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.