“Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”
– Mark 1:15
(Preached on Sunday, January 21, 2018)
Simon, Andrew, James and John are the poster children for those who eagerly embrace the call from God and the responsibilities that come with it. Jesus is just “passing along” the lakeshore of his native Galilee when he comes upon Simon and Andrew attending to the routine maintenance of their fishing business. He says to them simply, “Follow me and I will show you how to fish for people.” Mark tells us they did so immediately – didn’t ask questions, they just dropped their nets and joined him. And so did James and John.
Do we possess that same sense of urgency as those first disciples? Here on the third Sunday after the Epiphany of Jesus, and the third week of a new year, the risk we run is to lose a sense of urgency. What’s so urgent? Simply put, preaching about the reign of God – the kingdom Jesus came to establish.
In the game of football, when the game is almost over, the referee gives each team a “two-minute warning,” pointing out to them there is only two minutes left in the game. Now, those two minutes might actually take 15-20 minutes to complete, but the point is, the game is almost over. What usually happens is that the team that is ahead at that point begins to move very deliberately, taking their time, trying to let as much time move off the clock as possible. At the same time, the team that is behind begins to move with greater speed, urgency and efficiency, trying to be as productive as possible in the short time left. The shortness of time left on the game-clock bring a heightened focus to the losing team and a greater sense of urgency.
A sense of urgency is what keeps us focused, our sight placed upon the things that really matter – the things that reflect Jesus’ kingdom. A sense of urgency is what challenges us to not be moderate or neutral on issues related to the perpetuation of violence, tragic inequities, and the dehumanization of the “other” – generally people of color, people from other nations, people from other religions, people who express their sexuality or gender identity differently. We don’t have all the time in the world. Right now we are behind in the game. Attitudes of prejudice and exclusiveness, the most insidious and sinister of social diseases, are running rampant in our society. And they are manifesting in a particularly unhealthy way: in total disdain for some people, treating them as though they have no worth at all.
During the past year our nation has seen a serious rise in Christian Nationalism and White Nationalism. This has made live increasingly difficult for anybody who does not fit within those two groups. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased 44% over 2016, which also saw an increase. In fact, many American Muslim organizations say the anti-Muslim environment in the United States is worse now than it was the first year after the 9/11 attacks. Along with that there has been a 67 % increase in Anti-Semitic incidents, including vandalism, school bullying, and violent acts.
The gospel reading this week challenges us to adopt a posture of watchful urgency. That challenge is to not be afraid to resist the evil and oppressive powers of this world by becoming signs of Jesus’ kingdom: signs of patience, signs of hope, and signs of love. Our world needs people to stand up and follow Jesus. Our world needs people of good will to stand up and forthrightly disavow exclusivist attitudes and actions, whatever the excuse. Of course, prejudice is always substantiated by reasons. But it cannot be supported by any appeal to the God of compassion and love we have seen revealed in Jesus. On the contrary, the people of God are called to proclaim the universality of God and the commonality of all humankind. The disparagement of other people, the suggestion that there are people who matter less than others, must be banished by the light of love. Our world desperately needs people to stand up and proclaim the love of God for all people; the intrinsic value and worth of all people. Our children and youth desperately need to hear that message.
Yet this is not easy. It will call for sacrifice. When we decide to follow Jesus, we are called to lay down some of our most valuable possessions: our understanding of the world, our view of right and wrong, our assumptions about whom God favors and whom God despises, our ways and our thoughts. The way of Jesus is countercultural and it is counterintuitive to human survival. Jesus calls us to a life of service; to a life of putting others first; to a life of non-violence; to a life that does not seek revenge but rather offers forgiveness; to a life of unconditional love for all people and a willingness to embrace all as brothers and sisters in God.
Those first followers of Jesus discovered that fishing nets were only the first things they would be called to leave behind for the gospel’s sake. As they traveled and camped around Galilee, they discarded beliefs about the character and will of God. They cast off their assumptions about God’s mercy, love and justice. None of them, of course, were perfect followers. Each has his moment of resisting the call and questioning God’s agenda.
But they were learning a new way of life, a new way of being the people of God. They were learning what American philosopher Dallas Willard once stated that “the gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” And that life, if taken seriously as a life lived for others, will call for sacrifice.
But there is hope. It can be done. We can make a difference in the world today. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote the book The Tipping Point in which he talks about the spreading of an idea from person to person until the idea becomes a majority viewpoint and the scales are tipped in its favor. After an innovator comes up with the idea, it is spread by “connectors” (who know everybody), “mavens” (who know everything), or by “salespeople” (who can sell anything). That is one way of thinking about how God works through us, as we spread the good news of God’s love and as we live that love in our acceptance and care and respect for each person we meet.
In this way we begin to see that it does matter what we do. It does matter who we tell. It does matter that we stand up for all people as children of God. It does matter that we embody God’s love in our lives in concrete ways. For as we impact those we influence, and they impact those they influence, the network will grow until the message of God’s love and grace will be the majority viewpoint throughout the world.
It can be done. There are still followers of Jesus today dropping their nets and finding ways to follow him and live God’s love for all people. During Bible study one day, a lifelong member of Cynthia Weems’ church, (she is pastor of First United Methodist Church in downtown Miami), shared a story from his childhood. William had grown up just north of downtown Miami and was a teenager when he began taking the bus down to the church with his brother to attend Thursday night children’s choir rehearsal. Soon he began to notice others who were riding with him. When he hopped on the bus downtown and began to journey north back home, female domestic workers and male day laborers would begin to fill the bus. He noticed that many of these women and men had to stand during the entire ride because they were people of color and therefore restricted to the rear of the bus, where all the seats were quickly taken. Troubled by the situation, William decided to do something. Although he was white and could sit at the front, he decided that he would go the back of the bus and take one of the seats in the section reserved for people of color. When there were no more seats in that section, William would stand and give his seat to the next woman of color who got on the bus. Many years later this man is a leader in nurturing a racially and economically diverse congregation.
Times up! It is time to get serious about following Jesus. As we do we will discover that God’s love transcends our own prejudices, hatreds, and grudges. Indeed the mystery is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.