Monday, January 12, 2015

New Beginnings

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11.

I think most writers of books, articles, short stories or even sermons would agree that the hardest part of the task is the beginning. Even if you have a definite idea of where you want to go, how do you set out to get there? Do you start off by introducing the long backstories of the characters or do you wait? If you ask me, way too many of the comic book movies feel they have to begin with the hero's origins even if it's general knowledge, like those of Superman and Batman. And each time they reboot a series they feel they have to do the origin story all over again!

Do you set up the general situation and all the factors or issues that will pay off later? The second Star Wars trilogy started off with some very boring trade negotiations that somehow seemed to George Lucas to be the logical beginning of the story of Darth Vader. Most fans disagreed. I think the problem of crafting a beginning is why so many stories today begin in the middle, right in the heat of action, and then say, “48 hours earlier...” and then flashback to how the characters got into that crisis. The film “Momento” actually starts at the end of the story and goes backwards, scene by scene. It is mimicking the problem the protagonist, a detective trying to find his wife's killer, struggles with: brain damage that prevents him from remembering what happened just a few minutes ago. So watching the scenes in reverse order, the audience also doesn't know what preceded it. When you get to the end of the film, you see the beginning of the story, which is astonishing but makes total sense. It's a neat trick but obviously, it's one that has limited use. In general, it's best to start at the beginning. And today's lectionary readings are all about beginnings.

You can't start any farther back than Genesis 1:1. However I do have some quibbles with the New Revised Standard translation on this passage, especially verse 2 which reads in part, “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” I wish they used the traditional translation of the Hebrew word ruach. Yes, it can mean “wind” but its most obvious translation in this context is “Spirit.” The “Spirit of God” arguably is closer to the author's intent than a “wind from God.” Also “swept” is a rather vigorous rendering of the word rachaf which usually means “hover” or “brood.” Wind doesn't hover. But the Spirit of God could, especially in the sense of “brood,” like a hen about to hatch eggs. The Spirit of God is poised over the formless void about to bring forth creation.

God then speaks: “Let there be light.” For God, to say is to do. In fact a more literal translation of verse 3 would be: “God said, 'Let light be.' Light was.” In the Hebrew there's no delay, no build up. God says it; it is. Bang! There.

Each act of creation follows this pattern. God names something and calls it into existence. He then makes some distinctions in what he has just created and organizes the elements of it. It's all very orderly. In the first 3 days of creation God sets the stage. Day one—light; day two—sky and sea; day three—land. For the next 3 days he populates the settings: first, sun, moon and stars; then birds and fish; finally land animals and humans. And at the end of each creative day God looks at his work and pronounces it good.

The reason Genesis 1 is read on the first Sunday of Epiphany is to display its parallels with Jesus' baptism. And in harmony with the terse poetry of Genesis, we have the abrupt, straightforward, simple Greek of Mark's Gospel this year. Mark is the briefest, most stripped down, fastest paced of the gospels. So we get a lot less information about John the Baptizer in Mark than in the other gospels. In Mark, John appears, introduces Jesus, baptizes him and leaves the stage. Even his death is told in flashback. John in fact only has one speech to say because Mark is ruthlessly focused on Jesus. Mark sticks to the essentials.

Even so, Mark's brief account of the beginning of Jesus' ministry resonates with the Genesis account of the beginning of creation: there is water, there is the Spirit, there is God pronouncing things good, Let's look at each separately.

The water of creation parallels the water of baptism, which is associated with birth and cleansing. Jews had many kinds of ceremonial washings. The sole “one time only” ceremonial cleansing was reserved for a gentile converting to Judaism. For John to call Jews to be baptized was shocking and for Jews to respond by coming forward and undergoing baptism was surprising. Evidently, the call to new birth was seen by people as exactly what they needed. And the river Jordan is important because it was by crossing this body of water that Joshua (in Hebrew Yeshua, the same as Jesus) led the Israelites into the promised land. In the same way, the baptized were returning home from a spiritual exile.

The action of the Spirit in Mark echoes Genesis. The Spirit doesn't come like a roaring wind here, nor does he swoop in like a raptor. He descends gently like a dove. This recalls that Hebrew word that means “brood” and which could also mean “flutter.”

As in Genesis God makes a pronouncement on what happens. He calls Jesus his son and says he is more than just “good.” Jesus is called the Beloved. God is well pleased with him.

There is even a subtle reference to light. We are told that the heavens were torn apart. This probably means the clouds parted and the sun shown brightly. It was dramatic enough to impress those who witnessed it and it underlined the significance of the event when it was retold. Alternately, it could have meant that the veil that keeps us from looking beyond the surface of reality was ripped open and that there was a vision of heaven, giving a rare glimpse of the dimension in which everything is in harmony with God's will. In that case, everything is now seen in a different light.

There is of course a difference between Genesis 1 and Mark 1. Genesis tells of the definitive beginning. This is the first time for everything. The Gospel tells us of a new beginning. God is kicking off a new creation, a redemption of the old creation. This kind of creation is both easier and harder. It is easier because you already have stuff to work with. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can simply retain the bits that work well and either jettison, replace or rethink the bits that don't. The hard part for humans is distinguishing which is which.

For an example of a re-creation that didn't work look at New Coke. Coca Cola executives really hated the fact that, despite the fact they outsold Pepsi, in blind taste tests people preferred their rival's sweeter product. And Pepsi continually ran ads that touted this. So Coke execs changed their basic formula until they came up with a sweeter Coke that beat Pepsi in those blind taste tests. But people didn't want a Coke that no longer tasted like the Coke they grew up with. New Coke tanked and they had to bring back the old formula. Which still outsold Pepsi.

For an example of a re-creation that did work, look at the longest running science fiction show in the world, Doctor Who. After 27 seasons, the classic series about a mysterious alien who traveled through all of time and space fighting evil was canceled. It was a beloved institution in Britain and a cult series here in America. After a decade and a half, it was revived. They discarded the quaint and outdated bits—the 25 minute episodes always ending in a cliffhanger, the rubbery-looking monsters, wobbly sets, laughable special effects and the almost complete absence of an inner life for the Doctor and his companions. They retained what was essential—the eccentric hero who periodically changes his face and personality, his marvelous time machine, the mind-blowing science fictional concepts and the fact that the show was made for the whole family. They improved the characterizations, the pacing, the drama and the special effects. Now the series' hero is as mainstream as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond.

We face a similar challenge in the church. God is calling us to be his agents in the ongoing work of establishing his new creation. The problem is that we tend to be very bad at discerning what is and is not essential about the old creation and thus what needs to be preserved. Some people want to throw everything out. Others want to retain it all. As usual the truth is somewhere between the two extremes.

You would think the essentials are obvious. For instance we don't know what Jesus looks like. We don't need to. That isn't essential to understanding him or following him. What he did and said are, however.

Our passage from Acts tells how Paul went to Ephesus and found some followers of John the Baptizer. They knew of the need to repent but not of their need for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is essential. He leads us into truth, convinces us of sin, and encourages us. The Spirit helps us pray, gives us the words to help us defend our faith, distributes spiritual gifts to believers. The Spirit unites us. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is God within us.

We've seen what happens when people attempt to follow Christ apart from the Spirit. We've seen when churches substitute hate for God's love. We've seen what happens when people try to turn the church into a money-making machine. We've seen what happens when people try to turn the church into a personality cult revolving around a super-star preacher. We've seen what happens when people try to eliminate all talk of sin, omit the confession from the worship service, get rid of all preparation for baptism, and erase all distinctions between Christianity and other religions, all in the name of a love that functions more like benign neglect. Those are all bad theologies. None are in the Spirit of Christ who loves all and calls all to repent, to deny themselves, to take up their crosses and to follow him.

One reason we don't see as much evidence of the kingdom of God in this world as we should is because people in the church tend to get sidetracked by non-essentials. Most news about the church is usually on issues like creationism, abortion, gay rights, priestly celibacy, saying “Happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” nativity displays in public places and other issues. They may or may not be important but they clearly aren't essential because they were never mentioned by Jesus. We spend so much energy on them, though, that people think that they must be central to the faith.

It's partially the media's fault. A nasty conflict within the church makes for a better story than church members feeding the hungry or setting up schools or staffing hospitals overseas or rebuilding communities after disasters or working for peace or helping refugees or sheltering the homeless or rehabilitating substance abusers or educating prisoners or fighting human trafficking or reconciling races or working across denominational lines or all the other boring good things we do.

But it's also true that when we have conflicts we often  go to the media to get our side out. And we are the ones who say the issues are so important that we can't possibly stay in the same communion or church or organization with those Christians who disagree with us. We put these issues ahead of the principle of accommodating the weaker brother and ahead of Christ's command to love one another.

The great thing about new beginnings is that they can take place practically anytime. You can decide to stop, rethink things, turn around, and start over. The church has gotten offtrack before. And the Spirit chose Christians like Benedict, Odo, Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, General William Booth, Dorothy Day and others to pioneer a new direction for the church. And not just any direction. First they asked what are the essentials of the Christian faith and practice and then they made changes in order to express them anew. They didn't simply return to a earlier expression or way of doing things. Recognizing the specific situations they found themselves in, they found new ways to express timeless truths. They didn't reinvent the wheel; they changed the worn out tire!

It's a new year. We face new challenges. Some people are going to want to hunker down and lay low until the whole thing is over. That's not going to work. Some folks are going to try going back and living in a golden age of the past. We don't have a time machine so that's not going to work. A few will see this as an opportunity to try something new. Of these, some will want to throw everything out and start from scratch. They will get attention but only some of what they come up with will be useful and most will not last. A very few will actually try to distinguish between what is essential and what is not, what to keep and what to change. They will use these insights to generate new paradigms, new ways of looking at and dealing with the challenges, ways that are paradoxically anchored in ancient truths.

It will take dedication. It will take passion. It will take a commitment to Jesus Christ. It will take the gentle touch of the Spirit. It will take listening for the approval of God. It will take humility and self-sacrifice and putting others before ourselves. God has set the stage. He has put the actors—us—in place. Every part, large or small, is important. We need to trust the author. And, saying “Yes” to what he has established, we need to move the drama towards its conclusion. There is no script but we know how this story will end: with reconciliation, with peace, with oneness, with the mutual love that will let the world know that we are his disciples and that the Spirit of God is doing something new. We are to model now the fact that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.  

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