A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Mark 1:14-20

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

The stories come crashing in. Stories from the United States of a president past, four years and more of stories of a man who communicated via Twitter, violent speech, speech that incited, in the end, violence. We watched in horror a few weeks ago when the Capitol was stormed and five people died. On a morning when the processes of a democratic nation were to be enacted, those processes were violently disrupted. We could only wonder where the security forces were. Twitter, we can be reassured, has policies about violence. Those who incite violence are silenced.

It is not about the left or right side of politics, the essence of these stories. We have seen people courageously speak out across party lines in recent days. God nurtures and blesses through wise, devoted, and utterly hard working people on both sides of politics. It is about a leader out of control and the failure of those around him to have the courage and self sacrificing nature to speak out and act.

Another president, Barack Obama, said it well, speaking to UN General Assembly in 2012:

The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

The stories come crashing in from the United States. And finally, last Wednesday, the 20th January, a story of hope, of a peaceful inauguration of a president and vice president. And words of hope, a voice speaking of uniting a divided nation at oh such a challenging time in its history.

The stories come crashing in. For a year now. Of the plague that coronavirus is. Of the 2 million people who have died, each one, we hope, loved, each one mourned. Of the struggle of countries to contain the virus. Of health services overwhelmed. Of isolation and the terrible mental suffering that this brings. And of the scientists, who, generously funded, this time, can do their work speedily. Of vaccines that are beginning to roll out across the world.

The story of the pandemic will touch each of us in different ways. Through news media online, on television and on radio. A story that touched me recently was a three minute video on FaceBook from BBC Yorkshire[1]. Three people were interviewed in York Hospital, two patients, one doctor. The patients spoke simply of the terror. “Christmas weekend we had a handful of patients coming in with Covid,” The young doctor said. “By New Years two hands full. Now we open a ward and we fill it in a day. … The hospital will be full, we predict in two weeks time. We see the sickest people in the hospital. We see a lot of death. We see a lot of patients who can’t see their relatives. So, we have to be their relatives for them, as well as their nurses and their doctors.”

We each have relatives we have not seen. For our family, our daughter in Sydney, my aunt in London. My aunt turned 80 last week and, joy of joys, she received her first vaccine two days before. A real person to give life to the story of vaccines being rolled out. That is what the incarnation means, of course. Real people giving life to the truths of our time. And God walking in the midst of it.

For the stories come crashing in in the gospel of this year, the Gospel of Mark, too. The story of God walking the earth in Palestine all those years ago. Mark’s Gospel cracks a pace. Story after story crashes in as we read the gospel. Everything happens fast. The word “immediately” appears over and over again in this gospel as if God is in a rush, as if the writer of the gospel would have us know that there is an urgency about.

There is no nativity story in Mark’s Gospel, as in Matthew and Luke, no beautiful theology as in the Prologue of John. Mark jumps straight in.

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

The gospel opens. And in just a few verses, the story of Jesus’ baptism that we heard in our Cathedral two weeks ago is told and of his temptation in the wilderness that we will hear on the First Sunday of Lent, and then, …Jesus’ ministry begins. We heard that story this morning.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14-15)

John leaves the scene. The baton is handed on. Jesus’ ministry begins. And then he calls the disciples, first Andrew and Peter, then James and John, to help.

We might think for a moment about the nature of Mark’s gospel, about the urgency of it, about the stories crashing in. Why does the writer tell the story like this, we might wonder. Why such a fast pace? It seems to fit this year when we are almost overwhelmed by stories. Life can be like this. What is the Good News that this gospel is about, that all the gospels are about? For the way a story is told is often as telling as the facts of the story. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark we will see little stories, all in a rush, of Jesus teaching, and his casting out unclean spirits from a troubled soul, and the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and then a tour of teaching in Galilee and then the healing of a leper. Story upon story rushing in. All in a few verses. What does the writer mean by this?

There is an urgency in God’s mind, perhaps. There is a deep longing to reach us, to have God’s love reach us. There are so many needs – for teaching and healing and setting free, for peace and honest gracious speech. And, especially, really, for us to repent. Jesus says that, doesn’t he, straight away? The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’.  As if we will not be able to hear, to see, to know, this good news of God, until we have stopped a little while, reflected for a little while, remembered those things we have done of which we are ashamed, those ways of being we have that we long that God might mend. The people of Nineveh, about whom we heard on our Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah this morning, covered themselves with sackcloth and proclaimed a fast. That was their way of waiting on God, listening for God. We will not hear the good news until we have paused for a little while. But the rush of the writing of Mark’s Gospel might tell us that God longs that we would hear, longs that we would know that God sees, and that God’s love will reach us.

And then Jesus calls us. He sees the fishermen, Simon and his brother Andrew, James and John and immediately – it’s always immediately in Mark’s Gospel, remember – wants to transform their identity into fishers of people. They won’t know what he’s talking about but, when he speaks the words, something in them hears. And that, I think, is what the speed of this gospel is also trying toconvey. That when God speaks, God will reach us, find our hearts, almost straight away. Do we remember when that has happened? Through the beauty of a place, or the singing of our choir, or the kindness of God in another’s voice, or when the bread of Holy Communion was placed into our open hands, one particular day. And we saw, we knew, something of the truth of God. A truth that we probably couldn’t put into words.

But we know we won’t ever forget. And we know our lives are changed forever. And perhaps in Jesus’ words, we have sensed that the kingdom of God has come near. But no, we couldn’t find words to describe it.

We need the poets for that. To help us reflect, to help us put into words, the truths when the stories come crashing in, … the stories of our world, the story of God we know in Jesus, urging us to repent, calling us to follow. And the hope of it. We need the poets for that.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris knew this when they planned their inauguration. They knew that in the end we needed a poet’s voice. And they chose a 22 year old black woman as their poet and this is a little of what she said.

When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.

We’ve braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

…When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it. [2]

(by Amanda Gorman – on the occasion of the Inauguration of the 46th President of the United States of America).

[1] BBC Radio 5 September 16th on FaceBook

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/20/amanda-gorman-poem-biden-inauguration-transcript?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other