January 15, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
What would it take for you to follow Jesus onto the field of battle?
For us peace loving types, that’s an uncomfortable question to consider let alone answer because we don’t want to think about following Jesus as akin to a military operation, but the gospel of Mark sees it that way. The gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as God’s anointed one battling the powers that keep God’s children oppressed, whether those powers be the social powers of wealth, class, and status, the demonic powers of possession, or the political powers of tyranny and violence. These are the powers — the dehumanizing social forces and norms — that rule over people in ways that leave us hurting in heart and body, and so, the gospel declares, God sent his son to confront those powers with the possibility of a new way of living. Jesus proclaims that there is another kind of Kingdom that God offers us where our lives will not be ruled by violence, hatred, prejudice, judgement, and condemnation but by a sovereign of grace and mercy and acceptance: God’s Kingdom. This is the invitation Christ offers to us, but it is accompanied by this warning: if God’s Kingdom of grace is to be a reality for ourselves and those around us, we will have to be willing to confront and challenge the powers that want no part of that.
“Repent! The Kingdom of God is hand!” Jesus proclaims as he takes up his ministry at the beginning of the gospel of Mark. “Repent — turn away from your apathy and your acceptance of the status quo and be ready to enter into battle with the dehumanizing powers that rule our world so that God’s Kingdom can be realized and God’s grace can prevail.” The gospel of Mark begins with a battle cry.
And in the gospel, the first to sign up for this fight are the fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Upon hearing Jesus’ words, the four rush forward, ready to join the fray. Although the gospel of Mark makes it sound like these four men impulsively drop their fishing nets to rush after some strange preacher walking by the beach, it is likely that the men knew Jesus already. They are all from the same small town and so the four men probably knew a little of what Jesus was about. Maybe they were acquainted enough to consider him already a friend; maybe they had had conversations with Jesus over meals of fish stew, talking about the state of the world, and lately discussing the preaching of the local prophet, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is a very important figure here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Baptist was well known in Galilee: he was a captivating figure with his wild dress and his wilder talk and people flocked to hear him just for the entertainment value alone, but at the beginning of the gospel, John’s popularity was at an all time high because John had begun to rail against King Herod. You probably are familiar with King Herod, having seen him in our nativity plays, but you may not know just how much King Herod was despised by the Jewish people. Herod had been appointed King over Palestine by the Roman emperor and though Herod tried to curry people’s favor by rebuilding the Temple, he also drained their pockets building lavish homes for himself and splendid pagan cities to glorify his own name. Herod was a paranoid and suspicious ruler: there were rumors that he employed secret police to monitor the populace, and he ordered his soldiers to violently suppress opposition protests. His personal relationships were marred by the same violence and paranoia: Herod cast aside his first wife and son to marry a younger woman he thought could better secure his power to the throne, and eventually Herod would become suspicious of her as well and arrange for her murder, as well as the murders of her sons and mother.
John the Baptist dared to publicly condemn Herod’s use and abuse of people for personal gain and his attitude that he was exempt from the law. John called Herod out as a petty tyrant undeserving of the power he had been given, and the people silently cheered the prophet’s daring. Everyone loves to see the mighty tweaked by the lowly and John the Baptist was Palestine’s version of Saturday Night Live. But Herod wasn’t laughing: he arrested John the Baptist and threw him in prison. The people could smell John the Baptist’s impending death in the air, and most of them quietly snuck back into their homes afraid of the consequences of speaking truth to power.
But not Peter, Andrew, James, and John. For these four, Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist was the breaking point. Up until that point, their discussions with Jesus about the powers of the world and God’s offer of a different way of living had been theoretical, spiritual musings for slow summer days — but when Herod arrested John, they reached their breaking point. They could not stand idly by any more and watch the Herods of the world trample upon the innocent.
“This is what Jesus has been talking about,” they said to one another when they heard of John’s arrest. They saw finally the truth of Jesus’ words, that the Kingdom of the Herods of the world are only for the rich, the healthy, the pious, and the strong but God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom for the least among us, for the poor, the sick, the sinner, the weak, the merciful, the stranger, and the forgotten. God’s Kingdom is for those who don’t have the money to buy influence from politicians to ensure that their needs are considered. God’s Kingdom is for those who don’t have the celebrity to get the attention of those in high places. God’s Kingdom is for those who are mocked because of their appearance, who are scorned because of their differences, who are condemned because of their past never given the chance to redeem themselves and discover new possibilities. The Kingdom of the Herods of the world offers only oppression and fear, violence and death while God’s Kingdom offers freedom and wholeness and life for all people.
“Which Kingdom will we choose to fight for?” the four men asked one another. “Which King will we serve?” And on that day when Jesus came by their boats and said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” they knew they were ready.
“It’s time we stopped talking about this and started doing something about it,” they said, and they ran to Jesus’ side, ready to follow.
The arrest of John the Baptist was the disciples’ breaking point. What was yours? What first made you realize that you wanted to commit yourself to this battle on behalf of God’s Kingdom of grace? What drove you onto the field against the powers that dehumanize you and your neighbors? What opened your eyes to all that was wrong about our world and turned your heart to the alternative that Jesus offers? What made you stand up and declare, “It’s time we stopped talking about this and started doing something about it instead?”
And if you haven’t said that yet, what will it take for you to follow Jesus into the fray?
The gospel of Mark uses the language of battle to describe discipleship but one’s commitment to a pursuing a Kingdom of grace can come with a quieter unfolding. This past week, Jenna and Barbara Bush, George W’s daughters, wrote a letter to Malia and Sasha Obama preparing them for their post-presidential life and they advised them to savor the life changing opportunities that their experiences as part of the White House family had given them.
“Traveling with our parents,” the Bush daughters said, “taught us more than any class could. It opened our eyes to new people as well as new cultures and ideas. We met factory workers in Michigan, teachers in California, doctors healing people on the Burmese border, kids who lined the dusty streets of Kampala to see the American President, and kids with HIV waiting to get the anti-retroviral drugs that would save their lives. One tiny girl wearing her finest lavender dress looked young, which she was not. She was little because she was sick. Her mom admitted that she might not live to see these drugs work, but her brothers and sisters would. After meeting this girl, Barbara went back to school and changed her major, and her life’s path.”
After college, the younger Barbara Bush co-founded Global Health Corps, an organization which views health as a human right and works for health equity around the world. For Barbara Bush, witnessing the injustice of that little sick girl was the galvanizing experience that caused her to enter the field of battle. When the columnist David Brooks addressed college graduates at a commencement ceremony in 2011, he said, “Today’s graduates are [often] told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But…. most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life…. and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”1
Jesus called to Peter, Andrew, James, and John and said, “Follow me and together we will fight the powers that oppress the people and teach them the possibilities of God’s Kingdom of grace.” And the disciples followed knowing that they just couldn’t accept the status quo any more. They couldn’t ignore the suffering that the violence of the world had produced. They couldn’t accept the misery of the sick who had been cast aside by an unfeeling society. They were disturbed by the way in which certain people were seen as worthy of our attention while others were cast aside as worthless, as lives that just didn’t matter. They were tired of the rich getting their way while the poor begged for scraps at their table. They were sick of living in a Kingdom ruled by the Herods and were ready to believe Jesus’ promise that God offers us a different way of living together. Here at the beginning of the gospel of Mark, the disciples didn’t know yet what it meant to do battle with those oppressive powers and for the rest of the gospel, we watch them struggle to understand how Jesus’ choice of love as a weapon can really defeat those who fight with a sword. We see them willing to accept the grace that Christ offers them but sometimes reluctant to show that same grace to people who make them uncomfortable or who disturb their sense of propriety. We watch them make mistakes, back-pedal, give in to fear, anxiety, confusion, or simple weariness. In fact, reading the gospel is like looking in a mirror because just as it took the disciples all of those years of following Jesus to get what he meant by losing their lives in order to save them, so it will take us a lifetime to understand how to battle the powers of the world with the non-violent love and grace of Christ. Right here, however, in the first chapter of the gospel, Jesus proclaims that before anything else can happen, the first thing we have to do is sign up.
“Repent,” Jesus demands of us. “Turn away from your apathy, stop accepting the status quo, and join me in battling the dehumanizing powers that rule our world so that God’s Kingdom and God’s grace can prevail.”
Are you ready to follow Jesus into the field of battle? If not, what will it take to get you on board?
Now honestly, that’s where normally, I would wind up this sermon and let you go home to mull over your commitment to the cause of God’s Kingdom but I know that many of you will feel uneasy if I end here because you will be thinking to yourself, “I’m ready to sign on but what can I do? The powers are so powerful and I am so weak. Don’t leave me hanging!” And so I am going to violate my sense of homiletic integrity and end this sermon with a very practical word.
While all of the gospels tell us that Jesus called us to follow him in his proclamation of God’s Kingdom, the gospel of Luke adds the word, “Daily.” Luke understood that we have to be in this for the long haul and that signing up isn’t a once in a lifetime thing. God’s battle against the powers is ongoing and will continue long after all of us are gone from this earth. We are part of a resistance movement that is bigger than any one of us, or even any one generation, and so God depends on our willingness to sign up again and again; I think we have to get up every morning and say to ourselves, “Today I am signing up to follow Jesus in battling the powers that oppress the people and proclaiming instead God’s Kingdom of grace and mercy.” We get every morning and say to Jesus, “I’m in.”
And then we make sure that every day we do something to contribute to the effort. Somedays it will be a big thing, more days it will be a small thing, but every day it will be something.
We get up in the morning and say to Jesus, “I’m in.”
And that day we bring a can of peas for the food pantry.
Or that day, we sign up to volunteer for the food pantry.
Or we sit down and write our representatives to support programs to help children in poverty.
That day, we refuse to laugh at a bigoted joke.
We stand up for a Muslim friend who is the target of intolerance.
We visit a Muslim mosque to learn more about their religion.
That day, we educate ourselves about Syrian refugees.
We join a protest march.
We reach out our hand in welcome to a stranger in our own community.
That day, we teach our children to return hatred with kindness.
We pick up the phone and finally forgive that person we haven’t spoken to in years.
We pray for the forgiveness of our own sins.
Each day, we get up and decide if we are ready that day to confront the powers that oppress us and others and instead invite people to dwell in God’s Kingdom of grace, mercy, and peace. And then we do something to follow Christ. It may be a big thing; it may be a small thing; we just have to make sure that it is something.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Jesus calls to you now saying, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand. I need you to sign up for the battle. Will you come and follow me?”