July 8, 2018
I missed you last week because I was on an island somewhere in Lake Michigan attending a preaching conference that was focused primarily on reading the biblical verbs. In fact, the title to the lecture series was, “Reading the Verbs: Finding the Script in Scripture.”
It’s funny to think that you could make a 5 day lecture series on verbs. It’s funnier, part of me says back to myself, that I would choose to go to such a thing. But, I did, and I was glad I did. I had never thought so thoroughly before about parts of speech in the bible, but doing just that can actually lead to some valuable insights.
When we read the bible we tend to focus on the nouns. Whether we know it or not we are noun-first readers. But, the nouns get distracting. Here’s a list of some of them: cubits, shekels, arks, archangels, manna, mandrakes, pharos, fleshpots, cherubim and Nephilim, Pharisees and Philistines, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, and divided tongues of fire. Anna Carter Florence, our lecturer for the week, says that the nouns are a “constant reminder that we’re reading about a galaxy far, far away,” when we read the bible. “And that, in turn, lets us keep our distance,” which of course is the big problem. We end up spending lots of time and energy translating between the languages of these distant galaxies, comparing the biblical world to the “real world” in which we live. A successful effort decodes the meaning but often leaves us no better off, no closer to God.
Nouns also lead to fighting. And, that’s because we pick the nouns we like, the ones that fit our preferred theologies, and we dismiss the ones we don’t like as belonging to another time and place.
But the verbs are different! Carter Florence writes, “What is true in life is also true in scripture: the verbs dominate. It’s what we do and don’t do that preoccupies human beings. And it’s the verbs we cannot imagine for ourselves (live, liberate, forgive, resurrect) that the church offers and that we reach for, week after week.”
The residents of Christ’s hometown in today’s scripture passage are noun people. They cannot recognize what Christ is doing because they are preoccupied with who he is, or rather, who they know him to be. They miss the teaching; they miss the healing, because they are convinced that he’s the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James. They miss the action because they are stuck on the nouns.
But, Mark, our author is a verb guy. The first thing we learn is that Jesus “left that place and came to his hometown.” It strikes me that there’s great determination in those verbs. “That place,” is the home of one of the leaders of the synagogue. It’s the home of Jairus, whose daughter had just died. The people said, “Don’t bother; there’s nothing left to do.” But, Jesus persists. “Little girl, get up,” he says beside the mat on which she laid. And, “immediately” Mark tells us, the little girl rose. So, “that place” is a place of life in the midst of death. “That place” is a place of resurrection. It’s a place of restoration. It’s a place where the kingdom of God has broken though.
But, Jesus left that place and he came to his hometown. He left in order to come to a people who could not, or would not, see him. He left to come to a place that needed him but didn’t know it. He left in order to be present to those who would reject him.
Carter Florence suggests that we think for a moment about where the action of our passage is echoed elsewhere in scripture. Here I thought of Christ on the cross praying for those who hammered in the nails, praying for those who turned their backs, betrayed or denied him. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I thought of the criminal hanging at Christ’s side, and despite Christ’s pain and anguish, despite reasons to be done with his work, he grants the man salvation: “Truly, I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”
The verbs of our passage today show us again Christ’s tenacious will to grant new life even in the face of rejection, to bring new life even where it’s not invited.
And the verbs go on. Jesus went out among the villages. He called the twelve; he sent them out, he gave them authority, and his determination gave them theirs. They went out, they proclaimed, they cast out, they anointed, they cured. They succeeded in doing Christ’s work.
The message as I hear it is twofold. First, it is that we get to hear the verbs for ourselves. It is to know that Christ’s tenacious will to grant grace is directed at us. It’s a will to forgive you, to draw you in, to grant you life, to fill your soul, to heal your heart, to sanctify your spirit, to renew your sacred self, to set you on the course of your loved and deepest life. We are invited to hear Christ’s words for ourselves. “Little girl, rise up.” Or, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Or, “Your faith has made you well.” These are the living words, the perpetual messages of the living Christ tenaciously offered to us again and always.
The second part of the twofold message is simple. It is that we get to offer them too. We need nothing more than what we have and the courage to hear Christ’s call and we too can offer others the words of life.
Rehearsing Scripture, page 17.
The Christian Century, March 28, 2018, see the back cover.