Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, January 21, 2024

YEAR B 2024 epiphany 3

Epiphany 3, 2024
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

First off, I want to acknowledge that—taken out of context—the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians the past two weeks have been really bizarre.  I just want you to know that I also notice that, and maybe some day we’ll have some conversations about those readings.  But as my Greek professor used to say, “Sometimes the problem isn’t you; sometimes the problem is Paul.”  For today though, we’ve only got so much time, so let’s talk sports . . .

It was a very big deal for the city of Massillon when the Tigers won the state championship in November.  Massillon has had very good teams for a long time, and in 2023 they finally won the state championship.  It was a real boost for the city and the school.  Every sports fan loves when their team wins the big championship game.  As a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan, I am unfamiliar with this feeling.

But how do you get to the championship game?  By having a good record, right?  And you get a good record by winning individual games.  And you win individual games by being the better team, because you have better players.  And the way you get better players is through daily practices and workouts and conditioning and all of that.  So, what really gets you to a championship win is the day-in, day-out drudgery of workouts and practices.  It’s that way for most things.  Like when someone asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"  And the answer is “practice practice practice.”

And, you know, deep down, we don’t want for that to be true.  We want Cinderella stories, and underdogs, and surprise upsets.  We want to see the drama, the heart-stopping come-from-behind unexpected victory.  Like when backup quarterback Frank Reich led my Buffalo Bills to the largest comeback in NFL history.  That’s what we remember, rather than the long slow steady drip of days spent working out and running drills. 

We have this tendency in everything, when you think about it.  We want our political candidate to win by a landslide, rather than simply getting enough votes.  We remember the story of the firefighters who dramatically rescue the family from their burning house, but having a fire extinguisher near your stove isn’t exactly front-page news.  We remember the big splashy meals at Thanksgiving or Anniversaries out, but it is the daily meals of pasta or grilled cheese that actually sustain us over the course of the year.  What we remember is not the steady drip of sustenance; what we remember is the giant supposedly life-changing moments that are a flash in the pan.

So, in today’s first reading, from the book of Jonah, God sends Jonah to the city of Ninevah, “an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.”    Jonah walks the streets proclaiming utter destruction in forty days.  Jonah, one man, walking through an exceedingly large city, telling people to repent.  Imagine the insurmountable task here.  With no bullhorn, no twitter account, no conceivable way to tell all these people to change their ways.  

But then we hear, “the people of Ninevah proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”  Hooray!!!!  Just in the nick of time!  And their story gets passed down to us because it is so dramatic, like a hail Mary pass in the closing seconds.  We love this kind of story, don’t we?  A huge city saved from the brink of disaster.  People slapping each other on the back, saying “Well THAT was a close one,” and heading off to the pub to celebrate.

We.  Love.  Drama.  I know, we all say we prefer a steady stable world where things happen in small predictable ways, but come on.  Nobody really enjoys life-insurance actuary tables.  Not even people who work with actuary tables.  We need stability and predictability in order to have peace in our lives, it’s true.  But we also need a little splashy drama to keep life interesting.  All of which leads me to today’s Gospel reading, from the book of Mark.

As you may recall from a couple weeks ago, Mark’s Gospel jumps right in with Jesus’ being baptized.  No shepherds, no angels, no wisemen.  Jesus gets baptized, is pushed off into the desert, and then suddenly is walking by the Sea of Galilee calling his first disciples, as we heard in today’s reading.  We’re not even out of the first chapter yet, and Jesus has already been baptized, tempted by Satan, and called four out of 12 disciples.  In Mark’s gospel, things happen fast.  And that makes for a good story.  A dramatic story.  A story you remember.

But let’s stop for a moment to consider things from the disciples’ perspective here.  Simon, Andrew, James, and John are all fishermen.  Though we like to imagine them as entrepreneurs, out there catching fish and selling them for what the market will bear, it didn’t work that way at all.  First off, the Emperor owned the lake, and if you wanted to get fish out of it, you had to sign a lease, which meant agreeing to give the majority of what you caught to the syndicate, who would then pass it up the chain in the form of taxes.  A fisherman in Jesus’ time was more like a peasant farmer than like a tuna-boat operator.  So, the first thing to remember is, these guys were not businessmen.

Secondly, these four have no idea who Jesus is.  You and I know the story, and we read back into it wearing our Resurrection Goggles.  But these fishermen are working along, catching fish and mending nets, and this guy walks by and says “follow me,” and they follow him.  I hate to sound cynical, but this is ridiculous!  Again, we tend to imagine the disciples carefully considering the offer, and then reasonably concluding that they should give up their business and follow the Savior of the world.  But, we need to remember, they have no idea how the story ends.  They have not seen one miracle, one healing, one anything.  And yet they drop their nets and follow him.  They walk away from the predictable drudgery of their lives to follow someone they just met.  They leave their families behind and start following a stranger passing along the shore.

And.  We.  Love.  This!  We love it so much that we want to have a story like this for ourselves, and some of us do.  We love hearing the testimony of friends who have big dramatic conversions.  We want to hear stories from people who once were lost, but now are found, were blind but now they see.

Lots of preachers use this text to make people uncertain whether their conversion to Jesus was dramatic enough.  I’ve heard them do it!  How can you know you are saved if you haven’t given up everything to follow Jesus?  How can you know you’re truly following Jesus if you haven’t dropped your net, forsaking your friends and family to begin a new life following Jesus?  If you don’t have a detailed story called The Exact Day I Got Saved, how can you be sure?  . . . Which leads us back to sports talk.

We remember the big dramatic championship game.  But what wins the season is the slow steady drip of ten yards at a time, one quarter at a time.  We remember the big splashy once-a-year meals by candlelight or in fancy restaurants, but what sustains us is the regular, predictable nightly meals of home-made soups and boring casseroles.  We remember the exciting stories of firefighters saving families from near-death disasters, but what keeps us safe is changing the batteries in our smoke detectors.  And, though we love to hear a story about some former drug-addict criminal who is now a missionary overseas, what keeps the gospel alive is the steady day-to-day conviction of people who believe just a little bit more than they don’t believe.  

The mark of faith is not how dramatic your conversion was.  The mark of faith is the slow steady drip of one day at a time, one decision at a time, one daily choice to remember your baptism, and to know that Jesus has called you to follow him on the path that leads to life.  We are suckers for a big conversion story, sure.  But you do not need to have a big conversion of faith in order to know that you are loved.  You simply need to reach out your hands and receive the one who gives us his body and blood: the slow steady drip of bread and wine, week by week, year by year, which sustains us over the course of our lives.  The reassurance that you are already forgiven and already loved, in the most dramatic way imaginable. 

Amen.  (Go Bills.)

Sunday, January 7, 2024

YEAR B 2024 baptism of our lord

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2024
Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back when I was in seminary, I took a class on the Gospel of Mark, and each of us had to write an intensive paper based on primary and secondary sources.  I originally thought I was going to write a paper about Mark’s use of the Cosmic Inclusio.  But instead, I wrote a paper based on the missing definite article in the Centurion’s statement at the foot of the cross.  I’m sure that important paper on the lack of the word “the” is somewhere in my personnel file.

And so now this morning, let’s go ahead and talk about the paper I didn’t write.  Mark’s use of the Cosmic Inclusio.  I swear it’s more interesting than it sounds.

A good storyteller knows that the way to get people to keep listening is to drop a large elephant in the room at the start of the story, and then ignore it until the end.  That way people keep listening to every word, thinking, “I hope he finally gets around to explaining why there’s a large elephant in the room.”  Riddles work this way.  As do some jokes.  You start off with something unusual, or surprising, and then people will listen until you give them the answer.  It’s just the way we’re wired.

So, this year we are in the gospel of Mark.  And that means most readings--or, I guess about half of the readings--will come from Mark’s gospel.  There are some very unusual things about Mark’s version of Jesus’ life.  And I don’t want to give away any clues that will spoil the anticipation, but I want to tell you a few things about Mark’s gospel.

Most importantly, for today’s reading, you need to know that Mark was spoken long before it was ever written down.  This entire book was a story, told to listeners.  Sort of like a one-person play.  Though we don’t know the specifics of that, I always imagine someone standing on a corner in a bustling market and dramatically telling the story to people standing around listening.  As people come by, they need to be drawn into the story.  They need to think to themselves, “I hope he finally gets around to telling me why that elephant is in the room.”

And as another technique, the word that gets translated as “immediately” comes up 41 times in Mark.  Which is kind of like saying, “All of a sudden . . .”   Somebody walking by might hear that and stop . . . Go on . . . All of a sudden, what?!?  If you think of Mark’s gospel as a story, it helps us understand the urgency of the whole thing, combined with the little phrases to catch your attention.  Right off the bat in today’s reading we hear that bizarre description of John the Baptizer.  Clothed in camel hair?  Combined with a leather belt?  Where does this guy shop for clothes?  Eating locusts and honey?  That would get your attention, right?  Walking by you’d say, “tell me more about this elephant in the room named John!”

And now the speaker has the people’s attention, and it’s time to lay out the Cosmic Inclusio!  Okay, okay, I’ll tell you what that fancy phrase means.  Eventually.  In the gospel of Mark, there’s this Greek word, schitzo that only appears twice.  You can kind of tell what this word means by our related words, “schism,” and “schizophrenic.”  It means, to split something.  But it means to split something violently, with great force.  So, in our translation the heavens are “torn apart,” and in the King James they are “rent.”  This word schitzo comes up just twice in Mark’s gospel, and the first time is right here, at the baptism of Jesus.  

Jesus comes up out of the water, and the heavens are torn apart.  (The narrator has dropped an elephant into the room, and will now leave us hanging until the very end of the story.)  This word comes up twice, and it’s an image that gets your attention!  The heavens are torn apart?  You expect the next sentence to be, “and then fire rained down upon the people,” or “and then all the oxygen was sucked up into the outer atmosphere.”  The heavens are torn apart, we’re thinking, “something huge is about to happen!”  And something does . . .

The Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove.  And a voice comes from heaven saying to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is dramatic, for sure.  Heavens torn apart, Spirit descending, voice from heaven speaking . . . Okay, you got us narrator of Mark’s gospel standing on a soapbox in the market square.  Then what?  Well, immediately, Jesus is driven out into the desert, but that’s another story, for another week.  But we’re listening, aren’t we?  We want to know what happens next.  This is a very big opening to the story, for sure.  We want to know what happens next.  And we want to know what happens to John the Baptizer.  And we want to know when that schitzo word is going to come up again.

Ah, not yet.  We have to let these elephants sit in the room.  First we need to look at why this event is so important.  Why all the drama at the moment Jesus comes up out of the water?  I mean, this story doesn’t start with “One slow day, yet another guy saw the heavens open and the Spirit come down . . .”  The main drama of this story for the people hearing it would be how crazy it all sounds.  And by that I mean beyond all the bells and whistles of the schitzo and the dove and the voice . . . It’s crazy because the “barrier” between heaven and earth has been shattered.  Suddenly, the separation between God and people has been broken apart.  Suddenly God is close.  Scary close.  And that doesn’t feel comforting, when you consider it.  God is breaking through into the world in this moment, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is a first.  A Very Big First.

Here we have God in all three Persons.  Here we have the Trinity.  Here we have a completely new revelation of God, and it happens at the Baptism of Jesus.  God is breaking into our world in a completely new way, and it is through baptism.  Everything is different from this point, because God is present as Father, Son, and Spirit together at the baptism of Jesus.  More importantly, in the person of Jesus, God walks among us.  God has broken through, you see.  The heavens are torn apart, and God has entered into our world in a whole new way!

And then, if you look for it, all through the gospel of Mark, you can see echoes of this “breaking through.”  Seeds breaking through the ground, ears opening up to listen, eyes open to seeing, hearts receptive to Jesus, friends being lowered through the broken-open roof to be healed.  Immediately, things break through, are torn apart, and God enters creation.  Which leaves us with one big question . . . Where’s the other schitzo, right?

Back to the scene in the market . . . You’ve heard the opening of Mark’s gospel, when the heavens are torn apart.  And you’re standing there listening to some speaker telling all these amazing stories about this man named Jesus, and it all leads up to his arrest and crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.  And, as he is hanging on the cross, at the moment of death, we hear that Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last.

And — Schitzo !— the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The curtain of the temple was schitzo, torn asunder, rent from top to bottom.  That’s the cosmic inclusio.  The story ends by reminding you of how it began . . .

At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens are torn apart; at the death of Jesus, the temple curtain is torn apart.  This is what the theologians call, Mark’s Cosmic Inclusio.  And the thing is, those listening to this story would know that the massive piece of fabric in the temple is what separates God from those who come to worship.  No one was allowed behind this curtain, because that curtain separated people from the Holy of Holies—the place where God was thought to dwell.  Jesus leaves the water of baptism and the heavens are torn apart.  Jesus leaves his earthly life, and the temple curtain is torn apart.

What does it mean?  Well, it could mean a lot of things, and it does.  But what it means for you and me is this:  the things that separate you from God are torn apart because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  There is now nothing that can separate you from God.  At your own baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God was present just as God was present at the baptism of Jesus.  The heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends, and God claims you as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.  And, today, when you come forward to receive the sacrament, I ask you to remember that nothing separates you from the love of God.  Nothing prevents you from receiving this blessed gift, because the heavens have been torn apart . . . for you.  End of story.