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The Words We Say -- "A Place for You Here" -- Mark 1:1-15 (First Sunday After Epiphany)





The Gospel of Mark begins with baptism – the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan River. It begins with prose that is spare and clear: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then, in the words of two prophets, it introduces “the voice of one calling in the wilderness.”

And then it happens: John the baptizer appears. And what a striking sight he is. He has left behind the city, and the settled countryside, and here he is in the wilderness – clothed like a prophet – clothed in camel’s hair, and eating locusts and honey.

And the people come. All the people. All the people in the city of Jerusalem. All the people from the countryside of Judea. They all come. They all come, confessing their sins, wanting to be baptized by John. The city and the countryside empty out – there is something happening – out here in the wilderness – away from the centers of power – out here on the margins. Biblical scholar Angela Porter wonders, with all these folks out here in the wilderness, “Is there something wrong back at the center of power in Jerusalem?”[1] And John says to them, I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I is coming – one who will baptize you with Holy Spirit.

And then it happens: Jesus appears. Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus is baptized by John – into the waters of the Jordan – all the way in, and back up.[2] And as he’s coming up out of the waters, the heavens open up and hears a voice. (I want to pause here for a moment, and hold this image, because we’ll come back to it.):

Jesus comes up out of the water. There they all are. Jesus standing in the waters with John the Baptizer – and all those who have come – those still standing in the water – those standing on the shore. And Jesus sees a vision – the heavens are torn open – the heavens open to the earth, and Jesus sees the Spirit descending like a dove – and he hears a voice – that we, the readers, hear with him: “You are my Son, my child, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

And then, things move fast: Jesus is thrown into the wilderness and tempted. The powers from the center come and arrest John the Baptizer. And then, Jesus begins his ministry, with his first words in this gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

During this Season of Epiphany, we are talking about “The Words We Say.” During Epiphany, we’re looking at the words we say in worship – words we’ve come to say in this community – and we’re thinking about how we see the words we say made manifest (Epiphany) in our world, in us.


This week, we’re lifting up this sentence that we say in our welcome to the service: “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, there is a place for you here.” These are words you’ve been saying longer than I’ve been here as pastor. Pastor Joanne Whitt said them again and again as a part of worship. And in my first weeks here, several of you – very gently and lovingly – asked me to keep saying them. When I arrived, I noticed that the one thing that folks spoke up to make sure that it continued was this specific welcome: “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, there is a place for you here.”


And of course, I’ve known this congregation for much longer than I’ve been pastor, and I’ve seen you live it out – these words of welcome. If you didn’t mean it when you said, “There is a place for you here,” Virginia and I wouldn’t be here leading worship today. I’ve seen those words manifest in you.

Even more fundamentally and essentially, we see the depth of those words manifest here in this Scripture – in this moment. All the people have come to the waters – all the people – and Jesus comes and stands with them – and he is baptized into the waters – into our life, into our death, and rising up out of the waters, into new life. Here is Jesus standing in the waters in the midst of us and our humanity – the Human One, the Son of God – all of us children of God – Beloved. “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, there is a place for you here.”

It’s important to say that up front – to ground ourselves here – (and we’ll come back to it) – because this has been a gravely unsettling week – where it feels like our world has been shaken to its foundations. Together, we have experienced a national trauma, as we watched a mob of angry, white, right-wing terrorists storm the US Capitol, trying to stop the constitutional transition of power – trying to stop the constitutional certification of the votes of the people through the Electoral College, the clear and settled results of the latest election. We watched an insurrection goaded on by the President of the United States to stop our democracy. Our nation shaken to its foundations.


We’ve seen the images – the mad rush through the barricades; the breaking glass; our elected leaders hiding for safety with their gas masks in hand; lawless rioters wandering through the Senate and House chambers taking selfies, vandalizing offices, stealing mail. Many of us watched it live on TV as it happened. We know the destruction; we mourn the deaths of 5 people killed in the insurrection.

I heard someone say it was a violation of “the temple of democracy,” and that caught my attention – that word “temple.” Because, actually, in an ultimate sense, for those of us who follow Christ, the Capitol is not our temple. It is important and central to our civic and national life. And we are traumatized by its defacement. But it’s not our temple; it’s not the center of our faith or our being; it’s not our identity.

Our identity – the stable ground on which we stand when the world is shaking around us – our identity is in Jesus Christ. Our identity is here standing in the waters with Jesus standing with us, in the fullness of humanity, with the heavens opened, standing together, each one of us a beloved child of God.


Our identity is in Jesus Christ.


The world around us – this nation we love – it is the context that God has given us to live out our identity – beloved children of God called to live and embody together in a particular nation God’s love and justice for the world we inhabit. Though the world around us may tremble, our identity in Jesus Christ is steady and sure.

And we need to affirm that, and stand there, and return there, because there are some things to be said and done about our world and about this week.

We are talking this Epiphany season about “the words we say,” and how the words we say are made manifest in the lives we live.

What we saw made manifest this week – on Epiphany – is what happens when the government and a culture create a world in which lies are allowed to pass for truth. This is manifest throughout human history – the power of lies allowed to masquerade as truth – but vividly so in this past week – and in the past four years. This Administration has created and perpetuated a culture of lies – where an alternative and false reality has taken hold and been nourished and sustained by almost daily falsehoods from the President. [3]


That has become even more manifest in the weeks following the election, culminating in the insurrection we saw this week. The President and those who enable him have convinced an alarming number of people that the election was somehow stolen from him through voter fraud, where that is simply and absolutely not true.[4] Again and again, state election officials – Republican and Democrat – have painstakingly detailed the methods that were used to secure and count the vote.[5] Again and again, courts have rejected baseless lawsuits claiming fraud, finding and holding that there is no evidence to support that lie.[6] Nevertheless, those lies have been repeated and allowed at the highest levels, and have gained a life of their own.


Those lies have been allowed to take up so much space that they have been the only words we’ve heard from the White House for these past two months – as thousands of Americans have suffered and died from COVID –

· no words that would lead this nation to a more disciplined pandemic response;

· no words that would help save life;

· no words that expressed even one bit of compassion for the suffering all around us.


As Senator Mitt Romney said late Wednesday night, the best way that elected leaders can show respect for voters “is by telling them the truth.”[7]


The words we say – and don’t say – matter, because they have the power to become an embodied reality – to be made manifest in us.


What we saw made manifest this week was also the power of words that express callous disregard for human life and that incite people to violence. Again, this is nothing new – not in our history, not in these past four years. When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, the president didn’t take action, but made a point to say he thought there were good people in their midst. When asked in a debate to condemn white supremacist groups, he deflected and instead told the white supremacist groups “to stand back and stand by.”[8] On Twitter, he invited folks to come to DC this week, saying it was “going to be wild.”[9] He and his family went on Wednesday and encouraged the crowd that would riot.[10] When asked to deploy the National Guard to protect besieged Senators and Representatives, he resisted.[11] When asked to condemn the riots and try to calm the insurrection, as the leader of this nation, he posted a video in which he said to the rioters, “We love you. You’re very special,” and on Twitter called them “patriots.”[12] We’ve heard all these words, and this week we watched them made manifest.


And Black Americans watched all this and noted a difference. This summer, when Black Lives Matter advocates protested in Washington DC at the White House, the administration ordered the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protestors to clear the way for a presidential photo-op, as the president threatened to deploy troops against the protestors.[13] Black Americans watched Wednesday’s white mob scale walls, break down doors and windows, take down American flags, hang a noose – and they said out loud truth that many white Americans will not see or say. I heard many say, “if that had been us, and not a white mob, we’d be dead.” The words of the Constitution promise equal protection of the law, and they noted the obvious, that those promises are not yet made manifest for people of color. My friend Rev. Floyd Thompkins explained, “We’re not asking you to shoot them like you shoot us; we’re asking you to NOT shoot us like you don’t shoot them.”


The words we say – and don’t say – matter, because they have the power to become an embodied reality – to be made manifest in us.


We are talking this Epiphany about the words we say and how they become manifest. In this morning’s Scripture, Jesus says very few words. They’re right there at the close of the passage, just as his ministry begins. And his words are this: “Repent. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


In this Scripture, we find our identity in the waters of baptism with Jesus Christ; we see the world, the center of power, menacing, never too far off; and Jesus calls us to repent and to do the work – as one scholar says – of re-ordering power in the world. Jesus calls us to the work of making manifest in our humanity the life-giving, life-honoring reign of God.


And as the gospel of Mark unfolds, we will see the detail of what Howard Thurman would call our “working papers” – our work to build

· a world where every separation is removed;

· a world where power over – the power to oppress – is re-ordered and replaced with empowerment – what Janie Spahr would call power for, power with, and power in;

· a world where the vulnerable are lifted up, and made whole;

· a world where everyone has enough.


This is ultimately not about a president, not about political parties. The lies that have been allowed to thrive have taken on a life of their own – and they have fused with the big lie of white supremacy – the lie that has plagued our nation from its inception. They have a destructive power of their own, and it is at loose in the world. When this president is soon out of office, the challenges and the work will remain. This is not about him.


For the country we call home, it is about the nation that we will choose to be. What words will we choose to make manifest in our national life? Will we choose to reject the lies that have for too long held sway? Will we choose at long last to make manifest for all people the words of the Constitution – equal protection of the law; a free and fair and equal vote for every person (no longer threatened by the violence of voter suppression or a white mob); a nation that establishes and secures justice and peace for all people; a nation whose citizens are truly free to pursue not only liberty and happiness, but life.


For those who follow Christ, it is about how we will live out our identity in Jesus Christ in ways that bring about the realm of God – ways of living that respect the dignity of all people and that make sure that everyone has enough, that everyone can live and thrive.

When we say, “Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, there is a place for you here,” we are talking first and foremost about our identity in Jesus Christ. We are saying to each other, to ourselves, and to every person – you are a child of God. Full stop. You are created in the image of God. You are Beloved. There is a place for you here.


© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] Angela Porter, “Living the Word” Commentary, Christian Century, December 30, 2020, p. 22. [2] The translation that Jesus is baptized “into” the Jordan (Greek, eis) comes from Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989). My reading of this text is significantly influenced by this work, and is also informed by Emerson B. Powery, “The Gospel of Mark” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008); Lectionary Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) and Angela Porter, “Living the Word” Commentary, Christian Century, December 30, 2020, p. 22. [3] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/13/president-trump-has-made-more-than-20000-false-or-misleading-claims/ ; https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/23/opinion/trumps-lies.html ; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/01/us/politics/trump-presidency-dishonesty.html [4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-and-his-allies-set-the-stage-for-riot-well-before-january-6-11610156283 [5] See https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2021/01/04/gabriel-sterling-trump-team-misled-voters-election-fraud-georgia/4130374001/ ; https://www.foxnews.com/politics/georgia-election-official-slams-trump-claims-of-widespread-voter-fraud-as-easily-provably-false [6] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/elections/interactive/2020/election-integrity/ ; https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/elections/2021/01/06/trumps-failed-efforts-overturn-election-numbers/4130307001/ ; [7] See https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/watch-romney-says-misinformation-from-trump-makes-it-difficult-to-convince-voters-of-the-truth [8] See https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-joe-biden-race-and-ethnicity-donald-trump-chris-wallace-0b32339da25fbc9e8b7c7c7066a1db0f ; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/06/donald-trump-armed-protest-capitol [9] See https://www.newsweek.com/trump-encourages-wild-protests-dc-date-electoral-college-vote-count-1556153 [10] See https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/08/capitol-riots-video-shows-trump-family-before-rally.html [11] See https://www.forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2021/01/06/reports-trump-resisted-sending-national-guard-to-quell-violent-mob-at-us-capitol/?sh=3e3a8ece1e18 [12] See https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/07/politics/trump-history-comments-trnd/index.html [13] See https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867420472/trump-set-address-protests-against-police-killings-in-white-house-remarks

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