Scripture: Mark 1:1-15 The Feast of St. Mark
It is a tradition at VTS for seniors to preach a final sermon in front of the gathered community.
For a summer I served three small parishes in Clairton and Glassport, PA. These parishes are about 20 minutes from where I grew up. Nestled in my Diocese in the northern hills of Appalachia, Clairton is the home to Clairton Coke Works - the world’s second-largest coke mill, and the largest by production in North America. Operated by US Steel, the mill turns coal into a byproduct called coke that is used to make steel. As you can see on the screen, it dominates the city’s waterfront and can be seen from most parts of the town. Despite “Continuous improvement to the environment” being painted on the sides of the building, it is Pittsburgh’s largest single polluter.
What you may not be able to tell by the image on the screen is that the smell from the mill is sometimes unbearably bad. When the smell gets this bad it is almost inescapable, and it is not a smell that gets more bearable with time or exposure. The smell of the mill is a reminder of every single health problem the people of these towns face because of the mill’s presence, a reminder of their poor economic condition, a reminder that there is no point in having hope – because what on earth is there to hope for in a place where the agency of their bodies are robbed daily by something so insurmountable?
One summer day the youth group at these churches I was serving in this small town decided to do something about this smell and pitched the pastor an idea. In fulfillment of this idea, the pastor and I went to the hardware store and bought flowers for the youth group. The youth group spent that day planting flowers along the entryway of the church to stop the smell of despair from entering the house of God.
I do not have to tell you that this act, to most people, seems futile. Clairton Coke Works produces 4.3 million tons of coke annually. Planting flowers would certainly not cure 1 in 4 Clairton residents of their asthma, remove their higher lifetime risk of cancer, or stop the pollution of the region’s air and water. But I cannot help but hope that the Kingdom of God was near in that moment, and they believed the good news in a powerful way. Because in their resistance to death, indignity, and despair and their offering of hope, the youth planting flowers offered an alternative to the entire world that was inspired not by fear, money, or the selfish destruction of the earth – but by Good News. These youth had something better to believe than the evil that surrounded them.
At the core of Jesus’s good news is a striving for dignity, a call which is repeated in our baptismal vows. I am sure that everyone in here knows by now, that Jesus spent much of his time preaching the good news among those that only had bad news. I will remind you learned seminarians, only for the sake of continuity in this sermon, that Jesus spent much of his time preaching in the Diocese of Pittsburgh – but really - Jesus surrounded himself in ministry not by people who had earthly power and prestige, but by those who suffered at the hands of indignity. Women who were shamed by prevailing patriarchy, men struck with leprosy that separated them from their communities, children relegated to the margins of their societies, all within the context of a land that was indignantly occupied at the hands of Empire.
If his teachings were not enough to reveal and uncover the indignities of the society in which he lived, at the culmination of Jesus’s ministry, he took on the ultimate indignity of death for all of humanity to save us from the most eternal indignity – separation from God. And this single message of salvation was so effectual and powerful, that it could dignify those crucified next to him. By his atonement, whatever theory you may subscribe to, we are able to stand dignified before all of heaven - fully loved, fully covered, whole, and fully dignified.
And here I see what the Good News looks like. Amid all of the bad news that strips humanity of its divinity, we are called to know God; amid all of the death that strips us of our dignity, we are made whole in the eyes of the creator. Because Christian people, the good news of our faith is not just a message it is a person. This person who is God - that stripped of his dignity made a way for ours.
That is the good news. And despite what we may want to believe as seminarians, this good news is not something that is only accessible after years of study. The Good News is accessible when we choose this real and historical person over the indignity of very real and harmful sin; when we choose to plant flowers instead of succumbing to the very lie that we have no path to restoring our dignity.
While I sometimes wish Mark decided to write a little bit more down, I do think that, by giving only the essentials, there is a certain attention that is given to the things that he writes. In Mark’s telling of Jesus’s entry into his ministry, there is no command given to us in this opening passage other than to repent and to believe in the Gospel.
And it is in Mark’s brevity that we can be sure that the road to the Good News is marked by repentance. Jesus prefaces his message with an act of turning from the old new into the new. Truly believing the Good News is to reject the voices that keep us away from God – that have us believe that God is not truly near and tempt us to act as if Christ was truly not by our side in our suffering. In order to plant flowers, the youth first had to reject the claim of power that US Steel was somehow over them. And in this rejection of evil, there widens the heart for acceptance and announcement of the good news. It is where we see the face of Christ in one another and the work of the Spirit in ourselves.
And in this seeing of the suffering face of Christ of those in struggle, we have assurance that the Kingdom of God is actually near. In resistance to the evil that the enemy offers, the good news is accepted and embodied. In the planting of flowers in a ruined, undignified, and mountainous corner of the world, there was a striving for dignity that echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation…
Break forth; shout together for joy,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;”
Good Christians, the Kingdom of God is near.
And I know that the Kingdom was near in the moment, because the enemy hates resistance to the indignity of sin. The enemy hates when you have hope that there is something more to life than death. The enemy hates when you choose to love instead of calling to hate. The enemy fears that you, as ministers of the church, have committed your life to wake up every morning with the sole purpose of resisting the bad news in favor of believing the good. I am wholly convinced that your very existence as ministers of the church doing the work of God, despite all of the bad news, shakes the bowels of hell. The enemy shrivels in fear when you plant flowers.
That is the good news. The devil hates our dignity, but Christ showers us with it.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.