A Few Last Words

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January 07, 2018

My first Sunday with you, I preached on the Gospel of John, which is my least favorite gospel. Today, we are ending on a higher note — the highest, in fact, because Mark is my favorite gospel. He’s the earliest, which I respect; the shortest, which I — whose job involves writing ten-minute speeches — I admire; and he’s the darkest, the most anxious, which I can feel.

I think he’s also the bravest. Take the passage today. It’s one of those passages that scholars are united on (or as united as scholars get) about saying this is one of the most historically verifiable pieces of Jesus’ life. This much is certain: before the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was baptized by a man named John in the river Jordan.

Scholars agree not because anyone had any Polaroids from the day, nor is there a white lacy baptismal gown Jesus wore tucked away in some reliquary, they don’t have witnesses outside the gospels for it. They agree because this story is embarrassing. If you were making up a messiah, this is not a story you would tell.

Think about it. Paul writes earlier than these gospels, by as much as a decade or two, and he repeats the already-formed Christian doctrine: Christ is sinless, the spotless lamb, a total innocent. Why, then, would he need to go through a baptism that John says is for the forgiveness of sins? Why tell a story about an unnecessary baptism? Or… Had he sinned?

It's embarrassing and the editing of the story starts immediately with the other, later, gospel writers. Luke gets his copy and says, let's not mention who does the baptism... John thinks real hard and says, I'm just gonna leave out this bit.

Matthew starts his copy and tries another way. He has John the Baptist tell Jesus that he’s not worthy to baptize him, you remember the story: you should be baptizing me, Lord, you've got phenomenal cosmic powers, I’m a worm and no man… and John only consents to baptize Jesus after this verbal self-immolation.

But Mark heads straight in, caring nothing for our developed doctrine, and says fine. This is an embarrassing story, a flaw in the system, a crack in the logic — but do you see the light getting through here? This is the first Sunday after Epiphany, and we tell this story because Jesus is having one. You are my beloved son, a voice says to him. In you I am well-pleased. Mark is telling the story of Jesus’ baptism but is not relating baptism to a reductive notion of the forgiveness of sin. He says it’s like an epiphany, an understanding, a revelation of belovedness and purpose that, I think, set Jesus on the path he was to take for the rest of his life.

There are different ways to tell the story of Jesus. What version are you telling?

The way you tell the story matters, especially, I think, the ones we wish we’d never had to tell. The hard ones, the embarrassing ones. How do you tell them?

Imagine, if you will, a wealthy, white parish in the midst of the segregation crisis in Arkansas who starts a school for their children to attend when the public ones are closed. Two generations later, after that beloved school had gone the way of all things and closed, the doors are reopened, now used for a school whose student population is 98% black, the very population the schools had been closed in response to by the governor in the 50s. What a tale of redemption, if I’ve ever heard one — a revelation of belovedness. This could be the way you tell the story. I’ve heard some of you telling it to me, in ways greater than words.

Imagine a parish that split in the 90s — and what was the split over? You tell many different stories here; they circle around homosexuality and the 1996 election of a dean who would not say that being gay was a sin. I was an 11-year-old in Kansas then, where the very worst insult I could call someone was gay, even considering my vocabulary that was colorful beyond its few years. This past fall, on November 11, you and I were together at my marriage to Melissa. All the love and support I felt could’ve flown me across the Atlantic without the use of a plane. Who knew that our stories would converge in the happiest days of my life?

Imagine, if you will, a parish full of people with complicated histories and connections to one another, to the town, to the bishop — a parish with generational risings and fallings. Then imagine a story that it was modeled after Jesus’ — the powerful becoming humbled, of being taught the way of the cross, of a people willing to let go of their desire for control and safety and prestige, and who looked back on the time in the wilderness without bitterness to say, it was there when we learned what mattered. It was there I saw Jesus, and I now can see him in the people least like me in this world. An epiphany. Those of you who told me these stories have told me the story of Jesus.

The wilderness where John preaches is a hard place to visit. It’s bone-dry, the sun is blinding in the desert, we step into frigid and murky waters for a baptism for the repentance of sins, we go under. We experience death — death in all its forms, the loss of our control, the loss of ways of life we loved, sometimes the slow and agonizing slope of long-term illness, sometimes it comes as suddenly as the ring of the telephone. We all go under. There’s no way to get back to it.

But that’s not the aim of the Christian hope, to get back to some past splendor that was. The Christian asks, how then can we change? Because when we are brought up out of the water, the story changes. There’s an epiphany. A voice pronounces a love that can guide the rest of your life. That is the story of Jesus. Is that the voice that guides your story?

Brene Brown writes that only once you claim your story can you begin to write a brave new ending. The wilderness can become epiphany.

So, my friends, I bless you with all my heart:
May you continue to look for the stories of those around you;
may God enliven your imaginations with resurrection;
may you live and feel your belovedness in God;
and may you tell the story of Jesus.