Just the Beginning

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

How could we have missed this? Actually, it’s not quite that simple. Most of us, I believe, know this — or at least recognize it as true when we hear it — but few of us have acted on it. Wondering what in the world I’m talking about? It’s simple, devastatingly simple: multiple recent studies have confirmed that congregations that intentionally cultivate the spiritual life flourish, while those that don’t, don’t.

Why? Because people want to feel closer to God. Because people want to sense that their faith shapes their everyday lives. Because people — all kinds of people — hunger for meaning and purpose. Like I said, I know we know this, yet most of us have preached and led our congregations as if it either wasn’t true or didn’t matter. Why? I suspect it’s because most of us assumed our people made meaningful connections between their faith and their life naturally and easily. Perhaps it’s because we do. But more and more studies suggest that in a largely post-Christian culture fewer of our people know the biblical story or find it helpful in interpreting their lives in the world. They may still attend church, but they don’t necessarily think about that experience at many other times during the week. For this reason, while we may complain about those people outside our church who claim they are “spiritual, but not religious,” increasing numbers of folks inside our churches are “religious, but not spiritual.”

Perhaps because we assumed people knew their faith, or perhaps because a generation ago the culture supported the learning and living of the Christian faith to a far greater degree than it does today, most of us have neglected giving much attention to classic spiritual practices like prayer and reading the Bible. While many of us may have felt like such practices were too basic or remedial to take up valuable time in the sermon or worship service, we’re now faced with a generation of Christians who, absent such instruction or practice, have turned to yoga, book clubs, Facebook, and so many other places to find spiritual sustenance.

But it’s not too late! In fact, this Sunday may be just the perfect opportunity for a new beginning. In fact, the gospel appointed for this Sunday is all about beginnings. This in three ways. First, John the Baptist not only announced but embodies a new beginning. He is noticeably different from the typical religious leaders of his day and he offers his contemporaries a complete break from the norm of their Jerusalem existence. Why else would they journey out from the city to the wilderness, the place of testing, if not for the hope that there is something more that awaits them than their everyday routines offer?

Second, Jesus is a new beginning, God’s new beginning. In Jesus the Christ, God creates anew and again, pouring out God’s love in the cross, a love that is stronger than anything this world can dish out, including death. And so in Christ’s life and ministry and through his cross and resurrection we see God announcing that it is never too late, that this world and reality we know so well do not have the final word, that God the creator and author of all things is not yet finished and has promised to renew, restore, and recreate all things.

Third, and perhaps on this day and for many people in our congregations most surprisingly, the gospel story we read today announces not just the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus, but of our lives in the Christian faith as well. How is that? Because when Mark starts his gospel by writing simply, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he doesn’t mean just verse 1:1, rather he means that his whole gospel is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Why else end in such a peculiar, open-ended fashion (see 16:8a), except to signal that the story doesn’t end here, it only gets going. So while Mark’s story of the good news may begin with John the Baptist, it continues on up to this day, into our very lives.

In fact, given that the Bible begins in the very beginning in Genesis and ends only at the very end in Revelation, you might just say — in fact, declare — that we all live our lives somewhere between the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. That is, having heard the stories of some of our forebears in the faith, we’re now called to take our place and play our part in the ongoing story of God and the people of God.

Which brings me back to the matter of spiritual practices. The truth is, most adults have a hard time learning something new, not because we can’t, but simply because we derive much of our identity from our areas of competence, and whenever you begin something new you are painfully aware of your incompetence…and for adults that’s more than a little unnerving. So if we are to equip our people with the skills essential for Christian living — reading and interpreting the Bible so that it shapes our lives; nurturing our relationship with God through prayer; actively making connections between faith and daily life; being able to give voice to our faith so that it becomes real for us and those around us — we’re going to need to help our people learn and practice those skills. And there is no better place than Sunday worship.

Part of what we’ve been working at together over the last year with our more participatory approach to preaching is just that — giving people a chance to participate, to practice, to learn new skills and gain some confidence that they are capable of making connections, of talking about their faith, of interpreting Scripture with confidence. Given the emphasis we detected in the gospel reading on new beginnings this week, and given that it’s only the second Sunday in a new church year, I wonder if this wouldn’t be the perfect time to ask our people what new thing they want to learn in the coming year. That is, ask your people to write on a piece of paper one new thing they want to learn about, one new spiritual practice they would like to discover, one new question they would like to be able to discuss, during the coming year. Trust me — reading their responses carefully over the coming week or two will give you more than enough direction — and sermon material! — for the coming year!

Look all around, Working Preacher, and you’ll pretty much see more of the same — more rancorous and partisan political rhetoric, more consumerism, more foreclosures and joblessness, more deferrals of personal dreams. This Sunday, we have the chance to declare something new, something different, something more, as we invite people into a relationship with the God who creates light out of darkness, gives life to the dead, and revels in new beginnings. For the story we read and preach, after all, is just the beginning of the good news. Thanks for your part in sharing it!

Yours in Christ,