Sermon: We Are The Ones

This sermon, by Joanna Lawrence Shenk, was given on the Second Sunday of Advent during our worship series, “Wilderness and Womb: We are the Ones Being Born.” The scripture text is Mark 1:1-8.

We are the ones being born. I love this thought put forward by Worship Committee in planning our Advent series. It’s also beautifully depicted on our bulletin cover. Amidst the chaos of our world, we are claiming new birthings of Spirit, and we are joining in that birthing process. So if we are the ones being born this Advent, does it follow that we are also the ones we have been waiting for? 

I’m sure many, if not all of us, have heard this iconic statement, attributed to the Jamaican American poet and educator June Jordan in her 1978 piece titled “Poem For South African Women.” This statement also appeared in a Hopi Elders’ Prophecy in the year 2000. Sweet Honey in the Rock put it to music. Books have been written by that title, and it was something the late Vincent Harding would remind people of often in their movement work. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

June Jordan included these words at the end of a poem which honors the story of the 40,000 South African women and children who rose up against apartheid in Pretoria in 1956. They were a movement of people claiming their power and boldly witnessing to the birthing of a new reality. They were living in kairos time, like Sheri talked about last Sunday. They were manifesting the new order of liberation and directly confronting the domination system. 

In the children’s story today read by Twyla, we were reminded of another more recent movement of people embodying liberation and emphatically saying no to the domination system. The resistance at Standing Rock to the Dakota Access Pipeline was a kairos experience. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe leading the movement in 2016 were alive with Spirit, and they continue to be. Collectively the gathered community, including over 500 Indigenous Nations, chose the way of healing and liberation, in the face of violence (as they have for generations). This choice, to be alive with Spirit, is an invitation always before us as people of faith, and it is not necessarily an easy path. 

In the scripture story we have for today there’s a lot of aliveness with Spirit happening. The writer, Mark, begins by saying this is a beginning… something new is happening. This is the new age of liberation that will forever be at odds with the old age of domination.

He writes, “The beginning of the (good news) gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is so much packed into just this one sentence. Scripture scholar Ched Myers notes how “the beginning” is a reference to Genesis, to the creative work of God, bringing the world into being. With this reference Mark is positing that his narrative is also a significant, creative beginning. Last Sunday in Adult Ed we reflected that kairos time is inherently creative. One indicator that we are living in the liberative new age is that we are connected to our innate creativity. 

Next we have the words “good news” or gospel. “Gospel” has a lot of religious baggage for many of us but the people in first century Palestine were not hearing the same thing. Gospel was a technical term meaning “news of victory,” especially as related to military battles. The imperial gospel was colonizing propaganda… “we are the greatest empire, all nations are subdued before us.” 

Mark was trying to win over the readers’ hearts and minds by telling a very different story than the imperial gospel. These are the glad tidings of a different kind of anointed leader. Given that Mark was writing at least 50 years after the events in his narrative took place, everyone would have known this leader was executed by the state. And yet Mark goes on to call Jesus, Yeshua, the Son of God, which was a term reserved for imperial royalty. 

This is a radical reversal of power, which is something the scriptures articulate over and over again. I think power reversals are also another indicator of kairos time. 

Next we have a scripture mash up from Isaiah and Malachi. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight God’s paths,’”

This is both a reference to the exodus from Egypt (another experience of kairos time), of God preparing the way through the wilderness. And it’s also an illusion to the prophet Elijah, who was a voice crying out in the wilderness. Elijah was believed to have disappeared into heaven from the Jordan river, where this narrative begins.

And then John the Baptist enters the scene, including a detailed wardrobe and diet description. Why, you ask? Myers puts it this way, “Just as a gaunt, bearded face and a stovepipe hat would conjure up the image of Abraham Lincoln for those socialized into modern American mythology, so would John’s garb have invoked the great prophet Elijah for Mark’s readers.”

It’s not a stretch to say that this prophetic genealogy (John as Elijah at the Jordan) is far more important to Yeshua’s identity than the litany of ancestry invoked by Matthew and Luke in their birth narratives. The gospels of Mark and John begin right off the bat with John the Baptist. There isn’t a birth narrative at all. Immediately Jesus/Yeshua is publicly identified with a notorious dissident, Myers continues, whose days are numbered because of his vocation of speaking truth to power. 

This not only makes the Nazarene complicit in John’s rebel movement, but also connotes a “passing of the torch” in a prophetic revival. As a sidenote, Mark’s narrative revisits the wilderness many times, to keep emphasizing the reversal of power, of God’s activity happening on the peripheries with common people, not in the centers of established power.

While Advent is traditionally a season to anticipate the birth of Christ, I would put forward that the scriptures are just as interested in the birth of a prophetic movement. Interestingly in the lectionary passages for Advent this year, only the last gospel passage focuses on a birth narrative. The first passage was about being awake and alive to the Spirit’s activity in the world. The second and third are about John the Baptist and Yeshua as adults, and the fourth is on Mary’s encounter with the angel, including the revolutionary Magnificat. There’s an invitation here to question Christian interpretations that focus solely on a savior being born and disregard the revolutionary inbreaking of God into systems of domination.

As movement theologian Rev. Lynice Pinkard says, “When God moves into the life of the world, everything changes.” The Spirit is constantly inviting us into kairos time, to live in the new age of liberation, and that will be disruptive.  

This is what was happening at the Jordan river with John the Baptist. John was proclaiming a  baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. That sounds like a mass movement to me! 

Repentance and sins are two more religiously loaded words that I want to unpack a bit. First repentance means to turn around, to go in a different direction. You could say that repentance was showing up in the wilderness in the first place, which meant moving away from the centers of power. This movement of people to the wilderness is another reversal of power that Mark employs in his storytelling. This new beginning, this good news, cannot happen in the halls of state sanctioned power and among religious elites. This is a revolutionary gospel. 

And it isn’t about forgiveness of individual sins. Most of the time in scripture the writers are speaking to collective realities. However western Christianity has taught us otherwise, as a way to suppress the revolutionary message of the text. The people were repenting of their collective turning away from God’s way. They were seeing through the lies of their imperial reality and moving collectively in a new direction.

Rev. Lynice says that we are afflicted by Empire Affective Disorder and our healing, our liberation is collective. In this moment we can see clearly the utter failure of a capitalist economic order to care for the most vulnerable. People in San Francisco are forming lines at 4:00 am in the morning to wait for hours until food pantries open. Many thousands of people are at risk of eviction across the state come February, and politicians lack the will to redistribute money in a way that would keep people housed. More immediately, over 2,000 people are at risk of being evicted from Shelter-in-place hotels in SF in the coming weeks, as the pandemic rages out of control and the weather is cold, with rain on the way. 

It is abundantly clear that we must turn from this madness, from a way of life that brutalizes and blames the most vulnerable. Just as the people in the wilderness were shedding their version of Empire Affective Disorder, we must also open ourselves to kairos time, the new age of liberation that is upon us, confessing our societal sins.

People are hungering for a new order. We are hungering for a new order. Yeshua was hungering for a new order along with all the others who went into the wilderness. Yeshua was not baptized for his calling as an individual, separated from others. He showed up in a moment when there was intense longing for a new beginning. The only true power is shared power, says Rev. Lynice, and I think that’s another indicator of kairos time. Yeshua was joining this revolutionary movement of the Spirit, along with countless other people who were hungering and thirsting for new life. They were all the ones they had been waiting for. 

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the ones being born. And maybe it’s even possible to say we are being born again. Our sacred stories empower us to be part of this revolutionary movement of the Spirit. May we step into kairos time, trusting the Spirit will guide us in our turning.