Sunday, February 11, 2024

Phil Kniss: Ready or not, here we come...together

Mark: The Urgent! Gospel
NOW - we take risks
Mark 8:27–9:8

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In the journey with Jesus, very little is guaranteed.
To be a Jesus follower, is to decide, by free choice,
to take on risk.
Yes, life itself is a risk.
But to choose to follow Jesus in life is to take on additional risk.

And why would people do this?
Because they are drawn, like a magnet,
to the life Jesus offers.
This is especially the case when we’re talking about
people for whom their current life is less than satisfying.
Which make perfect sense,
because people who are already on the margins,
are more likely to be willing to take on more risk,
than those who feel like they have more to lose.

But why is the Jesus way so fraught with risk?
Because it lives by a different set of values than the Empire,
whose systems of power rule this world.
The reign of God operates with different motivations.

To borrow a few lines from my sermon last Sunday,
Rather than deferring to those who have accumulated
wealth, power, and prestige,
God seems to move toward the margins.
God shows preferential care for the poor,
for those who are being told they are of little worth.
Jesus socializes with thieving tax collectors and scandalous women;
he touches lepers;
he challenges both religious and imperial powers.

We know where that way of living led Jesus—
into confrontation with the civil and religious powers,
and with those who benefitted from those powers.

So if we believe, as we say we do—
that the church is the body of Christ in the world today,
is the continuing presence of Jesus in society,
that it embodies the reign of God in our life together—
and . . . if we live like we believe that,
then we can expect some pretty stiff resistance,
some push back.

This resistance comes from outside the church—
from the powers of Empire that start feeling threatened
when a community of people embrace the marginalized,
and refuse to bow to existing power structures.

And it comes from within the church,
from those of us who have long cozied up to the powers,
and aren’t so interested in living on the edge.

And the resistance comes even from within ourselves,
because we, individually, benefit in many ways
from the exercise of coercive power,
because it tends to be a stabilizing force,
it holds in check the more threatening aspects of life.
None of us are really looking for chaos—
for instability and vulnerability and risk.

But the life of a follower of Jesus,
inherently carries more risk in the near term,
because we purposely embrace a way of life,
that by definition is vulnerable and open
and hospitable to the world around us.
And it goes against the posture of Empire,
which by definition is coercive,
and protective, and defensive,
and seeks stability above all else.

This tug and pull between Empire and the way of Jesus
is what we see playing out in the Gospel reading today.
And the active resistance was both
outside the circle of Jesus followers,
and inside the circle.
Externally, both the temple and palace
were leaning hard on the Jesus movement.
The Roman Empire, and the religious hierarchy
were both threatened by Jesus’ openness and hospitality.
And when Jesus tried to make clear to his disciples
what they were walking into,
that their future included suffering,
the internal resistance ramped up.
Peter rebuked Jesus, it says.
He probably said, “By no means, Lord!
You must not purposely walk toward suffering.
Fight them. You can win this battle.”
Jesus replied, famously,
“Get behind me, Satan!
You are setting your mind not on divine things
but on human things.
If any wish to come after me,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.”

And the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus comes right after that.
Jesus and his three closest disciples go up a mountain,
where Jesus is overtaken with the light of glory,
and the images of Elijah and Moses are with him,
and despite Peter’s impulse to make the moment last,
to institutionalize it,
the glory immediately vanishes,
and they are back in the real world of resistance.

You know, we simply cannot read this Gospel of Mark honestly,
and imagine for one minute that Jesus intended
to birth a church that embraced Empire,
the way Christianity has done—
over the centuries, and to this day—
embracing institutional power and control
and stability and defensiveness.

The authentic church of Jesus Christ is a movement.
It goes boldly forward down a road,
where it can’t even see around the bend.
It moves toward the edges and margins.
It takes risks to join God’s work
of healing and repair and reconciliation.

And I dare say,
when the church does move forward with that kind of boldness,
it is magnetic.
It attracts others who are looking for a kind of life
that the Empire fails to deliver.

I hope and pray the community of faith at Park View Mennonite
is that kind of movement,
that attracts the attention of those who are called to join us,
so that we can stay on the move . . . together.

The world needs alternative communities like us.
So . . . world . . .
Ready or not, here we come . . . together.

We at Park View may be just one small expression of God’s family.
But we are joining with God
in the vulnerable and risk-filled mission
of the healing of the world.

And today, we are taking on even more risk, as we often do,
whenever we welcome new persons into this community,
and into this movement.

Because new members, always, will change who we are.
Maybe not radically change us.
But without a doubt,
our church household with these persons among us,
is different than the church without them.

—Phil Kniss, February 11, 2024

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Sunday, February 4, 2024

Phil Kniss: Popularity, power, and paranoia

Mark: The Urgent! Gospel
NOW - we face rejection
Mark 6:1-29

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As we’ve said, Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth
is fast-paced and urgent.
And as we move through it, the pace quickens,
and the conflict and tension build.

In the 5 chapters we’ve already breezed through,
Jesus ran into resistance everywhere.

Read it again and take note where he was resisted,
in chapter 1,
by ordinary people who didn’t understand him,
by an unclean spirit embodied in a man he encountered,
in chapter 2,
by scribes who thought Jesus was blaspheming God,
by Pharisees offended that he ate with tax collectors and sinners,
and offended that he broke Sabbath law,
in chapter 3, he was resisted
by Herodians in cahoots with the Pharisees to destroy him,
by scribes who said Jesus was full of the devil,
by members of his own biological family,
who thought he might be losing his mind,
in chapter 4,
by his own disciples confused by his parables,
and frightened by his power.
and in chapter 5,
by the Roman residents of the Decapolis,
who urged him to leave their region
after he freed a demoniac,
and upset the social, spiritual, and economic equilibrium.

So take note, and then . . . scan those 5 chapters again,
and notice, throughout, how overwhelmingly popular he was,
at the same time!
See how his followers, in their enthusiasm, clamored after him,
crowding him, touching him, praising him.

He could scarcely escape their adoration, their crying out for help.
No matter how hard he tried to get away, they would catch up.

Not even a third of the way through the book,
and the pattern is crystal clear—
the adoration, and the resistance, are both intense.
It will continue like this until it all comes to a head in Jerusalem,
and a life-and-death struggle plays out in both palace and temple,
where the authority figures of both the Roman Empire,
and the religious hierachy,
try to solve the Jesus problem with violence, by killing it off.

So what happens in Mark, and especially in today’s text,
is that we get a glimpse into the nature
of the kingdom of God.
Remember, that’s how Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke)
summarize the essence of Jesus’ message.
Jesus’ opening words in the Gospels are,
“Here is the kingdom of God.
It is near you.
It is at hand.
See it.
Hear it.
Taste it . . .
Enter it.”

In fact, the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, and lived, and demonstrated,
was compelling.
It attracted people like a magnet,
especially people who were being left behind
by the powers of the earth-bound kingdoms and empires.

Let’s do a quick review of today’s Gospel story—
actually three stories.
Story 1.
Jesus the prophet is not accepted in his own hometown.
All the adults in Nazareth knew Jesus from boyhood,
knew his working class family,
knew his siblings,
and just didn’t know how to reconcile his ordinariness,
with these reports of miraculous power.
Mark says, they took offense at him.
And because of that lack of trust, lack of faith,
Jesus was hindered in what he could accomplish there.
Mark says he did nothing much,
“except he laid his hands on a few people and cured them.”
Sounds like, “Whoop-die-doo! Nothing to see here.”

Story 2.
Since Jesus could do so little himself in that community,
he sent his disciples out into the countryside,
two by two, and delegated his own authority to them.
He gave them no provisions—only authority, and instructions.
Teach and heal and cast out demons.
Perhaps Jesus’ thought process was,
I have too much baggage here in this community.
Let them go out with no baggage,
and see what power
the Spirit might unleash through them.
As it turned out,
they had a much greater impact than Jesus had.
Mark says,
“They cast out many demons
and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
That’s a “whoop-die-doo” for real.

Story 3.
This is about King Herod,
who got word of Jesus’ growing popularity and power,
and then got paranoid.
Sounds like a lot of people were getting a bit tense over Jesus,
and couldn’t agree on what was really happening.
Some said, “It’s John the Baptist raised from the dead.”
Others said, “It’s the prophet Elijah.”
Or some other prophet of old, returned to the present,
to set things straight.
But Herod seemed to latch on to the theory
that it was John the Baptist come back to life,
which freaked him out, understandably,
because he was the one who recently had John beheaded.

Then Mark goes back in time to tell the story of John’s beheading.
How far back? Days? Weeks? It doesn’t really say.
But it’s certainly fresh in the memory of many people,
because the first thing that came to their mind,
to explain Jesus’ amazing power,
was that he was a resurrected John the Baptist.
It’s a strange and colorful story describing John’s beheading.
It happened at the culmination of Herod’s big birthday bash,
when they were probably all pretty well soused.

The details of the story are actually not that significant.
What’s important here is the pattern
being repeated over and over in Mark.
This is yet another example of how power from below,
disturbs and distresses power being exercised from above.

The powerful deeds of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth,
stand in stark contrast to the power being exerted by,
and anxiously grasped by the likes of Herod, and Caesar,
and the scribes and Pharisees, and such.

It seems that Empire and hierarchy of all kinds
exercise power over, bending underlings to their will,
by whatever means necessary.
Whereas the power of Jesus and John and the prophets of old,
challenge the power structures over them,
and are seen as a mortal threat.
So much of a threat,
that executing the offender seems like the most viable solution.

Those calculations are still being made in our world today.
We know that, of course,
simply by following the news coming out of Ukraine and Gaza
and too many other places to name.
The powers exert their influence on others by force or violence,
and keep doing it that way, until they can’t.
Until a greater power overtakes them, and does it back to them.
That is the character of the kingdoms of this world,
of empires, of monarchies, of dictatorships . . .
of democracies, republics, and socialist states.
Sadly, this reality is not limited to the powers of the State or Nation.
It is also the character of many of our own
public and private institutions,
and political parties,
and other organized social entities.
It even finds its way into the church and religious bodies.
It has become an accepted way of being in this world.

Our culture has an obsession with popularity, with celebrity.
People who are able to attract attention,
generally are also able to gather power around themselves.
They are influencers.
And once they leverage their popularity into power,
and institutionalize that power,
and establish a position from which they wield that power,
then the paranoia sets in.
They start feeling threatened when others get some of the limelight,
because . . . limelight leads to power,
and their hold on power might start to loosen.
So they lash out, try to damage their rivals.

I’m only describing what we all see right in front of our eyes,
as we watch what’s happening
in our political system,
in our culture,
on public school boards,
and every other place power is being wielded
from a position of superiority.

Jesus points us in a different direction.
There are other ways to look at power.

The reign of God operates with a whole different set of assumptions.
It’s clear in scripture,
God shows preferential care for the poor,
for those who are being told they are of little worth.
That’s why Jesus, in Mark, and in every other Gospel,
moves toward the margins,
socializes with thieving tax collectors and scandalous women,
touches lepers,
and challenges both religious and imperial powers.
Jesus is exercising another kind of power.

Dr. Amanda Brobst-Renaud,
a Lutheran pastor and theology professor at Valparaiso,
drawing on the work of other Mark scholars,
wrote a brief commentary on this text,
and contrasted the reign of God and the reign of Rome.

Rome works from the center out;
God’s reign begins at the margins,
in the wilderness, initiating a new sociopolitical order.
Rome works from the top down;
God’s reign starts from the bottom up,
a peasant movement spreading like invasive mustard plants.
Rome secures the strongest of its people and exploits the weak;
God’s reign restores the weakest and the most vulnerable.

Rather than power demonstrated by all that one HAS,
power in God’s reign is demonstrated by all that one GIVES.

Maybe it’s too much to ask,
but wouldn’t it be an amazing turn-around of our polarized culture,
if we could redefine power in terms of what we give away,
instead of what we accumulate?

It might be a lot to ask of our whole society and political system.
But maybe, it’s a fair question to ask ourselves.

Do we measure our own life and contributions
and yes, personal power,
by what we have, or by what we give?
And what difference might it make,
if we started measuring our own self-worth
by what we contributed to the well-being of others,
particularly those on the margins?

We have an example in Jesus.
We have a saving redeemer in Jesus,
who by the power of Spirit is able to transform us
into his likeness.

—Phil Kniss, February 4, 2024

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Sunday, January 28, 2024

Moriah Hurst: Healing Interrupted

NOW - we heal and restore
Mark: The Urgent! Gospel
Psalm 131; Mark 5:21-43

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Sunday, January 21, 2024

Phil Kniss: Where all roads lead to freedom

Mark: The Urgent! Gospel
NOW - we bind and release
Mark 5:1-20

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If you looked at today’s Gospel reading on Friday 
when the bulletin and email went out,
I wouldn’t fault you if you considered staying home,
because you weren’t very excited to
listen to a story and sermon on the
exorcism of a howling demoniac that lived in a cemetery.
What a strange and awful story to plan a whole service around!
I wouldn’t fault you if, in the end,
you came only to hear the SVCC kids sing.

But now that you’re stuck here with me for a few minutes
with this horror story—
and you’re not going anywhere because the SVCC
still has one more song—
my aim is to make you glad you stuck it out,
because this story is a Gospel Story,
it is good news for everyone,
and, believe it or not, it relates to everyone.

Despite how strange and otherworldly it might seem,
there are many paths, many roads into this story.
Which path you take, of course,
depends on where you start from.
But regardless, all roads lead to freedom!

Let’s revisit the context of this story.
I mentioned a few weeks ago when we started into Mark’s Gospel,
that Mark likely emerged as a summary of Peter’s preaching,
possibly compiled by John Mark,
while both he and Peter were in Rome,
while Rome was at war against their own Jewish people
back in Jerusalem.

So this Gospel is aimed at convincing Gentiles, primarily,
Gentile citizens of the Roman Empire,
that the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah,
the promised Savior,
and the only true Son of God,
despite the fact that the Roman Emperor,
who people worshiped as a God,
claimed for himself the title, “Son of God.”

So imagine Peter, and his secretary John Mark,
making this bold claim, in Rome, and broadcasting it
in outright opposition to the Empire,
and all the power of the Empire.
Pretty gutsy of them.
But they saw it as an urgent matter.
A matter of life and death.
That’s Mark: the Urgent! Gospel

This is the good news, the Gospel.
The power of God is power for life.
Jesus came on God’s behalf
to bring full, meaningful, and abundant life to everyone.
The death-dealing and violent power of Empire
is both false and corrupt.
It wields a lot of power. Oppressive power.
But it can’t deliver on its promise of life.

So stick that in the back of your mind, as I retell this story,
from the urgent Gospel of Mark.

Jesus and his disciples leave the glory of Galilee,
where they were hugely popular,
throngs following every movement,
and they got into a boat and crossed over the sea
into Gentile territory.
And not just any Gentile territory.
They went to the Decapolis,
a region on the eastern edge of the Empire,
settled mostly by veterans of the Roman imperial army,
who were given these conquered lands
as payment for their service to Rome.

Symbolically, this region reeked of Roman military might and power.
And who was the very first human
that Jesus and the disciples encountered?
Well, when they got out of the boat, immediately—
there’s that word of urgency once again, εὐθέως—
immediately, as their feet touched the ground
in this land of imperial power,
they met a man too strong for anyone there to tame.

He was possessed of demons, we are told.
Demons by the name of Legion, because they were many.
That is military terminology.
Every original reader of Mark would have known
that Legion is the Roman word for a unit of 3,000–6,000
men in the imperial Roman army.
Coincidence, in the Decapolis? I don’t think so.

The townspeople, military veterans,
were unable to bind this man.
They tried.
They bound him with shackles.
They bound him with chains.
But he busted loose, no matter what.
He had no place of welcome or refuge.
He lived as an outcast,
in the only place he wasn’t resisted—
among the tombs, death surrounding him.

This is utterly dreadful.
Powers of evil at work that no one could overcome,
even those trained in Caesar’s army—
Caesar, who was called Son of God.

Did you hear the first words out of the mouth of this man,
when he saw Jesus?
“What have you to do with me,
Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
His demons, named “Legion,”
recognized Jesus as the only one
who rightly held the title, Son of God.
Legion—the demon named after 3,000 men in Caesar’s army—
called Jesus by that name, not Caesar.

And the story unfolds in dramatic fashion.
Legion begged Jesus not to torment them,
but if they were going to be cast out, to please, please,
let them be cast into a herd of swine.
Which Jesus did.
And the herd of pigs became the host for the unclean spirits.
And the whole herd—2,000 pigs—almost enough to be a legion,
ran down the hill into the sea and drowned.

Those herding the pigs ran to tell the townspeople,
who came out to see Jesus,
and saw the formerly possessed man,
now clothed, calm, and in his right mind,
and begged Jesus to leave their region, now.

They were more afraid of the power that freed this man
than they were of the power that bound him to begin with.

And in the bittersweet ending, as Jesus got back in the boat,
the freed man begged to go with him.
Jesus said, no, you stay here and spread the good word.
“Go home, and tell everyone how much the Lord has done for you
and what mercy he has shown you.”
And the man went and proclaimed through all the Decapolis
how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone was amazed.

Now, remember I said this story was good news for everyone.
And that there are many paths, many roads into this story.
And in this story, all roads lead to freedom.

What I love about the Bible is that often,
there is more than one meaning in a text.
There are often more ways than one to find truth in scripture.
And what it means to you has to do with where you start,
with your particular angle,
with your location,
with your world view.

This story is a prime example.
So what are some of these paths?

As I’ve already hinted, there’s a potential political reading.
In a context where the Roman Empire
was an occupying force, at war against the Jews,
it is not hard to find hidden symbolism throughout this story.
It took place in a region filled with veterans of Caesar’s army.
The demons, named after a legion of the Roman army,
occupied this man,
much like they occupied Judea, the land of Abraham.
Was this story an attempt, in code,
to predict the outcome of the struggle
between the Roman Legions,
and the children of Abraham?

Some scholars think there’s a not-so-subtle message in this story
that the power of the Gospel,
the power of the risen Jesus,
is stronger than, and more life-giving than,
the power of Empire, and political oppression,
and the power of violence.
And in the end, all those powers will bow to,
and need to give account to, the Lamb of God.
And all those they oppressed and bound will be freed.
Good news, right?

There are also sociological paths into this story.
Was this demoniac a scapegoat for the townspeople?
Were they projecting onto him
the sins and emotional wounds of the community?
Was it easier to overlook their own sins and shortcomings,
knowing someone worse off than they, the scapegoat,
the “black sheep” of the community,
was out there in the tombs, naked and howling?
Later, when he sat fully clothed, and sane,
and needed to be reintegrated into the community,
they couldn’t handle that.
It upset the equilibrium that the scapegoat provided for them.

So there’s a message in this story that the power of the Gospel,
the power of the risen Jesus,
is stronger than dysfunctional systems of family
and community and even church,
that have a way of scapegoating and marginalizing,
and keeping some people from living the full lives
they were created to live.
And in the end, the binding power of
sinful community narratives will bow to,
and need to give account to,
the Jesus who ate with tax collectors and sinners.
And all those who were bound will be freed.
Good news, right?

There are also personal and spiritual paths into this story.
If you start from a spiritual paradigm
that includes the potential for oppressive, demonic forces
to indeed possess an individual, and overpower them,
binding them, mind, body, and spirit,
and keeping them from being whole,
then this story, when read quite literally, is good news.

So there’s a message here that the power of the Gospel,
the power of the risen Jesus,
is stronger than any demonic force,
known or unknown, named or unnamed.
In the end, any spiritual force, in any form,
that keeps people from living full and whole lives,
marked by peace and joy and safety and fruitful labor,
that force must also answer to Jesus,
the great healer and restorer.
And all those who were bound will be freed.
Good news, right?

Many roads into this story, and they all lead to freedom.

Friends, we live in a world where evil often seems to get its way.
The good people don’t always win.
Violent and deceitful people seem to work their way
into places of power and influence—
around the world, and in our own land.

And systems of violence and oppression are persistent.

We all know that slavery in America did not actually disappear
after the Emancipation Proclamation.
It only took different forms,
because those who held the power were not ready to release it.

And the legacy of white European oppression of native peoples
is also still with us,
in various forms, and to various degrees.

The powers of evil are persistent.

Devastating wars and acts of state-sponsored genocide,
still happen around the world—either currently, or in recent past.
Gaza, Ukraine, Darfur,
the Uyghur people in China, the  Rohingya in Myanmar,
the DR Congo, South Sudan, ISIS in various countries,
and too many more to name.
This kind of wanton destruction of men, women, and children,
and of whole communities,
is evil, and it’s persistent.

And individuals and family systems are also subject to forces of evil
that oppress and bind and restrict and abuse—
whether spiritual, mental, emotional, relational, physical,
or some combination of several of those,
because they all interconnect,
and keep us from being whole people.

Today’s strange Gospel reading is good news
for a world in chains, and howling,
and being tortured by demons of every variety.

Many of us feel—either individually, or socially, or politically—
that we are bound, prevented from living a full life.

But the urgent good news of Mark tells us,
there is an even more persistent power for life,
a power that is greater than the power that seeks death.
God is for life.

20 years ago, Mary Louise Bringle wrote a hymn text
that took this Gospel story about the demoniac,
and brought it home to our present reality.  Listen . . .

Cast out, O Christ, cast far away the demons that destroy:
the haunting dreads that choke our souls, the hates that stifle joy.

Our raging griefs, our jealous fears are Legion in their name.
Our shackled hearts implore your grace to loose our binding shame.

Once long ago, from Galilee, you sailed to storm-tossed shores.
And still, in pow’r, you brave new paths to breach our bolted doors.

Your Word breathes life and health and hope that break through evil’s thrall.
You send us, strengthened, home in peace to live your gospel call.

—Phil Kniss, January 21, 2024

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Sunday, January 14, 2024

Paula Stoltzfus: Tending and Trusting Seed and Sower

NOW - we sow seeds
Mark: The Urgent! Gospel
Psalm 126; Mark 4:1-34

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Sunday, January 7, 2024

Phil Kniss: The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah

Mark: The Urgent! Gospel
"NOW - we turn toward the good news"
Mark 1:1-20, 2:1-22

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What’s the hurry—what’s so urgent—
in this Gospel according to Mark?
And what is actually in the text—or not in the text—
that makes bible scholars say
Mark is action-oriented, and has a sense of urgency about it?

Actually, there are plenty of clues.
When you hold Mark up and compare it to the other three Gospels,
of Matthew, Luke, and John,
you notice several things.
It’s the shortest Gospel.
It’s the earliest Gospel.
It’s the Gospel that contains by far fewer words spoken by Jesus.
It has the fewest parables.
It has no long teaching sections.
Not as much focus on what Jesus says
or what he and others think.
The focus is on what Jesus does.
And actually, some of the stories of what Jesus does,
are longer in Mark, than the other Gospels,
because Mark adds more vivid detail.
Mark does not include a birth narrative.
We start right in on his ministry activity.
If we had only Mark, we’d have no Christmas stories. Period.
And as we move from one vivid story to another,
we often find a Greek adverb—εὐθέως, (eu-theh'-os)
usually translated immediately, or at once, or directly.
Just to compare, this shortest Gospel uses that word 42 times.
Luke, almost twice as long, uses it 7 times.
That can’t be a coincidence.
The word appears 13 times in just the first two chapters.
In today’s reading we heard that
the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness
immediately they left their nets and followed him
immediately he called them
immediately the paralytic took his mat and walked out

Full disclosure.
I’m barely going to touch on the two long readings from Mark
we heard this morning, about Jesus’ baptism,
temptation, calling of disciples, and a healing story.
I hope you were listening well, when Silas and Wendel read them.
If not, read them again at home this week.
We’ll probably circle back to them a few times,
during our 13-week journey through Mark.
But this morning, my goal is to lay some groundwork
for that journey.

This is our fourth yearly cycle of the Narrative Lectionary.
Each year gives us a chance to spend lots of time in one Gospel.
We started with Luke, in 2021.
Then John in 2022.
Last year was Matthew.
This year we complete our 4-gospel cycle.
If your memory is sharp,
you might recall that each Gospel had its own character,
its own origin story,
its own “agenda.”
And that informs how we read that Gospel.
What a gift to have these four different complete tellings
of the story of Jesus.
Lots of common material between them.
But each one gives us a different, and unique portrait of Jesus,
and a different slant on how we follow Jesus.
And I think that’s beautiful.

You may recall last year, when we launched in Matthew,
I said that the probable origin of the Gospel
was a traumatized community of Jesus-followers
in the city of Antioch, soon after 70 AD,
when Rome defeated Jerusalem,
and left the city in ruins, the temple destroyed,
and over a million Jews dead in the city.
You just can’t NOT take that context into consideration,
when you read Matthew,
and see all the ways the storyteller tries to
build up a beaten-down people.

So what’s the back story of Mark?
Well, we can’t be certain.
Historically, there has been a widely-held opinion
that this Gospel is based largely
on the preaching of the apostle Peter.
And perhaps, it could have been written down, at least in part,
by John Mark,
the disciple who accompanied Paul for a bit,
but then left and became kind of a secretary to,
and interpreter of, the apostle Peter.
And there is the thought that the writing may have happened
while both Peter and John Mark were in Rome,
around 65 AD and following,
during a time when Rome was actively at war against
Judea, and the Jewish people in general.

There are multiple clues in the text that support these ideas.
Including this focus on the actions of Jesus,
more than his words and theology.
As a disciple, Peter was not a philosopher-theologian.
He was an action-oriented, impulsive, “git-er-done” disciple.
So Mark easily sounds like it could be Peter preaching.
And if the community where it was written was Rome,
and the audience was largely Gentile, not Jewish,
that would account for how often
Jewish customs are explained to the reader,
and the frequent words or phrases of Latin origin.

But regardless who first wrote down this Gospel, and from where,
it’s pretty clear the audience is Gentile,
and the intent is to convince the hearers
that Jesus, not Caesar, was the authentic Messiah, the Christ,
and that he came bringing Good News for everyone,
Jews and Gentiles alike.

So if we say Mark is summarizing Peter’s preaching
in and around Rome,
the urgency of this Gospel begins to make a lot of sense.
Rome—this overpowering and highly militarized Empire—
was at war against the woefully weak
and pathetically underpowered forces of Judea.
This Gospel is not written from a place of strength,
or comfort,
or optimism,
or respectability.
It is written from the underside of society,
from the perspective of the oppressed and occupied.
And it’s written to citizens of the Roman Empire,
whose Caesar, whose Emperor, claims to be the divine Savior
and used the title “Son of God,” to refer to himself.

The urgent message of the Gospel of Mark
butts up against the Empire, head on, as an act of resistance.
No hesitation. No indecisiveness. Immediately. εὐθέως.
Here is my paraphrase
of the urgent Gospel message in the book of Mark.
“Join us. Join this fringe movement. Now. It’s the real deal.
It’s worth you taking the risk, making the leap,
and becoming a Jesus-follower.
Now. Do not waver. Do not delay.
The life you were intended to live can be found
in the community of those who follow Jesus.
It’s more real than the Empire.
It’s more life-giving than chasing wealth and power
and prestige, like Rome teaches you to do.
Furthermore, the Caesar is an imposter. He’s a fake.
Jesus is the Savior. Not Nero.
Jesus is the Son of God.
No earthly ruler can compete.”

And Mark puts that confrontational message in chapter 1, verse 1:
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah,
the Son of God.”

I used to think that was just a generic greeting to open the book.
Like, “Dear friends. Here’s what I’m going to write about.”
No!  Those are confrontational words, political words.
They are taken right out of the mouth of the Roman Empire,
and turned around against it.
Rome used the phrase “Good News” (or evangelion in Greek)
when sending word of military victories around the Empire.
Rome praised its Caesar as their anointed Savior.
Caesar accepted the honorific title of Son of God.

So everyone hearing this Gospel of Mark for the first time,
would have been jarred by that opening line.
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah,
the Son of God.”
Them’s fightin’ words.

So . . . do you think there are any points of connection
between that context for Mark,
and today’s violent and materialistic and politically fraught world
where we Jesus-followers live?

 Let me re-read my paraphrase of Mark’s urgent message,
and change just a couple of words, and see what you think.

“Join us. Join this fringe movement. Now. It’s the real deal.
It’s worth you taking the risk, making the leap,
and becoming a Jesus-follower.
Now. Do not waver. Do not delay.
The life you were intended to live can be found
in the community of those who follow Jesus.
It’s more real than the American Dream.
It’s more life-giving than chasing wealth and power and prestige,
like our Western culture teaches you to do.
Furthermore, the power elite in D.C. are imposters.
Wall St. and Madison Ave. are selling us cheap fakes.
Jesus is the Savior. Not your political party.
Jesus is born of God. 
No president or prime minister can compete.”

I look forward to continuing this journey through Mark,
with you, the family of faith at Park View,
and everyone listening in from the margins,
as we discover again, the relevance, urgency, and beauty
of the Gospel message of radical following of Jesus,
in our world today.

No better way to mark the beginning of that journey,
and the beginning of a new year together,
than to come to the Lord’s Table,
and remember where Jesus’ journey led him,
and the gift that his sacrificial life, death, and resurrection
is for us all.  (invite servers forward)

The communion table at Park View
is open to all followers of Jesus,
who wish to commune with us,
whether or not you are a member of this congregation.

When indicated, come to the front by the two angled aisles.
And return to your seats either by the center aisle,
or the side aisles along the walls.
Ushers will dismiss you, beginning at the back.

If you are receiving communion today,
hold out an open palm, and receive a piece of bread
(free of gluten, eggs, or dairy)
then take a juice cup, and return to your seats with bread and cup
so we can eat and drink all together when indicated.
If any of you need or prefer to be served in your seat,
we will bring the bread and cup to you.
Just indicate with a raised hand at that time.

If you are not receiving communion today, for whatever reason,
you are welcome to come to the front anyway,
and come to Moriah or me,
and we will offer you a word of blessing.

Listen now, to the words of institution, from 1 Cor. 11.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Christ, who invites us to follow him in all of life,
now invites us to eat and drink with him.
Let us do so, in reverence, and in gratitude.

—Phil Kniss, January 7, 2024

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