“What Is This?”

"Fireman's Tavern Burnout," Image by Paul Saad via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“They kept on asking each other, what is this? A new teaching?”

There’s the rub of the Gospel and why the Gospel was put to death.

New teachings are not always accepted and frequently rejected. Prepare to be called a heretic (I have been called a heretic, by the way. It’s not that bad. And I’m still here). Prepare to be challenged. If you are woman in ministry, prepare to be mansplained. If you are a minoritized person, prepare to be dismissed. Because once you decide to take the risk of telling a new teaching of the good news, expect the question, “what is this?”

That is the question of our time, isn’t it? What is this? This Gospel that dares to stand up to the supposed authorities. This Gospel that challenges assumed power which has never been earned. This Gospel that rips apart the barriers and boundaries and borders that separate us from God or separate others from God. This Gospel that tears down walls rather than insisting on ways to build them. This Gospel where the dead don’t even stay dead. No wonder the world crucified the Gospel.

When we hear a new teaching, what is our response? When we hear of someone’s testimony of God, which might be different than ours, what is our response? When we hear a challenge to our embedded theologies, our denominational loyalties, our creedal fidelities, what is our response? Are our ears open, eager to experience something new about God? Do we hope for a different revelation? Do we stand behind our commitments to innovation, to change? Or, do we retreat into entrenchment.

What holds us back from those places where demons dwell? What prevents us from entering into those spaces where evil seems to have power? Maybe, in the end, we don’t believe that God’s power is indeed greater than the powers who constantly and consistently insist on their own without any proof of said authority.

No matter where we end up, where our people end up, there goes God. That is the promise of Mark. As Matt Skinner notes in his commentary on preaching this year on Mark’s Gospel, Jesus in our world is an incursion. “Jesus and his message represent nothing less than God’s attempt to enter into and reclaim our existence, bringing the reign (“kingdom”) of God into places where other reigns claim to hold sway.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4999)

This exorcism is Jesus’ first act in Mark, and firsts matter. Jesus crosses into those spaces and places where no one else is willing to go. That’s God for Mark. That’s God for us. And we can count on that. Indeed, the reign of God is present, even when perceptions would present a different view. The question is, if our preaching affirms this, if our ministry acts on this, if discipleship looks like this.

I don’t know how you can say you believe in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the world if you do not then bring it to those people for whom God’s kingdom has been denied. For whom God’s kingdom is deemed undeserving. If we confess that God’s reign indeed reclaims our existence, then we better damn well live like it’s true. And I think people are counting on us to show that it’s true.

And when you do, expect the response, “What is this?” Because those of us who decide to go about in the world, insisting that God is even for the unclean spirits, or for those whom others have determined are unclean, will be suspect. After all, once God is really for everybody, well, there goes merit-based immigration. There goes regulation of pulpits. There goes justified discrimination. And there goes our own deep desire to make claims about God that are created in our own image.

Jesus’ inaugural act in Mark might very well be one of the most important texts of our time. I am continually amazed at how little I hear, in preaching, in public arguments that insist God is on my side, in policies that pretend to be God-driven and God-inspired, of our God whose first feat after the wilderness is to confront evil. To take on the demons that possess us — and oh my, there are so very many. To cast out and silence the forces who attempt to sway us toward idolatry and blasphemy. No, we seem far more comfortable preaching a tame God, a powerless God, or, perhaps a God we think we can control, or at least we hope we can.

This is our chance, this is our time, Dear Working Preachers — to preach as if “what is this?” will be the likely response. To preach as if God has indeed reclaimed our existence. To preach as if our words might empower our listeners to confront evil and demand its silence. To preach as if we truly trust that God always goes where we think God won’t or can’t — or where we don’t want to imagine God could be.

“What is this?” indeed.