up now,” he said. “Time to wake.”
She held his hand and sat up on the edge of her bed, looking around the room at her parents and the woman, whom she knew, and the four of us, whom she did not. Her mother was the first to recover, leaving her husband’s arms and nearly jumping into the bed with the girl.
“You are alive,” the mother was saying over and over, and the father began to say the same thing. Peter began muttering a curse, though only I heard him, and then he caught himself.
“Lord, you have done it,” he said.
Jesus was only watching the girl. “She is hungry,” he said. “Get her something to eat.”
“Yes. You must eat,” said the father, as though it was obvious that the child would be hungry. Then he turned and began thanking Jesus, who simply pushed the man along with his daughter and wife toward the stairs. They went on ahead of us, shouting and calling for food, soon for a feast. At the bottom of the stairs Jesus watched them a moment, then he turned away from the front of the house and went out into their garden. A gate led us out into the street, where the others were waiting for us. Without a word, Jesus turned and started walking away, as though the woman had never lain in the street and the girl had never risen from her bed. He did not speak of it.
I never saw any of them again, except at the end, when Jesus was dying. That day I saw at a distance a man standing with a woman and a girl. I wondered whether it was this family, come to show their respect, or thanks, or pity. I have never known for sure.

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We Do Not See

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: Mark 1:21-28

Lectionary Project

We Do Not See

Mark wrote that Jesus and his new followers went to Capernaum. It makes sense. SandyBeachVertAccording to Mark at the beginning of the next chapter, Capernaum is where Jesus lived. And that is part of the back story here, part of what this Gospel does not tell us, part of what we do not see.

Mark writes that Jesus walks into the synagogue and begins to teach. At first, it sounds like he just shows up for the first time, but it isn’t his first day there. The leaders of the synagogue already know Jesus. Mark tells us that Capernaum is where Jesus is at home.

This time, though, there is something new. Jesus has a following, a new set of disciples. And this time, straightaway, there is a challenge—a man with an “unclean spirit” barges in and harangues Jesus, presumably speaking in the voice of this unnamed spirit. When Jesus tells the spirit to leave the man, and it does, the people watching are amazed.

That makes twice in the same passage that the audience is amazed or astounded, first with the authority that Jesus displays in teaching, second with his power in casting out a demonic spirit.

We could delve into trying to understand the demonic spirit in other ways that are more acceptable to modern thought, such as by recasting the man’s condition as an illness, but it does violence to the story as it is told. Mark’s story is one of opposites and one of anticipation.

GrassesOpposites, then. Jesus is accepted by the religious leaders and worshipers in the synagogue. At the same time, he is challenged by a voice speaking for demonic powers, who recognize him and fear his presence. The irony is that in the end it is not demons who put Jesus to death: it is the religious leaders.

Anticipation. When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, it cries out with a loud voice as it leaves the man. Mark describes the death of Jesus in the same way in verse 37 of chapter 15.

The power that challenged Jesus in the beginning was not the one that killed him, or maybe it was. Maybe it was hard to recognize the same intent in such apparently different people. There are some real life lessons there. Expect challenges, for one, particularly just when things start going well, and sometimes from unforeseen places.

Another is that true power does not come from opinions or dogma—Jesus did not teach like the scribes. He didn’t tell them the rules. He showed them the truth, and truth is never found in rules but in people. Rules can be written down. Facts are found in laboratories. Truth, like power, is found in the heart.

We might think about the anticipation written into Mark’s Gospel, this early echo of the death of Jesus captured in the casting out of a demon. The demon is driven, wrenched out of a man with a loud cry of pain and rage. Jesus breathes out his life with a loud cry, but of what? And though Jesus journeyed toward his own crucifixion just as surely as that man walked into the synagogue, was there a difference in how they left this life? Does it matter that Jesus knowingly walked toward his end, while the man was driven by powers he did not understand?

There are echoes in our lives as well, moments when we are reminded of the BrownGrassesbrevity of this life, when we pause in anticipation of our own end. That is good, to be reminded, to remember. Otherwise we are like those ancient scribes, scratching out the details of our lives to distract us from living. There is power in being reminded of death. We do not cherish things we believe we cannot lose, do we? If we believe that we will see days without end, will we ever pause to watch a child play or marvel at a star we have not seen?

There’s a watch you can buy that counts down the seconds left in your life. Really. It is based on actuarial tables, general forecasts of life expectancy, something like that. You can find it here, if you’re interested: mytikker.com (I have no commercial interest—the link is only for the curious. And no, I don’t intend to buy one either.) The idea is that being reminded of the brevity of life might help one appreciate living.

Jesus and the demon possessed man are telling us something about how to live. The man, screaming even as he is being freed, tells us that there are things we need to let go in order to live—and the process might be painful.

Power is not control. Truth is not rules. Life is not without pain, but it is worth it to live.

WalkingOnPath