Sunday, June 6, 2021
Lectionary 10, Year B
Prayer of the Day
All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 3:8-15 God confronts Adam and Eve in the garden
2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1 Renewed in the inner nature
Mark 3:20-35 Doing the work of God as brothers and sisters of Christ
Title: Where Do We Start?
One of the great benefits of living in the West Village is the easy access to the Hudson River Park. Like many city parks it has beautiful landscaping, there are areas to sit and take in the serenity of nature escaping the bustle of urban living that surrounds us, playgrounds for kids, dog runs for our canine family members, tennis courts and fountains. But this park is unique in that it is stretched long and narrow along the river front. This location has allowed and encouraged some distinct features, like repurposed piers now sport sprawling lawns and play spaces. As of just a few weeks ago, now we even have a created island up there at the end of 14th street. The whole park is quite a stunning achievement in urban planning, community-enhancing reclaiming, and creative repurposing.
My favorite and most used feature of the Hudson River Park are the bike trials. Once on them, one can ride the approximate 12 miles from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan all the way up to the Cloisters (that’s beyond the George Washington Bridge) without ever having to take one’s life in their hands by going on the city streets. It makes for a fantastic ride. In good weather, I try to do my ride in the early morning before the paths get too crowded.
This past Thursday morning, with today’s assigned readings running around in my head, especially the part in which Jesus’ family and the religious leaders were trying to silence him and are accusing him of being possessed by a demon, I had an informative and enlightening ride. It all started by the fact that instead of riding to the end of Christopher Street and then going north to 100th or 125th or the Bridge, (my typical routes), I went in the opposite direction, across 10th street to the East River and I picked up the river front paths that run along the eastside. From there I went south, continued up the Hudson River bikeway at Battery Park. Now the few times I have done this East River route before, I have taken it around the southern tip and stopped at Christopher St. But this time, in need of some heartier exercise, I went up to 80th and then headed home for a 16-mile route. In doing this, I had given myself a new starting point. And as I rode what were all familiar paths to me, there was a difference. I was hitting some key features at a different point in my journey.
There’s that word again that I seem to be obsessed with these days. Journey. Blame it on the lack of physical journeys we have been able to take over these last 15 months. With limited to no travel, no adventurous vacations, perhaps I am not the only one who has turned inward to more spiritual journeys. Certainly, in this past year, our nation has been challenged to take a soul-searching journey (that some are reluctant to join), trekking back into our past, to understand better our present for the sake of a more just future. But that’s not what this bike ride was about.
This was all about familiar route that delivered a new perspective because of a new starting point. On my bike I discovered that I saw things that I had passed before differently because they were being seen at a different part of my trip. Some thing that was at the beginning of my old route perhaps missed as I was getting myself acclimated, was there for new viewing now that I was well settled into my ride. A hill that may have been early in the ride before, was now to be climbed after I had been riding longer. Perhaps it would be harder because I was more worn. Or maybe it was easier because I was deeper into the zone that one gets into after riding a while. Likewise a flat portion or, better, a downhill that was unappreciated early in a ride, was now welcomed for its respite deeper into the ride. A landmark that has been a kindly indicator that the end-of-the-ride was nearing, is now reached with great enthusiasm because more miles have been accomplished, the body is a bit more tired, muscles are crying louder for rest.
So often, when considering our journeys, the lion’s share of attention is given to the end point, the destination. But this morning, thanks to my bike ride, I’d like to direct our attention to a journey’s starting point.
Starting points. Luke starts his gospel with beautiful songs, a gentle mother with her baby in a barn, and some spirited shepherds. Likewise, Matthew tells of a troubled father (well, step-father), trying to do the right thing as a baby (not his own) is born, mysterious men come out of the east, and a mass-murdering king chases the man’s family out of the country. And then there’s John, who starts his gospel at a time before time and before even this most ancient of stories that is our first reading for today. But Mark is different. He doesn’t only start with Jesus as an adult, but after a quick flourish of healings, he gives an account of some of the harshest criticisms that are leveled against Jesus. Right out of the gate, still taking the first steps of his ministry, Jesus is accused of being demon possessed. This isn’t just some flip jab. (Like Flip Wilson saying “the devil made me do it.”) This is being said in a world in which there was a lot of stock placed in demon possessions. That flourish of healings that I mentioned, well it started with Jesus healing a man who was believed to have an unclean spirit. And this accusation is not only coming from religious leaders who might have been dealing with their own professional jealousies at the attention Jesus was getting. Even Jesus’ family comes into the picture for the first time in Mark, but here they are concerned for their son and brother and trying to get him to come home quietly. To stop all this nonsense.
Matthew and Luke do include this story in their respective gospel accounts, however they include it well into the narrative, much further in the journey that the gospels invite us to take with Jesus. We hear this indictment of demon possession well after we have had a chance to get to know Jesus, to hear his wisdom, to experience his compassion. In those cases, we have journeyed with Jesus long enough to know it is a false accusation.
But for Mark, he wants this to be known right from the beginning. So that our whole journey with Jesus is toned with the reality that this man is not your everyday teacher, not your typical wise person. And he is seen as a threat to the well-established systems, to power structures, to traditional family values. He is setting people off with his radical behavior. And journeying with him, being associated with him, comes with risks.
The presence of Adam and Eve, post apple bite, naked and afraid in the garden, reminds us that the foolishness of God did not start with Jesus. This story reminds us that the creator is disobeyed and ignored from the start. From day two, (or should we say day eight of nine). And yet, new chance upon new chance upon billionth new chance the loving Creator graciously gives the rebellious creatures. This story of Adam and Eve does not begin a story recorded in the Bible that tells of humanity getting itself back into line after that first stumble. No. It is an accounting of humanity’s continual falling flat on our collective face, of us running naked and ashamed trying to hide from God. And God searching, finding, picking up and brushing the dirt off the ones who are merely dust, forgiving and renewing. Only to have it happen again and again and again. Whatever your starting point, that much is quite consistent. The psalmist says it beautifully:
3If you were to keep watch over sins, O Lord, who could stand?
4Yet with you is forgiveness,5I wait for you, O Lord; my soul waits; in your word is my hope.
We could say that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s foolishness, the incarnation – God in flesh – is divine madness personified. The Creator makes themself vulnerable to the creature, the creature with a seriously abysmal track record. And as if we could make it worse, all the while the creature thinks themselves wiser than the Creator. Well of course Jesus is judged out of his mind. And with Mark give us this as a starting point, we know from the start that following Jesus means following in the steps of one that the world judges as mad. Michael Card, the writer of this morning’s anthem that we will hear in a couple of minutes, expresses it well: And so we follow God’s own fool, for only the foolish can tell, believe the unbelievable, come be a fool as well.
As we journey through this green season (these green vestments will be with us for quite a while now) with lush stories and vibrant challenges of who we are in light of this madman Jesus – crucified and risen – keep reminding yourself, look back to this starting point that Mark is offering us in his gospel. Keep asking yourself: what madness is Jesus calling me to in this passage, on this day, in this life.
Of course, there is one starting point that all the gospels agree on. The baptism of Jesus. The starting point that we all share with him as children of this foolish God who forgives and forgives and forgives and gives and gives and gives. Hear Jesus speak and act as the completely off-putting person he was fulfilling the promises God makes to us in baptism. And be always reminded that, through the Holy Spirit, the gift of baptism joins us together as the family of this ridiculous God. We are siblings with the one the world condemned from the start and killed to silence. We are disciples of the one judged mad even by his own family. We are made alive by the one the world thought it had brought to an end point. Hear his invitation to start the journey anew, to come be a fool as well.
The Rev. Mark Erson,