Remembering, Forgetting and the “F” Bomb

[A sermon on Mark 1.1-13 preached at Wine Before Breakfast on  September 12, 2017]

He dropped the “F” bomb.

Right there in the middle of his email,
right there where he was vigorously taking issue with
the guest lecture on postmodernism and religion
that I presented in his undergraduate U of T class,
the email that he sent me 45 minutes before I was to return
for my second lecture,
this student dropped the “F” bomb.

He was a smart guy.
And he picked up pretty quick from my first lecture
that I was addressing the issues of postmodernity and religion,
from a stance of religious faith.

He could see that I was speaking from a place of commitment,
and he had a pretty good hunch that I not only thought that
lecturing from such a place was legitimate,
but that I probably thought that my religious stance was true.

That’s what upset him.

That’s what occasioned the “F” bomb.

He was so disturbed that I had a grand narrative out of which I lived,
and that I have the arrogance to offer that story for others to embrace,
that he couldn’t help himself.

He had sussed out the metanarrative,
and even figured that it was an unapologetically Christian one.

And when he confronted me in the class,
I simply replied that all folks live out of one metanarrative or another.

“No,” he insisted. “To be postmodern is precisely to live in a world without
the luxury or the safety net of a metanarrative!”

And then after a couple of days of stewing over this encounter,
he sent the “F” bomb email.

There it was, in black and white on my screen.

He called me a …
He called me a …

I’m embarrassed to say it …

He called me a “Fascist.”

There it was.
The “F” bomb in all of its terrible glory!

A fascist because only a fascist would believe in something so deeply,
that they might think that it would be a good thing for others to believe.

A fascist because only a fascist would have a belief
that was strong enough, secure enough,
“totalitarian” enough, to be the basis for his pedagogy,
let alone his life.

That was in the Spring of 2001.

Alan and I continued the conversation over many a beer
throughout the summer.

And then, on September 11, 2001,
I received another email from my young postmodern friend.

He wrote, “I think that I need a metanarrative.”

The events of 9/11 had shaken him.

Not because the war had finally come to American soil,
but because there was no story out there,
no narrative that he could trust,
and more importantly,
no grand story that could give him any bearing,
any orientation,
any hope,
any direction for how to live his life,
when everything was literally and symbolically
crashing down all around him.

I wonder if something like this was going on
when Mark wrote his story of Jesus.

Revolt was in the air,
social and religious conflict was brewing,
the imperial regime was becoming increasingly repressive,

and it looked like life at the margins of the empire was about to explode.

The powerful metanarrative of the Roman empire,
that story of empire, with its ubiquitous symbols,

myths of Roman exceptionality,
its repressive socio-economic control,
and military power,
was ripe for deconstruction.

And deconstruction of such an ideology is easy,
especially from the underside of empire.

But you can’t resist the empire,
you can’t deconstruct its ideology,

without a place to stand,
without an alternative story,
an alternative vision of life,
an alternative imagination,
an alternative memory,
and alternative symbols.

In a similar time, the prophet Isaiah wrote,

“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness,
and streams in the wasteland.” (Is. 43.16-19)

Any alternative narrative,
any liberating vision,

has to engage in an imaginative act of forgetting
… and remembering.

The question is, what to forget
and what to remember?

This, it seems to me, is the crucial question,
whether we are talking about a process of personal healing,
the re-narrating of our lives in the midst of personal breakdown;
or the redirecting of our socio-economic and political lives,
in the face of the ideological bankruptcy of a culture;
or, indeed, the rebuilding of our faith after it has collapsed.

What do you need to forget if there is to be healing?

What old patterns, old symbols, even past memories,
actually need to be abandoned,
maybe even forgotten?

What were the dead-ends,
the moments of abuse,
the failed symbols,
the mis-placed faith,
the broken narratives,
that will only keep us stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of,
that will provide no vision beyond the present crisis,
that will inhibit the flourishing of life anew?

And what are the memories that are liberating?

Where are the symbolic resources,
the stories that can serve to re-narrate our lives,
the liberating vision that will break through the ideological distortion?

Well, its all there in Isaiah and echoed in the opening lines of Mark’s gospel.

Forget the former things, Isaiah writes,
but remember the wilderness.

Remember that the covenant God is a wilderness God,
a God of exodus, a God who leads you through a wilderness.

And forget …? Well, pretty much forget the rest of it.

Conquest, monarchy, the temple, even the law … forget about it.

And Mark says the same thing, both by what he does say,
and by what he doesn’t say.

It is clear from these first thirteen verses of his gospel,
that Mark is taking us on a wilderness path.

There is a voice crying in the wilderness.
John appears in the wilderness.

All the people of Judea (and one lone Galilean)
come to him in the wilderness.

In that wilderness, Jesus is baptized and confirmed
as nothing less than the Son, the Beloved One.

When he comes out of the water,
after such a pronouncement of his calling,
the Spirit then drives Jesus even more deeply into the wilderness.

In the wilderness he faces temptation for forty days.

Remember the wilderness, our narrator is saying.

Remember the forty years in the wilderness.
Remember the exodus.
Remember that your God is a liberating God,
on the move, dynamic,
in the fray of history,
in the midst of the crises,
the conflicts,
the pain,
the temptation.

But Mark is also saying that we need to forget something.

It is there, thinly veiled in the opening three verses, not by what he does say,
but by what he does not say.

“As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way.’”

Now, where does Isaiah say that?

Go look for those words in Isaiah.

They aren’t there.
This isn’t a quote from Isaiah at all, but from Malachi! (Mal 3.1)

Why does Mark hide this?
Why doesn’t Mark acknowledge his source?
And why does he cut that Malachi quote off mid-sentence
and then splice in those words from Isaiah about a voice crying in the wilderness?

Well, maybe because Malachi’s messenger prepares the way by coming to the Temple.

Mark, however, redirects Malachi’s messenger from the Temple to the wilderness,
and attributes the whole prophecy to Isaiah.

Mark here is telling a story.

A story that is a radical new beginning.
A story that is a gospel, an announcement of a new Kingdom.

But new beginnings are always contested.
New beginnings are always in conflict those who benefit from the status quo.

And Mark’s new beginning,
the story of Jesus offered in the midst of the conflict with the empire,
is always in conflict with the Temple hierarchy,
is always in opposition to the duly authorized religious establishment,
is always driving the authorities to want to kill him.

Where does the Messiah come?
To the Temple or the wilderness?

To the centre of religious authority or to the margins?
To the place of status quo legitimacy or to a place of ultimate vulnerability?
To the movers and shakers or to the powerless and oppressed?

And where might the Messiah be attested and commissioned?

In some royal court?
Or in some muddy river,
in solidarity with those who long for the Kingdom,
and know their sin?

In the Temple, duly anointed by the priestly caste?
Or in the wilderness, under the shaky and dubious
prophetic authority of a misfit named John?

In the face of climate change,
the bankruptcy of our political systems,
the rising inequality throughout the world,
the taking of more and more control and power into the hands of fewer and fewer people,
the miscarriage of the very fertility of creation,
Naomi Klein has said that we need a new worldview,
we need “a different story,” she writes,
because the one we are living in is killing us and the planet.

She is right.

“I think I need a metanarrative,” my young friend confessed sixteen years ago.

But which one?
Whose story?

This year at Wine Before Breakfast,
we listen to an exquisite story teller
who takes us on a wilderness journey,
a new exodus,
a path of discipleship,
a path that will lead to a cross
… and beyond.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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