It was 20 summers ago, and a man I’d never heard of was coming to spend a week with us at our week-long church camp at Seabeck. What I knew was that he’d written a book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, that was getting a lot of attention and that our church camp was overflowing with people who wanted to attend.
Marcus was doing something rather extraordinary. He was opening a new way to imagine who Jesus was and might be for us today. And he was speaking to people that I hadn’t always seen sitting in the front pews of church, or in church at all. Among them, rationalists and thinkers who lived in a world facts and figures. People who had left conservative church backgrounds, like Borg, himself. And men. I was always struck with the number of men who showed up and joined the conversation. And so many others, finding a new way in to meet Jesus. Borg was opening and changing the conversation about Jesus. Changing lives.
Marcus was part of a new group of scholars who called themselves the Jesus Seminar who together were exploring the historical context in which Jesus lived and seeking to discern who he “really” was, what he might have “really” said. Their work sparked faith, inspiration, a new way to be a people of faith.
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time became the book I recommended time and again to people who wanted to know what Christianity was about and could be. Marcus gave me a new language to speak of faith to others who asked different questions and thought in different ways than I do, and invite them into the conversation.
Marcus’ summer camp with us and the work of the Jesus Seminar sparked Bob Fitzgerald to form the “Jesus Study Group” here at University Congregational UCC. Once a month, on Sunday nights, our church lounge filled with people from many different churches and faith traditions, or no tradition at all. People who were hungry to read, explore, engage with others about who the historical Jesus was and how he could speak to us today.
Our Jesus Study Group sparked the idea of a lecture series and Marcus was our first lecturer. Tina Michalak, our first lecture series coordinator, remembers how gracious and generous Marcus was in working with us to do something we had never done before. That first lecture weekend with Marcus packed the church. The support the Lecture Series received became the seed for funding future lectures. Marcus returned four times over these past seven years as part of our Lecture Series, most recently last June with Joan Chittister and John Dominic Crossan.
Marcus would set his little clock timer. His lectures clear as an outline. (“I am now going to speak for the next 13 minutes… “I will speak of this… and then make three points, and then draw a conclusion….).
But besides a way that spoke to the logical and rational in all of us, Marcus had room for something else.
Bob Fitzgerald remembers,
“Marcus spoke so openly, so personally, about how his faith, theology and ‘take’ on Jesus changed and developed. Softly conveyed his convictions, often provoking tears in me…and jolted me awake when he spoke of the ‘American Empire’ and the contradiction between who we say we are as a ‘Christian’ nation and the reality of our military dominance throughout the world.”
I remember how amidst the careful, logical arguments that Marcus presented, that he had room, made room, for mystery. For wonder. For what we can’t know, think, solve our way through. I loved his interweaving of ancient prayers, the stories of the icons in his home.
Marcus’ legacy lives on in the life of our church.
It was Marcus who was the inspiration for the little remark we put in our church bulletin each week,
“As Christians we are shaped by the language of our tradition, including its foundation – the Bible. Some of us understand Christian language in literal and factual terms. Others understand it as a language filled with symbolism and metaphor. We all share a common passion for the more-than-literal meaning of the stories and teaching that guide us.”
It was the legacy – and here I look out in my mind’s eye on our congregation – how Marcus found a way for so many to be here, here in church, where otherwise they might never have been, worshipping together and talking about Jesus.
We will be paying tribute to Marcus on Friday evening, February 6, as we gather for our next lecture series weekend with Robin Meyers. Robin is dedicating his lectures to Marcus.
And on Sunday afternoon, March 29, at 3:00 p.m., we will gather here with members of our Lecture Series Community, our church and others throughout our region for our own Service of Memory and Thanksgiving as we give thanks for Marcus’ life and ministry and reflect on the ways he has touched our lives. We hope you might join us that afternoon. Lauren Winner will be with us for a lecture earlier that afternoon from 12:30-2, followed by a dessert reception before the memorial service.
It was at the close of a Sunday worship service here many years ago that Marcus shared a benediction that he had adapted from a 19th century Swiss Philosopher, Henri-Frederic Amiel. I have used it in memorial services ever since.
“Life is short. And we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us. So let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.”
Thank you, Marcus, for all the ways you have shared with us such a kindness.
Thank you, for opening anew our minds, hearts, and imaginations to meet Jesus again, as if for the very first time.