There are many different ways to say this familiar refrain: But we’ve never done it that way before. The Gospel-writer Mark offers us one of the more unusual and creative ways in this week’s Gospel lectionary reading:
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. –Mark 1:21-28 NRSV
Of course, if your congregation or faith community is at all anything like mine, then exorcisms are, at best, a rarity and more likely a totally unheard-of event. But it’s not hard to imagine the possible conversations that took place in response to queries by those who’d failed to attend synagogue in Capernaum that Sabbath day: “So, how was the service this morning?”
The story is filled with interesting aspects. First of all, I find it curious that the only one to recognize Jesus’ authority and power as “the Holy One of God” was the demon. And there is the question of just what kind of religious teaching had been taking place there previously. Apparently it had become something of a spiritual desert, filled with empty ritual and a soothing, “let’s not make any waves” pastoral approach.
Sadly, we church folk are particularly prone to hesitancy when it comes to the new and different. Not that the “new and different” is automatically better, of course. But we tend to prefer things remain just the way they are, thank you very much. For more than a few of us religious types, there’s a form of magical thinking and remembering that takes place: a perception of the “good old days,” a golden time when everything was better, more organized, more clearly understood, and satisfactory–at least to those in control. That kind of “remembering” blots out all the bad stuff that was outside the view of the dominant mainstream.
It’s not just religion where this happens, of course. Politics can be just as guilty. For example, David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote this regarding the 2012 U.S. political primary season:
“Republican audiences this year want a restoration. America once had strong values, they believe, but we have gone astray. We’ve got to go back and rediscover what we had. Heads nod enthusiastically every time a candidate touches this theme. I agree with the sentiment, but it makes for an incredibly backward-looking campaign…. I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.” (NY Times, 1/17/2012)
Well, that was six years ago and much has happened, politically speaking, in the United States since then. Racism and sexism have sunk to greater depths in the attempt to “Make America White Again.” Social media and a 24-hour cable news cycle combine to make the voices of division ever louder. And many of us wonder whatever happend to Truth?
After that memorable Sabbath day in Capernaum, Jesus became big news in the nearby countryside. People began to flock to his side to see for themselves his amazing and astounding ministry. Of course, that fame kept him from going places and doing things and preaching the kingdom of God the way he would have preferred. Yet this same amazing, astounding ministry began to be viewed as a threat to those comfortably in power.
Whenever we preach the gospel (good news) of Christ today there will be those who respond eagerly and joyfully as well as those who see it as a threat to their security and comfort. It’s good to be prepared for both responses. We can look backward and remember the way things used to be (or at least the way we think they were) or we can look ahead to what’s coming: the amazing and astounding kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions