In 2021 most of our Gospel readings will be coming the Gospel of Mark, which is just fine by me because it’s my number one favorite gospel. I love Mark’s gospel because it is spare, straightforward, and urgent.
Want to hear about Jesus as a baby? Mark’s not interested! You better read Luke. Want to read the Sermon on the Mount? Don’t read Mark! You better read Matthew instead. Want to read page after page of Jesus lecturing that I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the true vine? Mark has no time for chatty messiahs! Try John’s Gospel instead.
I love Mark’s gospel because (and this is lost in almost all English translations, unfortunately) I love Mark’s gospel because Mark’s Greek is terrible—unpolished, repetitive, simplistic, ungrammatical. Greek probably wasn’t his native language, but Mark just pushes through with his basic vocabulary and his dicey syntax to give us what is probably the first Gospel.
I love Mark because Mark can be read in one sitting—one bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred account of Jesus fighting demons, healing the sick, and knocking his disciples’ thick skulls together. It is a hard-hitting and unprecedented account of a ministry full of terror and amazement. It is the urgent and compelling story of what God is doing is in the world in the event of Jesus Christ.
I love Mark’s Gospel. Just listen to how it begins. Without any introduction to speak of we’re suddenly transported out into the middle of nowhere with a locust-eating, camel-fur-covered madman dunking people in the Jordan River. Get ready for the one who’s coming, he says! And then BOOM! A nobody named Jesus just shows up from Galilee for baptism. There’s a dove! There’s a voice! And then a smash cut to the next scene as immediately the Spirit of God drives Jesus out into the wilderness.
This gospel moves! And it’s not just that Mark doesn’t know how to write well or how to take his time with a story. No, Mark’s writing with urgency about urgent matters. He’s writing his story with a compelling energy that he wants to jump off the page and into our lives. Get going! Get moving! Don’t you see what’s happening? As Jesus will say in just a few more lines: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (change your mind), and believe in the good news.”
Even though he wasn’t exactly a poet and he was using this basic vocabulary, in our reading this morning Mark does use a very surprising word. It’s not a very common word—it’s only used about ten times in the whole New Testament: schizo. It means “torn apart.” “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.” Torn apart? Torn? Apart? Heaven?
We don’t know if we like the phrase “torn apart” very much, right? On Wednesday we saw the Capitol Building torn apart. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t good. It was terrifying. “Torn apart” sounds like how you describe a gazelle after a pack of jackals have had their way with it. I have a friend who at one time was going through a painful divorce. “It’s like my whole life has just been torn apart.” Whenever has something being torn apart been a good thing? But that’s the word Mark chose.
Older English translations of the Bible have tried to tame Mark. Torn apart? Woah! Settle down there, Mark! They’ve translated this word instead as “opened.” He saw the heavens opened. But there’s a difference in meaning there. As a parent to a toddler now I can tell you there’s a big difference between opening a bag of snacks and tearing apart a bag of snacks. Two totally different experiences and outcomes.
And Mark knew the word for opened. And he didn’t use that word. Mark wanted us to see what he believed that Jesus saw—that the heavens didn’t just open like a little window that could be closed again, or like a door gently blowing in the breeze. This was remodeling. This was demolition. When something is torn apart, you can’t put it back together again. We saw it on Wednesday at the Capitol building—it’s violent.
In fact, Mark uses this word (schizo) exactly twice in his gospel. Once here at the very beginning. And once at the vey end. When Mark is describing Jesus’ death on the cross he says, “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was [schizo] torn apart into two pieces, from top to bottom.”
The curtain wasn’t opened like it is at the theater with a big SWOOSH. No, it was RIIIIPPED! The barrier was destroyed. The Holy of Holies, in the Temple, behind the curtain, was the place where the presence of the Living God dwelled. When the curtain was torn apart, that barrier that separated off the Holy of Holies and the living Presence of God from the rest of the world was removed. And the Heavens (which were similarly torn apart) were (cosmologically speaking) the barrier that separated God’s heavenly realm from this world and from all of us.
Mark’s tearing apart is different because he’s not describing the tearing apart of the good, or the destruction of the sacred, or the desecration of the beautiful. Mark’s tearing apart is the destruction of the barrier between us and what is good, between us and what is sacred, between us and what is beautiful. In Jesus Christ, in his beginning and in his end, Mark tells us that God is being set loose upon the world. The fabric of the universe has been permanently altered and holiness is about to run wild on the earth.
Now, when you think about your spiritual journey, or when you think about our church and the ways in which we worship and serve God together, do these words—barriers torn apart, God set loose, holiness running wild—do they describe how we think and how we act and how we represent ourselves to the world? What would other people say about us? Are we living out loud like the heavens have been torn apart? Are we declaring with our lives that the cold barriers between God and all of God’s people have been done away with?
If your answer is “No,” or “Hmmm, you know, I’m not so sure,” then I’m asking you as your pastor, that 2021 be the year that we figure out how to tear apart the boundaries that separate us from God and from our neighbors. Let 2021 be the year that we tear the heavens apart and set God loose inside of us and in the world. So that when people from our community interact with us, they see that urgency, that energy, wild and loose among us and they feel it like a blessing to them. In 2021 we’re going to be talking about what that looks like and how we can organize ourselves and our ministries so that we all feel God at work among us, and so that our neighbors see it too.
What does that mean? Well, it includes stuff like how do we care for one another in the congregation? How do we take care of our elders? How do we show support to young families? It also means asking how do we reach out into our community to let our neighbors know that there is a congregation here that is ready for them? How do we draw people in? How do we connect new folks to community? And it means really thinking about how do we live more fully into our covenant? How do we express our welcome to all people to join us here—all races, all classes, all different kinds of families, all sexual orientations, all gender identities? Is a sign on the lawn that says, “All Are Welcome” enough? Is that enough of an expression of the heavens being torn apart and God rushing into the world through this church? Or is there more that we can do, that we must do, to communicate to our neighbors about who we are, what we value, and what God is capable of?
Optimistically speaking, 2021 is the year in which we will meet together again in this sanctuary for worship. 2021 is the year the world is going to poke its head back out the door and say, hmmmm, looks like I can finally go out again. Maybe I should check out that church I heard about. And when we come back together, and when our neighbors start reconnecting to their local community in person, and when people start shopping around for churches again, we need to be ready for them. When the boundaries that are keeping us from being together are finally torn apart, we want to be a community that can say, “We know how to do this! We’re ready for what God is about to do!”
We saw this past week, on Wednesday, as a mob attacked the Capitol building, just what it looks like when good and sacred things are torn apart. Here’s what I need to say as a Christian minister of conscience and as your pastor:
I think Trumpism has become a new religion. Trump, of course, is this religion’s infallible high priest—a prophet of doom and chaos. This isn’t about politics anymore and, frankly, it hasn’t been for a long time. This is about Trumpism—an overarching, radical, fundamentalist worldview that like all bad religions leads its followers to deny science, to dedicate themselves to unfounded conspiracy theories, and to see shadowy forces at work behind everything that happens in the world. It’s an us-versus-them ideology which is willing to attack—physically attack—our national life, our political system, our cultural and governmental institutions, our democratic values, our liberal values, our conservative values, science, reason, decency, and everything else that we hold dear as a nation. This isn’t about Democrat versus Republican, it’s not about right versus left; it’s about good religion versus bad religion, right versus wrong.
We have seen what it looks like when bad religion tears apart a sacred institution. We have seen what it looks like when bad religion attempts to tear a country apart. Beloved, let’s not be quiet, let’s not shy away. Let’s be a part of an overwhelming and undeniable moral response: NO MORE. In 2021 let’s show our community what it looks like when good religion tears down the boundaries between neighbors and sets the God of love loose upon the world.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations