Sunday, January 7th – 24: A Sermon on Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A few years ago, when our family lived in Owatonna, there was a child, about 5 or 6 years old, who lived across the street from us who….how shall I put this…she invaded our life.

With this incredible ability to sneak up on you, she was just around…all the time. You open your front door at 8am on a Saturday morning, and *bam*, there she is waiting on your front step. Staring at you. You go out to the mailbox, you turn around, and she’s there.

You go out into your garage, you put your shoes on, and suddenly, from behind the freezer in our garage… her little head pops out. Or you’re out mowing the lawn, and you can just feel these eyes on you. You glance down the street and there she is, behind a tree… staring at you. And you know it is only a matter of time before she comes over.

Now, it wasn’t so much her presence that was annoying, it was the intruding. Always coming around at the wrong time. Always in the way. Always lingering around with persistent questions: What are you doing? Can I do it? What is this? Can I have it? Do you have something to drink? I’m thirsty. I was wondering, do you have a popsicle?

Needless to say, she could feel like a pest, invading our space. But then, we learned something about her we didn’t know – she loved spending time with children younger than her. And not only that, she was really good at it.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon, early summer. I was in and out with errands. Lauren was desperately trying to plant her garden before the weekend was over. And you can image how it is trying to do anything productive with a 2-year old to constant monitor.

Well, just like every time we’re outside, our little intruder showed up. Only this time, she was not a pest. But more of a Godsend. She took Elliot off of Lauren’s hands and played with him. Soccer, tag, rolling around in the grass. And as they played, one thing became clear: Elliot. Loved. Her. Not in the boy meets girl, kind of way, but in that young kid looking up to the older kid who is willing to play with him.

Something happened to me that day that I can only describe as a heart transplant. Because ever since that day, the neighborhood girl has been an image of the Holy Spirit for me.

Don’t get me wrong – she was still annoyingly intrusive after that. But it felt more like a divine intrusion than anything else.

You see, sometimes God comes to us a compassionate and welcomed friend, offering words of comfort and grace. And other times? Other times, God comes to us as an intruder. Here to mess with our stuff. Here to disrupt our lives a bit. Our well-laid plans, our long-held beliefs, our self-righteous politics, our comfortable retirement. But God intrudes not to hurt us – but to heal us. To give us the heart transplants that we need.

We can see this in our gospel reading for today. Though we may have to squint a bit. Too often we, myself included, are blinded a bit by the niceties of baptism. I find myself thinking of wiggly babies, beautiful white gowns (worn by every child in the family for the past 6 generations), three handful of water, gently poured over the head. Candles and blessing and welcome and oil.

But because of that, we hear this story of Jesus’ baptism and our eyes are drawn to certain parts. The comfort of the heavens opening. The beauty of a white dove calmly floating down onto Jesus. And the sweetness of that divine Morgan Freeman like voice saying, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”

But all of these things obscure and domesticate what’s really going on – the divine intrusion that this moment really is.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.

 Torn. The heavens were torn. Not opened. Not sliced cleanly with a scalpel. But torn. And to tear through something takes speed, passion, desire. Just look at children on Christmas morning – tearing through wrapping paper. Or consider a football team with paper wall bearing their team name and mascot , held up by cheerleaders, between them and the field.  Those players don’t calmly crawl under the paper wall to preserve it. They don’t take a sharp pair of scissors and cleanly cut the paper in two. No – they tear through it. To show their fans and their opponents that they are not entering the field, they are invading it.

The curtain, the veil between heaven and earth, between God and God’s people is torn. Meaning jagged edges and tatters. Meaning never to be closed again.

This is a divine break-in. Nothing will be the same.

And then there is the image of the dove.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

 Isn’t that beautiful? Perfect material for a Hallmark Card on Confirmation Day.

Only that’s not what it really says. For whatever reason, this translation makes a critical error. The Greek says, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove into him.

The Spirit of God goes into Jesus. Which means this descending dove is probably less like a picturesque gliding down, and “more like a dive-bombing pigeon”[1] with quite an impact. This is divine intrusion. Jesus becomes invaded by the Spirit of God.

And then there are those words. Those precious, naming and claiming words, “You are my child – my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” Words I believe belong to each one of us.

While I have often heard this as blessing. As gift. But this week I heard it as divine burden. You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” In other words, I choose you. God isn’t just claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son. God is endorsing Jesus as God’s transformative agent in the world. And I believe that means us too. You are my child. My beloved. I am pleased with you. So, I choose you. I choose to partner with you in blessing this world.

And that kind of calling, that kind of endorsement, that kind of challenge can really mess with your plans. Because to do that – to bless the world, to bless your community, your neighbor, it will demand that we have the courage to pull back the curtain and expose that which is not blessing this world, but in fact diminishing it.

Throughout the gospel of Mark, we will see that this incarnation of God in Jesus isn’t so much that Jesus has come to be with us, to hang out like a friend on a Friday night, but more like an annoying neighbor who invades your space, who asks for your help, and who just won’t leave you alone. We will see as Jesus intrudes on previously held boundaries between the clean and unclean, the worthy and the unworthy.  We will see the presence of God presented as a divine intrusion. Of a God breaking into a world to reclaim it from the false and fabricated powers built on fear and control. And those false powers and promises will try to hide and disguise themselves from this God who has come to steal them away. It will be a struggle.

But the promise of this gospel, the promise of Jesus’ story in Mark, is that there is no going back. The curtain is torn. It will not close again. God will not let this world go.

God is committed to this place. To reclaiming this world for God’s good purposes. And in baptism we lift up the promise that God will do this. God will live this out in the bodies and communities of real people.

Which means we need to ask, How is God invading our world now and today? How is God invading us, this community rooted in that promise of baptism? How is God invading your life?

I offer one example, among many.

God has intruded on my life recently with a number. 24.

24. That number. It just keeps showing up in my thoughts. Peeking around corners. Knocking on my door. Asking for help. It lingers. It bothers. It annoys. It haunts.

24. That’s the number of homeless youth on any given night in Northfield. Many of whom we cannot see because they are sleeping on couches. Some even exchanging sexual favors in order to do so.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with Scott Wapota, the director of the Key, the substance-free Youth Center here in town, who shared this haunting statistic. Because he knows. Because he sees it every day, as he encounters students from Northfield who don’t know where they are sleeping that night.

I often hear Northfield referred to as a quaint, cute town that is great to visit, great to move to, great to retire in. And I have to be honest, I wince when I hear that. While that may be true, it is not the whole truth. At best it is a half-truth, dare I even say a false truth. Why? Because 24. A number which God has come to expose.

That intrudes my life. And I do not want it there. And yet I believe the Holy Spirit is intruding into and baptizing the hearers of such news to do something about it.

And the Key is trying to do something about it. The Key has received a grant to start a program where members from the Northfield will be invited to open their doors to these youth as host homes. To take them in.

I hope you’ll hear more about that. But I share it today because I want to get the word out. I believe God wants to get the word out. And I wonder if any of us might be called and equipped for such ministry. Because Northfield isn’t a quaint, cute town to live in or a great place to retire because people will leave you alone – but rather I see Northfield as a brave and passionate town, full of people who love service and generosity and who step up when there is a need.

Well. Beloved people with whom God is well pleased. There is a need. 24.

God won’t let us forget it. Because the heavens are torn open. God has invaded the neighborhood. And not just the neighborhood, but your life and mine. God won’t leave us alone. Keep your eyes for that pesky little kid to show up. Again and again again.

And for that I hesitantly say…

thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Matt Skinner, Working Preacher Sermon Brainwave, 2018.

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Monday, December 25th, 2017 – Breaking the 4th Wall, a Christmas Sermon on John 1:1-14

John 1:1-14
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
—–
Merry Christmas!

It’s good to be with you all this morning. A time my friend likes to call “the moment after.” You know that moment, the moment after?

It’s the moment after you’ve opened all the presents and the wrapping paper litters the floor, and that moment of excitement and energy and anticipation has…passed. That’s the moment after.

It’s the ordinary morning the day after you’ve gotten married. That’s the moment after.

It’s the startlingly quiet moment when you arrive home from your husband’s funeral and there’s nothing to do anymore. That’s the moment after.

It’s the evening dishes after everyone’s gone home from Christmas dinner. That’s the moment after.

It’s not necessarily good or bad. It just is.

In many ways today feels like that. Like the moment after. We all are just a little quieter. Some of the excitement is gone. Some of the crowds have gone home. It’s not good or bad. It just is. And it’s good to be together.

Over the past couple of years, I have been watching the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And I’ve learned that people either love it or they hate it. There isn’t much in-between. But if you haven’t seen it, it is a show set in Washington, D.C., and it is all about politics. The show follows Congressman Frank Underwood and his thirst for political power. Now headed into its sixth and final season, this show is known for many things.

It is known for being one of the first hit online-only TV shows.
It is known for its political timeliness, in showing us a close up look at the dysfunction and manipulation and cruelty of politics.
And more recently, it is known for the necessary down fall of its lead actor, Kevin Spacey.

But before all that, House of Cards became known for something else – how it tells a story.

From the opening scene of the first episode, you hear the sound of screeching tires and *crash*. Frank Underwood comes out of his house to, sadly, find a dog that has been struck by the car.

As Frank kneels beside this wounded creature, he looks around and he begins to talk to himself. “There are two kinds of pain,” he says. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that is only suffering.”

And then, in a split second, he stops looking around and he turns his eyes directly into the camera, and with this overwhelming sense that he is speaking personally and directly to you – the one on the couch – he says with these evil eyes, “I have no patience for useless things.” And he hauntingly ends the dogs useless suffering.

In that one moment, we learn two things. One – how cruel, cold, and evil Frank Underwood can be. But also, that we the audience are a character in the show. In fact, as one TV critic said, we are the most interesting character in the show. We are the only one Frank can be honest with.

This technique in story-telling is called “breaking the fourth wall”, a moment when the audience is addressed directly. And it is often discouraged in acting.

Directors will say, “Don’t look at the camera.” A theater director will say to her actors, “Pay no attention to the audience. Act as if they are not there.”

As an actor on stage you are to pretend as if there is a fourth wall on stage, between you and the audience, so that you can focus entirely on the drama of the story. Which means you don’t stop singing when the fire alarm goes off during your opening song. You don’t turn and scowl at the person whose cell phone just went off during the first act. And you certainly don’t apologize to the audience when you forget your lines.

To do so can shatter the experience for the audience. The experience of watching a story unfold before your very eyes as if it were a real event.

Don’t break the fourth wall, they say.

But other playwrights, directors, movie makers have learned to bend and break the fourth wall in their story-telling because it can actually add to the drama or create some much-needed comic relief or even draw the audience deeper into a story that had previous been at arm’s length.

A couple of years ago, on a Sunday morning, my son was sick and so I needed to stay home from worship. And so there we were eating breakfast in the kitchen, in our pajamas, listening to the 8:30am worship service, when right there over the radio Pastor Pam broke the fourth wall.

Good morning and welcome to worship here at St. John’s. Welcome to those of you visiting with us and those of you joining us on the radio. Especially, you, Pastor Jonathan, who is at home with a sick child.

I about spit out my coffee. And at the same time, I felt more welcomed, more drawn in to the story and drama of worship that morning in a way I never had before listening on the radio. Like I was still part of it – even from afar.

Breaking the fourth wall -this is not a new technique in story-telling. In fact, some say it can be seen in Shakespeare’s soliloquies. I think it might be a technique that is even older than that. As old as the gospel of John.

Did you catch it? The moment when the gospel broke the fourth wall? The moment it went from performance to personal? From the transcendent to the very close. The moment the gospel writer is gazing off into the clouds to the moment he’s looking directly into the camera and speaking…to you, the one listening?

[Up on stage, big lofty voice] 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 

[Down in the aisle, looking people in the eye] And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

For the first 13 verses, the gospel writer speaks in the third person. He speaks of the Word, of God, of the beginning of all creation. He speaks of an eternal light shining in a deep darkness. He speaks of a man named John. A man who testified to this light coming into the world. He even speaks of the people who received this Word and who believed in his name.

But then. But then, in verse 14, he clips an anchor to his high and lofty thoughts and sends everything straight to the ground. The Word becomes flesh. And all the third person characters out there, become the first-person characters. Right here. The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory.

He addresses the audience in first person. He breaks the fourth wall. He looks up from his parchment paper and speaks directly to the audience, drawing his people into the story of God that has room for them.

And not only does the gospel writer break the fourth wall, but he breaks it because God was the first one break the fourth wall. When God stepped down from the stage of heaven to become fragile flesh and dwell with the people. To live among us in Jesus. Or as one translator puts it, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

God has broken the fourth wall. Addressing directly the people of God who are not passive observers of God’s story, but critical characters within it. Each one of you.

God has broken the fourth wall to be with us. The gospel writer has broken the fourth wall to tell us this good news. But if there is anything I’ve come to learn over the years, is that rarely do we break the fourth wall between ourselves. So often we are just actors on a stage. Trying to be believable. Protecting ourselves from vulnerable love.

And yet God becomes vulnerable love to break down the walls between us.

So maybe as an act of faith, on the Christmas morning, we can break the fourth wall a bit. To be personally drawn into this story of God that has room for us and to draw others into our story.

(With a person in the congregation) Hi, my name is Jonathan. And yours? What street do you live on?

Hear this as a word of promise for you. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and moved into your neighborhood.

Hi, my name is Jonathan. And yours? What street do you live on?

Hear this as a word of promise for you. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and moved into your.

So we’ve just broken the fourth wall between us a bit. Now, let’s break the fourth wall of the radio, like Pastor Pam did.

Dear people on the radio. I know you’re out there. And I know that some of you are at home with very young children because it makes for a saner morning. I know some of you are listening beside your friends in the nursing home. I know a man in his 90s named Walt who might be listening on his ipad. Hi Walt. I know there might be some of you who are listening to us in the car on the way to a Christmas holiday you are either very excited about or not excited about at all. And I know that one of you is a radio host sitting at a desk on Christmas morning so that this broadcast can be possible. Know that we here at St. John’s are thinking of you and sending our love out to you. And together, we want to wish you a Merry Christmas.

On Three. 1, 2, 3…..Merry Christmas!

We’ve broken down the fourth wall between us a bit. We’ve broken down the radio fourth wall a bit. And there is one more I want to address today.

A couple of days ago, I was picking up some groceries at Econo, and I was the guy on his cell phone while waiting in the check-out line. Every one’s favorite guy, I know. And then when it was almost my turn to check out, I finally (for once) had the good sense to tell my friend to hold on, while I check out. And I put my phone down and in my back pocket. And immediately, immediately, the person who was checking out my groceries stopped what she was doing, look at me straight on with these exhausted and honest eyes, and she said, “Thank you for putting your phone down.”

I had this overwhelming sense that people look past her, and any other check-out clerk, all day long. Such that a pretty benign act as not talking on the phone while you check out is felt as a significant act.

We have so many walls between us and people beyond these walls. And in the moment after this, some of us will step into St. John’s Hall to have a Christmas meal with a such wide cross section of our community, that I guarantee there will be walls. They will even taller and thicker. And for some those walls will feel insurmountable. But I wonder on this Christmas Day…in the moment after we celebrate God in Jesus Christ breaking down the fourth wall to be with us…. and in the moment after we heard The gospel of John break down the fourth wall to tell us this truth… in this moment after, As a Christmas gift to ourselves and to others, let’s break down the walls between us.

Be of good courage this season. Reach out a hand. Speak out with your voice. Meet a stranger. Greet a neighbor. Say I’m sorry. Forgive a friend. But in all of these things, pour out your love on the one’s your with, in the same way God has for us. For God has broken down the dividing wall. The Word became flesh and lives among us.

Amen.