St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 25, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


A Powerful Call

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I love the first chapter of Mark. It contains one of the greatest summaries of the gospel in the New Testament. Mark's is nearly as compact as is John 3:16.

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.

It also tells the strikingly simple story of Jesus calling fishermen who become seekers after—fishers of people. They carry forward and expand the mission of our Lord in the world, and provide an example for us to do likewise.

These simple truths combine in my mind with the truth spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated last Sunday afternoon with a splendid interfaith worship service next door at Beth Shalom and then as a nation on Monday's holiday. That service did more that celebrate; it acted as a call to all of us to continue to live into a prophetic vision of God's reign breaking into our lives and our world.

When I preached on this passage twelve years ago, I spoke of the war with Iraq that was then soon to be set in motion. That war began in earnest on March 20 of 2003. In my sermon I called it an unjust war, a conclusion most of us had reached after a careful study of what is known as "just war theory," a set of principles in religious and political thought developed over fifteen centuries that seems to have fallen by the wayside. The Iraq War raged for more than seven years, and its counterpart in Afghanistan, begun two years earlier only ended officially last month.

These wars too come to mind in the contexts of our celebration of the life of an American prophet for peace and justice, even as we witness continuing violence and racism in our cities and in our lives and hearts. Even the recent attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the demonstrations in Europe and in Muslim nations give expression to our human and troubling penchant for violence and hatred.

Perhaps you are as troubled as I by the "I am Charlie" signs that express an idolatry of free speech—as one of our members suggested at our Men's Group last Tuesday. Not to mention the predictable and tragic reactions in the Middle East and elsewhere both to the disrespect for Islam in the west and to the in-your-face multi- million-issue run of yet another Charlie Hebdo magazine depicting their prophet.

One wonders, then, at this ancient declaration, full of hope and good news:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Really? Has the kingdom broken into our world? It is sometimes very hard to see.

It is helpful that in this inaugural and exceedingly brief sermon, Jesus refers both to what God is calling us towards and to what is expected. Our response to the good news of God's action in the world and in Jesus is to repent and believe.

There is much for which to repent. And belief is often difficult to sustain.

What happens next helps to nurture repentance, belief, and hope for us. Jesus extends calls to a couple of fishermen, telling them to make new use of those skills and fish for people. It would be very hard for them and for us to do that task if our hearts nurtured hate rather than love. I appreciate this call of Jesus. It turns us helpfully towards others in a way that challenges us beyond all of the messiness we see around us.

The story of Jonah enhances this message. God will not let Jonah get away with shirking his duty to speak good news, even to those Jonah considers enemies. And his odd, long journey reveals just how essential it is to love even those we would prefer to hate. God is relentless in so loving everyone and everything that, perhaps in desperation, God became a human being, with the intention that we might reflect that love in living and loving eternally.

Both stories remind us that we will not win people to our convictions if we despise them or make war against them. We will only foster further enmity and violence, resentment and hatred.

We could use greater doses of the gospel-inspired teachings of Dr. King about nonviolence. His preaching about self-purification and the cleansing of hatred from the heart become even more relevant in our day. They are the paths of those who would change the hearts of others—who would become fishers of people. Nonviolence doesn't mean merely withholding the desire to kill. In its genuine manifestation, nonviolent action assumes that we cannot change others unless we are working on ourselves.

In the civil rights era, methods of nonviolent resistance and social reform were cultivated, tested, debated, and refined. Experiments in pacifism were not entirely new to American soil, but the fight for civil rights became a highly visible proving ground for nonviolent methods of persuasion and dissent focused on engaging a highly reluctant dominant society.

Fifty years later, we have barely kept the experiment with nonviolence alive. We seem to know less about how to communicate our differences, our anger, and our demands. As a nation, we are mired in the hypocrisy of mere civility—and that is crumbling. We are falsely soothed by the marketing of diversity. We are increasingly incapable of all but the crudest formulations of where our fights truly lie. At the fringes, gangs and militias and terrorists give violent expression to an alienation fed by a national and international paralysis.

Dr. King proclaimed the gospel by his firm foundation in nonviolent resistance, from his acceptance of jail time and beatings and threats of death to his refusal to hate a church whose moral laxity deeply disappointed him. In his letter from Birmingham Jail to white clergy, he resolved that he would neither hate them nor wait for them, but would continue to test them and oppose them nonviolently. He would love the sinners but hate their sin.

In an Advent sermon aired on Christmas Eve 1967, King remarked how "happy" he was that Jesus had not said, "Like your enemies," because there were some people that "I find pretty difficult to like...I can't like anybody who would bomb my home. I can't like anybody who would exploit me. I can't like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can't like them. I can't like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out."

But he could love them, he said; and King articulated what was at stake for him in loving those whom he could not like, those who would be so much easier to hate. "We will not only win freedom for ourselves (through nonviolence), we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory." King believed that to abandon nonviolence was to lose not just the double victory but any victory. "Hate is injurious to the hater as well as the hated," he said. "Hate is too great a burden to bear."

We may love even those we may not like because God first loved us, as scripture tells us. This is the simple truth of our faith—one that requires nothing of us to enter the door and demands all of us once we're in.

Christianity, and the Judaism from which it springs—along with Islam, stands in a tradition unique in religious thought, belief, and practice. We are not given rules; indeed, it is the law that condemns us. It is impossible to keep, We are weak and unworthy mortals who fool ourselves in the worst possible way if we think that we can make ourselves worthy of God's love, mercy, justice, or redemption.

Our faith speaks the truth loudly and clearly. We come before God with nothing to offer. God comes to us. Jesus bears that truth in flesh. And we are grateful—so grateful from the center of our being, that we offer all of what we have and who we are back to our loving God in sheer knee-buckling surrender and thanksgiving.

That is the flow of today's pithy passage from Mark. The announcement is clear: "The kingdom of God has come near." No hemming or hawing about what we might do about that; no suggestion that we might merit even a timid approach to the throne of God's grace. Just the bald statement of fact, and the culmination of all preceding history. "The time is fulfilled."

And then what? Nothing less than doing a 180, a u-turn, a total redirection of our lives, even if it takes every minute of life we have left to us. "Repent, and believe in the gospel."

How appropriate, then, that Jesus, from this perhaps clearest expression of the heart of the good news, goes on to call fishermen to be fishermen of a new kind—from fishing for sea creatures to fishing for Earth creatures. How cute that with Jonah, God uses a sea creature to make this point!

How appropriate! Why? Because God knows that we have limits, that we have some gifts and not others, that what we have and are is all that we have to give in return for the most precious of all gifts, grace. The response to grace, given freely, is to give back what we are and have.

It's so simple. It's a story so elegantly reduced to the beautiful kernel of truth. Oh, that we might take it to heart, as individuals and as nations.

Repent. believe. And share what God has given.

Jonah provides the foil for this story of call. He is a kind of biblical Jekyll and Hyde. There's Jonah the reluctant prophet. Despite his efforts to escape duty, he is dragged kicking and screaming and disgustedly spewed from the belly of a great fish to the Nineveh that he detests. And there's Jonah the self-righteous prophet, who is so angry and disappointed at God's mercy towards the clearly guilty that he would rather die than see them repent.

God's mercy, he thought—and perhaps we do as well, would spoil everything. And he was right. The people he loved to hate were saved. And in time even Jonah understood that all of life is sacred, and that God does not divide the world into the horribly human categories of "enemy" and "friend."

These texts today call us to be fishers of men and women of all sorts. And one does not tend to fish for creatures that are not savory to the tongue or the heart. We extend line and lure, but we do so in love, a love that rightly knows no bounds.

The prophets of the distant past and the prophets of modern days call to us. "Lay down your burden by the riverside, and study war no more." Put aside hatred. Cease warring. And reach out to all not with bad news but with good. Whatever the cost. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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