Date: January 10, 2021 Outdoor worship
Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:4-11
Sermon: Downside Up
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
It was a slog, but some of us even read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Or maybe it was The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Or The Rise and Fall of the Ming Dynasty. We are captivated by the concept of the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, governments, and movements as well as the rise and fall of individual leaders, entertainers, and other public figures.
This week, we have had cause to reflect on the rise and hopefully fall of the Trump era. More on that later.
But again and again in history we see the rise and fall of different phenomena.
In the scene that we were told about today from the gospel of Mark, we see a people who have fallen. They are on the down side of things. They are living under occupation. The Romans have the Jews under their thumb. They are being oppressed: their labor and their money extracted for Roman benefit. They are in the ‘fall’ position.
And we hear of this prophet, John, calling people to repent and be baptized. He is talking about preparing the way for one who will reverse their fortunes. A savior. A messiah. So the people pour from the capital, from villages and towns, out into the desert to hear John. To be part of creating the conditions for a rise in the fortunes of their people. They are turning toward God in hopes that God will bless them and improve their circumstances and rescue them from Roman oppression through the one who is to come.
And we are told that among those who head out to the Judean wilderness, to the banks of the Jordan River, is Jesus, of Galilee. And after he is baptized, a voice is heard saying, “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” [Mark 1:11]
This story is written for us, for those who come after Jesus, for those who need to be told that Jesus carries the authority and approval of God.
And maybe part of why we need to be reminded of this is because Jesus doesn’t follow the usual human pattern of rise and fall. He doesn’t overthrow the Romans. He doesn’t become a civic ruler or military leader. He doesn’t follow the usual trajectory of rise to power, fortune and fame. In fact, Jesus inverts that pattern. He turns it upside down; his life ending in a humiliating public death on a cross.
James Howell of Duke Divinity School points this out when he writes, “In the world, it’s rise and fall. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of the business tycoon, the rise and fall of a movie star. But with Jesus it’s fall and rise…We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.”
We see this in the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus goes out to the wilderness to be baptized. The leaders in the capital, Jerusalem, the Temple authorities, they do not go out to the Jordan to be part of what John is doing. But Jesus goes among the common people. He goes low. He goes down into the water. The symbolism is of dying and rising to new life. Baptism is about the emergence of a new creation. Jesus invites people to be part of a new creation; a reality that is not based on the assumed pattern of rise and fall. The wielding of status, success, prominence, and power.
Jesus addresses himself to fall and rise not rise and fall. Again and again in his ministry we are told of his encounters with the lowly. He seeks out those who are lost and forgotten. Those who are suffering and marginalized. Those who are considered ‘less than.’ Jesus looks for those who have fallen, or been pushed down. So that he can lift them up. With Jesus it is about helping lift up those who are down. And he gets down to do it.
And what he teaches us is that our highest good is found in lifting others up. In helping the fallen to rise. That is how we rise. That is how we become a new creation.
The conventional pattern of rising involves amassing wealth, or status, or power, or influence. And this is often done on the backs of others. Empires are built on the shoulders of smaller countries and their wealth and labor. The Roman Empire. The British Empire. And, yes, the American Empire, came to what is seen as greatness on the backs of slaves from Africa, labor from Asia and Mexico, and natural resources extracted form other lands. And the wealth of the few continues to be built on the backs of the many who are denied health care, pensions, vacation time, affordable housing, good schools, clean air and water, etc. It is built on the backs of people who work long hours in unsafe conditions here and abroad. The rise is achieved on the fall of others as it was in Jesus’ day. But what Jesus shows us is what it means to rise by lifting others and standing beside them not by standing on their backs. He shows us that we rise by going down, looking down, reaching down, and serving others. We elevate our humanity by honoring the humanity of others, especially those who are hurting and struggling and bereft. And what Jesus shows us is that we are to lift each other, one on one, and as a community, a society. The people who went to John the Baptizer were looking to lift their people, their society, in the face of the oppression of the Roman Empire. It was about lifting the community as a whole. They were seeking a better future for their country.
We are called to lift one another one by one, yes, but also to lift one another by creating institutions and organizations and power arrangements and economic systems that lift everyone. We are called to pursue justice for society as a whole. We are called to lift each other through societal arrangements that provide for everyone, not arrangements that provide for some at the expense of others.
The way of Jesus undermines the whole notion of hierarchy and rise and fall. Maybe that is why we need to hear again that what Jesus is showing us is the way of God. The way of Divine Love. That Jesus is beloved, favored by God. Because we are always in danger of doubting, of being drawn into the power arrangements that lead to the traditional model of rise and fall.
Rise and fall. We saw the manifestation of that phenomenon this week. A president who built his rise on the backs of people who perceive themselves as being left behind, ignored, forgotten, cut out, and cut down. Using them for his gain. And once it became clear that his cause was lost, he had no more need of them. It was never about them and their needs. It was always about him and his needs and what they would do for him. And now they can do nothing for him so he has abandoned them. That is rise and fall.
But we, as followers of Jesus, are to be about fall and rise. And a great challenge for us as Christians and for our society is how we are going to reach out to those who have been betrayed by the president. They are still our neighbors and coworkers. Still our family members and fellow citizens. So, how are we going to reach out, reach down, and help to lift up those who are angry and hurt and embittered? What about their pain? They, too, need lifting up. What word of hope and uplift and redemption do we have? How can we talk about a rise for all who have been battered? I don’t know exactly, but I know that we must take this seriously.
The story of the baptism of Jesus does not just tell us who Jesus is, it tells us who we are. We are the ones lifted by the love of Jesus. No matter how low we may be. No matter how deep we are mired. Jesus goes low. Reaches down. And lifts us up. And he calls us to extend our hand. And take hold of another.
As followers of Jesus, we are to concern ourselves not with the rise and fall, but with the fall and rise. Our fall under the water of baptism, our death to the ways of the worldly power, and our rise to the way of Jesus, lifting each other in love. Let us remember the call of God in our lives empowering us. Brennan Manning, who wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel, puts it this way:
“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” [Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, 20th century]
Hear that again: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”
May we part of the fall and rise that define the commonwealth of God. Amen.
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