Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 || The Feast of St. Mark (transferred) || Mark 1:1-15
After services today, we are kicking off our celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Mark’s Church here in Mystic, Connecticut. While the church’s roots go back to the creation of a Sunday School in 1859, the traditionally accepted date for the founding of St. Mark’s jumps forward to Christmas Eve 1867 and the first service here at the Pearl Street location. Our history tells us that a wooden causeway had to be constructed that December night so members could navigate the tidal pools swirling on the lawn outside.
Of course, our church is more than this building with its simple, bright, lovely interior and occasional problems with flooding; indeed, a church is technically a gathering of people, not a location. We don’t go to church. We are church: we are a community of people gathered for mutual support, to praise and worship God, to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and to partner with God in mission in our neighborhood.
There’s a both/and going on here. The church is the people and the place they usually gather. The place gives the people a context and particularity for their mission. The people give the place life, filling it with prayers and tears and laughter, with compassion and welcome and generosity, with hope and faith and love. Think of it like this: when I go home, I mean the house where my family lives. But if my family isn’t there, it doesn’t feel much like home. Thus it is with our wonderful church, which has been a home to so many in the last 150 years.
So you might be wondering – if the building was dedicated on Christmas 1867, why are we celebrating now? The answer is twofold: first, we plan to partner in mission with several groups in our community this year while we celebrate our anniversary. We hope these partnerships will blossom into further togetherness in future years as we continue to go out into our neighborhood to see what God is up to. Second, we kickoff our celebration today because it is the Sunday following the feast day of our patron saint, Mark the Evangelist, which was last Tuesday.
That our church is named after a person reminds us that a church is not merely a place, but a gathering of people. That our church is named after this specific person reminds us that our mission is Mark’s own mission: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world who hasn’t heard it before. Did you notice the phrase – “good news” – showed up three times in the fifteen verses I just read from the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel?
Just from that beginning we know our gospel-writing patron is on fire for the Good News – that is, the inbreaking of the reconciling love of God as seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Beyond his drive to share the Good News, we know little else definitively about this person identified as Mark. But we can paint a picture of a possible path for our patron. This painting of Mark’s life can help us find the same drive to share the reconciling love of God which we call Good News.
There are several mentions of a Mark or John Mark in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul and Peter. He seems to be a companion of those two great trailblazers of the Jesus Movement. He might have quarreled with Paul at one point, only to be reconciled to him later. This reconciliation may have taken place in Rome where Mark could have served both Paul and Peter before their martyrdom, presumably during the first persecution under the Roman Emperor Nero.*
Perhaps the deaths of these two trailblazers of the Jesus Movement spurred Mark to write down all he had heard about Jesus, whom he probably never met. Perhaps he saw firsthand how witnesses to the Good News could be silenced through violence. Perhaps he heard a call from God to set down an account of the Good News that would spread like wildfire. You can kill a person. But you can’t kill a story, especially the greatest story ever told, a tale of hope and reconciling love in which everyone can be a character.
Mark wrote down this Good News sometime during the mid-60s, maybe even while Nero’s persecution was still going. I can see him in my imagination: writing as fast as he can, trying to tell the story of Jesus as best he can before he too is arrested. If this fanciful imagining is accurate, it would explain why everything in Mark’s short Gospel happens immediately – one event tripping into the next like falling dominos. It could also explain why Mark’s Gospel ends at the empty tomb, with the women running away in fear. Maybe he heard the Roman police pounding on his door. He didn’t have time to finish, so he blew the ink dry on the abbreviated resurrection story and hid the Gospel before he too was taken away to die a martyr’s death.** If so, then he left the Good News unfinished, as it always has been, ready for us to take up the mantle.
And we have. We have taken up this mantle here in this special place on Pearl Street. For 150 years, our St. Mark’s has proclaimed the Gospel, the Good News of God’s reconciling love in Christ Jesus our Lord. And we continue to do so, enlivened by our longevity as our past propels us into God’s glorious future.
The church of the future undoubtedly will look different from the church of the past, both here in Mystic and throughout Connecticut, the United States, and the world. But this is nothing new. The Church has undergone great upheaval, great change before and been reborn with new clarity of mission. That’s one of the reasons Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has reclaimed the term “the Jesus Movement” as a name for the Church. We are on the move, following our Lord, the first trailblazer, deeper into the heart of the Good News. As we follow the trail he blazed, we recognize again and again that the Church’s application of the Good News has always been too small, too tribal, too exclusive. And we realize anew that if the Good News truly is Good, then it must be for everyone, no matter what.
Our patron Mark helped keep alive this Good News during the first organized attempt to silence it exactly 1,800 years before our church on Pearl Street was built. And he did his job well. His Gospel – his telling of the Good News – went on to inspire Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. And together they spoke words of transformation and reconciliation to countless men and women down through the ages. And they speak to us. Like our patron, we here at this special place on Pearl Street, help the Good News flourish, this news of the continual inbreaking of God’s reconciling love.
* I refreshed my memory of the scholarship surrounding Mark with a quick read through An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown (mostly p. 159)
** I borrowed this idea from my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, who I remember preaching the fanciful idea of Mark’s arrest as he feverishly tried to finish the Gospel.