The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s readings are all about repentance and turning from the old ways and embracing God’s ways. About admitting our sin and finding new life. As Brian Moss writes in the Christian Century, repentance is the heart of the message of John the Baptist. Arrested, as the passage from Mark for today begins. It is the first command of Jesus preaching. As he bursts upon this stage in Galilee, it is the collective response of the people of Nineveh, as they hear Jonah’s reluctant proclamation in the streets of their city. And it is God’s response to the Ninevites decisive reaction to that proclamation. There’s no escaping that throughout the days’ text, there’s a whole lot of repentance going on.
Now, when we think of Jonah, most of us don’t get much beyond what we learned as kids, that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Scripture actually says a big fish, but the story of Jonah is a story about judgment and repentance and mercy. Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was the very heart of the hated, a Syrian empire. He was to go and cry out against their wickedness. He was to proclaim God’s judgment against them and demand that they repent, but Jonah doesn’t want to go. Not because he fears for his own safety, but because he doesn’t want to give the Ninevites a chance to repent. Jonah wants to see them punished for their evil ways.
As a result, he runs from God and is swallowed by the whale. When he is finally spit back up on shore, he does as God commands – goes to Nineveh and delivers God’s word to them. 40 days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown. When the Ninevites do in fact repent and God forgives them, Jonah is furious, because in his mind, evil should be punished and the righteous rewarded. Bad things should happen to bad people. Good things should happen to good people. Jonah understands God’s judgment, but what Jonah can’t wrap his head around is God’s mercy. In our lesson from Mark for this morning, Jesus arrived in Galilee and proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”
John the Baptist had been arrested and Jesus was carrying on John’s message. However, in this lesson, the Greek word for repent is not the same as the repentance commanded of the Ninevites. It isn’t about turning from one’s wicked ways. The word Mark uses for repent is metanoia, which means “to be of a new mind.”
Here, Jesus is telling his followers that God’s kingdom is coming. Indeed, it has arrived, and they need to be transformed by God’s love. They need to be of a new mind and leave behind the old. This metanoia is demonstrated by Simon and Andrew and James and John, as they put down their nets set aside their fishing boats and become followers of Jesus.
I can’t think of a better lesson on this particular Sunday in January, four days after the inauguration of a new president, as our nation, once again, renews itself as it does every four years. Like the Ninevites, God wants us to turn from our wicked ways. Like Jonah, God wants us to understand that God’s love and mercy are bigger than we can imagine. And like the disciples we need to be of a new mind. Friends, I think it is time for all of us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at our behaviors, at our values, our way of life and to repent.
We need to be, have a new mind, to listen to Jesus’ call to all of us, to take up the work of his kingdom, to live as people of faith. As Bishop Curry says, to be a person of faith is to be the one who says, “why not.” It is to refuse to accept and to acquiesce to the way things often are. It is to pray and to work for the way things could be. It is time for us to be of a new mind and realize that racism can’t be rooted out of our society until we are willing to root it out of ourselves. It is time for us to be of a new mind and realize that if we don’t defend the truth, whether we like the truth or not, then we will be destroyed by lies. It is time to be of a new mind and confront the fact that our democracy cannot survive if we do not repent of our selfishness and greed and find ways to better share our national prosperity with all of our citizens. It is time to be of a new mind and stop taking our democracy for granted, assuming that it will always be there. It is time for us to be of a new mind and realize that patriotism doesn’t mean America first, but as Stephen B. Smith reminds us, patriotism teaches that real loyalty to our country involves virtues like civility, law-abidingness, respect for others, responsibility, love of honor, courage and leadership. It is time for us to be of a new mind and realize that when it comes to people, we dislike, people we disagree with, people we tend to dismiss, we need to learn as Jonah did. That God, in fact, loves the people we hate. It is time to be of a new mind and offer compassion to those whose experiences differ from ours, to set aside our fears in order to understand the fears of others, to silence our own egos long enough, to understand and value the stories of others and not just our own. Friends, we’ve been through so much in the past year. We are tired, worn out from the confinement of this pandemic and the grief of seeing so many people die from this virus and the stress of our nation’s turmoil. It would be easy now to sit back and think that with a new year and a new administration and a new vaccine, that life will get back to normal, but our God, isn’t calling us back to normal.
The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, the good news that he announced to our world two millennia ago is breaking forth still, and we are supposed to be about the work of that kingdom. We are being called, just as Simon and Andrew were. Now is our opportunity to repent, to learn from our mistakes and to get back to the work of kingdom building. The love that Jesus proclaimed is needed now more than ever. And we have to be bearers of that love, proclaimers of that love, living examples of that love.
As Bishop Curry writes in his book, Love is the Way, “My job is to plant seeds of love and to keep on planting, even, or especially, when the bad weather comes. It’s folly to think. I can know the grand plan, how my small action fits into the larger hole. All I can do is check myself again and again. Do my actions look like love?”
If they are truly loving, then they are part of the grand movement of love in the world, which is the movement of God in the world. In the church, I have reminded us that we are a part of the movement that Jesus began, the Jesus movement. And if that is so, we are a part of a greater whole, and that means it doesn’t all depend on us. None of us can know where our witness to love might lead, what light we might bring to the world. Our job is to do our job and to let God do God’s job.
And one thing is certain. As Amanda Gorman reminded us on Wednesday afternoon “If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright. So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left. Every breath from my bronze pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the golden Hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states, we will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover. And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid. The new dawn balloons as we free it for, there is always light. If we are only brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be.”