His name was Michael King, and he was a patient of mine. Or, to put it another way, I was his chaplain. He was a patient on the HIV/AIDS floor of Grady Hospital when I did a residency there several years ago.
I went to visit him one day after being assigned to the HIV and Tuberculosis floors—an assignment that I assure you wreaks havoc on the life of a hypochondriac!
Michael was young, in his thirties, and he requested a visit. He requested prayer. He had been readmitted after his T-cell count dropped. His T-cell count dropped after he ran out of medicine. He ran out of medicine, because he lived on the street most of the time…the layers of so many’s lives it seems…
He was scared—and I was too—but for very different reasons.
I had been a very good student my entire life. I knew how to study, to analyze—even how to isolate the specific genes from the DNA of goldfish brains.
I had learned a great deal about chaplaincy, about listening to people, about theology. I studied great doctrines of the faith that sought to explain how God was present in the lives of people, what the Trinity really means and why that matters to people like, well, like Michael…
I had read a great deal about how God was present in Michael’s life. And now, I could offer him pastoral care.
I also knew how to avoid offending anyone’s particular religious tradition. I knew how make sure I didn’t offend anyone with my prayers, to make sure I didn’t assume something and inadvertently insult them. I had read all about it.
So, into Michael’s room I went. I pulled up a chair beside Michael’s bed. We talked for a brief time (very brief looking back on it because I was so nervous). When it was time for the prayer, I reached out and held Michael’s hand, bringing with me all that I had learned and read.
And I said what can only be loosely described as a prayer. It was a collection of words and trite sayings that was utterly bland.
It sounded something like this:
Oh Mighty One, who meets us where we are when we cannot meet ourselves and holds us when we cannot hold you, who leads us like sheep while we like shepherds keep watch over the flock by night, with the Spirit who breathes on us with sighs too deep for the breaths that we cannot breathe, with liberty and justice for all.
I went so far not to step on Michael’s toes that I never really came into the same room with him, so to speak.
When I had finished my “prayer,” I opened my eyes to see Michael staring at me with a look that can only be described as disgust with a strange tinge of pity. We sat there for a minute until he looked up and said to me, “Why don’t you let me give it a shot.”
And Michael King offered a prayer that was so deep and true and honest…so profound…so real…that that moment is forever etched on my own spirit.
They were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
The Jews had become accustomed to a certain style of religious experience when they came to the synagogue. Someone would read the scroll, a passage from the Torah or the prophets. And there would be a teaching based on the reading that sought to bring light to its meaning…
There was a pattern in the worship and teaching that they expected…sound familiar?
But that day was different. On that day, Jesus entered and read the text and then those gathered experienced something different, something profound, something unusual…something that amazed them…
They were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as one of the scribes.
It is the contrast between Jesus and the scribes that catches my attention. Scribes were not bad people. They were intelligent, literate, scholars who had an important place within the community. The community needed scribes to help them learn about the texts, to study them, to see how the religious tradition—and expectation—helped shape the lives of the Jewish people.
But there was something about Jesus that went beyond this normal, this routine, this expected… There was something about Jesus that surprised those gathered on that day.
What is it that defines the difference between Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the scribes? And, what does this mean for us in our spiritual practice?
What if Jesus didn’t come among us to tell us what to do? That may be a radical thought, when we remember the ubiquitous bracelets with WWJD on them: What Would Jesus Do? But what if that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose, his mission?
Jesus does give us commands—mandates—(many of which we interestingly rationalize and neglect, such as caring for the widow and orphan, freeing the captive, caring for the immigrant, welcoming the stranger, loving our neighbor as ourselves).
So, yes, Jesus gives us these commands. He tells his disciples—and thusly us through the texts we have—how to reorient our lives. But even with this apparent list of assignments, when we look closely we see that Jesus really didn’t come to give us a list or rule book to follow.
Christ came among us—God Incarnate comes to dwell within us—to show us how and who to be.
So much of modern Christianity (the Americanized version at least) loves to focus on these external rules. And, there is the tempting lure to think “Just do what the Bible tells you and you’ll be a good Christian.” As though the Bible is simply a rule book to be followed. Just learn these rules, follow these, and you’ll be the best Christian you need to be. Much like my attitude about being a chaplain…
But, occasionally, we encounter an experience of grace, a space of God’s love, that surprises us. Something—someone— falls outside the normal pattern of what, maybe, we have been taught is expected. Something or someone unexpected that breaks open our assumptions about God and what it means to truly be a Christian, to embody Christ in the world today, to grow, as our Baptismal rite describes, “into the full stature of Christ.”
Jesus had a remarkable ability, as Walter Brueggemann describes, to be transformative in any situation. Those who encountered him—and those who encounter him still today—are shocked by the radical holiness he embodied—and which he calls those who seek to participate in his life to embody as well.
If you can, imagine the scribes and teachers all gathered in the space that day. They had prepared for their lesson very well. They had read the readings, and they had studied so many writings. They knew all about prayer, about the tradition.
And, here comes this new teacher, this Jesus of Nazareth. He steps into the space, and tells them, “Why don’t you let me give it a shot.”
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham
IV Epiphany, Year B
St. Mark 1:21-28
February 1, 2015