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Sunday, February 8, 2015 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
God on the Loose
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
In matters of faith it is first we must do, then we will know; first we will be, and then we will see. One must, in short, dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.
William Sloane Coffin
Have you ever been asked why you are a person of faith, a Christian? Perhaps the question has come up at a dinner party or in a casual conversation with a friend. Maybe you first had to face such a question during your time in college or graduate school. In my college days, the tendency was to adopt a false dichotomy that declared in order to have faith, one had to leave one’s intellect and curiosity behind. “Why on earth are you a Christian?” I would sometimes be asked.
I pose this question to you because someone posed it to me recently. Now, the words were a bit different, and her tone was respectful, not mocking. Her question centered more on why I was a pastor, but the question felt the same at its base. Why was I a person of faith? More specifically, why was I a Christian, a follower of Jesus? I don’t think I answered her all that well; the question surprised me. Later, though, I thought of what I wish I had said. I wish I had said one reason I am a Christian pastor, a follower of Jesus, is because of schizomai (Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices). I know, it is a weird, preacher-nerd kind of response. But it is true for me.
Schizomai is the Greek verb meaning “to rip, rend, tear apart in a way that cannot be put back together again.” In the Gospel of Mark, we first see the verb appear at the moment of Jesus’ baptism: “And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens schizomai—being ripped, torn apart—and God’s Spirit came down like a dove and rushed into him, possessing him, driving him, calling him” (Mark 1:10). This is the way Mark’s Gospel narrates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He begins it by proclaiming God’s action of schizomai. Furthermore, according to the eyes and ears of Mark, this schizomai kind of work, this tearing of the heavenly veil, this ripping apart of boundaries, is the central call and theme of Jesus’ entire mission and ministry.
Mark’s overall message seems to be this: God desires a world in which the boundaries that separate people from God and from each other—whether they be holiness and purity codes separating Jews from other Jews, or laws and traditions separating Jews from Gentiles, or cultural norms or economic class separating families from families—all of those things that keep people apart are, in Jesus, torn down and broken through. According to Mark, Jesus was and is our God running loose in our world, breaking through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion (Barbara Lundblad, Day1.net, 12 January 2003), shattering the rituals that had grown rigid, smashing the chains that kept some folks bound, redeeming the landscape of human living, and requiring transformed lives in return from all of us who say, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.”
And all of that boundary-breaking, justice-living, healing work is encapsulated in Mark by this verb: schizomai. In Jesus, everything that keeps us from God and from each other has been ripped apart, torn apart, never able to be put back together again in the same way, forever different and forever open. That is what Jesus was and is about. Through Mark’s telling of the story, we see in Jesus a God who refuses to be kept in place, apart, distant, withdrawn from creation and creature. And we also see in Jesus a God who refuses to be controlled by us. That picture of God revealed in Jesus is a primary reason why I am a Christian pastor. And most of the time, I am deeply glad this is how our God has chosen to be with us and for us.
I say “most of the time” very purposefully. I would be dishonest if I did not tell you that sometimes Jesus’ schizomai activity can also feel overwhelming and, frankly, way too challenging. It can be exhausting sometimes, because it is easier to live within prescribed boundaries, isn’t it. I don’t have to worry about those people over there not having enough food to eat, because I do in my world. I can be horrified about what ISIS is doing in the name of God, but that is so far away and I can ignore it, at least for a while. Or, as a friend of mine confided, this whole struggle with race relations in our country continues to be so complicated and fraught with tension he just doesn’t have the energy to engage it anymore. In other words, sometimes the boundaries we have in place function quite well for those of us who live with particular privilege and resources.
And yet, as we follow Jesus all through Mark, we see that he is bound and determined to tear down all of those boundaries, to rip them apart, to call us out beyond ourselves and “our kind” for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of a wholehearted, courageous, faithful life. And that implies that for those of us who are functioning more than adequately with things the way they are, sometimes the good news of the gospel might not sound like great news for us. Yet as Shirley Guthrie, my theology professor, used to say, “God loves you for who you are. But guess what — God also loves you too much just to let you stay who you are.” We see that in Jesus and in his schizomai ministry.
But Jesus did not just tear open and destroy the boundaries that were in place out in the larger world. He did it in the church house, too. He refused to listen to reason as to why some people were just plain inappropriate for him to spend time with and certainly inappropriate for him to touch and to heal. For example, as some of our youth preached last week, Jesus refused to abide by the religious norms that dictated a person who was thought to be possessed, ill, was unclean and therefore should not be in the holy space of the synagogue. Jesus totally ignored that religious standard, the way it had always been done. Rather, on the sabbath itself, he acknowledged the sick man’s presence and then healed him right then and there, irritating the religious leaders who had enforced those rules for forever because it was the way to keep the church house running decently and in order. And that is just one example in Mark’s Gospel.
All throughout his ministry, his life, Jesus was God on the loose, engaging in schizomai work, refusing to see the world as we so often see it, with categories of what is appropriate and what is not, who is clean and respectable enough to be worth our time and energy and who is not, what cause we can invest in and what cause we can shrug off. Frankly, the Jesus we see in Mark couldn’t care less about any of the nice and neat ways we have ordered our world and our lives. Jesus is all about schizomai work, being God on the loose in our world, jumping over the boundaries we have set up or just plain tearing them apart, whether we like or not, whether we are ready for it or not, even in church.
As Brian Blount has preached,
We go crazy if somebody changes the format of the Sunday bulletin. Imagine what would happen if someone touched by God on the loose tried to change the very way our church does church, or tried to make our church reach out to problem people and impure issues that we think ought to stay outside the life and concern of the church. Just imagine if people stopped doing all the traditional things in all the traditional ways . . . we might as well admit it—
(Blount preached to a bunch of preachers, mind you)
—we don’t really want a wild God on the loose. Not in our world. Certainly not in our churches. Not really. Especially not in a church where we want everything just so. We really want a domesticated God, a charismatic but captive cat, a holy but humbled hound dog. We want the power that God and God’s reign represent, but we want that power domesticated, working for us. We want it on a leash. Our leash. (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, pp. 34–35)
Might Dr. Blount be a bit on target with those observations?
If it makes us feel any better, we are not the first ones to want God on our leash. We are not the first to wish God’s schizomai power could be domesticated and under our control. Peter and the first disciples felt that way too. We see it smack dab in the middle of our passage for today. After Jesus schizomai, tore apart the boundary at the synagogue that would have kept that possessed man out of his reach for healing, he and the first disciples went on to Simon and Andrew’s house. And there, Jesus immediately healed someone else—Simon’s mother-in-law. And perhaps Jesus thought he was done for the day, but the next thing they know, Jesus and his friends look up and see “the whole city gathered around the door” there in Capernaum.
Mark tells us the crowd was full of those who were sick in body and in mind; those who had probably lived much of life on the other side of the nice and neat boundaries set up by the respectable people; those who had been shut out or cut off from family or from community. Apparently, the word had gotten out about Jesus’ schizomai behavior, the way God was on the loose in him, and people were famished, desperate, to experience it for themselves. So Jesus responded to their need as fully as he could, healing and restoring, again, and again and again. At some point, though, it was time to rest. And so they did. Yet in the middle of the night, probably around 3 a.m., Mark writes Jesus got up and went out into the deserted place to pray. I don’t blame him. The demands of a schizomai mission must be exhausting.
But apparently, at some point in the days leading up to this moment, Simon and those other disciples must have decided they liked the schizomai power of Jesus. It was working well for them. Maybe they started thinking of the other things they could get Jesus to do, perhaps things that might increase their own power and influence within that city. We must remember they had been just regular fishermen before Jesus got a hold of them. They did not lead lives of power or influence. They led lives of making ends meet. But now, now they were really starting to become somebody because Jesus was already quite popular. It was good to be one of his followers. All they had to do was keep Jesus and that schizomai power for themselves and for their hopes and dreams. I make those assumptions because Mark writes that when Simon and his companions woke up and realized their Jesus was not in the house, they went out and hunted for him.
That is a rather disturbing way to put it, isn’t it? It is the only time in the Gospels when that verb is used—hunted. Now, it is used in the Old Testament, but it is used in the Exodus story when Pharaoh is hunting down the Hebrew slaves as they try to escape their captivity to him. So what is Mark trying to tell us about Simon and his friends, the first followers of Jesus? Were they hunting down Jesus with the same intensity as Pharaoh hunted the Israelites when his property and his self-interest were at stake? Mark writes, “Simon and his companions hunted for Jesus.” To me, the use of that verb gives a more ominous motivation for their desire to find him.
Now, their hunt was successful. They finally did find him. And Simon immediately tells Jesus that everyone was searching for him. Again, we must pay attention to the language Mark uses. Our scripture translates the verb as searching, but it means much more than merely looking around. The verb Mark uses literally means “to search for something one has possessed and lost.” So yes, everyone was searching for Jesus, but not in a neutral way. They were searching for him as if they possessed him, owned him, and he had escaped from his place. Remember Dr. Blount’s evocative image of our desire for God to be more like “a charismatic cat, a domesticated holy and humble dog, kept for our benefit to do our work and contained on our leash”? Mark helps us see we are not the first ones who sometimes feel that way. Simon and the others must have thought that kind of captivity would make their lives of discipleship easier, too.
And yet that is not what following Jesus is about, either back then or now. Jesus flat out refused to let them possess him or control him, just as Jesus refuses to let us do that either. He was and is God on the loose with a schizomai mission. He was to be the Savior of the world, not just the Savior of a few, and that is basically what Jesus told Simon in response. In that deserted place in Capernaum, those disciples had to decide if they could stomach the myriad of ways that following Jesus would make their lives more complicated, not less; more demanding, not less; more chaotic, not less; more challenging, not less; more whole, not less; more full, not less; more transformed, not less; more holy, not less. They had to decide if they were up for trying to follow this wild, schizomai-kind of God on the loose who would not be contained or controlled or tamed. And so do we.
Simon and the others said yes, at least at that moment. We are told they moved on with Jesus, following him out beyond the safe boundaries of Capernaum. But what will we say? If we also say yes, we better get ready. I am not about to try and predict what this schizomai, boundary-breaking, justice-making, healing kind of God on the loose will do next in this church house and in our lives. But be forewarned: whatever this schizomai kind of God on the loose in Jesus has in mind for us, my suspicion, based on what we see in this Gospel, is that it might not be done completely decently or in order. We probably won’t be able to fully control it or tame it. We might just have to go with it, improvising, running along beside our schizomai God, trying to keep up, as God leads us all along the way. Amen.