Thursday, October 10, 2013
In Matthew chapter 3, verses 13-17, the story is told of Jesus requesting
baptism by John the Baptizer. At first,
John refuses, saying that Jesus has no need of baptism, and that maybe they
should reverse positions. Jesus insists,
gets ritually washed in the Jordan River, and hears a voice commending him and
assuring him that he is beloved of God.
In general terms, baptism is understood in Christianity as being a sacred
ritual that through the medium of water removes a person from their old life
situation – washes away their old life, in effect, dying – and gives them a new
life, a rebirth to a new life in God with Christ. In baptism, there is a commitment to a new
way of being, a new life, and an assurance of being beloved by
On August 29, 2005, over 50 of the levees built and maintained by the
federal government to protect the Greater New Orleans area from the waters of
Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding wetlands broke, and the city and
next-door St. Bernard Parish were inundated.
As a result, 80% of the city of New Orleans was underwater. Instead of a baptism with clear pure water,
this beloved city was washed in a polluted flood.
Science tells us that water seeks its own level, and Lake Pontchartrain
poured into the city until equalization was reached. You can see the flood level in this Sanctuary
by the level of the wood paneling, because after the Storm there was neither
enough money nor enough master plasterers left in the city to repair the
original faux-stone finish of the walls.
Through this unholy baptism, New Orleans and America entered into a new
stage of being, a new life. What got
washed away in this negative baptism was a sense of American safety, American
security, that not even 9/11 had burned away.
Bad things might happen in our country, yes, there might be, there would
be, natural disasters, weather disasters, and even attacks by people who hated
America and what it stands for, but we would pull together as a nation, we would
help those affected, we would give blood, we would give money, we would mobilize
to make things better. Before the
federal flood after Hurricane Katrina, that is what had always happened. You can go through recent history and see
that response, over and over.
Just as a clean rinse of water can remove obscuring dirt and reveal what
is really there, the dirty floodwaters after Katrina revealed deep divisions and
deep inconsistencies in American Society, in the American Dream. Not all American government departments
function correctly and ethically. Not
all Americans are valued, not all Americans have a decent shot at success, or
even at survival when the bad times come.
Not all Americans have the wherewithal to save themselves and to navigate
the serpentine bureaucracies that operate post-disaster. Not all Americans can even rest easy in the
assurance that they are beloved of God.
As Billie Holiday taught us, “Them
that’s got shall get.” Katrina did
not make all this happen; it was all already there, part of the fabric of
American life, it just needed to be revealed – or at least, it needed to be
revealed to middle-class white folks.
Poor folks and people of color in our country already
In the sacrament of Baptism, a person rises to new life in Christ, a
member of a religious community transcending time and space and history,
realizing a new connection to the Spirit of God. Up from the perverted baptism of the
post-Katrina federal flood, New Orleanians rose to a new realization that we
were in many ways on our own. Unable to
depend on the Corps of Engineers, or the local, state, or federal authorities,
people who live here and those who were able to return decided to take matters
into our own hands. Church and community
groups helped, extended families helped, neighbors helped
And then we rose to another realization:
while those official entities we should have been able to call upon could
not or would not help us, there came to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast a virtual
army of good-hearted folks from around the country and even around the world,
religious organizations, youth groups, college groups, Elderhostel groups, folks
unconnected to any larger organization but urged by their consciences to
help. The scales had been wiped from
their eyes by Katrina’s floodwaters, and they saw that our country was not
functioning the way they had been taught that it
The thing is, just wanting to help is not enough. As my friend Ron Chisom of the anti-racism
community organizing group The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond likes
to say, “Everyone wants to help sick people, but you just can’t show up in a
hospital in a scrub suit.”
So there was another baptism to be endured – a baptism by emotional fire,
wherein well-intentioned volunteers had to learn the etiquette and practice of
being a good ally. How to listen instead
of talk. How to ask what folks wanted
and needed instead of supplying what they thought or assumed folks ought to want
or need. How to put aside one’s
expectations and assumptions about how the world works because just maybe it
only works that way for you and people who look like you. And it was a baptism by fire because a lot of
the time these realizations hurt like hell.
And now there comes a third rising, a rising to a new understanding of
what is needed, not just in New Orleans, but also in our country and in our
world. We must rise to call for our
government to address and redress its many failures. We must rise to see the Katrina-like
conditions all over America, in places that will never ever see a
hurricane. We must rise to replace
widespread discrimination and oppression with universal justice and equity. We must rise to seeing the evils of our time
not as a problem with individuals, but as problems within systems and structures
and institutions. We must rise to speak
truth to power, no matter who is in the place of power. We must rise, not to be helpers, not to be
white saviors, not to exercise noblesse oblige, but to be true partners,
siblings, with all people everywhere who are what Rabbi Jesus called “the least
of these.” We must rise against the
culture of death and supplant it with the culture of life, and more abundant
life. And we must keep rising, again and
again, until we see the coming of the Realm of God on earth that Jesus spoke of.
So might this be! AMEN – ASHé – SHALOM – SALAAM – NAMASTE – BLESSED
Offering In the spirit of true relationship, let us now take up the offering for
the recovery of this church and the good work of the Center for Ethical Living
and Social Justice Renewal.
BENEDICTION Through the living waters of baptism
and the swirling waters of the UU water communion, may we know ourselves to be
siblings in the family of one God, one Essence, co-creators in the sacred work
of healing the broken world.
INTRO TO A
SECONDLINE Many people not from New Orleans are surprised by the tradition in a Jazz
Funeral of ending with a joyous secondline.
May people not from New Orleans were shocked that the city held its Mardi
Gras celebration less than 6 months after the devastation of the federal
flood. The thing you need to understand
is that here, we celebrate life in the midst of death, we pull joy out of
sorrow, we find pleasure inside of pain.
And in this spirit we end this service and kickoff
In the New Orleans
tradition, the band is the first line, and the people who follow behind --
dancing, singing, waving handkerchiefs and umbrellas – are the secondline. As the band leads us in “I’ll Fly Away,” we
invite you to join in as your spirit moves you.
3. More than 700 Now in UUCF Facebook Group For Community and
Come connect with others for discussion and sharing of prayers, issues,
resources, ideas and community through our UUCF facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/13620824700/.
Here as a gift is a recent Sampler of some of the great questions and responses
shared in the group, comprised of those who are UU and those who are not, and
those who are Christian and those who are not.
----How do you relate to Mary in your spirituality?
is no longer a part of my journey , But I respect the right of others to welcome
her as they feel comfortable......My
theology involves narratives bothc canonical and midrash.I engage in reflection
on those stories gives insights. . With Joseph, stories about Mary are reveal
agree with her that, sometimes, Jesus seems crazy....As
a mother, I can relate to her so much more. She birthed at least 6 children and
probably raised them pretty much by herself. Obviously, she did a good job. And
that wasn't an easy thing in her day or ours....I
think how unlike her I am. She said OK, God, whatever you ask, I'm on board.
Most of us, myself included, are usually being dragged by the ankles by God from
one 'assignment' to the next. I hope I become more like Mary as I grow
the gospels there is a very clear sense of her theology of presence, of being
there no matter what, on the scary road, in the conversations with joseph, in
the sisterhood with elizabeth, in going to be with the crazy jesus, to one
upping him at the wedding of cana, helping to launch him into the world again on
his mission, staying at the cross, returning to the tomb; and then that great
magnificat of liberation. so inspiring in so many ways to
up Roman Catholic, I was sustained by having the Blessed Virgin to relate to as
an image of the feminine Divine. While I no longer subscribe to the same
theology I held as a child, I, nevertheless, still love the idea of Mary as a
who, like many mothers, will serve as an intercessor on our behalf. In times of
sadness or trouble, the prayer that comes most naturally to me is "Holy Mary,
mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." I expect
those may very well be the last words I ever utter in this
4. The Sermon preached by the Rev. Carl Scovel at the
Installation Service of the Rev. Joy Fallon at Kings Chapel in Boston this
The sermon at the installation of the Rev. Joy Fallon as minister of
King's Chapel By the Rev. Carl Scovel
on Sunday, September 22,
What does Jesus say of himself? He says, I am the vine.
does he not say of himself? He does not say, I am the seed, or the sun, or the
source. He does say, I am the vine.
And what is a vine? A vine is a flexible
stalk that grows by extensions and branches. The branches bear beans, or melons,
squashes, berries or grapes, grapes for wine which makes glad the heart of
What does Jesus say of us? He says, we are the branches.
else does he say ? He says, A branch cannot bear fruit unless it's part of the
vine, and neither can you unless you are part of me. But whoever is part of me
will bear much fruit, (and elsewhere he adds) some thirty, some sixty, some a
So, what is he saying? Jesus says he is the channel/the conduit
for the life God wants to give us, the gladness God wants us to enjoy. But to
receive this joy and thus to give it, we must be connected to him,
Now am I
wrong or does this not offend our sense of independence? For, after all we live
in a smorgasbord of options, a world with many vines bearing many different
fruits and flavors. Don't we want the freedom to choose what we like, what seems
significant to us? I guess that we do.
And yet at the same time do we not
also know that we can only give what we have been given, can only teach what we
have been taught, can only share what has been shared with us, can only love as
we ourselves have been loved? I think we know that.
For a full life, we all
have to be connected to some vine.
To be a Christian is to be connected to
the Jesus vine, and thus to be connected to the extension of that vine in
history, namely, the Christian church.
But the church - oh dear, what a sad
and sorry state it stands in now! I have spent fifty-five years of my life,
immersed in church life, the institutions and the people. I look back on these
years with gratitude, but also with sadness. Sadness, I say, because one cannot
have been a minister during this time without watching the corruptions of the
church and its satellites, its betrayals, its arrogance and its failure to live
the good news entrusted to it.
For example, during the past half century
denominational headquarters have grown in power and, not surprisingly,
congregations have dwindled. Could there be a correlation between those
realities? During these years I have sensed increasing confusion and uncertainty
among well-meaning Christians in the pews, and their declining knowledge of and
declining trust in their church's own traditions and beliefs. And so we see
their churches looking to corporate models for ministry, to advertising for new
members, to popular spirituality for their theology to their own personal
inclinations for what make a good worship service.
None of this seems to have
produced any significant church growth. It saddens me to see the results of this
decline - of church buildings turned into boutiques, condos, restaurants,
discotheques, hotels, antique shops, art galleries, supermarkets. At least a few
become shelters for the poor.
It saddens and angers me to see church
disciplinary agencies operate without any sense of due process; the accused are
more likely to find justice in a secular court, if they can afford it. And
finally, to end this litany, it saddens me to know that I do not know how much I
have been part of this betrayal. Retirement is an opportunity for regret.
Possibly as penance I've been collecting quotes and passages which criticize the
church. These are not written by atheists, agnostics or disillusioned defectors,
but by practicing, faithful Christians.
I'll read just two such quotes:
From theologian Karl Barth - The church is the place where man takes his
last stand against God.
And radical Dorothy Day -Where else can we go but to
the church? She is a harlot at times, but she is still our Mother.
does Dorothy Day, a devout, conventional Catholic, who attacked the church
hierarchy in her dayand called her church a harlot, also called the church our
I think she did so, because she knew that the church carries the
life of Christ within her womb, in the depth of her creative and life-giving
soul; I think she knew that in every generation the church gives birth to
Christ, the God-life. I think she knew that those who want the fulness of that
life will find it.
As early as 50 AD Saint Paul knew how difficult Xns could
be. He founded a church in Corinth, which became a scene of frequent wrangling,
and a source of grief for him. And yet despite this he wrote to his difficult
parishioners a wonderful summary of our Christian faith: "It is the God who
said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' who has shone in our hearts to give us
the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." And
then he adds - "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the
transcendent power belongs to God and not to us."
Earthen vessels -
bureaucrats, ministers, lay leaders, well-meaning folks and a few not so well
meaning - earthen vessels. Folks who mess up. But, you see, even when we mess
up, indeed, perhaps in the very act of messing up we witness to a better way,
namely to the God-life of the one who said, "I came that my joy might be in you,
and your joy might be full."
This faith is not a hand-me-down, an heirloom or
just a tradition. After all, our Lord called himself the Truth, not tradition.
The God-life that lives in the womb of the church must be discovered and
rediscovered in every generation.
Christian Unitarians in the 1800's tried to
base their faith on the rational arguments of the 1700's, and it's no surprise
that so many other Unitarians at that time preferred the Transcendentalist
appeal to immediate experience. In fact, it was the liberal Congregationalists
in the 1800's thanks largely to Lyman Beecher and his allies, who discovered an
open-hearted, open minded faith in Christ. And so the Congregational church
continued to be Christian.
St. Paul says - "we have these treasures in
earthen vessels." What is the treasure? It is not a plan or a program or
anything so seemingly pragmatic, It is a promise, a promise that stands opposed
to what we find in most headlines, opposed to what we hear in most political
rhetoric, opposed to what see in almost all advertising, opposed to the church
scramble for the religious market, and opposed to the array of secular religions
based on winning - on who will win the World Series, the lottery, the election,
or the next war.
Those who trust in these gods cannot take seriously the
promise of Christian faith, The promise says in the words of Dame Julian of
Norwich that "All shall be well." That promise says in the words of W. H. Auden
that "God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph."
promise says in the words of Jesus, "Look, I am with you always even to the
There is power in this promise and there is life in the heart of
the church, and it is that promise and that life which this congregation at
King's Chapel and our new minister, Joy Fallon, now have the great opportunity
to rediscover and relive. They will discover the promise in the psalms, the
scriptures, the saints, the treasury of Christian song - hymns and anthems, in
the great stories of faith journeys including our own, and in the prayerbook
liturgies, including the new ways in which this congregation will live that
This congregation will find new ways to express its compassion in
the world, this city and the people who pass by at the corner of School and
Tremont Streets. You, people and pastor, have embarked on a journey of discovery
to find and relive the faith inherited those who worked, worshipped and
witnessed through times as turbulent as ours.
And at the outset of this
journey you must remember that you are not alone, you are connected to a life
line, a vine, that extends back at least two, if not three. thousand years.
As I've been saying these words you may be saying to yourself, "Well, that's
very nice, but I don't know. I'm not very religious," or "I'm not very
But, look, if God could bring a living church out of the
Corinthians, God should not find King's Chapel an insuperable obstacle.
this new life you, people and pastor, will find that you can give each other
gifts - the ones which Paul commended in his Corinthian parish - preaching,
teaching, healing, administration, generosity, listening, counseling, and your
own singular gifts of art and song, good judgement or simply being a
non-threatened and non-threatening presence.
One thing more. When you give
your gifts to each other, you will become a congregation whom newcomers want to
be part of. They will feel the faith within you and among you. They will say to
themselves, "These folks are real. I think I'll to come again."
"I am the vine. You are the branches." You know,maybe that's not a bad
arrangement. Let us sing the next hymn, "Be Thou My
5. New message from the newest emerging UU Christian
congregation: All Souls
7. An invitation to come to the offices of the UUCF and attend
the Life on Fire 2014 Missional Church gathering at The Welcome Table
in Tulsa, Feb. 28 to Mar.
The Welcome Table, a UU Christian missional group led by the UUCF
Executive Director Rev. Ron Robinson will host the second Life on Fire gathering
of missional ecumenical and inter-religious folks at the site of the UUCF office
and the community's renewal mission group, A Third Place Community Foundation.
The fee is only $25 for all meals and lodging "roughing it" at the community
center building and program expenses, so that people from more places can afford
to travel to the event. Full details at, and coming, to www.lifeonfire14.com.
8. A respectful online
dialogue on wearing clerical collars, and about the UUA and
9. The Council of Christian Churches Within the UUA
Communion Service was held at First Church of Chestnut Hill,
MA, with the Rev. Mark Caggiano preaching the communion homily during the
November meeting. A discussion was then held about exploring new forms of UU
Christian communities and the continuing mission of the CCCUUA, with more
conversation proposed for the General Assembly time in Providence, Rhode Island
in late June. The Rev. Scott Axford also gave the following report of his
ecumenical connections for the 'CCCUUA, see www.cccuua.org.
THE COUNCIL OF CHRISTIAN CHURCHES WITHIN THE
Report of the Ecumenical Delegate to the Faith and Order
of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
The NCCC Faith and
Order Commission last met for three days in March 2013 at Old San Juan, Puerto
Rico, in the third of our eight semi-annual gatherings which constitute the
four-year “Quadrennium” during which the churches from Quakers to Greeks work in
three groups on three church-dividing issues (as identified by the member
communions). I am on the “Polity, Divisive Issues and Church Unity” project; the
others are Ecumenism From The Margins (i.e., minority & excluded groups),
and Violence. All are under the general
theme of Christian Hope. The Quadrennia then result in papers reflecting the
progress in the Ecumenical dialogue.
The Polity project came
in from churches that are living through splits and schisms even right today:
especially Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterians (they’re on their fourth in 20 years!).
Our question is on how our structure (polities) help or hinder our ability to
resolve controversial issues (marriage, abortion, et al.) without part of the denomination
splitting off and leaving. One insight
has been that when you take theology and policy votes at the national annual
meetings, there’s always a losing side (which comes back two years later even
more ready to fight). I noted that,
while as Christian Churches Within The Unitarian Universalist Association we are
definitely a minority, with all its challenges; at least in the UUA there’s
ultimately no enforced, official Doctrine from which we would be forced (in
faith) to depart. No bishop or General
Assembly is telling us we are forbidden
to profess Jesus Christ.
The severe financial
crisis in the NCCC (they couldn’t afford to hold a General Assembly last year,
and have moved out of the NYC Riverside complex as of April 2013) has affected
Faith & Order, as the NCCC Board has de-commissioned all the Commissions and
is attempting to re-structure. Our concluding Saturday session was a passionate
push-back from my colleagues, one I’ll long remember. As the tall-steeple
Presbyterian said forcefully to the NCCC secretary, “we are called to do this work!” When us Reformed start talking about vocation, and being called and sent, watch out. I candidly don’t think the (new) secretary
(who’s also new on Faith & Order) realized quite who she was dealing with.
A result is that our
regular meeting this October is in doubt, and we had the surreal experience of
pushing forward on projects on which the plug may have already been pulled.
I have a particular interest here, as
the Commission is currently scheduled to come to our church in downtown
Providence (and to Providence College) in October 2014. (We from the CXCUUA will all want to be there;
It was a special week–
as we were all together when Pope Francis was chosen in Rome and
white-smoke-induced bells sounded all over San
connection– where we are truly valued
and welcomed– is an important one, and not to be taken for granted. It was (and
is) far from automatic. I do remind all concerned that attending for the CXCUUA
costs me personally about $1,500 per year. I do consider it a gift from God to
be able to go and work with these sincere colleagues all on behalf of the Body
The project paper from
my previous Quadrennium, Salvation and Justice, which we completed in 2011, is
now available through the Graymoor Institutes on-line journal Ecumenical
The Rev. Mr. W. Scott Axford,
CXCUUA Delegate to NCCC
Providence, Rhode Island, June 2013.
10. An Essay on Mark by Rev. George Kimmich Beach, author
of The Seminal Gospel and other works.
The Seminal Gospel, a series of meditations and exegesis of the
Gospel of Mark, is a new book written by a UUCF member, the Rev. Kim Beach. We
have highlighted it recently in an earlier online issue of the Good News. We
would like to remind you of it at this time of year so you can consider buying a
copy from the UUCF ($20, can be ordered through our UUCF payment website) and
begin thinking of using it for a small group ministry or personal mediation in
the coming Lenten Season.
On Reading the Gospel of Mark with Two
George Kimmich Beach, November,
After Jesus tells the parable called “The Sower,” the disciples ask him
what it means. He replies: “Unto you it
is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all
these things are in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and
hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at ay time they should be
converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. And he said unto them, Know ye not this
parable? And how will ye know all
parables?” (Mark 4: 11-13, KJV)
The Yogi Book, a national best-seller by
Yogi Berra, is subtitled, “I Really
Didn’t Say Everything I Said.” We
must assume, of course, that this is not necessarily something he
said. The recently
formed Yogi Berra Seminar has noted this admission that some of his famous
sayings are apocryphal. Accordingly,
they have established criteria for deciding which are authentic and which are
dubious, at best. Berra claims, for
instance, to have said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” a patently
theological statement that he explains with the question, “If the world were
perfect, how would you know?” In other
words, a perfect world is unknowable and therefore impossible. On its authenticity scale the Seminar rated
this saying “too intellectual” and therefore highly doubtful. Another instance is his claim to have said,
when he was asked for the time of day, “You mean now?” Isn’t this saying is redolent with
eschatological consciousness, rather like Jesus’ reported words, “The kingdom of
God is at hand” (that is, draws near, Gr. eggizo), and therefore, as the Jesus
Seminar maintains, to be judged apocryphal, like all such interpretations
influenced by Albert Schweitzer?
Yogi Berra interpretation
is different. It finds the recognition
that he “really didn’t say everything [he] said” wonderful, for it means that
the kind of cracked vision he brought to us was generative of an ongoing
tradition of Yogisms. I can say the same
of Jesus: The fact that his gospel as told in the Gospel of Mark is seminal, not
only of the other Gospels (canonical and otherwise) but also of religious and
moral thought (Christian and otherwise) in the vast stream of human history, is
the primary fact. Jesus, too, “really
didn’t say everything he said.” For that
matter, he didn’t really do everything he did.
That’s the beauty of sacred tradition.
Knowing this, what can we say? Not all elements of the tradition that has
been formed by the stories and commentaries of Jesus’ life will be equally
meaningful; some will be meaningless, and some positively distasteful. So as readers of this tradition, we will
necessarily make critical judgments about what is valuable within it. We will make a selection, as I do in my
reading of Mark’s Gospel—recently published as The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark. Yes, but! I must also remind myself to take care not to
reject as meaningless, spurious, or unhistorical, elements of the story that
don’t neatly fit into a modern, rational, science-minded way of understanding
things—in sum, that lie outside my comfort zone.
The book proceeds with other assumptions: We don’t need a modern but rather a postmodern understanding of religious
faith—faith not as beliefs but as “believing in,” religion as a “passionate
commitment to a system of reference” (Wittgenstien). Nor as a rational but an existential, that is, a personal and
decisional, turn of thought. Nor as a scientific but a mytho-poetic imagination; as Francis
Spufford puts it, “Science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without
metaphor, and . . . powerful though it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to
those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through
metaphor.” Finally, we
don’t need to stay inside but to step
outside our comfort zones. You mean, “He spoke in parables so that the
‘outsiders’ would remain outside the fold?
Now that’s outside my comfort
In his essay, “Naming God,” Paul Ricouer writes: “Naming God,
before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection
do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they
deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we
might inhabit.” The Seminal Gospel is not another quest
for the historical Jesus. Rather, it
takes Mark as “the text of my predilection,” to see whether or how it reveals “a
world we might inhabit.” To this end it
seeks to read the gospel brought by Jesus with, as it were, two eyes. One eye is the eye of fidelity to the text;
the other is the eye of present-day self-understanding. I am not so much seeking what lies behind
Mark’s text as what flows from it in the sacred tradition he initiates, a
tradition we inherit and would ourselves contribute to.
Much as Thoreau retreated to Walden to find out
whether life, traced to its bare essentials, were “mean” or “sublime,” I read
Mark to find out whether the gospel, traced to its seminal text, its essentials,
revealed “a world I might inhabit.” I
found that I was led to wrestle with many difficult passages, until they yielded
insight—blessed me as Jacob was blessed, crossing the river Jabbok. To cite my own text: “I find that [Mark’s
Gospel] invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.”
The Introduction begins: “A pathway into the origins
of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we
choose. This book seeks to uncover that
“All that we know of Jesus and his original message is
derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is
particularly fascinating and often perplexing.
Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such
planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in
narrative form, have grown.
Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what
his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today. Its two focal points are intricately
related. One is Mark’s text, taken, so
far as we are able, on its own terms.
This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our
preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text. The other focal point is simply what we . .
. bring to our reading. How distant our world is from the first
century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark! And yet the humanity and passionate concerns
of these people are immediately felt. In
their story I recognize my own story. My
hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully
discover their own stories.
“These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken
together they can generate significant insight.
Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold
the promise of joining fuller understanding of sacred tradition to fuller
understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings.
This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us
a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for
convenient, if not easy, daily consumption.”
Do we find ourselves in these poignant words from the
Gospel? “Lord, I believe, help thou my
unbelief!” “Could you not watch with me
one hour?” Or these directive
words? “Who gave thee authority to do
these things?” And: “He goeth before you
into Galilee”—which is to say, into our
“Reading with two eyes” is a procedure that Krister Stendahl,
professor of New Testament and later Dean of Harvard Divinity School,
commended. I do not recall him saying
how to go about it; it is not a procedural formula that can be mechanically
applied. But it means at least that
these two things are (a) not to be confused with each other and (b) not to be
separated from each other. They are (c)
to be held in a kind of double vision, in tension and yet without ever letting
the connection break. I have elsewhere
called it “parabolic vision,” seen in the way prophetic visionaries “cast up
symbols to dispel the mystery” of existence: “Sacred symbols illuminate the way
before us, inviting us to step into the light.”
I am suggesting an interpretive procedure: First, try
to enter Mark’s first century world, a time of vast upheaval with the Roman
destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the emigration
of Jews into the diaspora. Second,
notice what strikes you as clear and true, and what strikes you as odd or
off-putting, even offensive. Finally,
set these observations up against your understanding of self and world, for such
juxtapositions often mark moments of insight, or of changed heart and mind. Mark’s word is metanoia, usually translated as repentance or
conversion, or in my own lexicon, new-mindedness.
Have we moved outside our comfort zone? Do we speak of conversion? Jim Adams enjoyed telling the story of the
Unitarian matron who said with due indignation, “Why should I be born
again? I was born in Boston!”
This is not, I think, a hermeneutics that is
superimposed on Mark’s text; it is a way of interpretation that is invited by
the text itself—not because Mark consciously put it there but because this
pregnant moment in the history of the world called it forth, and he was there as
a midwife to this rebirth, this “good news.”
The fact that his Gospel was written approximately 40 years after the
death of Jesus is often cited to discredit his account; but consider that his 40
years’ separation from his subject is in principle no different from our own
2000 years. One must suppose that he too
was sometimes inspired and sometimes baffled by the stories he heard, and wove
into his narrative—which is itself a creative work of interpretation. He too sought insight and found his own
fascinating brand of new-mindedness.
Examples are in order:
The disciples are notoriously uncomprehending, as they
stumble through “life with Jesus.” Even
when he takes them aside to “de-mystify” the mystery of the kingdom of God, they don’t get it. They miss every cue he gives them. And Mark himself, or perhaps his chief
informant, often thought to be Peter, is one of these uncomprehending dunces:
Only upon looking back with a reborn faith, only “after the Resurrection,” do
they understand that this man had brought the presence of the kingdom of God to
them—within their grasp, “at hand.”
This “kingdom” was, then, both gift and task, as Jim
Adams would say; it remains so for us today.
Mark’s Gospel is an act of reconstructive memory, a gift that we must
actively engage, must make our task. He
and we alike are fated (as Kiekegaard said) to live our lives forward in time,
but to comprehend them, if at all, only backward. Just so, faith is an awakening, and comes not as a result of understanding;
rather, faith enables understanding.
Faith even goes so far as to say: I believe in order that I may
This runs directly contrary to what the Enlightenment
taught us, namely, to look at the evidence and on this basis decide what you
believe. The Enlightenment has done its
work: the task of liberation from
arbitrary authority, and in consequence, the gift of freedom from fear. Its courageous motto, Kant said, was Sapere aude! Dare to think! But the gospel as told by Mark and other
witnesses requires something different, a hermeneutic of memory, to the end of
recovering sacred tradition and holy ground, or as Paul Ricouer named it, “a
world we might inhabit.”
Consider the healing and exorcism stories in Mark:
they are many and highly prominent in the account. Mark’s Jesus is first and foremost a
charismatic healer, for we see the common people flocking to him at every turn,
importuning him for help. But how he
heals is surprising; it’s hard to generalize, because the stories of these
wonders are so varied, suggesting that they have come down to Mark from various
oral or perhaps written accounts. But
Mark’s Jesus never says: I have made
you well, or I have cast out your
demon. He says, Your faith has healed you, your faith has
cast out your demon. He is not a magician. He says: The kingdom of God is at hand, that is, is nearby, is
available to those who in faith give themselves wholly to it, who appropriate
its power to themselves.
Consider the Resurrection—an event never described in
Mark, but left implicit in his story of the empty tomb. Is it not described for fear of profaning a
great mystery? Or because it can be
appropriated only by the experience of entering into the faith of a beloved
community? Jesus’ resurrection is a
symbolic expression of the disciples’ transformation: now all that went before
is comprehensible—a seed planted by the historical memory that there was a before and an after in this gospel, and thus a
decisive moment of transformation. Ever since, the gospel has been about
transformation, forming a deep—if also a deeply flawed—sacred tradition. Still, it is cherished, or why would we
attach ourselves passionately to it?
Ludwig Wittgenstein supports this viewpoint in his reflections on
faith—surprising perhaps even to himself:
“Queer as it sounds: The historical accounts in the Gospels might,
historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing
by this: not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’! Rather because historical proof . . . is
irrelevant to belief. This message (the
Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i. e. lovingly). That
is the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not
something else. . . . [I]f I am really
to be saved, what I need is certainty
– not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not by my speculative
intelligence. For it is my soul with its
passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my
abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only
love can believe the
Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the
Resurrection.” We may
imagine, I think, that it was not entirely otherwise for Mark and his
The first words we hear from Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, proclaim his
central purpose and message: The kingdom
of God is near, is at hand, is within your grasp; re-pent, re-think, be reborn,
and believe in this good news, this gospel (Mark 1: 15). The Jesus Seminar declares this statement
entirely inauthentic; they read it as apocalyptic and entirely out of keeping
with their view of Jesus as a wandering preacher of spiritual wisdom. Professor
Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, accepts it as an authentic summary of an
apocalyptic (and finally deluded) preacher. Reza Aslan,
author of the new best-seller, Zealot,
reads it as a political manifesto. These are serious scholars who want to go behind Mark
and the other early sources, in search of “the real” Jesus of history. But it is Mark himself who (with others)
founds the sacred tradition of the gospel of Jesus and challenges us to believe
with heart and mind—which is to say, to make an existential commitment.
Does the Unitarian Universalist community have a
sacred tradition, or only a perpetual state of identity confusion? James Luther Adams commented that there never
has been a great religion without its scripture, its sacred texts. To be sure, the By-laws of the Unitarian
Universalist Association states that “the living tradition we share draws from
many sources,” and among these sources names “Jewish and Christian teachings
which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as
ourselves.” A sacred tradition that is
not also a “living,” evolving tradition would ossify and be cast out as salt
that has lost its savor; no doubt, this is what has happened for many.
But equally, a living tradition would have to be
embraced as a sacred tradition, a tradition we believe in—the root meaning
“be-life” is “hold dear”—or we would
have no reason for keeping it alive.
Once I asked a group of religious educators, Did they not think we should
teach our children about the “cherished traditions” of our liberal faith? A man responded, “Well, yes. But do they have to be cherished?” To which I replied, “Why else would you want
to teach them?”
Mark’s Jesus abundantly displays two personal qualities: an utter
freedom of action, and healing compassion for those who suffer. These are fruits of his faith. The gospel teaches that this kind of faith—an
active faithfulness—is available to us here and now; it is a gift, a kind of grace, and its tasks are to act freely and
compassionately. A third personal
quality of Mark’s Jesus is seldom commented upon: he is an organizer, one who empowers others with his own vocation; in
fact, we might call him the most successful organizer in human history! The tradition has given him more exalted
titles, like “Prophet, Priest, and King,” signifying the ministries of teaching,
healing, and leading, respectively. He
calls upon all of us to make his vocation our own, in what James Luther Adams
called “the prophethood of all believers” and “the priesthood of all
believers”—“the one for the ministry of prophesying, the other for the ministry
of healing.” These tasks of ministry are
sustained and extended by working for the
dedicated community; may I venture naming it the “organizer-hood of all
I always remember the man who said he’d joined our
church because “he didn’t believe in organized religion.” I’m afraid he knew us well. When we ask, “Where does our idea of
ministry—lay as well as professional ministry, institutional as well as
personal—come from?” the answer is not far to seek: our calling, our vocation,
our ministry is to do pretty much what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels:
preaching, pastoral caring, and trying to get the place, well, organized!
Mark’s Gospel is seminal because it plants the seeds
from which a vast sacred tradition has grown.
This tradition includes Unitarian Universalists, whether they know it or
not. May I indulge in some out-sized
simplifications? Jesus by his notorious
“speaking with authority” exemplifies the essence of historical Unitarianism,
which Channing, like Luther and Paul before him, called “spiritual
freedom.” And his charismatic compassion
exemplifies the essence of historical Universalism, which is what Quillen Shinn
called “the almighty force of love.” The Seminal Gospel names these two
qualities “creative freedom, the divine image in which we are made and re-made,”
and “the transforming power of love, agape” (p. 204). They are not free-floating virtues, but
depend on what Jim Adams called “the power of organization and he organization
of power,” the third form of ministry richly exemplified by Jesus, in Mark’s
Recall Mark’s baffling reference to “the mystery of
the kingdom of
God,” cited at the
outset. Commentators ranging from pious
Protestants to the skeptical Jesus Seminar have said: Jesus can have said no such thing! Accordingly, the passage is explained
away or thrown away as foreign to the whole thrust of the gospel. Robert Frost is more clear-sighted. In “Directive” he evokes the experience of
hiking up Panther Mountain, in New Hampshire, to a well-known place—a
long-abandoned farm with a cold, mountain spring. When the thirsty hiker reaches his
“destination” and “destiny,” the poem alludes to this text, Mark 4: 11-13, and
I have kept hidden in the instep
Of an old cedar at the
A broken drinking goblet like the
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they
Here are your waters and your watering
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
Mark similarly invites what I call “parabolic vision,”
a way of seeing that is like the trajectory of flares shot up into the darkness
and coming down to earth again, but always in a new place. The central realities
of faith are mysteries, hidden in darkness; they cannot be seen clearly or
defined because they cannot be observed from without, but only from within. They can only be understood by participating
in them, by symbolic actions, like drinking cold water from a broken goblet, or
the Grail—like climbing a mountain, or “going up to Jerusalem.”