Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Using Third Epiphany Text)

Sermon 2/8/09 (Epiphany 3B text, preached out of turn), Mark 1:14-20


You might think it a mundane word, an insignificant word in the scriptures. But actually, the word immediately, euthus in Ancient Greek, is one of my favorite Greek words in the Bible. It occurs frequently in the scriptures, twice in today’s passage alone, but its commonality shouldn’t make us overlook it, thinking it is only as important as other common throw-away words like “and” and “the”. “Immediately” – it’s a word with scriptural power. Immediately.

Immediately is word with a sense of urgency. It has a sense of purpose – something important is at stake with “immediately.” It is a hurried word. Think for a moment about what does and doesn’t happen with immediacy in our world. We’re a very time-conscious world. On the one hand, we are a people that want everything right now. We have a desire, as a society, for quick, easy, faster, and more convenient things. There’s Kraft Cheese Crumbles, for example – cheese that comes in a bag already crumbled so that you don’t have to take the extra 60 seconds to crumble it ourselves. We value our time and so we like to get unimportant things done as quickly as possible. We like to make things that serve our needs as quickly and as efficiently as possible – technology being a prime example. Faster is always better. But our love of the quick and efficient has spilled into our decision-making processes as well. In today’s world of television, new shows may be cancelled after one or two episodes air, if the viewership isn’t high enough. You can apply for a credit card with the promise of a 30-second decision on your application. Of course, these days, that decision is likely to be ‘no’ – but they’ll still answer you quickly! We like our decision-making to be careful – but quick.

On the other hand, some things in our lives just don’t seem to move any more quickly no matter how fast the rest of the world is going. The church usually falls into this category. How many times have you heard of the church making a decision too quickly? Probably not very many. Usually, to make a decision in the church, we have to form a committee, study the idea, check with other churches about how they made the decision, vote on it in a small committee, vote on it in a bigger committee, and then talk about it in the whole body. And that’s when everything goes smoothly in the process! At its worst and slowest, the church has sometimes lagged behind the rest of the world in extending justice and making decisions that would help our neighbors. Today, we heard an anthem Roy wrote with the words of the Gettysburg address. The issue of racial justice divided the church for over a hundred years. People in the church were afraid to take a definite stand. And in fact, in the civil rights era, the church was often a vocal defender of racist practices. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. were most critical of churches that wouldn’t move forward for justice. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote,

“My Dear Fellow Clergymen, While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." . . . Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed", according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never” . . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights . . . I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." but when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, . . . when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

It wasn’t until the Methodist Church and the United Evangelical Brethren Church merged in 1968 that our denomination finally acted in writing to eliminate many of the practices of segregation in the structure of the church and not until the year 2000 that our denomination officially apologized for its history of racism. Immediately isn’t perhaps our favorite word in the church. We’re not very good at immediately.

Today, our gospel lesson is full of a sense of immediacy and urgency. Our lesson opens still in the first chapter of Mark. John the Baptist has just been arrested – aside from his unwelcome words to the religious leaders about repentance and them being a brood of vipers, John had also managed to upset King Herod by calling him out publicly on his immoral actions. So John wound up in prison. The time was ripe for Jesus to step in and continue and expand the work John had begun. He arrives in Galilee and beings to proclaim the good news. As he is passing by the Sea of Galilee, he sees Simon and Andrew, fishermen, casting their nets. Jesus greets them with provocative words: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And, we read, “immediately” they left their nets and followed Jesus. Farther down the shore, Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee. And “immediately” he calls them, and they leave their father and the other workers, and follow him.

So what’s all the rush about? What’s the significance of the “immediately” in these texts? I think our answer has two parts. An immediate message and an immediate response. Remember, our passage begins with Jesus talking about the good news. And what is the good news? As Christians we often think of the good news as this: Jesus came and died for our sins so that we might be saved. In fact, we might sum up the “good news” of the gospel as found in the most-memorized verse John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” But our lesson from Mark today leads us in another direction.

Last Saturday, I met with our confirmation class for one of our sessions that supplements the one-on-one work they are doing with their mentors. Our session this weekend focused on United Methodist history, structure, and beliefs, and the Bible, what’s in it, and how to use it. When we were talking about the Bible, I told the kids that Gospel, means literally, “Good News.” And the Ancient Greek work for “Good News” is euangelos, or, transliterated, euangelos – Good/message. I asked them what word they could see there – and they rightly answered, “angel.” An angel in the scriptures is a messenger, specifically, a messenger from God. The Gospels are Good Messages. What Jesus came to share was the good news – the gospel – the good message that God’s kingdom was here, and here now.

We read in Mark that Jesus began teaching and preaching right after John’s arrest, and here was his message, which Mark calls the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come hear; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus’ message of good news is that God is immediately present in our lives. Instead of coming at a later time, instead of something we have to wait for, the time is already fulfilled – God is here, God is present – God’s reign, God’s will, is right here and right now. An immediate message.

Likewise, because of Jesus’ immediate message, there is a need for an immediate response. “Repent, and believe the news,” Jesus insists. Repent – change the direction of your life. And when? Now. Right now. And so when Jesus calls the disciples, he doesn’t tell them to think it over. He doesn’t ask them to meet him later. He doesn’t ask for applications which he’ll review. He doesn’t negotiate terms with them, or revise his message to something they’re more willing to support. He says, “follow me.” And they do – immediately.

An immediate message and an immediate response. Jesus tries to instill in us the sense that the news he shares is so good, so life-changing, so wonderful, that we can be immediately moved to repent, respond, react. Our impulse is to think it over. Our impulse is to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of making such a big decision. After all, what Jesus ask of us is to basically turn over our lives to him. To follow him instead of following our own motivations. To completely change the direction we’ve been going, and to go with him instead. And he doesn’t promise much in the way of perks that we’re used to. No free t-shirts. No gift cards. No bonuses. Instead, the way Jesus goes and asks us to follow is a way that we know leads to a cross – to humiliation, betrayal, denial. Can’t we have some time to make a decision? Can’t we think it over? Can’t we commit by degrees and follow a few steps a day?

But Jesus has a message that’s too immediate – too urgent – for us to wait. In a world with so much need for love – the kind of unconditional love that God offers – who wants to wait for that love for one more minute? Jesus wanted the disciples to come and fish his way – fish for people – catch them with the message of God’s already-present grace. It’s been two-thousand years, and still, there are some who have yet to experience God’s transforming love in their lives. How much longer must Jesus wait for us to respond?

What are we waiting for? If we wait because we’re afraid, Jesus promises to go with us. If we wait because we’re looking for a better offer, we’re in trouble. What more do we want than the only offer of unconditional love we’ve yet to find in this world? Jesus has been waiting, been calling us. There’s no time better than right now to leave our things – our baggage, our fears, our worries – to leave them, turn a new way and follow Jesus.

Immediately he called them, and immediately they left their nets and followed him. Amen.

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