On our Way … to New Beginnings

(At the end of this month I will be officially retiring from my role as a Christian Reformed Campus Minister to the University Toronto, and, as such, as the pastor of the Wine Before Breakfast community. This is, of course, a momentous relinquishment in my life. But now is the time. Last night, in an online worship service, I preached this, my last sermon as the pastor of this community that I so deeply love.)

Mark 1.1-15

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The beginning.

This is, perhaps, a good place to end.

You see all beginnings are endings,
and all endings are new beginnings.

And maybe the beginning of the gospel,
the beginning of the revolutionary story
that Mark is about to narrate,
is a good place to end my time as
the pastor of this beloved Wine Before Breakfast community.

You see we began this community
at precisely this beginning.

As the smoke was still billowing from the World Trade Center,
we launched Wine Before Breakfast
with a service of lament on September 18, 2001.

And we began with Mark’s beginning.

We began at the very beginning,
it is, after all, a perfectly good place to start.

And beginnings begat beginnings in our midst.

There were, in that first service,
under Wyndham Thiessen’s musical leadership,
the beginnings of a kind of WBB aesthetic
and liturgical style.

With multiple voices in preaching,
a sort of WBB hermeneutic emerged,
a WBB kind of homily.

Inviting wide-spread liturgical participation
in the community gave birth to a tradition
of interactive prayer that cut through safe piety
and gave permission to wrestle with God.

Yes, we began with the gospel of Jesus Christ,
as told by St. Mark,
and that beginning begat more beginnings.

People here in this service tonight
can bear witness to the beginnings of faith
in their lives, at Wine Before Breakfast.

For many of us, faith had lost its promise
and bruised us deep blue,
but somehow at 7.22 on Tuesday mornings,

we were turned tender again,
and faith was born anew.

New beginnings.
Stories taking different and unexpected turns.
Dead ends turn out to be new paths.

Our community has been a place
where some of you have realized
a deep calling on your lives.

Somehow in the midst of prayer, scripture, and song,
and at both the Eucharist and the breakfast tables,

important life direction was discerned.

Many have experienced the intense and delightful
new beginning of covenantal relationships.

There have been children born to our community.

New beginnings are everywhere.

But new beginnings are never easy.
Indeed, most new beginnings of deep significance,
emerge out of times of crisis.

We’ve had our times of crisis,
both societally and personally.
Many of us have known
a sorrow that strips us of hope.

And many of us will bear witness
that bringing such sorrow into worship in this community,
where the sorrow can be held and expressed,
where tears and anger are allowed,
where we are not alone in our grief,

has been crucial for embracing new beginnings.

St. Mark tells a tale of new beginnings.
And it is a whopper.
This is some story that Mark is narrating.

And it is no coincidence that he echoes the
grounding story of the whole biblical tale.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the beginning … God created the heavens and the earth.

Mark understands the story he is about to tell
as a story of radical new beginnings,
a story of the restoration of all of creation;
“for all of creation,” sings Ben Harper,
“comes from the gospel seed.”

And it isn’t hard to read Mark, catching the resonance
with our own context – whether today or when we
launched in the shadow of 9/11.

The grief was palpable.
So many had died.
So many more would die.
Suffering begat sorrow.
Sorrow begat exhaustion and frustration.

There was revolution in the air.
The push back against the regime was boiling over.
There was a sense of impending crisis.
Violence begat revolt.
Revolt begat more violence.

The myth of cultural exceptionality was crumbling.
The claim to moral superiority was met with derision.
Self-serving narcissism in high places was exposed.
Exposé begat anxiety.
Anxiety begat repression.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.
But familiar to when?

Am I describing our present crisis
in the midst of a deathly pandemic,
and the revolt on the streets
against anti-black systemic racism?

Am I alluding to the blasphemous myth
of American exceptionalism
or the dangerous heresies of Donald Trump?

Well, maybe.

But I could just as easily be depicting the social, political, economic
religious and imperial context of the Roman empire.

There isn’t anything that new about our present imperial situation.
We’ve seen it all before.

And very few of you will be surprised when I say that
as soon as Mark named his story of Jesus a “gospel,”

anyone with ears to hear would have known that
he was engaging in a dangerous act of subverting the empire.

In the first century, “gospel” is an imperial word.
A gospel is a good news proclamation coming from the heart of the empire.

Another people group has been vanquished.
An heir has been born in the imperial household.
A new Caesar has ascended to the throne,
as his predecessor has joined the pantheon of the gods.

That’s gospel. That’s imperial gospel. That’s Rome’s gospel.

But Mark announces another gospel,
another proclamation,
another story,
about another Lord,
another kingdom,
indeed another heir, another son of God.

Now Mark has clearly been reading Isaiah.

In a similar time, that ancient prophet 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)

Now here is something that is crucial to a prophetic imagination,
and has been crucial to our life as Wine Before Breakfast:

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.

New beginnings are always a matter of
forgetting and remembering.

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 the broken narratives,
the moments of abuse,
the failed symbols,
the mis-placed faith,
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,
and that will inhibit the flourishing of life anew?

What do we need to forget,
if there is to be a new beginning?

I think that for many of us,
especially those suffering from
Post Evangelical Traumatic Stress Disorder,
Wine Before Breakfast
became a therapy room of forgetting.

There were things that we needed to let go of, to forget,
before they totally killed us.

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 this opening of the 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.

This God is always on his way,
and the way always leads through the wilderness.

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
with 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,
always in opposition to the duly authorized religious establishment,
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?

So how about us, beloved WBB friends?

While there is no getting around our privilege
– I mean we are a ministry to the University of Toronto for goodness sake! –
how has Mark’s story of Jesus shaped us over the years?

Well, I think that we have known that cultural legitimacy
– whether through ordination by the church,
or being granted a university degree,
or achieving a level of economic security and
professional success –
is always a sharply double-edged sword.

Our spirituality, politics and cultural practices
have been forged in the heat of spiritual conflict,
struggling to understand
the full meaning of Christ’s Lordship in our lives
in the face of the imperial alternatives.

I guess the question is, where is our imagination shaped?
In the temple or the wilderness?
At the heart of religious power and legitimacy or on the margins?
In a place of settled finality and security, or in the midst of a wilderness sojourn?

We began at a moment of profound cultural conflict and danger.
In that moment, we had our beginning.
That beginning has begat many other beginnings.

And throughout it all, there has been something unsettled,
and perhaps unsettling about our life together.

It is a bit of a paradox, really.

For most of us, Wine Before Breakfast was a coming home.
But this was always “a sort of homecoming,”
a homecoming on the way,
never a settled and comfortable spirituality,
never a sense of finality and arrival,
always open, indeed thriving on, new beginnings.

At our best, we have been a community of discipleship
on our way to freedom land.

At our best, we have been a worship community
in the wilderness, not the temple.

At our best, we have been a community shaped
by an imagination of new beginnings.

And so my friends, as I come to an ending as your pastor,
acknowledging with deep, deep gratitude, that this has been
one of the most profound honours of my life,
I want to simply bear witness anew that:

“the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near;
repent and believe the good news.”

Therein is new beginning.
Therein is radical hope.
Therein is a liberated imagination.
Therein is the path to freedom land.

Walk with Jesus,
when your heart is breaking
and you are weighed down with sorrow.

Be embraced by the power of the gospel,
in the hour of richness and in the hour of need.

And join me, friends.
I’m not the only one on my way tonight.

We are all on our way.
We’re running, loving, stumbling
on our way.

Thank you beloved community.
With all of my love.

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 cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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