Writing New Stories 01/13/2019
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Sojourn Sermon – January 13th – Mark 1:1-11
I recently read a novel called The Last Life, by a woman named Claire Massud. In it, a French-Algerian expat living in the US, her name is Sagesse, meditates on how to tell the story of her life, and, in doing so, she invites the reader to reflect on his, her, or their life’s story and how it might be told.
For example, where do you begin to tell the story of your life? The natural, sort of obvious, answer is that you begin with your birth, where it took place, what year, and so on. But even your birth, in many ways is not really the beginning, is it? The very possibility of your being begins long before you were born, long before you were conceived. Entire lives, your parents would likely tell you, were lived before you were, as the adage goes, even a twinkle in their eye.
Sagesse, who is both the main character and the narrator, realizes that in order to tell her story, she must go back one, two, even three generations, and tell the story of her Breton great-great-grandparents, who left Brittney for Algeria in the 1840s if her audience is to understand her story in any meaningful way.
This need for context is necessary when we tell the story others as well. The writers of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, for example include long genealogies in their accounts of Jesus’ life. Because even the birth of Christ requires some background. Luke goes back to Adam, to creation.
That works for Luke, but can you imagine if I got up here and said, “To begin my story, we will go back 14 billion years to the time immediately preceding the big bang.” It would be ridiculous.
So in order to tell our story, we have to make a choice. We have to choose a beginning that isn’t really the beginning but is a beginning.
Sagesse chooses a significant event in her childhood, an event, she says, “after which nothing was the same again.”
Now, I have good reason to believe that the author of Mark’s gospel would not have been familiar with Sagesse or her decision to begin her story this way, but Mark employs a similar methodology, choosing a significant event, an event after which nothing is the same, as the beginning of this story of Jesus.
For Sagesse, the event that begins her story takes place during the summer when she was fourteen years old, living at her grandfather’s hotel in southern France, when her grandfather took his rifle and began shooting at Sagesse and her friends while they were skinning dipping in his pool.
The event Mark chooses to begin his account of Jesus’ life is rather quite different, although they both involve going for a swim.
Mark begins this account, with the story we just read, with Jesus’ baptism. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not include a birth narrative. Unlike John, Mark does not begin his account with theological musing. Mark begins with Baptism.
To be sure, Jesus’ baptism is an important event in all Gospels. Its significance is indicated in part by the very fact that it appears in all four Gospels, one of very few stories that do.
But for the author of Mark, the account of Jesus’ baptism is so important that he or she places is at the beginning. It the very first story we encounter, the event from which the rest of the story proceeds, which tells us something else about stories and their beginnings. Beginning a story in one way says more than just where the story begins. The beginning of a story reveals what kind of story we are to tell.
Sagesse’s story begins in the mired transition from childhood to adulthood. So what proceeds from there is a coming of age story, which as a millennial, I love a good coming of age story.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with allusions Israel’s mythic origins. Jesus escapes from an infanticidal king through the civil disobedience of the Magi only to emerge from Egypt just as his ancestors did. For Matthew, the story is a story about a new kind of Israel. Jesus, perhaps, a new Moses.
What kind of story is indicated by Mark’s beginning? Well, if biblical theologian Osvaldo Vena is to be believed, Mark’s is a story of discipleship, wherein Jesus’ serves as the paradigmatic disciple and thus his journey begins in the waters of Baptism as the symbol of this new journey. I see all you Anabaptists nodding along.
According to Vena, Jesus’ life becomes the example after which the life of discipleship is molded. It’s the kind of life that is characterized by justice and mercy, proximity to the poor and marginalized, and a willingness to cross racial and ethnic boundaries in pursuit of a new community of peace, all with a heathy suspicion of civil and religious authority.
The idea, then, is that in order to be a disciple, this story must also become our story. Just as Jesus feeds the hungry, heals the sick, challenges economic systems that lead to wealth disparity, and objects to religious institutions that exclude and stigmatize, so too must we. And this kind of life has as its beginning a symbolic ritual, a sign to use good Mennonite language, that denotes this new journey has begun. This, from my perspective, is the story Mark tells.
I mention all this because I had a terrible time figuring out what to say to you all this week.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that ordination is a kind of culminating event in someone’s life and that some life story about discernment and calling should accompany it. That’s really what I planned to do, initially. So I spent a lot of time looking for the right beginning, and of course, as I’ve just alluded, there are several places in our lives that could count as a beginning.
I could have begun my story by telling you about Megan and I marching with Black Lives Matter in Chicago alongside our seminary profs and fellow seminarians. And that would have been a story about how I came to believe that the social justice, racial reconciliation, non-violence, and civil disobedience lay at the heart of the gospel message.
Or I could have begun my story with the death of my grandfather. That would be a story about returning to a faith tradition I had abandoned for years.
And, of course, as you might imagine, there several other ways I could have begun my story, each of which would isolate and important thread in my own story about how I have arrived here.
But as I sifted through all these stories and beginnings, I continued to find that none of these stories really got heart of what tonight is about. If I wanted to tell you the story of how I got here, from the beginning, I would be stuck in the same bind Sagesse was in, having to look back and back into several other stories to explain why that was even the beginning I choose.
What I realized is that there is a significant part of me that doesn’t really see tonight as a culminating event. Sure I’ve worked hard. I’ve been through processes of discernment. I’ve been through a period of licensing. I thought and re-thought about my theology. That’s all true. That same significant part of me, however, sees tonight much more as a beginning in itself. It’s a new story and a new identity, one that is being marked through a ritual symbol of that new journey.
This is why I chose to Mark’s account as our scripture for today. The lectionary has Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism as the text for today.
Mark, in omitting the back story is doing something really interesting. See, the thing is, it’s not that the back story, with its multiple possible beginnings, isn’t important. We include the other Gospels in the canon because those back stories are important. By omitting a back story and beginning with Baptism, Mark isolates an important thread in the larger Christian narrative, which is that Christian life always leaves open the possibility for the king of new beginnings and new stories that are symbolized in baptism. Baptism is about putting on a new self and a new identity. It offers the possibility of a new story.
We all have different stories and different beginnings that have led us to where we are, and when the church is at its best, which as you all know is not as often as we’d like, it offers the possibility of a new beginnings.
For those who have felt rejected and stigmatized, I believe the church should offer a new story that is about welcome and acceptance.
For those who have been hurt and abused, the church should offer a new story of healing and safety.
For those fleeing violence and oppression, the church should offer a new story of sanctuary and peace.
The Christian message should always offer the possibility of a new beginning and a new story.
This isn’t just true for individuals. The story of Jesus offers a new beginning to the world.
The history of humanity is a dark and bloody one, rife with violence and cruelty that begins almost immediately when homo sapiens arrive on the scene and continues today. Archeologists will tell you that as soon as humans appear in the fossil record, mass extinction of mega fauna follows immediately afterward. We have a destructive tendency about us.
But the way of Jesus represents a new way of being human that privileges self-offering and vulnerability over strength.
And this new way of being human, this new human story requires that we hold tightly to the possibility of new beginnings and offer that possibility to others.
I think that in many ways, the violence and cruelty we exhibit toward others stems from a failure to believe in the possibility of new beginnings and new stories. We justify hatred and distain through a belief that those who differ from us or disagree with us are beyond redemption and there is no chance that they might begin anew. And we certainly don’t like to believe that we might need to begin anew.
But this kind of possibility is at the heart of the gospel. We believe, as prophet Isaiah did, that God can do new things, write new stories in our midst and invite us to share in them.
It’s not that the other stories and the other beginning are irrelevant or unimportant. In fact, part of charting a new way is remembering where we’ve been.