Mark’s Signature

July 28, 2019


28 July 2019
“Mark’s Signature”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Mark 14:43-52

Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled. A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

It was an ordination present. Thoughtful, but troubling. The gift was a clergy shirt, a shirt with a clerical collar. My response was to put it in the back of the closet, out of sight, out of mind.
Except it wasn’t. I couldn’t see the shirt, but I couldn’t ignore how much it bothered me.
Part of the struggle was the process many go through when you are ordained: an identity crisis of sorts. It took me a while to say, I’m Reverend Garry. Growing up in San Diego and living the last four years in New Jersey, I had just grown accustomed to using a last name. The formality of introducing yourself with your first and last name didn’t come easily. Many times I was asked, “Fred . . . what?”
The idea of being Pastor Fred or Reverend Garry did not come easily. The lack of ease, in part, was how little I prepared for parish ministry. Never imagined I would be a pastor. Kathy only agreed to follow me to Princeton if I promised not to be a pastor. I was unprepared for sermons, for board development, for staff, for budgets, buildings and grounds, for just about everything in ministry except reading books. I was well prepared for study.
Yet, the core of my discomfort about the clergy shirt the feeling of fraudulence. This was front and center. You don’t blend in a clergy collar unless you happen to be living in Rome. There is no way to be invisible. I was not ready for that level of attention. That was the real problem. I was just growing used to the idea of being a pastor; I needed some time and some room to grow into the idea. A clergy collar was a long way off.
A decade later I was more accustomed to my role, to my office, and station. But I was still convinced that the clergy collar was not for me. This all changed on my first trip to Africa. In a matter of hours, I began to see the error in my refusal to take a collar. In Africa, all the pastors wear a collar. If you are pastor without a collar, then you are hiding something, trying to fool people. Each time I was introduced as a pastor on that trip, confusion would spread across faces. The look was part confusion and part suspicion. “You are a pastor, hhhmmmm.”
From that point on brought a collar, wore a collar. After a while I got used to it. My identity was not lost. It is a vestment not a shackle. What is more I gained some insight on the different meanings of the collar. In American airports, when I wear a collar, there are two responses. The first is the attention of zealous Catholics who come out of nowhere and seek to help you with luggage, chat you up, bring you a bottle of water. The second response is the death stare. Walking through the airport I the hatred was palpable. “You hurt children. Pedophile.” That was rough.
In Africa the collar has a magical power. More often than not I am moved from coach to business class on African airlines when I wear the collar. Custom officials and police and government employees defer, look the other way, or go out of their way to help. This happened so often we started calling it the magic collar. Good things happen when you wear the collar in Africa.
To some degree, I am pretty sure most pastors struggle with the vestment, the title, the identity that happens in ordination. One day I was barely Fred Garry; now I am The Reverend Doctor Garry. Each piece came with a bit of struggle. You need to be true to yourself, but you need to see beyond yourself.
Having walked this path, I figured our new associate pastor many years ago would need some time to adjust. I was unprepared, though, for the degree of struggle I saw in Pastor Matt. We called Matt right out of seminary so a certain amount of struggle was expected. But I was not ready for rejection. It was hard to get him to wear pants to work let alone a Geneva gown. I never gave a thought to suggesting a collar.
To be honest the craziest moment in this struggle was not of his making, but it the zaniness over vestment did cast a light. It was his ordination service, the moment where pastors are given a stole as a symbol of investment. Matt’s home church made the stole for the service. The stole was made by their home church in Anchorage so it had images of Alaska as well as Christian symbols. This was lovely, a balance of heaven and earth. But then we saw the apex of the stole: it was the comic symbol of Superman, the embolden “S”. This was different, but it was small compared to what was coming.
Matt invited his mother, a hospice chaplain, to preach at his ordination. As a matter of full disclosure, this troubled me a bit. Most families are a bit risky when you mix them with work and profession. The boundary of work and family is a good boundary, healthy. This risked a bit of blurring.
Matt’s mom was pretty blunt. She painted the church as something that could be troubling, destructive. She herself was a nun who left the church to marry Matt’s dad a priest who also left the church. I knew this going in and to be honest this was part of my concern. This is not so much a legacy moment as a very complex history.
All of my fears came home to roost when Matt’s mom began to disrobe. First, she took off the heavy metal cross and chain; then, she took off her stole and the belt of her cassock. Finally, she began to take her robe off. The vibe in the sanctuary went from curious to concerned. With each piece of vestment she took off she reminded her son that these artificial layers were not him. He was not this. These are just layers over the true self.
Over the course of the next three years I saw the fruit of this message. Roles, orders, definitions, expectations, structures that didn’t fit his vision were cast aside. Again and again a direction was called for and the response would be, not my calling. I need to be true to my calling. That is not what I am being called to do. Again and again, I would say, perhaps not your calling, but your job. It was a long three years.
In our reading today is a curious moment, a naked man running away. I thought of the vestments and Matt’s mom when I pondered how to preach the man who flees the garden of Gethsemane naked. I could have told the story about St. Francis of Assisi how he stripped himself bare when I came to the church to become a priest. It is great story, but I liked Matt’s mom more because of the struggle.
The gospel of Mark is a long struggle. And this moment, this man fleeing the garden, some believe is the symbol of the struggle to be a Christian, and more to the point, for the church to be true.
Some scholars believe the man was someone Jesus raised from the dead, hence the loin cloth. This was not common attire for folks in first century Jerusalem. The loin cloth was odd enough. That he fled naked is even stranger.
Some scholars believe this is a literary device. This is Mark’s signature. The naked man fleeing the garden is meant to be a symbol of the author. This is a good theory. There are many examples in art where artists have placed their images or their person in a cameo moment. Michelangelo painted himself as the martyr’s skin once flailed in the Sistine Chapel. Velazquez painted himself painting others in his most famous work. Mark seems to be doing the same. But why and what does it mean?
The why has a lot to do with my struggle to wear the clergy collar. I didn’t want to be confused with the church. I didn’t feel worthy. Mark says with the naked man, there is nothing of me here. The gospel is the gospel. Having delivered it, I flee to the darkness, with nothing. I take nothing; I leave nothing. The reason for the naked man fleeing was to say, “this is about Jesus not me.” That is a deep part of the struggle to wear or not wear the vestments. This is not about me.
What the naked man fleeing means to the gospel, why choose this symbol, this has everything to do with Matt’s mom and her disrobing sermon. When Mark wrote his gospel at the end of the first generation of the church, there were now forty years of definitions and orders; there was a generation of expectations and doctrines; there was four decades of structures and roles. Mark’s gospel can be read not only as the life and teachings of Jesus, it can also be read as a challenge to all those definitions, orders, expectations, doctrines, structures and roles. It is as if with each teaching Mark records there is a moment of challenge: question your answers; lay aside your pride; take up the path of meekness.
Throughout the gospel of Mark the disciples look ridiculous. They are always wrong; they are ever misunderstanding what is happening and who Jesus really is. And this is not a subtle point. Jesus says, “do you still not understand?” Or the even more blunt: you of little of faith. From the opening lines of Mark’s gospel there is a deep current of challenge: your surety is misplaced if it does not abide in humility.
The naked man fleeing, then, is the church gazing in the mirror. With each story, each foible, each failure, it is as if Mark is removing the vestments. The definitions are set aside like Matt’s mom when she took off the chain and cross; the roles are being set aside as confused and arrogant like the stole she put down. And the robe, the robe is the confidence that chooses to oppress, to correct, to punish others who are not as right as you are, who will not praise tradition.
And what better place to offer this signature, this image of humility than the betrayal of Judas. These two images are meant to balance each other. Judas and the naked man fleeing are juxtaposed. One is the image of deepest failure of the disciples; the other is the height of humility.
I have to admit Matt’s mom made me nervous. Yet, of all the ordination services I have sat through, this is the one I remember the most. I have preached a number of ordination services and I got to tell you I remember Matt’s mom more than my earnest preaching.
And a part of me was frustrated. If ever there was a young pastor who didn’t need to be encouraged to leave aside the mantle of ministry, it was Matt. My hope and prayer is that nearly twenty years later he enjoys a bit more balance in the ordination scale. Be true to your calling, yes; but be ready to give your life away. As John said, I must decrease so he may increase.
Not many choose the signature of Mark, the naked man fleeing, as their church logo. We have a great image of a heart. I have seen compasses and crosses and line drawings of sanctuaries. No naked man running away into the night.
I know it is not a traditional or likely logo, but it is a great one. To be willing to lay aside the trappings we heap upon each other; to shed the false confidence that makes us ready to accuse or reject or belittle. We have so many definitions and doctrines; the history of the church is filled with roles and structures and orders.
It was only sixty years ago, the Presbyterian Church split over the ordination of women, just as it was only a decade ago we split over the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. We fought and guarded and defended a tradition. It was hard to lay it aside. But we did. We took off that robe.
And we will again. Consider all the sermons that were preached defending slavery. Each can be seen as the kiss of Judas. How hard was it to become the image of the naked man fleeing, laying aside the definitions of tradition? Very hard. But we did it. And we will do it again.
We will do it again. Amen.

Bible References

  • Amos 2:12 - 16
  • Mark 14:43 - 52