Sunday, February 5, 2023

HOMILY: "Just Love!"

A Meditation on Mark 1
Sunday, February 5, 2023


So we don’t know—because today’s story doesn’t say—why Jesus wanders so, so far from home to seek out John in the wilderness.  To offer himself to that river.  To surrender himself to John’s strange promise: this life-change that leads to communion and reconciliation.  What we do know is that John’s practice was not the traditional Christian rite of baptism—because there were obviously no Christians to be found in those days.  Not yet.  Instead, John’s practice was the ancient and thoroughly Jewish practice of “mikvah”—a kind of ritual cleansing.  Preparing believers as they navigated important transitions in their lives, or changes in their bodies, new moments in relationship to the wider community, rites of passage.  

One rabbi says that “to plunge into the ‘mikvah’ is to plunge into fresh connections with Creation and its Creator.”  So the “mikvah” is an anointing or an immersion, some kind of watery blessing, during which God blesses a member of the community, who’s going through a passage of sorts, and through which God promises courage and wisdom, imagination and grace.  Fresh connections.  To be blessed in this way is to be reconnected to Creation, to be gathered again into communion and friendship with the Creator.  Fresh connections.  

A friend tells me that for some particularly enthusiastic practitioners, this cleansing involves being sure that every strand of hair is individually blessed.  And as you can imagine, that can take a long time.  That’s not a 60-minute Sunday service!  But the symbolism, the symbolism is such that God loves every last hair on your head, that God blesses and renews and celebrates the entirety of your being, your life, your body.  And gives you back to the world to live joyfully and passionately and well.  I don’t know.  I kind of think we need more ritual like that!  

And if there’s any stigma associated with the moment, any shame that may have accrued over time, the “mikvah” washes all that shame away and empowers the community member to go forth in courage and faith.  And just as importantly, it equips the community itself for affirmation, delight and support.  We need not shame one another.  We need not distrust or dismiss our differences.  In a sense, a whole new community is birthed in every “mikvah.”  And this kind of community embraces transformation and evolution.  And this kind of community welcomes conversion and change.  Yours and mine.  Ours.  So that’s “mikvah”—and that’s John’s practice way out there in the wilderness, in the river.  


So here’s the curious thing then.  And we celebrate curiosity, imagination at this table.  What’s going on in Jesus’ life that he seeks John out, far from home, in a distant land?  We know next to nothing about his formative years, about his young adulthood.  As he appears at the edge of the Jordan, he’s probably 30 years old, or close.  But this “mikvah” suggests that something’s going on in his life.  Is there a weight he’s been carrying in his heart—and he just can’t carry it alone anymore?  Is it despair he’s troubled by, an aching in his spirit for a better world, a fear that nothing makes a difference? 

The fact that Jesus surrenders to this “mikvah”—and to John’s particularly wild and prophetic version of the ritual—has to make us wonder.  Maybe Jesus has reached a fork in the road—unsettling, or exciting, or both—and it’s discernment he’s after, a community curious enough and strange enough to help him see things he needs to see, feel things he needs to feel?  Maybe that process itself, the questions he’s asking, the prayers he’s praying, has frightened him, burdened him with shame?  It happens.

And this is where imagination does its magic.  This is true for all the arts, of course; but particularly true for the practice of reading, reading and engaging with sacred texts.  It’s a practice not of precision and conformity, but imagination and curiosity.  Because, as we wonder about Jesus’ journey to the river, we understandably make connections.  What about the strange and unsettling transitions in my own life?  What about the changes that have rocked your lives or disoriented your souls?  Can you imagine Jesus, his longing for grace, his own aching for fresh connections and meaningful companionship?  I can.  And so Jesus’ story, the gospel story begins to draw you and me into the radically renewing energies of grace, and freedom, and divine love. 


There have to be a few of us in the room puzzling through transitions, or heartbreak, even this morning.  Or maybe there are a few of us entertaining questions that both bewilder and excite our human hearts.  What should I do next?  Who might God need me to be?  How can I navigate the anxiety that comes along with change in my life?  That’s when we hike out to the Jordan.  That’s when we seek out the Baptist by the river.

So notice these three dimensions to this story today.  

First, Jesus finds a friend.  Someone he can trust.  Someone with whom he can be honest and authentic.  In other parts of the tradition, John is identified as Jesus’ cousin, maybe even a mentor or a collaborator.  But whatever the precise relationship, Jesus reaches this moment in his life where he recognizes not only the urgency of discernment and prayer, but his need for a friend.  Or maybe many.  Yes, he is blessed and beloved and showered with grace—but he cannot and should not bear his sorrows or his confusion (or even his hope) alone.

So he makes that long journey from Nazareth to the Jordan to find John, because for some reason he trusts John, and John’s heart, and he trusts those gathered around John.  And Jesus knows—deep within—that the next steps in his life require partnership and companionship.  God does not intend for Jesus to figure things out or suffer his conscience alone.

And this is the purpose of our gathering each Sunday, the vision we bring to church and spirituality, the invitation we offer every time at this table.  You don’t have to do it alone.  Whatever it is you’re doing—whatever it is you’re working through—whatever it is that shakes you or thrills you: you don’t have to do it alone.  So we pray together.  We wonder out loud together.  We break bread together and we sing together.  By God’s grace, and in God’s own wisdom, we are drawn into community, into communion.  And though we don’t get it right all the time, and though we are imperfect and odd in a thousand wacky ways, we are perfectly suited for friendship.  Created in the image of God.  So hear me clearly.  We are waiting for the chance to hear your story and bear witness to your pain, and sit with you as you entertain the promise of God’s unfettered, unbounded love in your life.  That’s church in a nutshell.  Jesus needs it too.  Jesus seeks out John.  And we seek out one another.

Second, Jesus finds a river.  Which is to say, I think, that his own renewal, his own vocation requires a celebration of creation, a new connection with the wonder and the glory and the godliness of embodied life.  If it’s a life-change he’s embracing, if it’s communion he’s craving, if it’s reconciliation he’s after—Jesus knows that he’s going to find this sense of renewal and joy and connection in that river.  And in the earth.  And in the trees.  And among the birds and the foxes and the jackals and the rabbits.  All of it, all of life is his holy communion now.

And this, too, is critically and wonderfully important for us.  That our spiritual hunger is fed in the world of rivers and fields, in the community of seedtime and harvest, in the dust and dirt and wind and water of Creation.  We all see different things in this amazing table; but I see that.  I see God’s invitation to life on the planet, to a feast of friends in fields and forests, to a communion of wonder and abundance in the midst of the very precious, very fragile, very sacred communities we love.  

Our vocation draws us to the river—to commit to keeping her healthy and free, to commit to hearing her songs and prayers, to commit to sharing her gifts with the whole family, our whole family, of beings.  So Jesus seeks out the river.  Whether he’s brokenhearted or just plain bewildered.  Whether he despairs for the world or wants to redeem it with his whole heart.  His pain leads him there.  He surrenders himself to that river.  And maybe we could ask ourselves: How do we do that?  How do we surrender to Creation’s gift?


Then there’s the third piece to Mark’s story, the third dimension.  And this is where I want to invite you, to dare you, to step into that river with Jesus and John.  The water’s cool on your calves.  The breeze is warm on your face.  The spirits of a thousand ancestors gather round.  Abraham and Sarah leaving the familiar and embracing the unknown.  Miriam dancing to freedom in the Red Sea.  Jonah belched from the belly of a whale to preach peace to strangers.  You are not alone there.  It’s a beloved river, a river of stories and prophets and your people’s deepest aspirations.  Over centuries, this river bears God’s promise of liberation.  Always has.  Always will.

And when you dive down, when you plunge into that river, you surrender to the faith, the purpose, the courage of those prophets.  A community of liberators.  A sisterhood of artists.  A brotherhood of dreamers.  Their many hearts stir now, in your heart.  Their many dreams fire now, in the synapses of your own spirit.  Their gratitude and delight is yours now—so that coming up out of the river, you hear her freedom song.  You feel her holy power.  You see the sky split open above you, and a great bird swooping through the thermals, and then down upon you and John and everyone else.  Because you’re all in this together.  Always, always.  You’re all in this together.

And then the voice.  You hear the voice.

You are my Child, says God.  I have chosen you, says God.  You are marked by my love, says God.

What is it the rabbi said about the “mikvah”—that plunging into the “mikvah” is like plunging into fresh connections with Creation and Creator?  That’s what God offers you and me, this morning, and every other dawning day.  Fresh connections, deep and revitalizing relationships, a community of creation, a Table of abundance and grace.  When Jesus rises out of that river, every strand of hair soaked and blessed, he knows that he’s rising into a world that is a better world and a beautiful world because he’s in it.  You are marked by my love, says God.  And this means, simply and radically: he is set free to love like that’s all there is in the world.  Just love.  Just love.  And a community waiting to love with him.  And to love on him!

So my friends, step out of that river with Jesus.  Imagine that the winter sky—right here, our own winter sky—is split open, “more colors than the world can contain” (Bruce Cockburn, "Shepherds") and hear once again the voice of God, the Spirit of God, calling your name.  You are my child, says God.  To you.  I have chosen you, says God.  To you.  You are marked by my love, says God.  To you.  And know, because this is our faith, that simply and radically: you too are set free to love like that’s all there is in the world.  Just love.  Just love.  And a community waiting to love with you.  And to love on you!
Amen and Ashe.