Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sermon - 22 January 2012 - 3rd after Epiphany

Trinity – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Jonah 3:1-5,10 | Psalm 62:6-14 | 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 | Mark 1:14-20

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.”

Mark Twain once wrote, “To be good is noble; but to teach others to be good is nobler and less trouble” [Following the Equator, more or less]. I’ve always loved this quip, and I’ve used it on this Sunday in previous cycles. I’ll probably use it again! It seems especially appropriate this year in which we seem not to be able to escape an interminable and generally appalling political campaign, even here in Iowa, where we thought we were done with it. There certainly does seem to be no lack of folks who are apparently very eager even to bully us into being good. And often enough they have very, shall we say? idiosyncratic, ideas about wherein “goodness” consists.

There has been a lot of discussion lately in the media, including and perhaps especially in the cybermedia, about how mainstream Christianity in general, and often focusing on The Episcopal Church in particular, is dwindling away. Well, I’m not so sure, and I suggest that there are lots of ways to spin statistics. (“Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” to quote Mark Twain again, although he attributed the phrase to Benjamin Disraeli.) But one thing does seem fairly obvious and is supported by some research data: young people, and young adults, are wandering away from the churches of their childhood. Which they have been doing for a long time; only now they aren’t coming back. And when asked, “Why not?” they are responding, “Why should I?” They aren’t necessarily hostile to God; they’re not active atheists; they don’t really think about it enough to be called real “agnostics”; they just don’t care, and don’t see why they should care. Sometimes they do have some hostility toward the organized church, and often enough they have plenty to be hostile about. These are basically decent, caring people, but they have been turned off, often driven into indifference, even deeply hurt, by rigidity, complacency, pride, hypocrisy and oppression masquerading as the Christian gospel. Many claim, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” But many others show no interest even in being “spiritual,” whatever that means.

So it seems to me that we would do well to take a closer look at what we mean by “religion” or “spirituality,” and to ask how we are being heard when we use that kind of language, and perhaps get some hint as to how we can more effectively convey in our own time and world what Jesus was up to in his.

Today in the Gospel reading we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ public career. These first two verses may seem very simple and straightforward, but I suggest they are worth closer analysis: “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’.” A little like the message Jonah was commissioned to take to Nineveh, which is why the first reading today. But maybe only a little like Jonah.

Older translations of these words may still be more familiar to us, and so they color how we hear them: “Jesus came … preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.” (That’s the King James Version.) “Preaching the gospel.” Well, yes; that translation isn’t wrong, but it sounds so religious! “Preaching the gospel” may be one of the reasons why many young people are heading for the hills. Those words have accumulated so much baggage over the centuries!

What the Greek text actually says is: “Jesus came advertising some good news.” In Athens a related word was used to mean the town crier. Jesus was making a public announcement – good news from God. “Now is the time – the time has come!” And the news is, “The world does not really belong to Caesar, it belongs to God!” (Well, you had to be a little careful about how you said that in public, or you’d end up on a cross. Which, actually, was what happened, and for just that reason.)

So what do we do about that? “Repent and believe,” the standard translations say. But in English “repent” is another one of those religious words, which may have all kinds of connotations but is likely to carry at least some resonances of beating on yourself and generally feeling miserable about yourself. In Nineveh they all put on sackcloth. But today ‘repentance” doesn’t sell. (It should, but it doesn’t.)

But the word we translate as “repent” in the original text is actually a perfectly ordinary word that means “change your mind,” and that’s how it was usually used in ancient everyday Greek. Today we might say “raise your consciousness.” In any case the idea is not really about feeling regretful about your past (however regrettable your past may be), but taking a new stance toward the future. It means “leave behind your own ‘reality,’ turn, and enter into God’s reality.”

“And believe in the good news.” Believe. Raise your hand. Subscribe to this list of propositions, some of which may sound a bit unlikely. But the word in the text means “put your trust in.” It’s primarily about commitment, not about cognition — about your heart, first of all, more than your mind. We sometimes make the distinction in English between “believing in” someone or something, and “believing that” a certain proposition is true. But in the New Testament the word we sometimes render “believe” always has the sense of “believe in,” or, I think better, “have faith in,” “put your trust in.” So “believe in the good news” isn’t primarily about reciting the Creed, it’s about putting your trust and confidence in Jesus and his announcement as good news, good news from the God whose world this really is and who underlies all meaning, all value, all being.

Okay, at this point — and we’re only 15 verses into St. Mark’s Gospel, remember! — there’s still not very much specific content to this good news that the world is God’s, that Jesus is announcing and asking us to put our trust in. But what Jesus then spends his entire career doing — making clear, by word and action, by instruction and image and story, by example and healing and forgiveness, and finally by giving his life on Caesar’s cross, is putting content into just what this good news is and just what God is like. Jesus not only announces that God’s world is near, he brings God’s world near, he makes God’s world a present reality for us. Jesus did not come to establish a religion or found an ecclesiastical institution, but to call us into real, true, full, eternal life. Jesus did not say, “Sign up to join my Religion Club.” Jesus said “Follow me.”

I’m not saying that “religion,” and institutions and doctrines and rituals and moral codes, are unnecessary or unimportant. Not at all! But they are secondary and instrumental. “Religion” is a human construct. “Religion” is our response that we make to the good news of God. And often enough we get this “religion” disastrously wrong. “Religion” is not the point of the good news; rather, the good news of God’s world is the point of the forms of religion. And therefore true, authentic religion can never be a club, a threat, a weapon to make someone else be good, but can only be a means and support for trusting in, and living, and sharing this outrageous good news that God, whose world this is, loves us and cares about us, and that fullness of life is available to us right now if we will but turn and receive it.

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