Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 7, 2018
“Ripped Apart. Sewing Us Back Together”
Mark 1: 4-11
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.”
When I hike, I want a payoff at the end, like a stunning 360-degree view from the top of a peak, or a waterfall or an alpine lake, preferably with some snow still visible feeding the icy cold water. To me, there’s nothing so dull as just a walk through the woods. Give me a view of the majestic snow-capped peaks behind Brainard Lake, wildflower-covered vistas around Silver Dollar Lake… Give me the Calypso Cascades or Ouzel Falls. …funny how prominent water is in these images.
If I ask you to think of images of water, what comes to mind? Close your eyes for a moment. Water. What do you see? Is it a peaceful, serene body, like an alpine pond? Is it a mountain waterfall? A Minnesota lake? The mighty Mississippi. The crashing waters of the ocean? Water from a hot steaming shower to sooth sore muscles or a cold drink to quench our thirst. Are we grateful for clean water running from the tap or frightened, like in Flint, of water that is dangerous, full of toxic lead and pollutants? Do we envision oil washing up on the Gulf Coast? Or images of yellow water flowing through Durango.
How about doves? If I ask you to think of images of a dove, what comes to mind? Close your eyes for a moment. Doves. What do you see? Doves flying gracefully or quietly perched on a wire? Memories of doves set free at a wedding. Or trapped in a cage? Do you see their soft white feathers or a bunch of droppings to pick up? Do smile at their peaceful cooing? Or get annoyed when they won’t shut up so you can finally fall asleep? For every image, there is often a counter image. This text from Mark is full of them.
So, imagine, the scene of Jesus in the water for his baptism. Children joyfully splashing in the River Jordan next to him. But, talk about a counter image, did you know that today the site of Jesus' baptism has become so dangerously contaminated, tourists are urged to stay out of the river's waters. There is more sewage flowing into the river than fresh water.
So, John the Baptist. There’s not a lot left to the imagination. Mark, the gospel writer, is a man of few words. He only writes what is absolutely necessary, so it is notable that Mark uses an entire verse just to describe John. “Clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, he ate locusts and wild honey.” With that image, I picture in my mind the wild, unkempt hair of someone who couldn’t care less about his appearance. An ascetic. I figured that John chose to wear camel hair because it was itchy and uncomfortable. Maybe once upon a time it was, but today, I discovered, it is the must-have fiber of luxury, high end designers. Plus, it is touted as the most environmentally sustainable animal fiber in the world. John the Baptist, fashion icon? Counter images.
So, back to the scene in the river. After being dunked, Jesus emerged from the water. The text describes that “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” Close your eyes and picture that. The heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove.
What did you see? A dove, gently wafting through the air, cooing a lovely song of adoration? Landing sweetly on his shoulder? Or did any of you picture a bird divebombing, like a pelican plunging headfirst into the water for their dinner of fresh fish.
How many of you pictured the revealing of blue sky after a storm? There’s a problem with such a serene image, however. It’s the particular, specific word Mark chose. The heavens were “torn apart.” The Greek word Mark used here is skhizein, or schizo. Some translations say “ripped apart” or “torn open.” One translation simply says “the heavens opened.” As in, the rays of sun emerging. But the word schizo is too important. It has echoes of Advent and the Prophet Isaiah who pleaded for God to “tear open the heavens and come down. Fix this awful mess we have made on earth.”
The word schizo appears only one other time in Mark’s entire gospel. As bookends. At his baptism, which for Mark is chapter 1. He provides no birth narrative. And then again only when Jesus breathed his last breath and died on the cross. At that very moment, the curtain of the Temple was torn, schizo, divided from top to bottom.
The curtain of the Temple didn’t just open, it was ripped apart. And not like a bed sheet, easily torn by human hands. The curtain that hung in the Temple was as dense as a rug or a thick tapestry. Human hands could never have torn it apart. It could only be interpreted as an act of God. The Gospel of Matthew, which builds off Mark’s original text, adds that an earthquake shook the earth at the same moment the curtain was schizo, being ripped apart. Therefore, it seems like the image of the heavens opening at his baptism should be as equally unsettling, matched in its magnitude.
That’s kind of a disconnect from our common practice of baptism in the UCC. A quiet little chaste sprinkling of water upon our foreheads. Or the way most of us join the church. The standard practice in most UCC churches is that people simply stand up in front, give a little introduction, and then we recite a few words of a covenant with each other. Meaningful, but not particularly unsettling.
A Connecticut pastor suggested that to join the church we should have to go skydiving first. Step off the plane from thousands of feet in the air, free fall plummet to the earth, and then pull a rip cord to land safely on solid ground. Or something equally frightening. In my case, ride a roller coaster. You’ve never heard such foul language from a pastor than if you were to listen to me on a ride at an amusement park. For me it is simply and absolutely a fearful, frightful form of torment, torture, and agony. But what if baptism or church membership, or better yet, simply the Christian life, meant confronting such fear? Our most extreme forms of fear, whether sky diving, roller coasters, or public speaking. Utterly unsettling.
If that were the case, everyone in the church would have had a shared experience of sheer terror at some point in their Christian life. Young people would look at their elders with their walkers and canes and marvel that they too once jumped from a plane to be part of this congregation.
So, if I asked you to close your eyes and picture a Christian, what would you see. Let some images roll through your mind. Some of those images are probably pretty terrifying. Not sky divers, but Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell (Sr. and Jr.), Phyllis Shafley.
But picture these counter images:
A different question. If I asked you to give me an image of the biblical commandments, you might think of the huge monuments on county court house lawns or perhaps describe a long list of “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.” Or maybe remember that Jesus said, “love one another.” But what is the number one command in the Bible? It’s “Do not be afraid.” The specific phrase “Do not be afraid” is used at least 70 times. Add to that, “Fear not” or “Do not fear,” and the number soars. How about the phrase “love one another?” Only eleven times, but of course, love is spoken of many more times too.
But it makes me wonder whether the Bible isn’t more concerned about fear than even love, which might be the biggest reason we don’t love. We’re afraid of the other. Isn’t fear the counter image of love? Perhaps that’s why to fulfill the theme of love in the Bible, prophets, angels, and messiahs must repeatedly assure us, “Do not be afraid.”
But it’s more than that. They add, “Because.” Do not fear, because. Fear not, because. Because why? The most frequent answer is because “I am with you.” Or “God is with you.” The angel Gabriel told the young Mary, “Do not be afraid because you have found favor with God” and “because nothing will be impossible with God.”
But it’s not just a matter of “because.” The Bible just as often adds “so that.” “Do not be afraid, because I am with you, so that…”
Back to the scene at the baptism of Jesus. What was it? A peaceful, serene moment, splashing in the water, blue skies opening, a dove gently floating down? Or the frightful experience of being pushed underwater by a wild-eyed prophet, the skies violently ripped apart, and a bird divebombing its way right toward us. A pretty frightening image. But, if that’s what it was, what happened then? The text says a voice from heaven proclaimed – “You are mine, Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” i.e. Do not be afraid, because you are not alone.
But that wasn’t it. Baptism is just the beginning, not an end unto itself. That unsettling experience is just getting us started. I am with you so do not be afraid of the consequences of your baptism because, like Jesus, I am preparing you to face a world that isn’t peaceful and serene but is schizo, being ripped apart. I’m sending you into this schizo world to sew us back together. Like
If I ask you to picture Christian life, what do you see? Our own baptismal vows include the promise, with the grace of God (meaning, not alone), we will follow in the way of Jesus Christ, [which is] to confront the powers of hatred and oppression to show love and justice. That is the witness and work of a Christian.
It might be a counter image to some people, more Colin Kaepernick than Tim Tebow. Not as serene but unsettling. But, picture it, that’s how we will sew the world into one that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate.
Litany: Remembering Our Promises
One: Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, to follow in the way
of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice,
and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?
And do you promise, according to the grace given to you, to grow in your faith
and to be a faithful member of the church, celebrating Christ’s presence and
furthering God’s mission in all the world?
 Mark 15:38.
 Maxwell Grant, http://day1.org/6319-torn_open_by_god
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world