[A sermon preached on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1: 21-28 at Bush Hill Presbyterian Church.]
I thought I knew where I was going, who I wanted to be, what direction I wanted my career to take. As a young seminary student, I felt sure that parish ministry wasn’t for me and by no means did I see myself in healthcare chaplaincy; I knew I was headed straight for academia. I had it all figured out: I would finish my doctorate in Hebrew Bible, become a tenured professor of biblical studies, and publish erudite books and articles which would solidify my place in the ivory tower.
With these ambitious goals in mind, I headed to Baltimore to attend my first Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion conference. At these yearly meetings, the best and the brightest religious scholars from all over the world would gather to present papers, debate the latest developments in the field, and share their most recent work. I was so excited – and more than a little star-struck. Scholars whose work I’d only read in books would be right there in front of me, talking about the most cutting-edge research, and hosting panel discussions. I was going to learn so much!
But a few days into the conference, I was walking down the street to get to the next lecture, and I noticed something that would change my entire sense of call and vocation. The sidewalk was crowded with SBL and AAR participants, most of whom were dressed in business attire and carrying the same, green conference tote bag. A disheveled bystander called out to the passersby, not to ask for money, not to give anyone a hard time, not to cause a scene, just to ask them what event was going on downtown that afternoon.
Assuming her to be homeless or mentally ill, assuming that her inquiries might turn into pleas for assistance, assuming the presence of ulterior motives, most people just walked quickly past her, avoided making eye contact, and ignored her completely. Her presence and her attention made them uncomfortable, and they were in a hurry to get to the next presentation.
In that disillusioning moment it felt like my whole world came crashing down. How could people who claimed to know so much about God fall so short when presented with an opportunity to put their ideas into practice? How could they see this situation and not be reminded of the stories of the Good Samaritan or of the people who called out to Jesus from the crowd? These religious scholars, these people who’d spent decades of their lives devoted to the study of sacred truths and holy texts, had clearly missed the whole point. As the Apostle Paul explains to the church at Corinth, “knowledge puffs up” but it’s love that “builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
There’s a difference, you see, between knowing things about God and experiencing God in the present moment. Sure, we can memorize Scripture verses or recite the Lord’s prayer or maybe even translate some Hebrew or Greek in preparation for a sermon or Bible study, but are we really attuned to God’s presence in our daily lives? Are we open to experiencing God in unlikely places and unexpected people? Are we looking for God in the flesh, the Christ who came and dwelt among us? Or are we, too, missing something essential in the life of discipleship?
The Jesus that we meet in today’s Scripture reading calls us out beyond our knowing. Like those who were on hand in Capernaum that day, Jesus teaches us something that can’t be found in any textbook. Gathered around him in the synagogue were the learned scribes, faithful men who had spent their whole lives studying God’s word. Yet, nothing they’d ever read, no teaching or interpretation they’d ever heard, prepared them for what they were about to see with their own two eyes.
This Jesus was one who not only talked the talk but walked the walk. With a few simple words Jesus brought healing and wholeness to a man in deep need, one others had written off in judgement and fear. Jesus, the One who would later still even the stormy seas, was able to quiet this man’s inner turmoil and silence the voice of self-loathing within him. Is it any wonder that Mark tells us on both bookends of this story that all those who saw this were amazed and astounded at this new teaching.
The scribes and religious scholars taught with erudition, but Jesus taught as one having authority. It’s important to remember that we’re still in this first, introductory chapter to Mark’s Gospel. We’re just starting to get to know Jesus here. He’s fresh out of the Baptismal waters and the desert wilderness. He’s just begun his Galilean ministry and called his first disciples. This is the first of many healings, and it’s the first time we realize that Jesus’ life and teachings have the power to change things. His words offer more than a clarification of doctrine or a final answer to a theological debate; he is, himself, the living Word, and his teachings make things happen, both personally and publicly.
For the man with the disturbed spirit, this teaching was life-giving, soul-repairing, and transformative – a moment that would change his life forever. Yet, the miracle goes beyond the healing of one single man on a particular day at a certain time in a specific place. Jesus’ authority transcends particularities of circumstances and speaks to all of us in a much broader sense. Not only does Jesus have the authority to redeem us as individuals, Jesus has power to transform our collective consciousness and heal our societal sins.
Healing, in this passage, isn’t just restoring this man to wholeness, it’s creating a community that acknowledges and meets his need rather than shunning or shaming him for it. Healing is seeing past our differences and recognizing the presence of God in one another. Healing is demonstrating how to take faith beyond our words and into our actions, showing us how to open our hearts when we’d rather just think with our heads. Healing invites us into a deeper way of knowing and experiencing God. And it’s precisely through this healing work that Jesus is first identified as “the Holy one of God” (Mark 1:24). When we look to the very first verse of this chapter, which is the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel, we understand that this healing, transformative work is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), and boy, does it catch on quick in Galilee.
One of the reasons why we’re gathered here today is that, personally and collectively, we’re in need of this kind of good news, this kind of healing, this kind of teaching. So many things claim hold on our lives and clamor for authority. We’re beholden to schedules: the daily grind of our 9-5, the endless school schedules and snack calendars and carpool arrangements. We’re targeted by the latest fashion trends, the newest technology, and the increasingly clever marketing schemes. We’re gripped by our inner desire to do more and have more and be more. We’re held captive by circumstances beyond our control – illness, loss, violence, disaster. And even beautiful, fulfilling things have a certain kind of power over us – the love of family and friends, the value and sense of purpose we find in our work, the good that we do in our community, the desire to be a good parent or a hardworking employee or a person of integrity.
The reason that Christ is the ultimate authority in our lives is that the hope we have in him transcends our fears, the love and belonging we find in him calls us into connection, the peace we experience through him offers courage in every moment of anxiety or despair, and the abundance we meet in him fills our deepest needs. Christ’s teachings have authority because they pour out grace upon grace in our lives. His words are powerful when they’re no longer just dried ink in a dusty old book, but when they’ve become a living, breathing reality in and through us.
I’d like to say this was the case on that Baltimore street on a windy and cold afternoon in late November. I’d like to say that unlike the other conference attendees, I stopped to speak to the woman who called out to us, offering her the dignity of meeting her eyes as I responded to her inquiry. But I didn’t. I hurried on to the next session, more concerned about meeting my personal goals than honoring the humanity of this child of God standing before me. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I mistakenly believed that the teaching was buried in some prestigious academic’s latest paper rather than right there on the street in front of me. As I scurried past her, I glanced over my shoulder only to see another woman stoop down to meet her gaze, reach out to shake her hand and introduce herself, and begin to tell her about the event taking place. “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” (Mark 1:27). May God open our ears to hear and our hearts to believe. Amen.