Not long ago, in a review of some recent books on way-finding, the British nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote of the extraordinary ability of animals from monopod clams to Arctic terns to navigate across the landscape. The clams can go out and forage, moving about the water and currents, and still return to the unique crevice they’ve carved in a wave smashed boulder. The terns, birds that weigh only four ounces, travel 44,000 miles from Greenland to Antarctica and back each year, feeding from the ocean surface as they go. The ability of animals to navigate, whether far or near, comes from a complex interplay of memory and instinct, but also their unique physiology. Many animals literally have an internal compass with shards of magnetite in their bodies that help orient them according to the earth’s poles.
Humans lack these “inbuilt bio-compasses.” As far as we know, there are no magnetite filings floating in our brains to guide us north. But we have “something arguably more powerful,” writes Macfarlane. “Our remarkable navigational ability as a species is closely connected to our ability to tell stories about ourselves…” It is by stories that we map the landscape and learn to navigate the terrain of self and community that accompany any geography. These stories help us understand our past and imagine our future; they enable us to be present with a loved one far away or make whole the scattered geographies of our lives. Stories also draw boundaries and borders, they create citizens and aliens, the insiders and the outcasts by which we mark our way in the world. Go there, don’t go there; this place is safe or this dangerous—these are the storied markers we place across our maps.
There are times when the maps must adapt because the terrain has changed. There are times when the maps aren’t true to the world and so guide us in the wrong direction. Just look at some of the old European images of the “New World” of the Americas. The maps are caricatures of the continents because the cartographers were working from misguided imaginations. And this is true of the inner landscape made from stories too. Sometimes our stories map the world with the borders all wrong and the paths misplaced. When that happens we need new stories so that we can find our way to the landscapes of our fullness.
There was a pastor named Mark, in Roman occupied Palestine, who knew the need for a new story. He led a church in a place that was electric with possibility. Revolution was in the air and everyone was digging in, choosing sides and drawing boundaries. But they were using the wrong map, charting the wrong landscape. Mark had learned of a different territory in their midst, a place called the Kingdom of God that lay not on the horizon, but could be moved into now, even in the middle of the Roman occupation, even amid rumors of revolution. From the guides before him, the stories told along the way, Mark put the path on paper. He wrote a map he called the Gospel, the good news.
The story we heard this morning is a location on Mark’s map, a layered geography that shows us the set boundaries of the place and then undoes them. Like a film or novel following parallel lives and suddenly veering to intersect in a surprising event, Mark sets up two stories that bring us to a conflict that resolves into a new possibility.
The old map had been drawn according the borders of purity. Clean and unclean were the lines that determined where you lived, who you ate with, where the possibilities lay for inclusion in the common life of decency. Tax collectors and colluders, lepers and prostitutes, Samaritans and menstruating women—all of these, at one time or another, lived outside the boundaries of cleanliness. To eat with someone on that side, to even be touched by one of them, would mean a whole series of ritual purifications for any righteous Jew. The border was hard and the boundary couldn’t be crossed without consequences.
And yet that’s the very boundary to which Mark takes us. He shows Jesus creating a new path by healing two women on either side—the daughter of a well respected and well to do community leader, and an impoverished woman unclean and excluded from common life. One woman had been raised in twelve years of loving embrace and economic privilege; one woman had lived for twelve years in exclusion and economic exploitation. And yet both find a new place in Jesus, both find a new life in the family of God.
We may think we are far from the culture of shame that set the scene for Mark’s gospel. We may think that our time is free of such fear of those who might infect us with their uncleanness. But ask for a minute, Who is welcome at your table and who would never be invited? Who would you live next to and who would you keep out with a fence and a locked gate? Who would be ashamed to even enter the doors of our church or sit in our pews?
There are still plenty of maps on offer that tell us who is good and who is bad, how we can be successful and educated and righteous. There are many maps that make us feel safe with defined borders and well lit streets. But just as in Mark’s day, none of these will guide us to the landscape of God’s reign. The terrain of God’s kingdom is a place of paradox. It is not safe, at least to the constructed egos of our self-regard, but in it we can live free of fear. It is a wild and open country, unbounded, and yet it is illumined by the light of God’s good blessing. This kingdom is a place where wholeness comes without price and all debts are forgiven. It is a landscape where the respected and the ashamed, the somebodies and the nobodies, lose all the identities that defined them and are satisfied only as beloved children of God.
This terrain has been given no better description than that offered by another British writer, the poet and priest R.S. Thomas. In his poem “The Kingdom” he describes the journey to this landscape of God’s reign and how we can begin to live within it. Thomas writes:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
The simple offering of our faith, Thomas’s words are an echo of Jesus’ call to discipleship—“Do not fear; only believe.” That is the key to the map, the way into the kingdom. Can we make space within? Can we clear away all of the false geographies and distorted borders of our inner landscape? Can we let the stories of the Good News guide us into a different territory, even now, in the midst of our world of crisis? We can, for many disciples before us have made the journey, guided by the stories that show the way, the map made of the Gospel of God’s good love. Amen.