The kin-dom comes near

Adapted from a sermon preached at First United Methodist and Centenary United Methodist churches Jan. 21, 2018.

Mark 1:14-20: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

We come to this scripture so soon after we have celebrated Jesus’ birth, epiphany, baptism. Here we inaugurate Jesus’ ministry. In this earliest-written gospel, we hear—words put in Jesus’ own mouth—the reason for his being here.

The reign of God has come near. This is the good news, the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near.

I always like to put myself in the first-century hearer’s shoes. This gospel was probably first oral stories about Jesus, and was put in writing around 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death, right around the time of Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Judea, which resulted in Rome putting down the revolt by destroying the temple and turning the Jewish people into a diaspora—a people scattered over the earth.

When a Jewish person in first-century Judea heard that “the time is fulfilled,” this is absolutely not what they were hoping for.

They were hoping for a change—a permanent change. They were hoping for freedom and self-rule. They were hoping for so much more than crucifixion and death, and the destruction of their way of life, of their entire religion.

It’s even harder for us to hear this story, these words of Jesus: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near. We know even more history than a first-century Jewish person. We’re sitting here, two thousand years later, looking around our world that has suffered from dozens of other man-made empires, global wars, weapons of mass destruction, famine, economies built on slavery. I’m wondering where this kingdom of God is. What has changed? What has really changed?

And the answer is, honestly, not much. Empire exists, oppression exists, injustice exists and persists, and persists.

Honestly, I have a feeling that today, one year after the first Women’s March on Washington, one year after President Trump’s inauguration, nine years after President Obama’s inauguration, seventeen years after President Bush’s first inauguration…we might have an OK idea how a first-century Jewish person in Judea might have felt.

Last month a president was inaugurated in Honduras. He is the first elected president since a military coup in 2009, and executive power in that country has bounced between leftists, right-wingers, and the military dozens of times in the past century.

So, the time is fulfilled! A new era has begun! And?

What has really changed?

It’s pretty hard to look around at our modern-day saviors, leaders, revolutionaries, and feel much more than futility and hopelessness.

I got a taste of this sense of futility the first time I visited Honduras, last November. It was one week before their presidential election. Honduras has been spiraling into desperate straits over the past couple of decades. Corruption in the government is at an all-time high. Gang-related crime and violence has given way to organized crime, drug trafficking, and world-leading murder rates.

This country is one that needs a big time change. There were two leading candidates in the election: the incumbent and the challenger. I was curious when I visited Honduras and met my new colleagues where their hope would lie.

The answer I got was not terribly awe-inspiring. “No matter who is elected, nothing will change.”

I had to look very closely to find a sense of hope among my new colleagues in ministry in the Presbyterian Church of Honduras.

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Reinaldo, a Presbyterian church leader in Honduras

Reinaldo is a 65-year-old man, a farm worker. For the past year, he has been participating in a program for Presbyterian church leaders in Honduras. As he received his diploma recognizing completion of a year of study, he had tears in his eyes. He shared with his classmates, colleagues and teachers how he never attended a day of school in his life, he was raised away from his parents “on the streets” and is a farmer. He told about how he never thought that he would receive any kind of diploma. What saved him, he said, was encountering Jesus Christ and following Christ alongside his brothers and sisters in the church.

That’s what has really changed in this scripture story. Fishermen called as equals to Christ. Farmers and government workers and house cleaners and cooks and mothers and construction workers and students, called as equals, as brothers and sisters, to follow Christ.

We are called into kinship with Christ in this passage. The kingdom of God has broken through, shockingly tearing open the sky at Jesus baptism, when Christ’s heavenly father descended as a dove and said, “This is my son, whom I love,” and the kingdom of God will again shockingly tear through the Temple curtain at Jesus’ death.

And what Simon and Andrew and James and John are called to, and we along with them, is radical brother- and sisterhood with the Christ.

We are called to be the ones who become Christ for others.

MLK Jr. wrote in his pastoral prayer in 1956: “We thank thee for thy Church, founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon thee.”

The very answer to our prayers for change, for revolution, for a new kingdom, depends upon us, and our willingness to follow the call, to live into radical kinship with Jesus Christ.

Additional sources: Spencer, F Scott. 2005. “‘Follow me’: the imperious call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.” Interpretation 59, no. 2: 142-153. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2018). Juel, Donald H, and Patrick R Keifert. “A Markan epiphany: lessons from Mark 1.” Word & World 8, no. 1 (1988 1988): 80-85. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2018).

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Waiting, groaning for the world to turn

Adapted from a reflection written for San Francisco Theological Seminary during Advent 2017.

A response to Romans 8:22-27, and the hymn Canticle of the Turning.

Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.

I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.

The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.

I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?

As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.

Ministry Matters™ | Articles | If You Love That Flag, Don’t Put It in the Sanctuary

Ministry Matters™ | Articles | If You Love That Flag, Don’t Put It in the Sanctuary.

I recommend this article. I have visited churches where the U.S. flag is placed prominently in the sanctuary, and I usually don’t go back. I am American, happy to live in the United States, and proud of my military veteran family members. But the United States is a construct of human beings, and the flag in the sanctuary is akin to the golden calves representing God (Exodus 32).