Today I would like to start my message with a prayer.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit:
Gracious and Almighty God,
you are the infinite source of all things,
before the fire of the sun was lit you were there,
before the sphere of the earth was formed,
before our nation was a whisper on any man’s lips you were.
Between us is the dragging gap of all eternity,
and yet you crossed this impossible width to be with us,
to show us your face in Jesus,
to give your Son for us to follow.
Keep us mindful of our size, that we are your creatures,
and that we owe everything to your grace.
Now, let the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you,
O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
In these days of bitterness over policy and presidents, these days of remaining glued to the Cable News stations of our choice—I know you wish that Pastor Krey and I would keep all this out of church. And he and I, also, wish there was some kind of relief (we get that relief from football and we give thanks to God for that). More than ever before it has become obvious there will never be any seeing eye-to-eye about these things. Here in the United States we all live in alternate dimensions, where we each, and those with whom we agree, have private access to truth—our own personal handle on what is right, and what should be done.
I’m not just talking to “the other side” today. I’m talking to each of us. I wish I could come up here and read from Scripture and give you some relief. But all Scripture is written in political and economic terms. Because as long as human beings have been human beings, created by God for relationship, we have been organizing ourselves, and trading things. All our readings show this.
Jonah is sent to the great city of Nineveh. Great cities are organized around leaders for protection and economies for trade, that’s what cities are for. Our Psalm alludes to economic and social class. “Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; they are together lighter than a breath.” “If riches increase,” writes the Psalmist, “do not set your heart on them.” Paul, also, talking to merchants, or those who “deal” with the world, makes explicit reference to the economic realities and complexities of his church in the busy port city of Corinth.
We all have dealings with the “world” as Paul writes. God knows we have dealings with the “world.” I’m not sure why we would even want a God that doesn’t see this part of us. This is really all we are, day-to-day, part of the world. Our jobs, our news channels, our conflicts in public spaces: this is where we live out our faith, where it actually matters who we follow, what prayers we say here, and what we are even praying about.
And the Gospel today is no different, of course. Jesus is in a real place, with real political and economic situations. Our Gospel lesson begins with John the Baptist being arrested. Who arrests people? Political and social powers do. King Herod had John the Baptizer arrested, and later killed, because he felt John to be a seditious threat.
Jesus enters this familiar and difficult world in Galilee. A real place, with real political powers to navigate, and real economic transactions. Fishermen, the experts say, in New Testament times were well-to-do tradesmen. So the enterprise that both Simon and Andrew, and James and John with their Father Zebedee, were involved in was big enough to afford several “hired men,” if you listened closely.
To this reality Jesus enters and proclaims: “Repent.” To this reality God was, and will always continuously be, announcing, “Hey, turn around!” Through Jonah the famously reluctant prophet, God said to the big, corrupt city of Nineveh “turn around” in these words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In the words of the Psalmist, God declares that our world of economic class divisions, our hatred of elites, or of those in power—will not save us. God says, wake up, only God is God. “Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” Even in Paul’s letter to the citizens of Corinth: he echoes the same announcement of Jesus in Mark: Wake up and change. “For the present form of this world is passing away.” “The appointed time has grown short; from now on, [let] those who deal with the world [do so] as though they had no dealings with it.”
And, of course, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes the often repeated call. Let me translate it differently so you might hear it better: “Now is the season, the time is ripe, for God to be in control of your lives. Change your mind. Trust that there is something better to hear.”
And after hearing this, the fishermen stop. And with a favorite word of the author of Mark, they immediately leave their nets, their boats, and their father behind—to follow Jesus, to change their minds, to realign themselves with God’s way.
And Nineveh the great city changes quickly too. This change for Nineveh involves mourning. Wearing rough burlap or sackcloth is the Bible’s image for: “I feel awful.” It is also an image to show they have new vision, because they now see how wrong they’ve been.
The change for Andrew and the rest is a letting go of the old way. The old way makes sense.
Fix the nets, catch the fish, sell the fish, fix the nets, repeat. The old way in America makes sense. I am nice, they are mean. I do my best, they are lazy. We are heroes, they are villains. Now, Jesus once again by the power of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, once again declares: Stop. Let go of the old way.
Everyone is wrong. With your “holier than thou” social justice gospel and cancel culture—did God especially appoint you as the judge of the world? Both sides are wrong. With your “down to earth” working class hero fantasies—did God whisper in your ears to proclaim the saving mercy of human-made things like liberty and the American family? If you can’t be wrong, you can’t be right. Or, in other words: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
When Jesus says to his disciples follow me, they don’t take a Jesus Fish decal and slap it on their boat and keep fishing. They don’t take a Jesus 2020 flag and fix it to the prow and leave Jesus on the shore. They leave the whole boat behind. And the call to leave the metaphorical boat of self-justification, the boat of I-know-what’s-best, in short, the boat of being-right, that call, to follow Jesus instead, is always at hand.
Long after Jesus was lifted up on the cross—St Paul uses a similar Greek phrase in his letter to the church in Corinth. The time is coiled up, he says, or ready to strike, the time is tight, the season is ready—it is ripe—to deal with our world in a new way. St Paul is faithful to Jesus’ proclamation when he says: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” Again, a more literal translation, really would be: “Look, the way things appear now, the posture we’ve taken, in this current arrangement I’ve been talking about, is moving past, like a ship on the horizon.” God in Jesus has revealed this to be true, set it in motion.
And this is what we come to church to celebrate. We don’t come to celebrate sameness! We didn’t spend $10,000 on livestream cameras to tell you: “Good job, keep up the good work. Be American cheerleaders of your favorite view-point that makes you feel safe and in-the-right.” And you certainly don’t give that $10,000 right back again month after month because we tell you to stay the same. You give so generously because we announce God’s transformation here. We gather as God’s people to proclaim, along with Jesus, “Stop! By ourselves we have got it all wrong.”
The present arrangement that we are in leads to shame and death. Do not set your heart on what cannot last. Bad things have already happened—injustice piled on injustice, rage on rage, lies on lies.
Bad things will continue to happen. But not, we heard today, for the people of Nineveh, our ancestors in faith. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
In the folktale poetry of the Old Testament, what there is called “God changing his mind”—this morning Jesus proclaims the same in his words: “the good news.”
The “calamity” is of our own making, but God erases all the blame when we turn. Christ has changed the arrangement of the Cosmos, for us and for all people.
Stop. Turn. Change your mind. Let your transformation begin anew.