Sunday, January 7, 2018

In the Beginning (a sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany)

I was honored to be invited to preach at my own congregation, Cleveland Park Congregational UCC in Washington, DC.

This is a sermon I shared for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany (or, in secular terms, the first Sunday of the new year). 

The texts were Genesis 1:1-4 and Mark 1:1-11.

Both text and audio versions are below; apologies for a couple of awkward audio patches in the recording, I had a few technical glitches.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“You better not never tell nobody but God."[1]
The first line of a story matters.
The beginning lines of a story, its first words or images, aren't just a tool to draw the audience in, to encourage further reading or listening or watching. No, the beginning of a story sets the stage. It gives us a hint, a window, into how the story will be told. The beginning of a story invites us in, but it also gives us a guide to how we are to continue encountering the story that is about to be told.
This next statement will probably reveal my nerdy proclivities, but if you want a great example of how the first words of a story affect our understanding of the kind of story we are about to experience, look no further than the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” – followed by strident trumpets – is a whole lot like “once upon a time.” It sets us up for exactly what Star Wars is – a fairy tale in space, a mythological, epic struggle between good and evil, hero and villain. “Space: the final frontier” is the introduction to a story about exploration, about testing human limits, about the complexities of utopia – it’s about a Trek, not a War. The uninitiated may find it easy to mix up the two – after all, they’re about spaceships going at faster-than-light speeds and aliens with lasers, right? – but two different beginnings make for two very different types of stories.
This morning we heard the first lines of the book of Genesis; and while this creation story arose out of the context of the Ancient Near East, its English translation contains one of the most famous “first lines” of Western literature:. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” as the old King James Version had it; or, in the more recent New Revised Standard Version, “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” This way of starting the tale tells us something about how the rest of the narrative is going to go. “In the beginning, God” – the story starts with God. There’s no explanation for God, no violent origin story for how God became God, a characteristic which differentiates this particular Ancient Near Eastern creation story from many of its contemporaries. God just is, and God is creating – that’s how this story starts. As the story will soon make clear, humans will indeed play a big role, but the story starts with God, and it’s God and God’s activity that sets the stage for all that is to come. In fact, in this first account of creation in the book of Genesis, while humans are declared to be “very good,” it is the Sabbath – God’s day of rest – that is the crown and finishing point of creation, not humanity. The story, we gather quickly, even when it is being told by and to humans, begins and ends with God.
The gospel of Mark, whose opening lines we heard read today, is also concerned with beginnings. Just like Genesis, Mark’s Gospel starts at the very beginning, literally with the word, “Beginning”: “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then we get a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, and John the Baptizer doing what Baptizers do down at the Jordan River. No nativity stories for Mark – no angels or shepherds or magi. No exposition. We just jump right in, in medias res. And this direct, plunge-right-in approach does indeed characterize the rest of Mark’s narrative. Mark’s Jesus doesn’t spend a whole lot of time teaching or dialoguing. He’s more of an action-adventure Jesus. One of Mark’s favorite words is the Greek euthys, often translated as “immediately.” The word appears more than 40 times in Mark’s gospel, at least six times in the first chapter alone. Jesus seems to do just about everything “immediately.” Mark’s gospel doesn’t have time to wait around for exposition – it’s got stuff to do.
What’s more, the story claims to be the beginning of the “good news,” or “gospel.” When Mark, or whoever actually wrote Mark’s Gospel, began their writing, there was no such thing as a “genre” of gospel. Mark’s writing precedes Matthew, Luke, and John, the books we’ve come to associate with the term “gospels.” For the author of Mark, “gospel” – the Greek is euangelion – was a commonly used word referring to an imperial announcement of military victory or the coronation of a new emperor. It’s a triumphant declaration. To begin the story with such a pronouncement of victory, and to plunge us directly into the action, conjures up certain expectations and assumptions about what kind of story this is going to be, about who this Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, is going to be.
And then Mark’s gospel proceeds, almost immediately, to subvert and undermine all those expectations and assumptions. First of all, even with the Gospel of Mark’s breakneck narrative, its “immediate” pacing, the good news about Jesus doesn’t start with Jesus. It starts with a quotation from Isaiah, a prophet whose preaching occurred centuries before Jesus. And that quotation from Isaiah serves to highlight, not Jesus’ ministry at first, but rather that of John the Baptist, described in terms designed to connect him to those Hebrew prophets of old. As scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon writes, “Prepared for the story of Jesus, we hear first a voice from Scripture that is then actualized in the voice of John the baptizer, “crying out in the wilderness” (1:3). Scripture prepares a way for John, who prepares a way for Jesus.”[2]
Then, when Jesus does appear on the scene, it’s mainly so that things can happen to him. He is the passive recipient of the action for most of the beginning of this good news about him. He gets baptized, a Spirit descends on him, God calls him beloved, and then he is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted, where angels care for him. It isn’t until John the Baptist is arrested that Jesus actually does anything in a story which is supposedly a triumphal declaration about Jesus. Theologian William Placher, in his book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, writes that “This will not be a story, we as readers gather, of easy triumphs or of the usual sort of monarch.”[3] In fact, this “good news” about Jesus reads like a whole lot of bad news. There is suffering, and confusion, and those closest to Jesus can’t seem to get their act together. Jesus is betrayed and executed, and it is only one of his executioners who finally seems to understand who he is. And then, rather infamously, the gospel abruptly ends with an empty tomb and no real explanations. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. No redemption of the failed disciples. No ascension of Christ into glory. This “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” doesn’t have a very good ending – so much so that later Christians actually went back and added longer conclusions to Mark’s gospel to try to improve on its abrupt, even jagged, finish.
            (Kind of like fan fiction.)
But maybe the gospel is supposed to end abruptly, or, to put it another way, maybe it’s not meant to end at all. Maybe the not-so-famous first line of Mark, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” doesn’t describe just the beginning of the story but the story itself. This is the beginning of a story that isn’t finished – and we, the audience members, are invited into the ongoing story. We hear the beginning of the good news, and we are led to wonder what our role is in this good news that has not been neatly tied up yet.
It turns out that the “immediately, immediately, immediately” of Mark’s story, the Jesus-on-the-move narrative, is not really about what Jesus gets done, what Jesus finishes, at all. Jesus doesn’t actually achieve much in Mark’s gospel. Instead, the story is about who Jesus is. And who Jesus is, according to these first few verses, isn’t based on what Jesus does – Jesus doesn’t do much of anything – but rather on how God perceives Jesus. “You are my child, the Beloved One,” says God. “With you I am well pleased.” Right at the beginning of the good news about Jesus, we learn that this story isn’t about what Jesus gets done, but about who Jesus is. Which makes us wonder who we are. Which turns our ears to listen to the voice of God, saying to us as to Jesus: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
The texts we heard this morning are associated with baptism. Perhaps, like me, you were baptized as an infant, prior to any cognitive memory of such an event; or perhaps not. But however you were or weren’t baptized, by participating in a community of faith, you are invited and incorporated into something that vastly precedes your cognitive memory. Our story of faith, of doubt, of life, doesn’t start with us. It starts with something that comes before us. Like this congregation celebrating its 100th year. And the countless families of faith that came before that. And Jesus before that, and John the Baptist before him, and the prophet Isaiah before him, and before all of them – “In the beginning, God.” It doesn’t start with us. It certainly doesn’t start with what we’re able to get done. It didn’t even start like that for Jesus, who was baptized and declared a beloved child of God before he did anything, before he healed a single sick person or preached a single sermon or invited a single disciple to follow him. The story started before that.
I remember this truth – that the story of faith and the creative word of God vastly precedes us and our beliefs and our stories – every time I hear the term “preexisting condition” bandied about in our public discourse about healthcare in this country. You see in 2011 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of hospitalizations. With that diagnosis came help, and treatment, but it also carried with it a new label – “preexisting condition.” That label has at times made it impossible for me to receive coverage for the treatment I need to stay healthy and whole. And I am of the opinion that the belief that an illness or disability can be considered a “preexisting condition” is not only a societal injustice but is, in fact, heresy. Our scriptural narratives tell us, at least those of us who identify as Christian, what conditions can be considered preexisting. God’s Spirit, descending from heaven and hovering over the waters, declaring God’s love for God’s children. God, graciously creating, speaking the world into existence. Love is preexisting. Grace is preexisting. God is preexisting. That’s where the story begins. Not with our actions or inactions, not with illness or sickness or brokenness, but with:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”
“In the beginning, the good news.”
“You are my beloved child.”
And so, as we begin a new year, let this be a reminder to us. That grace is a preexisting
condition. That the beginning began before us. That it continues beyond us even as it includes us. So when we feel like we aren’t getting enough done, or that our story feels jagged and unfinished – the story goes on, like it was created to do. And that, I think, is very good news, indeed.

[1] These are the first lines of, respectively, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
[2] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Gospel of Mark,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 481.
[3] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 12.

No comments:

Post a Comment