February 18, 2018

First Sunday in Lent, Pastor Javen Swanson

Read today’s scripture lessons: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Lately I’ve been listening to a podcast called “Living While Dying.” It was produced by Minnesota Public Radio’s Morning Edition anchor, Cathy Wurzer. The podcast features extended interviews with Bruce Kramer, who was the dean of the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas when he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in December 2010. From time to time throughout Bruce Kramer’s illness until the time of his death five years later, he shared with Cathy Wurzer reflections on his journey with the disease. At one point near the end of Bruce Kramer’s life, as his body was about to finally surrender to the disease, he told Cathy Wurzer that it was like he’d been given a gift that he needed to share with others. Actually, throughout the podcast, it’s amazing how many times he uses the word “gift” to describe his experience of this terminal illness. It’s like this incurable disease initiated him into a secret society of people who have access to special wisdom most of us will never receive, and he feels a responsibility to share that wisdom—that gift—with anyone who’s willing to listen.

Most of us subscribe to a myth that death is a horrible thing that is to be avoided at all costs. But Kramer says that what he learned—one of the “gifts” of terminal illness—is that “death focuses you. It brings what’s important right to the front, and it cuts through the things that don’t need to take priority anymore. Wouldn’t it be nice,” he says, “if we could live our [whole] lives that way, where we have the honesty with each other to express… our love, to accept that we’re all going to die, and to be grateful for the time we had together?”

In the end, Kramer says that’s what was most important to him: the love he shared with his family and friends. Earlier in his life, if you’d asked him what he was most proud of, what he wanted to be his legacy, he says he would have talked about his career as an educator, raising up new leaders and preparing another generation to make its mark on the world. As his illness progressed and he sensed his death was approaching, his perspective began to shift. Toward the end, he said he was still proud of his career in education, but what was really most important to him were the relationships with his family. He described how, when the disease took away his ability to move his arms, his son would come by the house three days a week to shave his face, and what vulnerable, intimate moments those were—and how, at the end of the day, moments like that meant more to him than anything else. Death focused him on what really mattered most. It helped him clear away all the other busyness and concerns of his former life, and to home in on matters of first importance. “I can’t stress enough,” he said, “that this feels like loss, it feels like sorrow, and it is. But it’s also great joy. In a lot of ways, it’s like fireworks. You shoot the rocket into the air, and you anticipate, and then boom, it’s this beautiful sparkle, and then it’s gone. That’s what focusing on your death [does] and how it focuses your life.”

Bruce Kramer’s impending death enabled him to tune out the noise of his former life, to leave behind the things that ultimately weren’t that important, and focus his attention on the things that were. Sometimes it’s only in letting go and making a radical break with the past that we can experience a reorientation that points us to new and abundant life.


Something like that kind of radical break and reorientation is what Jesus experiences as he is baptized and cast into the wilderness. There are a couple of clues that we might miss if we’re not reading today’s Gospel lesson really carefully— clues that Jesus’ baptism represents a dramatic departure from the past and a reorientation toward the future. The first clue is lost in translation when we read this passage in English. Right away in the first line of today’s Gospel lesson, we read that Jesus was “baptized by John in the Jordan.” But actually, if we translate the original Greek version of the Bible literally, it should say that Jesus was baptized “into” the Jordan. When Mark talks about other people who were baptized by John, Mark uses a different Greek word that means “in”; other people were baptized by John “in” the Jordan. But Jesus was baptized “into” the Jordan. That might seem like a minor difference, but I wonder if Mark isn’t trying to make a point. Sometimes when we talk about baptism we talk about having our sin washed away in the water, and we’ll even go so far as to say that in the waters of baptism we drown our sin and come up out of the water as brand new people. I wonder if Mark is trying to tell us that when Jesus came and was baptized “into” the Jordan, that he was all in, that he really did experience his old self completely drowned in the water and an entirely new self rising up afterward. I think Mark is trying to say that in his own baptism, Jesus experienced a dramatic break with his past and was reoriented toward a new future.

There’s another clue that Jesus’s baptism represents a radical break and reorientation. It’s that line about how, when Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. As we continue to read Mark’s Gospel, we’ll discover there’s one other time when the heavens are “torn apart”: it’s at Jesus’ crucifixion, at the moment he dies on the cross. In both cases, Mark is making an allusion to a line from the prophet Isaiah, where the Israelites have experienced great hardship and they pray to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” In Isaiah, the people are praying that God would break into their world, undo their desperate situation, and make a new future possible. So in Mark’s Gospel, both at Jesus’ baptism and at his crucifixion, when we read that the heavens were torn apart we are to understand that God has answered that prayer at last. Finally, God has torn open the heavens and come down. Both Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion are moments when the boundary between heaven and earth is dissolved and God enters our earthly existence directly to remake human history, when God turns us away from the past and reorients us toward an entirely new future. Sometimes it’s only in letting go and making a radical break with the past that we can experience a reorientation that points us to new and abundant life.


So what do you need to let go of in order to be reoriented toward an entirely new future? What is it that you need to have washed away so you can rise out of the water revived and experience reorientation? What’s the noise you need to tune out, as Bruce Kramer did, so you can focus on matters of primary importance? What do you have to lose?

That’s our theme for Lent this year: “What do you have to lose?” You can learn more about that on the purple insert in your bulletin this morning. That theme actually emerged from John 12:24-25, which is printed on the insert. It reads: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” What do you have to lose so that God might draw you into abundant life? There are many opportunities during these 40 days of Lent to reflect on that question. Of course we’ll gather here each Sunday morning, and we hope you’ll make Sunday worship part of your regular Lenten practice. Each week you’ll find a slip of paper in your bulletin, on which you can write something you want to let go of. Perhaps it’s a personal letting-go, or maybe it’s naming your heartsickness at something broader that we need to surrender as a society. We’ll collect those in a box each week—nobody will read them—and they will become the kindling for our new fire at the Easter Vigil. Come back again each week on Wednesday evenings. Join us for dinner at 5:30pm downstairs in the Fellowship Hall. Then come to a discussion of our theme, “What do you have to lose?”, led by the pastors and other leaders each Wednesday at 6pm. Or if you’d prefer something more introspective, come at 6pm to walk the labyrinth in the Gathering Place. If you’ve never done it before or don’t even know what a labyrinth is, Gloria Dei member Nancy Agneberg will be available to provide some background on the labyrinth, and get you started with this ancient practice of walking and praying. Every Wednesday at 7pm, we’ll gather for a service of evening prayer, featuring a short reflection each week by a member of Gloria Dei who we’ve asked to consider what that theme verse means to them. Whenever you’re here, we hope you ponder the art installation in the chancel, “The Veil,” which invites us to explore questions of losing and finding, of concealing and revealing. Actually, the discussion this Wednesday at 6pm will be a conversation about “The Veil,” led by Pastor Bradley. We hope these various opportunities will help you keep a meaningful Lent. Make the most of these forty days, allowing yourself to be drawn even more deeply into the love of God, letting go of all the noise and distractions, and being reoriented toward new and abundant life. What do you have to lose

Resources consulted:

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988).

Stanley P. Saunders, “Mark 1:9-15: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Cathy Wurzer, “’Living While Dying’ episode 27: Focus,” Minnesota Public Radio News, December 18, 2015, http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/03/07/living-while-dying-episode-27-focus.