The Edge of Faith

January 7, 2018

Series: January 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

The Edge of Faith

          Today, I’m going to talk about spatial dynamics in Scripture and a miracle that happened right here.  With which would you rather start?  Spatial dynamics it is!

          Bear with me. 

The Biblical story is a series of grand movements, of locations and dislocations. Last night we celebrated Epiphany, the magi, traveling across the globe to visit this mysterious star child.  Sometimes called kings, the magi left their power centers to reveal the true center of world in a child born of modest means, who would grow up to be a worker from a small town who spent his life largely wandering around the countryside teaching, healing, and staring down demons.  He had seemingly few possessions, perhaps not even a home.  God enters the world on the edge of society.

          Mark, likely the oldest of the gospels, includes no birth story.  It introduces us to Jesus as an adult getting baptized in a stream from someone who has just emerged from the wilderness eating bugs.  Talk about the edge!  Jesus’ first act is to do nothing, instead to be baptized, and when he is he sees the “Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mk. 1:10).  Notice, in Mark, unlike elsewhere, Jesus sees the Spirit descending like a dove.  There’s no indication anyone else does.  Miracles are not always for everyone to see, much less believe.  In this moment God proclaims from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11).

          This raises all kinds of questions.  What makes Jesus beloved?  He hasn’t done anything yet, at least that Mark feels consequential enough to tell us about.  Furthermore, the baptism John is offering is one for the forgiveness of sins.  Could Jesus have needed to repent?  Either way, Mark makes it clear that love is not earned in God’s economy.  It’s a helpful reminder especially this time of year.  As Nadia Bolz Weber, popular Lutheran preacher, puts it, “There is no resolution that, if kept, will make me more worthy of love.”[1]  Perhaps Jesus’ openness by submitting to baptism does make him more able to receive this free gift of love, more able to be a vessel for the Spirit in his life.  Jesus’ ministry, somewhat shockingly, begins on the edge of his control.

          It all emerges from the edge.  Read through Scripture sometime and notice how many dynamic and transformative things happen, not in traditional centers, but on an edge:  a healing at the temple gate, not in the temple itself, dynamic encounters and struggles happen in entryways to houses, not inside, conversions and mystical encounters on roads between cities and towns, supposed places of importance.  Once baptized, where does Jesus go, the wilderness, the edge.  These are contested spaces, where the rules are a little more up for grabs, sometimes dangerous, pregnant with possibility. 

          This is not so different from our world.  Where do the real deals get done, in the board room or after the meetings, at the bar?  At conferences, the hallways are the liveliest places not the meeting rooms.  What if we learned to embrace our edge times for what opportunities they bring.  Silicon Valley and other centers of innovation (there’s an oxymoron) have figured this out, building in unstructured spaces and times, creating protected spaces where new ideas and perspectives can emerge free of usual constraints.  For some living on the edge is a chronic reality, the result of systemic injustice.  While unchosen, even these can be spaces of opportunity.  As Vonnegut reminds us, when you’re on the edge, you can see things you can’t see from the center (see bulletin cover).  On the edge, you don’t have to spend all your resources propping up the systems that support the center, and it is enormously draining.  New things come from the edge; it’s where the term “edgy' comes from.  Do you know why the Genesis reading about creation is paired with today’s reading about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry?  It’s because Christians claim in Jesus a new creation, and where does God start to recreate the world in God’s image?  Not from the center, not from Rome, but from Bethlehem, from the edge.  

          Speaking of Rome…Despite what you’ve been told, it is a great time to be a follower of Jesus.  For the first time in history since the institutional church got in bed with empire in the 4th century, the locus of economic power and the vibrancy of the church have become disentangled.  The economic center of the world is still the West, while the church is flourishing primarily in the global South and the East in Africa and parts of Asia.  Some Westerners have seen this as cause for lament, but look what happens when the church is freed from propping up systems that aren’t very consistent with gospel values anyway.  Prophetic and creative edges are again emerging, imperfect yes, but certainly fresh and filled with new life.  Liberation theology, this gift from Latin America, has reminded us what has always been so, but over the centuries we had conveniently forgotten, that God stands first with the poor and oppressed, not those who hoard power and resources.  Look at the Pope.  His refreshingly Christlike way of being—which you’d think would be an automatic for religious leaders—has inspired millions, maybe billions, including many of us Protestants, and many non-Christians.  Do you think it’s a coincidence that he comes from the global South, from among the poor, with little to gain by supporting the status quo of extractive and unsustainable economies?

          A lot of people are feeling pushed aside to the edge right now.  Once you admit you’re there, there is possibility in what it may bring.  There, there’s less to lose and more to dream about.  There, there’s less to defend, and thus more opportunity to turn anxious energy into creative energy.  Let’s lean, as congregational sage Ted Scott suggested this week, more into our agency than our helplessness.  I got incredibly sick over Christmas, ended up in the ER, and down and out for days.  Sickness is an edge place; it makes you consider what’s important.  I realized anew that what is important to me is not propping up hollow incantations of the faith.  What’s important to me is witnessing about loving the world that God loves—I don’t just mean people, I mean the created world—the world that God created and recreated in Christ.  What’s important to me is standing alongside the poor and those taken advantage of by those who have more than enough, as Christ did, like the prophets before him and the prophets since.  If in doing so, some who perceive themselves as benefitting from the way things are get upset so be it.  The call of the Christian is not to be popular, not to be liked; the call is to be faithful to Jesus Christ.  Besides, nobody truly benefits from an unsustainable way of being.  Nobody benefits from such dramatic inequality, even those at the top. 

We’re about to endeavor to renovate, to build a new church building. I have no interest in doing it for the sake of doing it.  What moves me, and what I believe should move us as Christians is this project gives us a chance to create, to recreate, a space where a generation of people, young and old, can come and learn to view things from the edge as Jesus did, and become living vessels for the Spirit as Jesus did.

The story of John the Baptist shows us that if we follow Jesus to the edge, miracles will happen. They already have.  This fall when the wildfires came we gathered here to pray.  We prayed for those who’d been affected, for those who fought them, and then it happened…someone suggested we pray for rain.  You could sense the hesitation.  Do we do that? Can we do that?  What if it doesn’t work?  What if it does.  We were encouraged—and not by me; one of you was the vessel here—to draw images of rain, carry around images of water falling from the sky in our minds and hearts, hold the intention, return to it, pray for it.  Pray for rain.  It was October.  The next Wednesday, it rained.  One day.  Not again for weeks.  Say what you will.  Dismiss what you will, but according to Mark nobody else saw the Spirit descend on Jesus, but Jesus did, and look at what it did for him.  Look at what the Spirit did for him through his openness.  Is it a dark cloud following you around or is it the Spirit of God waiting and wanting to unleash a torrent of possibility upon you?  “I have baptized you with water; but Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Let us pray.

Vanish in us fear.

Eliminate overcast outlooks.

Wash away our encrusted shells.

Rain down on us your Spirit.

Baptize us in truth and courage.

Set us free and turn us loose.


 [1] Nadia Bolz Weber, Twitter.