Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28

Texts like this always make me think about teachers. You educators among us hopefully have some idea of what a gift you are to your students. But, looking back, I realize that most of the best teachers I have had, I only rarely remember any of the CONTENT they taught me.

Mrs. Faison, in the 2nd grade at Charles Ellis Elementary in Savannah, Georgia, took the kid who didn’t know what to do and wasn’t sure how he fit as the only white kid in the class, which was a new experience for me, and preferred to hole up in the corner with a book, and offered me chances for leadership, connected me with my classmates. Mrs. Edwards in 4th grade took the time to get to know me in Black Mountain when I was the new kid. Mrs. Eubanks and Mrs. Gardner in 5th grade showed me how working really hard and driving ahead could also be really fun. Coach McElrath in 10th grade introduced me to the history of civilizations, from North Africa to the Middle East to the Romans and Greeks. Mrs. Caldwell in 12th grade had a way of asking questions about great literature that brought excitement. I bet you can name some. I’ve told you before about teachers I had in church school who showed up and prepared in seasons when I was the only child in middle school Sunday school at Black Mountain Presbyterian. Of teachers who I’m sure taught great things, but it was even more about who they were.

In today’s text Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus SAID. This is Jesus’ first real public moment, it’s a big deal, but we don’t get a sermon manuscript. Mark begins with John the Baptist calling in the wilderness to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’ John baptizes Jesus, He is tempted in the wilderness, and comes to Galilee, proclaiming, “The time has fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe the good news.” Jesus calls a couple of disciples, fishermen tending their nets, and they drop it all and follow. They walk together into Capernaum.[1]

Mark matter-of-factly says that on the Sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and taught. And they were astounded, the text says, astonished, amazed. “Because he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” He: 1) has authority, and 2) it’s not an authority like the scribes have. Scribes, Lamar Williamson writes, “were honored for their function of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. The scribes were the doctors of the law, the authorized biblical scholars of their time.”[2]

This authority is recognized by an unclean spirit who interrupts: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus turns: “Be silent, and come out!” The spirit, comes out, not without a fight – convulsing and crying with a loud voice. I imagine in the synagogue for a time it was silent. They were amazed, and use that word again – authority – his words carry weight, carry truth. Because even the unclean spirits obey.

Here in Mark we’ve got a lot of episodes back-to-back as Mark tell us who Jesus us. After the things John the Baptist says about Jesus, Jesus is baptized, tempted in the wilderness. He begins to preach, calls disciples, comes into the temple, casts out the spirit. After this he heals Simon’s mother in law. Then he goes on a preaching tour. Then he heals a leper. He says something, then he does something, then he says something, then he does something. And in most of those times he speaks and preaches and teaches, we don’t get much of the content, very few actual words. Because, I think what Mark is trying to tell is that Jesus’ authority doesn’t come from his words. They matter, they do. But there is something about the way what Jesus said and what he did came together in a magnificent, perfect way. In balance, wholeness. He lived his identity and his call in ways that were clear to everyone. He preached some great stuff; we’re going to include the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount in some of the truest words ever spoken. Some parables, too. But it’s about HOW he lived with us, truly of God.

The Fourth Historic Principle in our Book of Order – in the preamble to the Presbyterian Church’s first Form of Government in 1788, says: “That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”…we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.[3] There is something about WHO Jesus is that is about the most perfect union between what he said and what he did, that calls each of us to be a people who LIVE what we speak, in all times and in all places. That’s how we show our love for God, by following Jesus with our hearts and hands and prayers, and with our conversations and our emails and our hopes and dreams, with WHO WE ARE TO EACH OTHER.

A number of years ago a chance encounter at an ice cream parlor inspired R.J. Palacio to go to work on her first novel, a book called “Wonder.” Wonder is about a fifth grade boy named Auggie Pullman. Auggie has some sort of genetic complication that leads to a disorder called mandibulofacial dysostosis. This means that his face looks pretty different from most kids, and had a series, dozens of surgeries both to make sure everything worked the way it needed to but also to try and make him look more like other kids. But Auggie sticks out in some pretty significant ways, and you’re not going to NOT notice. And that, as you can imagine, has been a really hard thing, growing up being different in such an obvious way, being greeted by children and adults well and treated by children and adults with cruelty. The book, made into a movie with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, came out over the holidays. The book is worth every bit of your time, but clear your schedule and have a box of tissues. I read the final three quarters in one evening over the snow week before last and my family will attest I was an absolute mess. Because we all, kids and adults, in obvious ways and not so obvious ones, know what it’s like to be different. To not fit in. To have people wonder about you. To want, so desperately, to be treated well and cared for and welcomed and loved.

In the final scene everyone gathers in the auditorium of Beecher Prep, named for Henry Ward Beecher, the fiery 19th century abolitionist preacher, the principal, Mr. Tushman, played by Mandy Patinkin, gives a short little speech about this idea, about who we are to each other, and how how we live shows what we believe. He centers in on KINDNESS. He quotes J.M. Barrie (Barry), of Peter Pan fame, in The Little White Bird…who has a character say, “Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’”…Because, Mr. Tushman says, it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed. Why I love that line, that concept, [he says] is that it reminds me that we carry with us, as human begins, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness.

He follows with a scene from Under the Eye of the Clock, by Christopher Nolan, the main character is a young man who is facing some extraordinary challenges. There’s this one part where someone helps him; a kid in his class. On the surface, it’s a small gesture. But to this young man, whose name is Joseph, it’s …[and he reads]… “It was at moments such as these that Joseph recognized the face of God in human forms. It glimmered in their kindness to him, it glowed in their keenness, it hinted in their caring, indeed it caressed in their gaze.’”

He paused and finishes by saying: “….but what I want you , my students, to take away from your middle-school experience, “ he continued, “is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”[4]

Maybe this is where Jesus’ authority came from. Because people understood, they got in their very gut, whether they could articulate it or not, that they were seeing the face of God in how what he said and did came together in WHO HE WAS, unique and beloved, the Son of God. How wonderful might it be, how really wonderful might it be, if we could notice that face of God in folks we see? Maybe even more so, might we seek to be so faithful, in our kindness, in our compassion, in our service to others, in our work for justice, so that someone feel about us, whether they could fully say it or not, I see it. I recognize the face of God in them. May it be so, for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.

[1] The place is important, but that’s another sermon for another day. “Frequently mentioned in the Gospels,” my friend Heather writes, “Capernaum served as a second home to Jesus. Here he is said to have preached more sermons and performed more miracles than anywhere else. Capernaum is where the paralytic was lowered through the roof (Mk 2:4); where Jesus said, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54); where sight unseen Jesus healed the paralyzed servant of a desperate centurion (Matt 8:5-13).” From the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s paper on this text at The Well, Austin, 2011.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), p 50.

[3] PC(USA) Book of Order, F-3.0104.

[4] Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), from pages 298-301.