I woke up to head out for my morning run. It was brisk, a bit cloudy. Completely dark. The breeze kept things moving. It all felt straightforward at first, but it was hard to see through the misty darkness. Usually I enjoy running in a light drizzle, my joints complain less. My brain still whines though. “Wahhhh!” By the end of the first mile I was damp, still waiting for the sleep to fall from my eyes. Just starting to wake up.
The Gospel of Mark gives us the briefest introduction to Jesus. “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” So. So we know Jesus exists, we know Jesus was baptized, we know John the Baptist did the baptizing. The writer or writers of the book of Mark do not seem to be concerned with backstory, but they LOVE to lay out the events in this narrative. Let’s look together for something else to chew on here, a little deeper. Check this out in verse 10: “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn apart and the spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The moment of baptism is immediately followed by divine approval, VOICED from Heaven. God is pleased solely by Jesus’ existence. Before Jesus sets off on a journey, before Jesus completes any of his miraculous acts, there is a deep rumbling voice of approval from above.
As I began Mile 2 of my run things got more complicated. As I left the noise of Broadway for some of Inwood’s footpaths, the rain persisted, deepened. By this time I was too far away from home to turn back, so I let myself soak a bit. My phone was protected by an armband and the sleeve of my shirt; my socks were starting to squish. Usually I don’t take stock of myself like this but as this run began I couldn’t stop thinking about water damage. You know that strange feeling you get wearing wet socks? It’s not danger, but the world feels more mysterious somehow. When my socks are wet I can’t think very well. Around this time I realized this was my first long run in the rain. This wasn’t a feeling of accomplishment, I just knew I was in new territory. I’ve learned to live with the aches and complaints my body tosses out during runs but this was different, somehow.
Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness by the Spirit. The Gospel tells us“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” Any questions? I have some questions: 1: Is this the same wilderness as John the Baptist’s, earlier in the chapter? If you’ll allow me to recap, at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark John the Baptist bursts from the wilderness like a bat out of hell. He smells like honey and locusts and leather. A little bit of research leads us from wilderness to the Greek word eremos. Some other English options for eremos teachs about the nature of wilderness – words pop up like desert, desolate, solitary. Keep all that in mind as we go. Question 2: What was the reasoning behind Satan’s temptation? This is the first EVER Scriptural appearance of this particular Satan, earlier references to aserpent in Genesis and the ha-satan in the book of Job were entirely different concepts, closer to an adversary than the classic prince of darkness. I think of the ha-satan in Job like a secretary that puts salt in your coffee every now and then -- you have to keep an eye on them. Today I’m choosing to name that The Gospel of Mark’s Satan is tempting Jesus at his most raw, most vulnerable. Why he decides to tempt Jesus and reveal himself at this point in the narrative is beyond me. To distract him, possibly. To help Jesus get stronger, more resilient?! Whatever the reason, the wild animals stayed close to Jesus. Help is always closer than we think, even when we’re in the middle of the wilderness.
Mile 3 of my run was when things got strange. Worry crept in. I started asking wild questions: Was my phone going to soak through and short circuit? As the puddles around me got deeper, would I slip? My previously damp clothes were now drenched, water was in my eyes. I knew I was about halfway done, but this wasn’t exciting anymore, I wanted to go home. Still I held my ground, took a left at the fork and ran deeper into the woods of Inwood Hill Park, I was not going to cut things short. I had to see this through. Around this time I leaned into my running playlist – Erasure’s A Little Respect came on and I felt the strength that only cheesy 80s pop can give you. (sing a little)
In this sparse, broad narrative of Jesus’ baptism we can honor the author’s omission as it allows us to focus on what’s right in front of us. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, and was given a full blessing underwater. I don’t think this was a conversion experience. Jesus’ innate divinity means the presence of God was always over and within him, as we clearly see in the voiced blessing when Jesus breaks the surface of the water. Jesus is not converting from one thing to another, but rather I see this as a divine immersion experience. The sacred moment here in the Gospel of Mark lies in Jesus choosing to fully enter the Jordan, John facilitating the ritual, and Jesus breaking the surface to receive his blessing.
Mile 4 was uphill. I knew what was coming, I accepted my fate, and pushed on. Joy showed up around the corners of my mind as I thought about telling my partner Julian about the storm, showing him how squishy my socks were. Our puppy Kazuki has a tendency to lick water off of our legs, this would be a Leg. Water. Feast. By mile 4, my phone worry was gone, body aches and little tender spots were warmed up, and most importantly I knew I was heading home. I realized then that I hadn’t seen another human being since leaving my apartment, strange for my busy neighborhood. This run was spent alone.
Broadway UCC has moments of complete immersion. When we hit our stride, our squishy socks give us an extra dose of courage and awareness and we shine. And yet, there are some other moments where we get in our heads, we get stuck underwater and our lungs scream out for air. I wonder what we’re being called to as a congregation. I often pray for this church’s future, specifically for the growth and development that’s going to happen over the next year. All of the pieces are here, the congregation of Broadway UCC gets to decide how it is going to look and act moving forward. This moment – the terrifying hope of it all -- this is the definition of an immersion experience. Like Jesus in this narrative, Broadway is diving underwater in order to allow change to occur and breaking the surface once again.
Mile 5 of my rainy run was a sprint. The storm began to pass as I found the corner of 207 and Broadway, marking the end of the woods and the end of the run. I saw people! I got the water out of my eyes and double checked my phone. No water damage. Phew. I could hear the strange sound of wet shirt meeting wet flesh as I rushed to my door. My body was wiped, fatigue was setting into my bones, but I knew there were towels and a coffee waiting. I was so excited to be home. By now, the sun was up.
I don’t consider this run a conversion experience. However, an immersion experience can still invite the Holy Spirit to teach us something. My run in the rain washed me clean from the fear of losing my phone, from my tightly wound sense of the way “things have to be.” It was messy, I got covered in pine needles and mud and I still found blessing and support as I went. Speaking for myself I know I can get caught up in legalism, in conversion talk, in dogma. You know that language? We have to “drop everything and transform” ourselves, fix ourselves. The baptismal language I grew up in felt like money changing hands -- Baptism equals salvation equals heaven. I felt pious getting it right some of the time but mannnn there was some shame always waiting around the corner as I “got it wrong” again and again and again.
And yet. The Gospel of Mark places Jesus’ baptism between two wildernesses. John the Baptist erupts from the woods, you can still smell the pine sap on him. Jesus doesn’t linger in the transformation underwater, he allows himself to receive his blessing and heads straight to the woods where the danger and the animals lived. This took bravery, trust in the unknown, and just the right amount of bravado.
You wonderful Broadway UCC, I invite you to relish this incredible opportunity to immerse yourselves. As we lean into exhaustion, as we begin name to what the future of this congregation looks and sounds like, may we also focus on the opportunities that reveal themselves as we go. Being fully immersed can look like a conversation at coffee hour with someone new. It can look like new ways of worship; it can look like the same way you have worshipped for the past 20 years. You’ll decide that as you walk forward with one another.
I don’t stand here expecting change – maybe that’s not what you want for this congregation. You have lived through enough change to get you through the next decade, and no seminary intern will tell you the right way to grieve a loss. I invite you to consider this moment in two ways. This is a moment to rest, to catch your breath, and to enjoy the sun shining on your face.Also, this moment is steeped with the deep hope and anticipation for when Broadway UCC breaks the surface of the water and the rumbling voice from above says: You are my church, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The beginning of Gospel of Mark reminds us of two things, equally powerful. We must allow ourselves to get wet, but we can’t linger in the water too long. May this beloved congregation discover exactly what it needs. Amen.