By the Revd Dr Ayla Lepine
Readings: Acts 15.35-end; Ephesians 4.7-16; Mark 13.5-13.
The Song of Solomon, a novel by the American writer Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, concludes with the protagonist’s realisation that ‘If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.’ In the context of the narrative, which is a story of cycles of trauma and hardship not unlike the intensity of suffering and bewilderment we hear in St Mark’s Gospel this morning, this insight about riding the air, yielding to it, is closely linked to liberation and the possibility of truly, authentically, finding one’s own voice. There are two questions at stake here: in the book, in the Gospel, in ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How can I truly be myself?’ It is as if this young man in the novel, trapped in his history, begins to attain a new level of acceptance regarding where can came from, and relinquishes his pain to gain a new sense of what it is to be truly free in his own heart and mind. There is a comparison to be made with St Augustine’s ancient prayer to the Lord that ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’
Finding your voice, trusting its strength, rejoicing in its distinctiveness, believing you’ll be heard, respected, and loved when you use your voice, is a critical aspect of what it is to live with dignity. Striving for the common good through the celebration of diversity is a critical aspect of civility. Knowing that the voice of Jesus, speaking now directly into the heart of places experiencing the most acute oppression or destruction, is a voice of true welcome may help us to tune our own voices to that tone and that message. Priest and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber noted recently that ‘For some, the good news is that there are insiders and outsiders and they are the insiders. For others, the good news is that there are no outsiders.’ There are no outsiders. There is only the love of God enfolding the whole of creation, the galaxies of stars and the fingernails of babies born today in the Royal Free hospital down the road, and everything in between. To be human is to be infinitely loved. Just as you are. Mark knew that, and his Gospel proclaims it. And it is that God, who brings new life through Christ’s death and resurrection, who imparts diverse gifts to every person through the Holy Spirit, who is present with us in this holy place. It is the same God who inspired St Mark and all the saints, who supports the life and work of every person in this parish and your neighbours, and who sets us free to really be ourselves and to find our voice.
Voices are often raised up in communities most powerfully when they are under severe and urgent pressure. We know this was true of Mark and the earliest generations who gathered around Jesus and told his story, sometimes at great risk, sometimes risking death. David Stancliffe writes,
‘Mark’s Gospel ends with the veil of the temple torn in two as Jesus dies, the stone that had sealed the tomb rolled away, and the disciples running off, too frightened to say anything to anyone. Yet the existence of the Gospel itself, and the community that preached it, was an extraordinary witness to the faith and courage of those whose fear had been turned into unstoppable boldness. In all this pattern of apparent disaster and brokenness, was there indeed some purpose or design? The broken bread was the clue. When they broke the bread, the pieces fell into place and the waste of a promising life was seen to be a dramatic sign of the total self-giving of divine love.’
The earliest of our four Gospels, gritty and vivid in its language, uncompromising in its starkness and in its revelation of Christ’s true glory, teaches us in its details as well as its whole shape, that following Jesus means being broken apart, and made whole, over and over again, trusting in God to be our guide in the darkest this world can be. To me, this is a great comfort. We are never abandoned. The God of hope is constant, no matter what life brings. This week a government report has found that the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East persecuted for their faith – 80% – are Christian. Numbers of Christians across Middle Eastern countries have been depleted by millions through political force taking a variety of forms. Murdering people at prayer in Sri Lanka shocks the world into remembering that the words in Mark’s Gospel of fear and terror are not a distant apocalyptic metaphor, but a cry of pain that has its resonances in our own time. We must stand in solidarity with all people of faith, no matter their sacred tradition, and care for one another as a sign of mutual striving for the freedom to raise our voices for peace, and for mutual respect.
Through baptism, Christians are fellow-citizens with those in heaven, joining with them in the eternal song of praise at the Eucharist. When we come to the Sanctus later this morning, before consuming the Body and Blood of Christ, finding ourselves made whole once again, remember that St Mark does join with us, this parish’s own patron, in the great hymn of praise, and supports this place and its people with joy and prayer.
In her feminist commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon explains that this Gospel is ‘a warning to all who might be attracted to hierarchical models of power. God’s realm is dramatically portrayed in Mark’s story as making health and wholeness available to all, especially to those who have least access under the Roman Empire ruling Jewish Palestine: women, children, the poor, the sick.’ Today’s Gospel reading describes a world and a community in anguish and chaos. ‘Keep alert’, Mark says, because followers of Jesus are invited to see hardship and pain will be transformed by the bigger and greater truth of God’s redemption. The voice of Jesus can be heard, if we choose to hear him, above all the harsh noise of a damaged world.
St Mark’s Regent’s Park has its own distinctive voice. It speaks with the voice of Anglican liturgy’s richness, of maniples, incense, altarpieces filled with holy women and men, and the choral tradition. Its voice, its expression of faith and God’s holiness in this little corner of London by the canal between Camden and Primrose Hill, is one of the reasons I stand here in the pulpit knowing and trusting that I have been called by God to serve the Church as a priest. The beauty and dignity of worship. The care and compassion and thoughtful support people here show one another. The understated gentleness and the bold liveliness through which this Christian community unashamedly proclaims the Gospel of Jesus as our Great High Priest, both sacrifice and saviour of the world. These are aspects of St Mark’s church that conform in the best sense to the pattern and character of St Mark the Evangelist’s pithy and creative Gospel. Through word and Sacrament, God is worshipped here. In the beauty of holiness, God is worshipped here. In the truth of the same Jesus who we see in Mark’s Gospel, offering healing and freedom for all, this place is a beacon of hope and a place of honest hospitality for every person, and for every unique voice. In the glory of liturgy, in the fellowship of community, in the proclamation of the Gospel, may this place dedicated to St Mark be none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.