Action! Verbing our Way into the Gospels: Look, Consider, and Shine! (Matthew 6:25-34 and Matthew 5:13-16)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Inspired by Anna Carter Florence’s book, Rehearsing Scripture, we’ve explored a handful of gospel stories this winter focusing primarily on the verbs. So far we’ve practiced this strategy together on the final portion of the Christmas story from Luke 2, on a series of healing narratives from the gospel of Mark, and on the story of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, noting that the verbs in that text have formed the centerpiece of every Communion service ever since: he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave, he said. Last week at Breakfast Worship downstairs we even gave the kids a chance to act out the verbs in another gospel story. Jesus’ disciples are terrified to find themselves in a boat, out in the middle of a storm at sea, and Jesus himself is somehow fast asleep in the back of that boat. They wake him up, plead with him to help, he orders the wind and the waves to quiet down, and they do.
While I hope you’ll continue to enjoy reading biblical narratives verbs-first like this, we also know there’s more to the gospels than stories. In addition to all of his body-and-spirit-healing and bread-breaking and storm-calming, Jesus also does a lot of teaching. I wondered if the same strategy of focusing on verbs could help us at all as we read through Jesus’ lesson plans. So in our final two weeks of this series we’ll be looking first at excerpts from his famous Sermon on the Mount, today, and then, next week, at a couple of his parables or teaching stories.
Let’s begin with Matthew 6:25-34. I invite you to turn to it now (p. 884 in your pew Bibles) so you can follow along. There are plenty of verbs here but what intrigued me most about this text is how many imperatives, or verbal commands, it contains. So let’s read through and highlight those in particular this time. In the midst of all of the words on the page there, can you help me call out the verbal commands, the things Jesus tells his disciples to do or not to do?
In verse 25: Do not worry (about this whole list of things – what you will eat or drink or wear) … Verse 26: Look (at the birds, and how God takes care of them) … Down in verse 28, Consider (the lilies, how they grow, how spectacular they are)… Verse 31 again we see: Do not worry… What should we do instead? Verse 33: Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness (and all these things will be yours as well). And one last time in verse 34: Do not worry (about tomorrow).
Now if you had asked me to list the imperative verbs in this passage before I’d looked quite so closely, I’d have thought I already had them down cold: do not worry, do not worry, and – oh, right – do not worry. This is the famous “do not worry” passage, one which some of you have heard me say before I find endlessly convicting. What is this “do not worry” you speak of, Jesus? How exactly does one go about doing that? Or, more accurately, not doing that? Maybe it just goes along with personality types like mine that plan ahead and think ahead and tend to overthink, at times … but I hear Jesus’ instruction here, his command not to worry, and it’s been hard to know what to do with it all these years. Even though it sounds great, how exactly would I go about not doing something that comes so naturally to me? How do I step away from thinking ahead about tomorrow and all that it holds in store and all I could be doing to get ready for it?
Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking all that’s going on here in this passage is a “what not to do” lesson from Jesus. After all, “do not worry” gets a lot of attention here, appearing three times in just 9 verses. But here’s what I noticed by reading this set of instructions verbs-first this time. Sandwiched in between the “what not to do” refrain there are some interesting “to do’s.” What are they? Look (at the birds), consider (the lilies), and strive (for God’s kingdom). Look. Consider. Strive.
I suspect Jesus isn’t really saying: “Deb, stop being yourself.” Nor is he saying “stop doing that thing you know you tend to do a bit too much of” without offering me a viable alternative. It seems instead that freeing myself from overthinking and worrying about tomorrow lies in those other three imperatives: look, consider, strive.
I don’t know how much success you have getting outside in a typical week, but I’ve recommitted myself to it over the last few months, and it’s been such a gift. Look at the birds, says Jesus. Consider the lilies. Let them instruct you in God’s provision and God’s artistry. In our context here in the Pacific Northwest, Jesus could have said: Look at the mountains, the evergreens, the cherry blossoms. Consider the waters of Puget Sound or Lake Washington. What does their beauty, their majesty teach you about the God who made you, too? What does it say to you that – no matter what’s going on in the human realm on a particular day – there they stand? Let those who have eyes to see, see. Receive God’s gentle reminders, as you look around you, that humanity with all its triumphs and tragedies seems to be one of ...isn’t it something like 1 or 2 million animal species on this planet? And then there’s all of the plant life… With that dose of humility, receive some comfort too. God’s bigger than whatever you have been worrying about. How do we know? Because – well, just get outside and really look… consider… How could the God who made everything not be able to handle the details of your life, or mine?
And then the final imperative in that same text: strive. At first it might seem like “strive” would go hand in hand with “worry” rather than its alternative. We know what it means to strive - to work and work and try and try and push and push… right? But wait, what is it Jesus asks us to strive for here? Not for the kinds of things we tend to strive for: a perfect family life or a perfect track record at school or at work or a perfect home or a perfect body weight or perhaps for more money or more friends or more achievements. No. Strive for God’s kingdom and its righteousness. Let the effort you exert be directed toward that cause. Live for God. Do as God commands. And the rest, says Jesus, will fall into place.
“Do not worry” can be a tough instruction for some of us to follow. But if this “what not to do” from Jesus is tricky for you too, focus on the “what to do’s.” Can you look, really look, at the seagulls, the salmon, the squirrels? Can you consider the lilies or the rhodies or Mt. Rainier? Can you set aside something that is adding undue pressure to your life, something unworthy of the energy, attention, and worry you’re currently devoting to it, and focus instead on something life-giving? Something that strengthens your relationship with God? Can you do something for someone else in God’s name, taking a productive step toward bringing God’s kingdom on earth?
Meanwhile, let’s turn back a chapter to Matthew 5, verses 13-16 which you can find on page 882. Another famous teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, this one about salt and light. I’ve heard bunches of sermons over the years, and preached them too, about the words ‘salt’ and ‘light’ here. And with good reason. If Jesus is going to use loaded images like these and compare his followers to specific nouns, we’d better know what those nouns are about, right? So we study up on how critical salt was as a preservative in the ancient world, as well as offering flavor, and we consider what lamps on lampstands would mean to those living without the benefit of electricity. And we think about these powerful metaphors of salt and light and how we might live into them as Jesus’ disciples in our own era. All of this is important. I don’t mean to discount it. But what do we notice this time through, reading verbs-first? Beginning at verse 13, what is the first verb there? Are. You are. I was all ready to make a big case for why this is significant – that it’s not an imperative, that Jesus is simply declaring something to be the case, vs. asking something of us – but actually in the Greek it turns out the same verbal form can be read as an imperative. Hmmm. So Jesus is either saying: be the salt of the earth, or you are the salt of the earth.. Interestingly, though, I couldn’t find a single English translation (out of the dozens that exist) that went with the imperative option. I’m guessing it’s due to the presence of the pronoun there in the Greek, or perhaps it’s due to the flow of other nearby verbs. At any rate, translators seem fairly confident Jesus is saying: you are the salt of the earth. So at least for our purposes today we’ll go along with the great cloud of witnesses who’ve gone before us.
In any event, the very same verbal form appears with the light metaphor in verse 14. The one we’re reading: You are. Which seems to imply You. Already. As you are. You are the light of the world. Certainly there are any number of ways God’s light in us can be hidden, or dimmed, but wouldn’t it be lovely if there are no requirements for us to put it there in the first place? If that’s entirely God’s doing? You are the light of the world, says Jesus, to us all.
We don’t find a verb that is clearly a command until verse 16, and what is that verb? Let your light shine. Shine your light. If the light’s already there – if that’s what Jesus just told us – then it’s not necessary to create light. God’s done that part already. We’re simply asked not to hide it. To get it out from under that bushel basket and to let it shine in such a way that others may see our good works and give glory to God in heaven. You are the light of the world. Let that light shine.
As an important aside, we’ve been talking a lot here recently about words like joy and energy, and when you add to that all this talk of being the light of the world and letting our light shine… I just want to be clear. None of this requires you to be peppy and cheerful every time you set foot in the door of this church. You don’t have to feel especially joyful on any given day – or pretend to feel that way – to be part of this congregation. Especially not pretend! We’ll share God’s light in exuberant, energetic ways around here at times, sure, but don’t ever underestimate the importance of bravely clinging to God’s light in a moment of darkness. Or the importance of holding God’s light where someone else can see it in their own dark season. For Jesus to ask it of all of us must mean there are as many ways to let our light shine as there are seasons and stages of life and personalities on this planet. So if the nouns feel like an awfully big responsibility sometimes (salt of the earth? light of the world? Did Jesus really mean me?), perhaps we can take comfort in what seems to be a simple present tense form of the verb ‘to be.’ You are the salt of the earth. You are light of the world. You are, because Jesus says you are.
One final note. The things we say here in this room? They have to make sense outside this room; otherwise, what’s the point? So let’s remember what’s at stake as we consider our verbs from Matthew 5 and 6 today. Don’t worry about tomorrow, Jesus? Seriously? With the world in the state it’s in? How could you expect that of us? Granted, Jesus’ invitation not to worry in Matthew 6 was about things like our food and drink and the clothes we wear, not about the coronavirus or our presidential election or escalating tensions between nations or the heartbreaking number of people living in tents along our Seattle freeways. We wouldn’t want to consider the lilies to the exclusion of paying attention. We wouldn’t want to keep our heads in the clouds or bury them in the sand and ignore the pain and problems around us. But could it help us maintain our sanity and perspective in the face of the world’s chaos just to step outside, now and then, and soak up the wonder of God’s creation? To do so long enough to catch our breath and remember who’s really in charge? Could it also help us not to lose hope if we busy ourselves with important work, striving for God’s kingdom by serving our neighbors in meaningful ways? And might it help us shine God’s light a bit more brightly in the darkness to remember that God put that light there in the first place? And put it in every other child of God too?
You are the salt of the earth, says Jesus, and the light of the world. Apparently in simple declarative statements.
Don’t worry, says Jesus. Perhaps not as a word of judgment but a word of reassurance. God’s got this.
Which would leave us with just a handful of imperatives (or instructions) from this morning’s verb hunt:
Look (at the birds). Consider (the lilies). Strive (for God’s kingdom).
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We’ve been verbing it up around here this winter! Inspired by Anna Carter Florence’s book, Rehearsing Scripture, we’ve been reading gospel texts verbs-first, and noticing how that helps them come alive for us. We can get a little bogged down at times by the unfamiliarity of biblical nouns. We simply don’t talk about things like burnt offerings and temple furnishings, or Babylon or Beelzebub, in our everyday lives. So diving straight into the verbs of Scripture has offered us an exciting new approach.
Today, we’ll turn our attention to a sequence of gospel verbs that gets a whole lot of attention in the Church. But first let’s have you open to p. 928 in your pew Bibles, and I’ll start reading at the beginning of our text from Mark.
READ Mark 14:12-16
These verses set the stage for the Last Supper, explaining that the meal Jesus and his disciples would eat together on the night of his betrayal and arrest wasn’t just any meal. It was a Passover meal commemorating God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt many generations earlier. The Jewish people had been telling about the Exodus from Egypt ever since, marking the occasion with this sacred Passover meal, and by Jesus’ day this would have been happening for hundreds of years. It’s a practice that continues today as our Jewish friends observe Passover every spring. Eating a symbolic meal together, a meal God commanded them to share to recall how he had saved them, allows every new generation to act out the story, as well as telling it with their words. They are, in a sense, rehearsing Scripture.
At least that’s what Anna Carter Florence would call it. She invites us not simply to read the Bible but to “rehearse and encounter it.” Borrowing inspiration from the world of theatre, she urges us to read biblical texts “not [just] alone: together. Not [just] once: again and again.” It can make us “hungry for the text and for the joy of showing one another all that the text can say… We can’t wait to come back and say something true about the God we’ve encountered in our reading.”
Rehearsing the biblical text. We do this every year on at least one important occasion here. We just did it again back in December. Do you remember when? At our annual children’s Christmas pageant. (It was actually more of an intergenerational event this time which was wonderful to see.) We look forward to reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 every year, and not just to reading it but to acting it out, making sure someone plays the parts of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the angels. Jesus’ birth in a manger in Bethlehem is so important to us that we pull out all the stops to bring it to life again and again. When we do this, we are rehearsing Scripture. Stepping right into the story and verbing its verbs, if you will.
Lillian Daniel writes of “a family new to [her] church whose grade-school-age kids had only a year of Sunday School under their belts. In the middle of what was his second Christmas pageant rehearsal ever, the little boy cried out in total exasperation: ‘Do you mean to tell me we are doing exactly the same story we did last year?’”
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We keep on telling the same story because it never gets old. We keep on rehearsing it because the script itself is such a gift. A line from an old hymn we sang last week comes to mind: “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” And Lillian Daniel offers a lovely update on that frustrated little boy in pageant practice: “Today,” she says, “that youngster is grown up and has been blessed by the repetition that gives his chaotic days meaning. In a world that demands that everything be a one-time-only original production, the church remains a place to remember that there is someone much better than we are at original creations.”
Next week at our breakfast service I’ll be inviting our kids to help act out a different episode from the gospels. (No spoilers! You’re going to have to turn up to know which one.) And I wonder what it might look like to do this more often together. Would it enliven our worship? Increase our understanding of the text? And what if – as we’ve been doing throughout this series – we didn’t get overly hung up on whatever strange nouns might confuse us, but primarily allowed ourselves to rehearse the verbs in the stories of Scripture? What then?
To be fair, we do act out another beloved story from the Bible quite often. Here at MPC we do it once a month. Many churches do it even more frequently. It goes like this. Turn back to your pew Bibles again, p. 928, and let’s continue our reading.
READ Mark 14:22-25
What are Jesus’ verbs there? He took (a loaf of bread). He blessed it. He broke it. He gave it to them. He said (“take, this is my body”). Then he did it again with the cup. He took, gave thanks, gave it to them, and said (“this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.”) If you’ve spent time in this or any church, odds are you’ve heard about Jesus verbing these particular verbs. And not only heard the story but seen it too. As the pastor or priest acts it out. We rehearse this script together every time we gather for the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, or the Eucharist. Christians from different traditions call this sacred meal by different names, but it’s all about those same verbs: he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave, he said… So we take bread, pray over it, break it… and we take a cup, and we bless and share it… all in Jesus’ name and with his words.
One of the gifts of all that Lord’s Supper verbing– the fact that we act out the Communion story as well as telling it – is that you can visit any church in the world and know what they are doing around the Table. It might be in a high church setting with bowing and kneeling and incense and bells. It might be in an outdoor chapel in a meadow somewhere. It might be in a language you don’t know, or the bread might look or taste a little strange to you, or the sanctuary might be decorated in a way vastly different from our own. But any of us, anywhere, can see with our own eyes what’s happening when we get to this critical part, the part we call the words of institution: He took, he blessed, he broke, he gave, he said (“this is my body… this is my blood…given for you.”)
Another thing I love about rehearsing the story of the Last Supper like this – acting it out as we tell it - is that it lowers the bar to participation. Theologians and whole denominations have been arguing about the precise significance of this sacrament for centuries. But anyone can follow the verbs: Jesus took, blessed, broke, gave, and said.
In our Presbyterian tradition, for instance, children are welcome to the Table right along with adults – at least as long as we are teaching them the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, says our church constitution. And we’ve done that in various ways over the years, most recently with a few special Communion services at which we read from a wonderful resource called “A Place for You” and talked together across generations about what Communion means to us.
So we do our best to make it clear for the kids and for each other, and the verbs themselves are straightforward enough for anyone to follow along…
At the same time, if we’re honest, do any of us fully understand the heaven-meets-earth mystery of Communion? Or might there be something happening here that transcends any description we could offer? It seems to me that God has a way of showing up in and around this sacrament in ways we can’t fully explain. So there’s something to be said for simply experiencing a little of the mystery for ourselves, at any age or stage in life.
I find it comforting that Jesus doesn’t say: “explain this in remembrance of me,” or “don’t do it until you’re sure you’ve mastered all of the theological implications.” He simply says “do this in remembrance of me” – tell this story, act it out, rehearse it. That’s it! “Do the verbs,” he seems to say, “and I’ll care of the rest.” “Do the story, and I’ll be with you.” “Do what I did that night with my disciples, and it’ll help you remember my great love for you.”
So we take his script, we verb his verbs, and we rehearse:
He took. He blessed. He broke. He gave. He said: this is my body.
He took. He blessed. He gave. He said: this is my blood.
It’s our favorite Bible story to rehearse. When we do, in our minds’ eye we can see Jesus verbing around the table with his disciples at the Last Supper, because we’re watching those same verbs happen right in front of us. In any church, anywhere.
He took. He blessed. He broke. He gave. He said: this is my body, broken for you.
He took. He blessed. He gave. He said: this is my blood, shed for you.
Why do we keep on rehearsing this particular script? First and foremost because Jesus told us to. That’s what makes it a sacrament. We’re commanded to do it in Jesus’ name.
But there’s so much more to our repetition of this story, too. It reminds us powerfully of God’s love for us. It unites us with brothers and sisters in Christ around the table and around the world. Being welcomed and accepted and fed by Jesus like this can also help knit us back together when we feel a little unraveled. It can help us see a little more clearly Christ’s light shining in the darkness.
Christians turn up for Communion month after month, and in some traditions week after week, or even day after day, because we hunger and thirst for this “old, old story of Jesus and his love:”
He took. He blessed. He broke. He gave. He said: this is my body.
He took. He blessed. He gave. He said: this is my blood.
“It’s for you,” says Jesus, “and it’s about my love for you.”
Jesus verbed these verbs for every child of God on earth. In a few minutes, we’ll get to show and tell them all over again, and Christ will be right here with us as we do. The playwright, the lead actor, the director – for Jesus is all of these things - gracing us with his presence as we rehearse the script we love so well.
“It’s for you,” says Jesus, “and it’s about my love for you.” Thanks be to God!
 Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019) p. ix.
 Lillian Daniel, When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, (Jericho Books, 2013) p. 10.
 Daniel, p. 10.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
This winter we’re in the midst of a sermon series that invites us to verb our way into the gospels. This is in contrast to the way we often read passages from the Bible, directing much of our attention to the nouns. Since biblical nouns can be so different from the nouns we use in everyday life, they require some explanation and translation. What’s an ark? An archangel? A Philistine? A Syrophoenician? While we can educate ourselves about biblical nouns over time, preaching professor Anna Carter Florence invites us to dive right into the verbs. “If you’re looking for a way to make Scripture relevant,” she says, “start reading the verbs. You’ll have more relevance on your hands than you know what to do with. You’ll see yourself everywhere in verbs you’ve played.”
Following her lead, last week we verbed our way through intertwined healing stories in the fifth chapter of Mark’s gospel: a woman Jesus healed from a 12-year-long flow of blood, and a 12-year-old girl Jesus raised from her deathbed. In her book Rehearsing Scripture, which was the inspiration for this sermon series, I remembered Carter Florence using Mark 5 as an example which is why I invited us to try her strategy on that chapter. We highlighted all the verbs in the text, made our way through those two overlapping stories, and came away with insights about healing and hope, and about Jesus’ presence with all who are hurting whether they are given the gift of physical healing or not.
What I didn’t tell you last week was that after I’d done my own work on Mark 5, I returned to the section in the book, Rehearsing Scripture, that had prompted my efforts. When I did, I was surprised to discover an entirely different set of insights she had pulled out of the same verb-rich chapter. Which only reinforces the richness of Scripture. Every time we approach it, we can come away having learned something new.
To be fair, Carter Florence and her study group had addressed all of Mark 5, and since it was a long chapter, I left out the first of its three healing stories last week. That’s another reason we’ve circled back today – to pick up those first 20 verses Jeff just read aloud for us.
So before I share the other group’s takeaways, let’s notice the action words, the verbs in Mark 5:1-20. Turn to p. 916 in your pew Bibles, and let’s skim through it together. First this demon-possessed man, the one known as the Geresene demoniac, in verse 3 the text says he lived among the tombs (that alone tells a story, doesn’t it? that he was forced to live among the dead?), he had been restrained by chains, had wrenched those apart, had broken his shackles, could not be subdued, was always howling and bruising himself with stones. The poor man! How awful for him to be in that condition. He sees Jesus coming and shouts at him: “don’t torment me.” Jesus now asks his name, and he identifies himself as Legion, “for we are many,” a reference to the many unclean spirits who’ve possessed him. Our modern sensibilities naturally wonder about mental illnesses of various kinds that may have caused this level of suffering. But regardless of the cause of his anguish, Jesus is on the job to address it, ordering the spirits out of the man and into this herd of swine feeding on the hill, so that they rush over a cliff into the water.
So many questions. I have so many questions about this text. What had the poor pigs done to deserve any of this, being just one of them. And I’ll never forget a funny retelling of this part of the story back in my seminary days. A few of our talented classmates had pulled together a variety show they called “Theologiggle,” full of songs and skits, many of them based on biblical texts, one of them featuring the farmer who owned all those pigs. They had him standing up to plead his case in court, saying things like: “Seriously, Jesus, that was my livelihood right there! With all my neighbors keeping kosher, do you have any idea how hard it is to move pork in this town?” That pig farmer wanted restitution and he wanted it now.
But back to the text itself. Because Mark wants our focus not on the poor pigs, and not on their owner, but on the Geresene man himself, suddenly free of his torment. As his story wraps up we find a whole bunch more verbs in verses 14-20. Let’s turn to those verses now.
First, the swineherds – oh, right, because someone was also watching the pigs at the time. Bet it didn’t go over well with their boss when they all ran over the cliff! But again, I digress… What verbs do the swineherds actually get here in verse 14? They ran off… and they told it [the story of what happened] in the city and the country.
Then, the people they told the story to, what verbs do they get? People came to see what happened. Came to Jesus. Saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind. They were afraid. Isn’t it interesting that his being well is what frightens them? That feels like another whole discussion-worthy detail. They knew what to do with him, how to feel about him, how to treat him when he was a mess; his being well is what frightens them? In any event, their next verb comes in verse 17 when they beg Jesus to leave the neighborhood.
Then it’s the healed man’s turn to verb again in verse 18. What does he do there? He begs Jesus that he might stay with him. Jesus says no, instead I want you to do what? Go home to your friends (friends, I wonder? for a guy who’s been living among the tombs? Again, so many questions…), tellthem what the Lord has done. And in verse 20 he does go away, and begins to proclaim how much Jesus had done for him.
Go and tell says Jesus… and he begins to proclaim. Jesus essentially says “preach it, brother” to a man whose extreme condition had limited him to howling and shouting just a few verses ago. Remarkable.
OK, now back to Anna Carter Florence and the experience she shares of reading this whole chapter of Mark’s gospel with a church group. By the whole chapter, again, I mean this story of the Geresene demoniac as well as the two stories we read last week, of the woman Jesus healed from a 12-year-long flow of blood, and the 12-year-old girl Jesus raised from her deathbed.
Referring to that church group, “the question I heard most often” from them, she says, “was this: How come some people [in Mark] get to tell about Jesus and others don’t?”
“This wasn’t a question my [preaching] students and I had ever asked,” she continues. “In fact, it’s not a question many preachers would ask – because we think we’re supposed to know the answer, or at least the proper theories that would explain it. One of those, ‘The Messianic Secret,’ is a proposal … to explain why, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is always ordering people not to tell what they know about him. The theory is that Mark wants to keep Jesus’ true identity a secret until the very end… That’s the theory and it’s one most preachers have to learn in seminary… The… church people were so very patient. They listened politely and then said, ‘Okay, we get the theory. Don’t tell the secret until the end of the Gospel. So why aren’t the characters in the fifth chapter of Mark following the rule?’
“’What do you mean?’ …
“’Well,’ they answered, ‘there’s nothing secret in the fifth chapter of Mark! Everybody hears about Jesus, and a lot of people are talking about him.’…
“And suddenly,” she says, “it hit me. Maybe my preachers-only groups had been asking the wrong question. Maybe the issue isn’t what we’re supposed to tell, or when we’re supposed to tell it. Maybe it’s who gets to tell. And you know who gets to tell about Jesus in [Mark] chapter 5? Crazy people and twelve-year-old girls, and a woman who hemorrhages her whole truth in front of God and everybody.”
“It’s a funny thing,” she continues, “the church gives preachers the power to speak, but in Scripture, it’s different. In Scripture, the one who has the power to speak isn’t always the leader of the synagogue. It’s the marginalized person, the crazy person, the teenager you’ve given up for dead. And while you would certainly offer hospitality to a [healed!] demoniac by inviting him to worship, this text suggests you invite him into the pulpit too.” Because he’s got an amazing story to tell: “Once I lived in a tomb and was possessed by demons. Now I live in freedom and am possessed by grace.”
And how about speakers in those other stories from last week? Jairus may not be given permission to speak about how Jesus healed and raised his daughter, but if he doesn’t say anything, think about what happens. “His daughter will go to the kitchen, get a grilled cheese sandwich, drink a glass of milk, eventually head outside to find her friends – and run straight into the crowd of mourners and gawkers, who are still wondering if there’s going to be a funeral. [Because no one has told them otherwise.] They’ll take one look at her and totally freak out; they’ll literally lose their verbs. The ones who were weeping and wailing and then laughing and scoffing will now be hysterical, because what in the world is going on here? This daughter of Jairus was dead and is alive again – Jesus, what did you do? What should we do? Kill the fatted calf? Lock up the swine? Run for the hills? If Jairus doesn’t get to speak, then his daughter gets to tell her own story. She’ll tell it with her body, simply by being alive and well. And as she lives, which is all her father ever asked for her in the first place, she may find words to say a few things. She might smile at those mourners in their … confusion and say, ‘All I know is this: I heard Jesus’ voice calling me, and I felt his hand pulling me to my feet. So I got up and walked, and hugged my parents and ate, and here I am. Who’s ready to play Capture the Flag?’”
And how about the hemorrhaging woman from the middle of the chapter? Clearly she’s allowed to speak. “She doesn’t simply tell Jesus the truth. She tells him the whole truth: every single verb… Jairus may be waiting [at that point in the chapter] but the woman’s moment holds [Jesus’] full attention – and the crowd’s too. They hear every word. They watch her wring out every last verb. And when she has finally finished telling her story in this very open forum, which we can only imagine was an unearthly mix of terror, embarrassment, and relief, Jesus lets her go with a blessing.”
Anna Carter Florence concludes, from these borrowed insights, courtesy of that church group she was privileged to work with, that the primary question raised by the fifth chapter of Mark isn’t what we say about Jesus, or when. “It’s who gets to say it: who is allowed to speak.” And “here’s Mark’s take on that,” she says, “you are.”
“You are. And you might not have to wait until the end of the story to open your mouth. You can speak from smack in the middle of your own life, exactly where you are. Because the only authority you have, the only power to speak you hold, comes from what you have seen and what you believe about Jesus…”
“Mark gives us three scripts to practice all this… The first is the Hemorrhaging Speaker. This speech is a soliloquy: you offer it to God alone… because you can’t tell anyone the truth about God unless you’ve told God the truth about you. Not just the truth, the whole truth. The places where you’re losing blood and strength and hope for the world. The places you’ve tried to fix yourself and just can’t, no matter how much you spend… it’s a hard script to play, but you can do it; Jesus is turning about in the crowd, and you have his attention.”
“The second role is the Crazy-Possessed Speaker. This is the script you play every day, out in the world, every time you speak to others about God… The minute you open your mouth to speak about Jesus, the world already [thinks] you’re fringe material. You’re the person others see as … not in your right mind – and that’s why Jesus chose you. He knew nobody would believe you because of you; they’d only believe you because it’s a really good story. So tell it! This is what the Lord did for us before we ever asked. This is the mercy of God.” We’re here because we know God’s love brings transformation.
“The third role is the Twelve-Year-Old Girl. This is the script you give away to others so they can speak about Jesus, too. You’ll know who needs to play it: the ones who used to be dead and are alive again. The ones we gave up on but who somehow heard Jesus’s voice. The ones who might be content to stay quiet because there are others who would be happy to tell their story for them – Jairus, for instance. But this isn’t Jairus’ role. It’s not his story to tell. Jesus didn’t raise that twelve-year-old girl because she’s the child of Jairus. He raised her because she’s a child of God… So give this script to the ones who need to play it, and encourage them to tell the story in their own way.”
In other words: Preach it, brother. Preach it, sister. You have an important story to tell. We all do. We’ve been given the script by Jesus himself. So let’s get to work!
 Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture, pp. 20-21.
 Florence, pp. 104-106.
 Florence, p. 110.
 Florence, p. 112.
 Florence, p. 118.
 Florence, p. 116.
 Florence, p. 119.
 Florence, p. 120.
 Florence, p. 120.
 Florence, pp. 120-121.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We began a new sermon series last week inviting us to verb our way into the gospels. This is in contrast to the way we often read passages from the Bible, directing much of our attention to the nouns. Since biblical nouns can be so different from the nouns we use in everyday life, they require explanation and translation. What’s a cubit? A shekel? A Pharisee? A Samaritan? We can educate ourselves to understand whole big bunches of biblical nouns over time, but why not - for a refreshing change - dive straight into the verbs? Verbs unite us as human beings across continents and centuries, says Anna Carter Florence, and she extends an intriguing invitation: “If you’re looking for a way to make Scripture relevant,” she says, “start reading the verbs. You’ll have more relevance on your hands than you know what to do with; you’ll see yourself everywhere, in verbs you’ve played.”
We tried the strategy just briefly last week with the tail end of the Christmas story from Luke 2, verbing first with the shepherds and then with Mary, the mother of Jesus. We watched for action words that felt familiar to us, that is things we’ve often done ourselves, as well as for any verbs that felt like a personal invitation from God to act or to engage.
Today we’ll be verbing our way through intertwined stories in the fifth chapter of the gospel of Mark, so again I’ll invite you to open your pew Bibles and follow along. Turn to p. 917, Mark 5 beginning at verse 21, and we’ll work our way through today’s Scripture reading section by section.
I’ll first read aloud Mark 5:21-23…
There are a number of different actors in this chapter. We’ll start with Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. What does Jairus do here in verses 21-23? The text says he came to Jesus… saw him, fell at his feet, begged repeatedly. Why does he do all this? Because his daughter is dying. Jairus presumably commanded significant respect as a synagogue leader. I don’t imagine falling at someone’s feet and begging them for mercy was his usual style. But a sick child? That levels the playing field in a hurry. I don’t know if you’ve ever had occasion to spend time over at Children’s Hospital here in Seattle? My husband Ken and I are grateful the worrisome issues we walked through there with our girls over the years never approached the life and death scenarios faced by others. Pacing those halls, logging countless hours in tests and treatments, trying to help their kids survive the night, no one cares about things like social standing. And if you don’t have children, I’ll bet there’s someone for whom you’ve pleaded with God for healing. Approaching Jesus, falling to our knees at his feet, begging… some of us know Jairus’ verbs all too well. And then Jairus’ request of Jesus comes with its own set of verbs. What are they? (verse 23) What does he ask Jesus to do? To come, lay hands on her, and make her well, that she might live. And Jesus goes with him.
Then comes a surprising interruption. Let’s turn now to verses 24-34...
Verse 24 says Jesus starts off with Jairus toward his house, but as he goes a huge crowd follows him and presses in on him. And here we’re introduced to another major character, this woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. There’s a powerful verb for you. Bleeding. For twelve years. And beginning at verse 25 what else do her verbs tell us? We read that she had been suffering… had endured much… had spent all she had… and only grew worse. There’s so much to be said about this woman’s story, but today we’re going to set aside things like ancient Israelite purity laws about women’s bleeding, laws about being clean or unclean, and that kind of thing, and just look at her verbs. Had been suffering, had endured, had spent, grew worse. Because we have friends or family members with those verbs right on our own prayer lists, don’t we? We’ve seen these verbs in the news with frightening regularity too (suffering, enduring, growing worse). Some of you may even know these verbs first-hand. And what does this woman do next? She’d heard about Jesus, came up behind him, touched his cloak (verse 27), for she said, if I touch, I will be made well. She gets a happy ending not everyone gets, of course, for what are her verbs in verse 29? She felt, she was healed. And if you jump ahead to verse 33, let’s pick up the rest of her verbs there: knowing what had happened, she came, fell, and told Jesus the whole truth (perhaps the truth about how she’d snuck up behind him desperately hoping she’d be healed if she touched his cloak; perhaps the truth about those awful 12 years too).
Now we’re going to switch gears again, as these two stories continue to intersect and overlap. Let’s look at verses 35-43…
So it’s while Jesus is still speaking to the woman whose just been healed from her flow of blood (verse 35) that people come from Jairus’ house with the gut-wrenching news that his daughter hasn’t lived long enough for Jesus the healer to do her any good: “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” The crowd back at the house agrees hope is lost, for in verse 38 we see their verbs are weeping, wailing loudly, and when Jesus suggests things aren’t so bad (she’s only sleeping), laughing at the impossibility. We’re familiar with death, Jesus. We know how this works. Dead people don’t suddenly wake up. It’s preposterous. Just leave us alone with verbs we know all too well: weeping, wailing, grieving…
Meanwhile what is Jesus doing at this point in the chapter? What are his verbs, beginning at verse 36? He overhears (the talk of there being no hope for the girl), says (what does he say? Don’t fear; only believe). He allows no one to follow except a select few disciples. He enters, says (why make a fuss?), he puts them outside, takes the parents, goes in, takes the girl by the hand, says to her: “little girl, get up!” (Mark gives us the Aramaic too, “talitha, qum!”) Then he tells everyone not to say anything, just give her something to eat.
Oh, how we wish, as readers of stories like these, that Jesus didn’t limit his healing and helping verbs, his taking by the hand and raising verbs to a select few. Where was all of this verbing, Jesus, when it was my mom, her dad, his wife, their child, that was so seriously ill? Miracle stories like the ones we’ve read about today don’t happen for everyone; we know this with painful certainty. Which makes it somehow both encouraging and discouraging to read about them here in the Bible.
Still, the fact that God doesn’t always choose to offer physical healing doesn’t mean it can’t happen, sometimes in incredible ways. I told you just last week at prayer time about one of our church members who’d been unresponsive in the hospital for many hours a couple weekends ago. The medical team had tried all night, I’m told, and couldn’t wake her up. A couple days later I found her in that same hospital room, sitting up in bed with a big smile on her face, just as chatty as could be. Which makes me think that at least in her case, Jesus must have shown up at some point and said, “Talitha qum.” “Wake up, my sweet girl. It’s not over yet.”
What I didn’t tell you last week was that my own verbs at the time sounded less like father Jairus who hadn’t yet given up hope for his daughter, and more like the matter-of-fact crowd in Mark 5. I guess I heard “unresponsive” and I mentally prepared myself for last goodbyes and funeral arrangements. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s the way life works, right? Or at least the way death works. So if I’m honest with you, my prayers at the time reflected this sense of inevitability – “If you have to take her, Lord, take her quickly, make it peaceful.” Of course, I could only pray that prayer internally. With medical personnel standing right there next to me in her room doing everything in their power to bring her back, out loud I prayed, of course, that their efforts would be successful. And then I was floored when I said “Amen” to see that her eyes had actually popped open! Wait, what?! It was awhile longer before she fully came back to us, but I’m grateful my limited view of what was possible didn’t get in God’s way that day. It never does, you know, and thank God for that. God’s perfectly capable of healing people whether or not we believe he can.
And when the healing we’re desperate for doesn’t come, what then? Do today’s gospel stories still have anything to offer us? I think they do, but it helps to take all of Jesus’ verbs into consideration, and not just the ones we usually focus on.
What I mean is this. When we think of healing stories in the gospels, we generally focus on the end result, summed up in a key verse or two. In the case of the woman with the flow of blood, we remember “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed.” (Mark 5:34) In the case of the twelve year old girl, Jairus’ daughter, we remember “Talitha qum!” / “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:31) It’s no wonder. Naturally those verses and those verbs would draw our attention.
But what happens when we allow ourselves to pay attention to all of Jesus’ verbs throughout these 22 verses we’ve read together today? Listen again. Jairus having begged him to come to his house, Jesus goes with him. Verse 24 indicates no hesitation or objection on Jesus’ part. Just: “he went with him.” The woman with the flow of blood having reached out to touch his cloak, Jesus turns and looks for her, and in spite of the disciples’ objections, continues looking all around for her, and then of course he speaksto her (verses 30-32). Still in the midst of that encounter, he overhears the discouragement of Jairus’ entourage come to tell him there’s no point troubling Jesus any further; it’s over for his little girl. Overhearing them indicates, to me, that he’s actually been paying attention to more than one crisis at a time; they hadn’t even addressed Jesus directly. Then Jesus speaks to Jairus (“do not fear, only believe”). And he gets everyone else out of the way back at the house, takes the child’s parents into her room, takes the girl by the hand, and speaks to her as well.
I’m grateful for every last one of Jesus’ verbs here in Mark 5. Because whether or not you or I, or your loved one or mine, gets the physical healing we long for, whether or not every painful situation in our world is resolved the way we wish it could be, it seems to me there’s a certain constancy in Jesus’ verbs, a universality in their application.
The good news of the gospel is that the Jesus we meet here in Mark 5 also turns and looks for uswhen we need him, and he keeps on looking for us. He goes with us. He can hear and even overhear us expressing concern, pain, discouragement. He speaks to us words of comfort: “do not fear.” And he takes us by the hand.
So that even when the end result (in this lifetime) isn’t the knock-your-socks off miracle we’re hoping for, Jesus is still there with us, our Emmanuel, our Comforter. We’ll never go through a painful experience alone; always and everywhere he looks for us and hears us and holds us.
Those of us who know the end of the gospel story also know that raising up that one 12 year old girl – as mind blowing as it was – was merely a prequel to yet more amazing good news to come. Walking right out of his own grave, Jesus would ultimately pave the way toward resurrection stories for us all. And since sooner or later every one of us will face a situation from which we will not physically recover, this is good news indeed.
Meanwhile, as we made our way through this gospel chapter today, did you see any verbs you’ve shared with characters in Mark 5? Are you sharing any of them now? I pray Jesus meets you there, moving and engaging and verbing his way into your story, right where you need him most. Amen.
 Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture, pp. 20-21.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s our first time together back in this sanctuary in 2020 (following our ecumenical service last week), and I’m excited to be kicking off a new sermon series for the new year. It’s a series inspired by the book Rehearsing Scripture by preaching professor Anna Carter Florence.
Carter Florence points out that when 21st century readers try to interpret passages from the Bible, we end up spending a whole lot of time on the nouns. Understandably enough, given our distance in both time and space from the Ancient Near East, biblical nouns require explanation and translation. Here’s how she puts it:
“Most of us encounter Scripture nouns-first. And when we do, our conversation tends to get sidetracked. The nouns in the biblical text are just so distractingly not of our world. Here are cubits and shekels, arks and archangels… Pharisees and Philistines, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, and divided tongues of fire. The book of Revelation features a seven-horned, seven-eyed … lamb, which should under no circumstances mix with the other lambs and sheep and cows in the Christmas pageant. We don’t meet many of these biblical nouns in our neighborhoods today, so every time we turn around, we have to explain one of them. It’s a constant reminder that we’re reading about a galaxy far, far away. And that, in turn, let’s us keep our distance.”
Granted, if we spend enough time at church, or studying on our own, we get the hang of some of these nouns. There are, after all, wonderful resources available to us like Bible stories and biblical commentaries and Bible dictionaries and so on. We can educate ourselves to understand whole big bunches of biblical nouns over time. But I’d have to agree with Carter Florence that they often require extra effort.
Not so with verbs, she says. Because as humans, “we all have verbs – the same ones, actually. You and I share verbs with Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi. We share verbs with Mary and Joseph and Peter and James and John and Martha and Lydia and Paul. We even share verbs with Jesus. That does appear to be the whole point of the Incarnation, doesn’t it? That God came to share our verbs. The Word became one of us and lived among us. Apparently, … God thought the best way to reach us was to meet us, verb for verb. Meet us and raise us and change the whole game… Enter Scripture verbs-first, and … the verbs you meet are as fresh and recognizable as if you had found them in your own backyard. You want to linger over them, to turn them over and over in your hands, and then take them out for a spin. But it’s the other way around. The verbs take us out for a spin... It’s hard to keep arguing about what Scripture means when the verbs keep showing us who weare. If you’re looking for a way to make Scripture relevant, start reading the verbs. You’ll have more relevance on your hands than you know what to do with; you’ll see yourself everywhere, in verbs you’ve played.”
Speaking personally, I don’t actually mind the kinds of word studies and cultural and historical side trips required by biblical nouns. We can learn a lot from them and no doubt we’ll have occasion to enjoy more of those studies together over time. But I’m certainly intrigued by this thesis that concentrating on the verbs will lend a new immediacy to our understanding of Scripture. So I thought we’d give it a try this winter and verb our way into the gospels together for a while.
My hope is this will prove a helpful exercise both for newcomers to the New Testament and for those of us who’ve spent years within its pages. If we know nothing at all about Jesus and his early followers, surely their verbs are a great way to meet them. And if we’ve been hanging around these stories for years and wonder if they have anything new to say to us, paying special attention to the verbs will offer us an opportunity to see them with new eyes.
We’ll be focusing primarily on stories from Jesus’ adulthood, but I thought: why not try the strategy first with a story we just read over the Christmas season? So pull out your pew Bibles, if you would, and let’s turn to the text Sally just read for us, Luke 2:15-20, which you can find on p. 935. The biblical nouns in this case are a little less strange to us than some. At least they’re ones we’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of over the last few weeks - from our children’s Christmas pageant to our readings together on Christmas Eve. We’re talking about angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus lying in the manger.
But let’s try focusing on the verbs this time through. First let’s verb with the shepherds. Glance through Luke 2:15-20, if you would, and call out only the verbs, or action words, that are actions of the shepherds: they say, let’s go and see, and then they go, they find, they see. Once they see, then what do they do? They make known (in other words, they tell what they’ve seen and heard). And then if you jump ahead to verse 20 we’re back to the shepherds again, and what are they verbing about there? They return, glorify, and praise God.
So as the shepherds have this encounter with God’s angels and then with God’s Son, what are they doing? Having just heard the angels in the prior verses telling them about the child in the manger, they go– they make haste actually, or hurry - and find, and see for themselves. They tell what they’ve seen, not keeping it to themselves. Then they get back to work (returning presumably to their fields) and as they return they glorify and praise God for what they’ve been privileged enough to verb for themselves (in other words, for what they’ve seen and heard).
I’m starting to think Anna Carter Florence is onto something here. Because for all the sermons I’ve heard about the practices of Ancient Near Eastern shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the fact of the matter is I’m not an Ancient Near Eastern shepherd – I’m thousands of years and thousands of miles removed from the world in which they lived - so it’s always going to be a bit of a stretch to identify with all their nouns. But I can verb right along with them. I know what it means to want to hurry and goand find something out for myself, to see with my own eyes if a word from God is true. I’m perfectly capable, too, of telling what I see. As I am of glorifying and praising God wherever I happen to be, whether in a powerful moment of encountering Jesus, or back work on a regular day.
Let’s take a look at Mary’s action here, too. She only gets a verse in this particular subsection of Luke 2, but look what she does there in verse 19. What are Mary’s verbs? She treasures and she ponders. She treasures the words she’s just heard from God’s messengers (both angels and shepherds) and she ponders them in her heart. Again, any one of us can get in on verbs like these, wondering about divine mysteries, or appreciating, valuing, treasuring beautiful experiences of God’s grace.
So there you have it. You’ve already begun verbing your way into the gospels!
Anna Carter Florence reminds us that “the language of Scripture moves. It is concerned with concrete actions. It prefers to ask, ‘What then shall we do?’ rather than ‘So how do you feel about it?’ … The language moves, and it invites us to move with it, to trace how the mighty acts of God flow through the text and straight into our lives.” So how might our “reading of Scripture… shift if [we] let the dynamic nature of the language itself – all that movement – lead [us]?” I’m excited to begin reading Scripture in this new way, and I’m confident we’ll learn from each other if you’ll come along with me on this journey.
Meanwhile as we wrap up today, I’d like to pray us through the verbs we’ve just highlighted in our text from Luke so you can consider which ones are perhaps most familiar to you, and whether any one of them feels like a personal invitation. Might God be encouraging you in the days ahead either to verb with the shepherds or to verb with Mary?
God of action, God of movement, God in whom we live and move and act, help each one of us to see ourselves in the story as we learn together how to read the gospels verbs-first. Help us, too, to receive any invitation you already wish to offer us through the verbs we’ve encountered today. Might you be asking us to hear a word from you through your messengers? Or to go and find and see something for ourselves? Might you be inviting us to tell what we’ve seen and heard? To return to a familiar place in our life or work and to glorify and praise you for something we’ve been privileged to witness? Or are you inviting any of us to treasure or ponder a gracious gift or a divine mystery? Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
 Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Col, 2018), p. 17
 Florence, pp. 20-21.
 Florence, p. 17.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
As you may have noticed, our OT lesson has remained the same throughout Advent this year, but each week we’ve paired it with a different reading from the gospels. So far we’ve heard it with the urgency of Mark and with the edginess of Matthew.
This morning we hear it alongside that pregnant-with-possibility, heaven-meets-earth moment shared between Mary and the angel in Luke 1. The twist this time around? Nothing is impossible with God. Mountains moved? No big deal. Virgin birth? Not a problem. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in weapons hammered into farming tools, and justice poured like glass after glass of clear, fresh water into a world so thirsty for it its lips are chapped, its mouth parched, its skin taut and dry.
Implausible? Sure. Hard to imagine? Absolutely. Impossible? No.
Also, for better or for worse, not immediate. And the waiting can be tough.
Mary’s wait was less than a year, between promise and fulfillment, between (according to Luke) “Fear not, you will conceive” (1:30-31) and “she laid her firstborn son in a manger.” (2:7) Not that long, right? Ask any pregnant woman – nine months can seem like an eternity. The frenzy of preparations, the rush to get the nursery furnished, the diapers stocked, the names selected. . . and then days and weeks begin to drag on, and the little one still hasn’t arrived.
“Hurry up and wait” is an expression our family uses for this kind of waiting. Dashing out the door to work in the morning, only to sit in traffic. Rushing to the airport, only to find your flight’s been delayed. Hurry up and wait.
Welcome now to the world of biblical promise and fulfillment. Where the call to prepare is an urgent one, and the waiting isn’t measured in hours or days or weeks, but in years – sometimes hundreds of them.
Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God! The King of Kings is on his way.
Hurry up! Fill those lamps! The bridegroom is coming!
Wake up! Stay alert! Keep your eyes peeled! Because before you know it the desert will suddenly blossom. You’ll spot predators and their prey napping together in the sun. And all God’s children, every last one of them, will lay down their guns.
We’re told it could happen any minute! And yet here we sit. Hurry up? Yea, right - hurry up and wait…
Waiting’s a funny thing, isn’t it? “A girl who stands on a street corner waiting for the bus to arrive will experience one kind of waiting... The same girl on the same street corner hearing the sound of a parade that is just out of sight will also wait, but it will be a … waiting full of expectation, a waiting on tiptoe, an active waiting.”
Or as another preacher reminds us: “When you are waiting for something in particular, your brain has a way of phasing everything else out… If you are waiting for a certain car to pull into your driveway—it is two in the morning, say, and your seventeen-year-old is not home yet—you are not going to pay a whole lot of attention to the sound of an airplane overhead or the hum of the refrigerator cutting on. Your ears, your entire being, are tuned to one frequency alone, namely, the clatter of his [old Ford], which has needed a tune-up for months. If someone tries to talk to you while you are waiting for that sound, you may pretend to listen, but only until—shhh!—you hear a car come down the road.
“Scientists have devised a game that proves how hard it is for us to notice something when we are expecting something else. Here is how it goes. They sit you down at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards and they flash six of them at you, asking you to identify them as fast as you can—nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs—whoops! What was that one? Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get the ones you missed the first time.
“The third time is so slow that you think you must be an idiot because there is one card you simply cannot identify. You think you know what it is, but you are not sure, and it is not until the cards are all laid face up on the table in front of you that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been fixed. Someone has changed the rules, rules that prevented you from seeing what was there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black.
“Our expectations, however faithful, may prevent us from seeing what is there. I have often thought that the second coming would be wasted on me,” [says Barbara Brown Taylor] because I have such a set notion about how it is supposed to be: the Son of Man, riding a white horse with wings right out of the clouds, touching down on the White House lawn, maybe, or the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Only what if he comes as … a Tibetan exile on a yak? What if he comes out of the housing projects…on a broken-down bicycle with dreadlocks down his back?”
[Or you may remember the challenge issued by our guest speaker from World Relief last month: What if Jesus returns to earth in the form of an illegal immigrant or a Syrian refugee?]
“Stranger things have happened, after all. ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ Red spades have always been hard to see.”
“There are all kinds of ways to wait, apparently. There is the tense, dread-filled waiting of those whose hope is gone. There is the resigned waiting of those for whom a spade is always a spade. There is even a kind of compulsive waiting, in which one collects signs of the end like souvenir spoons. Get the whole set and—poof!—the rapture comes.
“The problem will all of these . . . is that they assume God operates by the same rules we do and will never slip a wild card into the deck. Only what if God’s hand is all wild cards, including some greens and some blues?” 
What are we waiting for? For all those impossibilities we’ve been promised! Especially for the fulfillment of that word from God that comes to us as we scan the news or hear of yet another tragedy in our family or our neighborhood. That word that says: “Fear not. It gets better, so much better than this...”
“How can this be?” we ask with Mary. The world is so phenomenally screwed up! Children all over this planet, your children, God, for reasons surpassing our understanding, seem to know more of anger and animosity, violence and despair than they know of friendship and love. Peace, real peace, endless peace? “How can it be?”
It may not be immediate, God answers, but neither is it impossible.
Tim Dearborn tells a story about his daughter, who loved to read at bedtime.
When [he] insisted she go to sleep [one night], Alison replied, ‘I’m in the middle of an exciting part. If I stop reading, I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll be crabby in the morning, I will probably fall asleep in school, and it’ll be all your fault ‘cause you made me stop reading!’ Not persuaded, [Tim] assured her that she was a clever girl who needed to solve this problem and turn out her lights in five minutes. In the morning, she cheerfully bounced down the stairs. ‘You obviously had a good night’s sleep,’ [he] said. ‘How did you solve your problem with the book?’ ‘It was easy, Daddy,’ said Alison. ‘All I did was read the last chapter. After that, knowing how it ended, I slept great. I thought it would spoil the book, but instead, I can’t wait to read the rest tonight to find out how the author gets the characters out of the mess they were in, into such a great ending.’
God’s prophets are closer at hand than we might think.
It’s true, “the short-term is laden with the unknown—most likely filled with great joys and deep sorrows. But … [at least] the last chapter is known.”
“Fear not.” It’s a line God’s messengers use a lot in the Bible, isn’t it? Old Testament prophets. New Testament angels. “Fear not.” And why not? Why shouldn’t we be terrified? Because nothing is impossible with God, no matter how bleak, or confusing, or frightening it may look for a time.
Fear not. “Because I know the end of the story, Mary,” says Gabriel. “It ends with a babe in a manger.”
Fear not. “Because I know the end of the story, Peter, Thomas, James, John,” says Jesus. “It ends with an empty grave.”
Fear not. “Because we know the end of the story,” say God’s prophets, throughout the ages. “It ends with light shining on those who’ve dwelt in the deepest darkness (Isaiah 9:2).” “It ends with the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things (Luke 1:52-53).” “It ends with swords turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).” “It ends with a countless multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing together before the throne of God.” (Revelation 7:9) It ends with endless peace (Isaiah 9:7).
“How can this be?” we ask with Mary. Incarnation? Resurrection? Endless peace?
And the angel’s answer echoes through the ages: “With God, nothing is impossible.”
Of course, we have no way of knowing when God will throw another red spade, another absolutely-does-not-compute impossibility into the deck. But if the past is any indication, they tend to be worth the wait.
 Willimon, “Relating the Text” commentary on Lectionary readings for Dec 1, 2002 in Pulpit Resource, Vol 30 No. 4, p. 41.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Apocalyptic Figs,” in Bread of Angels, p. 156-157.
 Tim Dearborn, “Surprised by Suffering,” in World Vision Today (spring, 2002), p. 13.