Ash Wednesday

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

‘So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today is the start of the observance of Lent. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we have been in a perpetual state of Lent this entire last year. Just about a month from now, we entered lockdown thinking that it would be short, and we would get back to normal. But here we are, anything but ordinary and preparing for another Easter in lockdown. Like the pandemic, Lent is a time to take stock of our lives to see what we might be willing and able to change.

The Gospel passage appointed for today is part of the Sermon on the Mount. At first glance, the words appear to be a condemnation of hypocrisy, and that it indeed is, but it is more than that. There is something offensive about hypocritical displays of piety. The etymology of hypocrisy, from the Greek; play-acting, pretending, concealing the true self, suggests a lacking of integrity. There is this idea that hypocrites can hide their true motives and character from us.

However, Jesus is saying much more in this passage. Contained here are some of the most profound and perceptive spiritual words of Jesus. Jesus speaks of doing things in secret, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v 6). Jesus is urging us to look at why we do what we do and ask ourselves what our motivation is?

Our spirituality should be intrinsically motivated and focus on our existential, personal relationship with God. We do not look to what can be gained socially in this relationship or achieve anything other than a relationship with God. This relationship with God is its own reward and an end within itself. The passage tells us that we must pray, fast, and give alms “in secret” because it is “in secret” where our relationship with God is its own reward.

There has been much discussion amongst my clergy colleagues concerning the distribution of ashes during the pandemic. Is there a safe way, or should ashes be distributed at all? There is a desire amongst the faithful for this ritual as it lends a sense of normalcy to what has been happening in our world. But at the same time, we ask, is it necessary? The ritual says it is optional but is it essential?

Why do we receive ashes? When the ashes are placed on our forehead, the ritual words used are, “Remember thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ashes are a reminder of our mortality in an outward and visible sign. If there was ever a time when being reminded of our mortality was unnecessary, it certainly has to be during these last months of the pandemic. COVID-19 has touched the lives of many and taken loved ones and friends from so many I am confident we are aware of our mortality.

Rituals are essential, and the imposition of ashes is only a part of the larger ritual for Ash Wednesday.

Several years ago, I participated in “Ashes to go.” We took ashes out of the church and to the people at the local train station. The notion was that our lives had become so busy and folks could not get to church, but there was a desire for the ritual in our lives. We had a sign, and folks would approach. We would say a short prayer and impose ashes on their forehead. The ritual was complete; the box was checked, but what came next.

Earlier I mentioned that we must seek an existential, personal relationship with God, which is true. But that relationship cannot exist in isolation. There is a communal aspect to our relationship with God, where we work out our spirituality. Community is not what it was a year ago, but community still exists and is vital to our spiritual maturity. Yes, the imposition of ashes is part of that communal experience, but it is not the only way.

Traditionally Lent was a time when those separated from the church were reconciled to the church and to others. In the Orthodox Christian church, Lent begins with forgiveness asked and forgiveness granted. If we require an outward sign of our Lenten observance, look towards forgiveness and reconciliation and repair relationships. Each day we are reminded of our mortality, do not wait until it is too late.

As we start Lent I will leave you with the words from the Ash Wednesday Service as found in the Book of Common Prayer and wish you a holy season.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Last Sunday after Epiphany

Last Sunday after Epiphany

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark 9:2-9

Today we come to the end of the Christmas/Epiphany Season, and Wednesday begins Lent. During these past weeks, we have been witness to the start of the Ministry of Jesus and some of the miracles but today, as Thomas Aquinas put it, the greatest of miracles the Transfiguration. Although not the Feast of the Transfiguration, that is, in August, we have the story of the Transfiguration and an essential bridge between Christmas/Epiphany and Lent/Easter. Just like with the Feast of the Presentation, today we turn our gaze from the cradle and face the cross.

I have written before about the role of John the Baptist being the connecting point between the Old Covenant and the New, and today, we witness Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The vision we see on that mountain top is Jesus, joined by Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the last of the Prophets. In this vision, we see the completion of the law and the prophets, as Jesus will say later.

The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment; this is the point where human nature meets God. It is the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal. Jesus is the point of connection and becomes the bridge between heaven and earth. In this feast, we also see the uniqueness of Jesus. Jesus is not only the fulfillment of the law and the prophets; he is not to be equated with the spiritual stature of Moses and Elijah. But, as unique as this is, Jesus does not want this made known. The divinity of Christ is known only to those to whom it is revealed. Knowledge of Jesus’ divinity is a revelation that comes as a gift from God in God’s own way and in God’s own time.

In this feast, we find a powerful word to us to take up our cross and follow Christ but not in a personal way but in a communal way, a way that seeks to transform the world through the power of divine love, a powerful, assertive love. This divine love will ultimately change the world through a fierce pursuit of social and personal righteousness. The Transfiguration is a story that calls us to affirm the ultimate truth that the nonviolent way of Jesus is truly the way of salvation, healing, and eternal life.

But the theme of Transfiguration is as much about us as it is about the world. The Transfiguration of Jesus was personal; there was a change that took place on that mountain top. Mark places this story at the very center of his Gospel; it is equal distance between the birth story and the Resurrection story. The Transfiguration story is a reminder that before we can ever hope to participate in the transformation of the world, we need to be willing to allow a transformation of ourselves.

Lent is a time of spiritual transformation and Transfiguration. Lent is a time when spiritually, we climb that mountain and see the divinity of Jesus. But Lent is also a time for us to see the humanity of Jesus. Jesus chose to become human to show us a new way of life, a new way of living that was not as much about sacrifice for our sake but a way of love for all of creation. During Lent, we follow the way of the cross, we follow the way of love and see Jesus at his most human. We encounter the love that God has for all of humanity, without condition on full display.

The story of the Transfiguration, the story of Lent, the story of the Gospel is the story of love and, as Bishop Michael Curry puts it, “The way of Jesus is the way of love and the way of love and change the world.”  

This Lent, let us follow the way of love and let it transform us, and then, maybe we can transform the world.

The Journey of Discernment

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1

The dictionary defines discernment as “the ability to judge well.” There is also a Christian context to discernment listed in that same dictionary, “perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual guidance and understanding.” Discernment, in a spiritual context, is a journey of discovery and understanding. It is a journey of listening to God and others for a sense of direction. I am embarking on such a journey.

Discernment is or should be a lifelong process. The Scripture from John’s first letter that I quote above lays out why Christians should be of a discerning mind. “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Sometimes we think we hear God’s voice, but actually, it is our voice that sounds like God’s voice. Discernment is a way to determine where that voice is coming from.

Discernment also involves other people. It has been said that God calls, but the church confirms. I may think God is calling me to this or that, but there needs to be a confirmation of that call. It is that confirmation that I am seeking. That confirmation also is a way to determine if it is God’s voice or my voice.

I am embarking on a journey to discern where that voice of God is leading me, but this is also a journey of self-discovery. Self-discovery involves patients, as this journey will not be a short one—patience with the process and trust in those who will be on this journey with me. As with any journey, especially spiritual ones, one has to be willing to go where the spirit leads, and I pray that I am open to that direction. I would ask that you hold me in prayer during this journey.

Artistic Expression and the National Anthem

I consider myself a patriotic American. I fly an American Flag in my yard. But I do not think that if you chose not to, you are less patriotic. I am a veteran of the United States military. But I do not feel you are less of an American because you chose not to serve, nor do I believe it gives me extra patriotism. I guess I am just an average American when it comes to this stuff.

I am also of a mind that appreciates artists and artistic expression. An artist’s ability to tell a story comes through their expression of that story and how it speaks to them. This sort of expression makes the story, or the music, or the painting come to life. But certain songs do not need any expression; they speak just fine all on their own. The National Anthem of the United States of America is one of those songs.

I am not a big fan of the words of our National Anthem. It has always sounded very war-like to me, and it has to be one of the most challenging songs to sing but, it is the song that represents America. I get it that music and art evolve over time, but some things need to remain as they were; they are the foundation for all the rest. Our National Anthem’s singing for any event should be looked upon as a great honor and should be treated as such. Respect the song.

Before the Super Bowl this past Sunday night, I had not heard of the two musicians who were given the honor of singing the National Anthem. Musically their talent was very apparent, so it is not their ability that I take issue with. I take issue with their interpretation of a song that needs no interpretation.

Many years ago, Whitney Houston walked out the field and sang the National Anthem, and it is still, in my opinion anyway, one of the best performances I have ever heard. She sang it straight, and she respected the song and what it stands for.

A few weeks ago, at the Inauguration, Lady Gaga sang the National Anthem and did a fantastic job. I already mentioned that I am not a big fan of the Anthem’s war-like words, but when she pointed to the flag as she sang, “the flag was still there,” it sent chills up my spine. With the sing action of pointing to the flag, she reminded us of the importance of symbols and why they matter. She sang it straight, and she respected the song and what it stands for.

I am sure many of you will disagree with me, which is fine; I do not think you are any less patriotic or any less an American because of that belief. I just think that a song of that importance, a song with so much meaning written into it, should just be sung the way it was written.

Express yourself in the half-time show but leave the Anthem alone.

Jeep and Unity

I will admit I was a little surprised by the Jeep commercial with Bruce Springsteen during last night’s Super Bowl. I was surprised in a good way. It is not often a commercial truly moves me and makes me think, but this one did.

The ad is called “The Middle.” It begins with a voice-over from Springsteen talking about a little chapel at the center of the lower 48 in Kansas. He mentions that this chapel is always open and welcomes everyone. I am not sure how everyone would feel about entering this chapel with its overtly Christian symbolism, and I was a little uneasy about the Cross on top of a cut out of the United States in the color of the flag.

Springsteen goes on to talk about our fear and the fact that fear has “never been the best of who we are,” and I would agree fear is not the best of emotions, and many of us have been operating out of fear these last few years. Fear very often divides as one side has to make the other side afraid. Fear becomes the wedge driven between two groups, and it is very often irrational.

“Freedom,” says Springsteen, “belongs to us all, whoever you are, wherever you are from. It’s what connects us, and we need that connection.” Freedom is a tricky thing. Pure freedom is a sacrifice that not many of us are willing to endure. Freedom comes with many different perspectives, and there is no one freedom that is American. But he is correct in saying that “Freedom connects us all” it has too. America is at its best when we can express our freedom as individuals and accept the fact that our freedom comes with limits and with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

As I have written about in the past, I am all for unity. I am all for finding the middle ground. However, there can be no unity without justice and accountability. There can be no unity with white supremacists. There can be no unity with people who fly the Nazi flag. There can be no unity with Anti-Semites. There can be no unity with Christian Nationalists. There can be no unity with people who believe it was Jewish lasers that caused the fires in California. There can be no unity with people willing to take by force what they clearly lost at the ballot box and in numerous courts. There can be no unity with those calling people to violence. There can be no unity without justice and accountability.

Springsteen says we need the middle, we need to find that common ground, and he reminds us that “the very soil we stand on is common ground.” Most of America is in the middle. It is the fringe on both sides that have divided us over the years, and it is up to us in the middle to take it back.

Unity is a nice idea, and I applaud Jeep for using two minutes of Super Bowl airtime to remind us of the idea of unity. Yes, together, we can do more than we can apart, but it has to start by holding people accountable. We cannot turn a blind eye to what has happened.

As a Christian, I am all about the idea of forgiveness, but that forgiveness does not include forgetting, and that forgiveness includes holding those accountable for their actions regardless of who they are or the positions they have.

Yes, we need the middle, and we can get there, but it will take more than a commercial to do it.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 1:29-39

This week we pick up right where we left off in the story of last week. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a man “with an unclean spirit” interrupted the service. Jesus cast the spirit from the man, and he was well.

Today Jesus leaves the synagogue and goes to Simon’s house. This is the same Simon who Jesus would later call Peter. Upon entering, he learns that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Jesus goes to her, “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries are all part of the same ministry. In the previous verses, Jesus has set the course for his public ministry, and there will be no discrepancy between what he teaches and what he practices.

There is a close parallel between the words “healing” and “salvation.” The last verse of today’s Gospel makes that abundantly clear, “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:39).

Jesus rejects the idea that sickness is linked to God’s punishment for a person’s sin. Jesus has an understanding that would be in line with our modern thinking about illness, that it is un-wholeness, and Jesus sees healing as a restoration of that wholeness. When Jesus turned to the woman that has pushed her way through the crowd just to touch the hem of his garment, he said to her, “your faith has made you whole.”

There are a significant number of instances in scripture where touch is used. Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand, the angel that touched Jacob’s thigh, Jairus’ daughter, the blind man Jesus touched, and so forth. There is power in touch. In scripture, touch is a metaphor for intimacy, for presence, for relationship. Humanity was created to be in relationship with one another. This has been difficult during the pandemic.

Jesus understood what we are slow to comprehend, the power of a touch, of intimacy, of nearness, makes us whole. Love not expressed, love not felt is difficult to trust. God understands this human condition and humanity’s need for closeness. This is the reason for the incarnation. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. And it is that love that will make us whole.

Ordinary Time Begins

The Ordo is the liturgical book that sets forth the instructions for the celebration of the liturgical services for each day of the year. The Ordo includes any Saints commemorated on that day, the biblical readings, and the liturgical color, to name just a few. Yesterday, February 3rd, there was a small notation “Ordinary Time begins today.” Liturgically we are in between things.

Ordinary Time is that time of the year that is not connected to the two great seasons of the Church year, Christmastide and Eastertide, or the period of preparation leading up to those times, Advent and Lent. The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, which is celebrated February 2nd, ends the Christmas/Epiphany Season on the Anglican-Episcopal Calendar. This year, Ash Wednesday or the beginning of Lent is on February 17th, so the time between is Ordinary Time.

But Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. During these weeks, and the weeks that will come after Eastertide, the ministry of Jesus occurs. Jesus encounters ordinary people and has ordinary experiences. Sure, there are miracles in there, but Jesus is with the ordinary during these days.

As with all other things related to liturgical celebrations, the colors have meaning. The color for Ordinary Time is Green. Green represents the Christian life and growth in the faith. Our faith is not just about Christmas and Easter; although those seasons are essential, much of the faith life of the Church happens in those in-between times those ordinary encounters that we have during the year.

I think we lose sight of the fact that we encounter the divine in the ordinary places of our life and not just the special times. The divine is around us in all of creation, and in each person, we meet. Honor those times of encounter and those in-between times. It’s where the real work is.

The Presentation

Today (February 2nd) is the day we start to turn, ever so lightly, in a different direction. Today the Church celebrates our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, and we turn the page from the Christmas/Epiphany Season and begin to look towards Lent. The Feast of the Presentation is one of the most ancient feasts on the Church calendar dating to the fourth century in Jerusalem.

According to Moses’s Law, forty days after the birth of a male child, the mother had to present him in the Temple while also making an offering of a lamb or two turtledoves. In his treatment of this event, the Gospel writer Luke recounts that the law would suggest that if one could not afford a lamb, then the doves or even pigeons would also be acceptable. Being of limited means, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple with the sacrifice that they could afford. Jesus, the Lamb of God, would be offered as a sacrifice at another time.

There is an interesting connection between this feast and the pandemic that is currently raging in our world. In 541 CE, a plague broke out in Constantinople and killed thousands. In consultation with the Patriarch, Emperor Justinian I ordered a time of fasting and prayer in the Empire. On this feast day, grand processions were held in cities and towns and solemn prayer service for the deliverance from evils. The plague ceased. In thanksgiving for the plague’s deliverance, the feast was elevated and became a major celebration in the Eastern Empire in 542 CE.

Today’s feast has another name, Candlemas, which comes from the actual celebration of the feast itself. Candles and light play an essential role in this feast. The theme of light comes from Simeon’s words when he sees Jesus and calls him “light to enlighten the nations.” Jesus is the true light of the world. In celebrations of this feast, during normal times, each participant would be given a candle as a reminder of the “light of Christ” but also as a reminder to us that we must take that light out into the world.

Candlemas found its way on to the secular calendar in Europe as well. It was the traditional day to remove the cattle from the hayfields and the other fields that were to be plowed and sewn in the Spiring of the year. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was performed for the first time on Candlemas in 1602, and Candlemas remains one of the Scottish Quarter Days when debts are paid and courts of law are in session.

As I mentioned earlier, this is also the day when we turn our gaze away from the crib and towards the cross. It has been forty days since the birth of Jesus, and our Liturgical Calendar begins the preparation for the next season. Some years there is a longer gap or “Ordinary Time”  “between the seasons. However, this year that gap is relatively small as Ash Wednesday is only a few weeks away.

Today, as I sit in my study and write this, the day is gloomy and wet. We have just survived a Nor Easter that knocked out our power for a short period last night. We lit a candle to guide our steps around our house and to keep us from stumbling. Candlemas is a reminder that we are to be that light in the darkness that will guide others’ feet and keep them from stumbling. Let us strive this day and every day to be that light.

Almighty and ever living God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28

One of my favorite sports movies is Miracle. Miracle is about the 1980’s United States Olympic Hockey Team and its win over the team from the Soviet Union. Until that point, the Soviets had dominated the sport, and there was mounting political tension, so this “miracle” came at just the right time.

I do love a good miracle story, and apparently, St. Mark did as well. There are eighteen stories of healing in Mark’s Gospel, thirteen of which have to do with healings, and four of those have to do with exorcisms, so clearly, Mark likes to punctuate his stories with miracles. However, the story is very often less about the actual miracle and more about the story behind the miracle.

The miracle in the movie was not the win; the miracle was the work that it took to get there that enabled the victory. The story was about picking the right team and conditioning them to play together as one unit. The miracle was what took place the months before they even took the ice.

Sure, Jesus drove out the “unclean spirit,” and the man was made whole again. But the story is about the shift in teaching that Jesus is bringing to the Synagogue. The Synagogue, unlike the Temple, was the place for teaching and instruction, not worship and sacrifice. The Jewish law stated that wherever ten Jewish families gathered, there had to be a Synagogue. There was no “Senior Pastor” as we think of it today. When the men gathered in the Synagogue, it was the Ruler who called upon someone to deliver the teaching; that is how Jesus was able to deliver his message.

When the Scribes taught, they would refer to Scripture and other writers and commentators, not unlike what I do in sermons. They would not teach on their own authority or interpretation but base it on all that had come before.

If you saw the Movie Yentl, you will recall scenes of a group of men gathered around a table in a room full of books. There was usually an elder who guided the conversation, but the discussion usually was centered around an issue and what had been written about that issue in the past. Although the teaching itself was authoritative, no one spoke as if they had all the answers.

Then Jesus comes along and changes all of that. Jesus taught with personal authority. He spoke with independence. He cited no authorities and quoted no experts. He spoke with the voice of God!

The Unclean Spirit recognized Jesus and called him the “Holy one of God.” In turn, Jesus rebuked him and told the spirit to “be silent” and “come out of him.” He did not cite any authority other than his own to do this. This was Jesus, using his authority as the “Holy one of God” to free the man of this spirit, and those watching were “amazed” at his teaching.

St. Mark places this story at the very start of the ministry of Jesus, so the tone is being set for all that will come next. Jesus is no ordinary teacher but one that needs to be listened to. With this appearance in Galilee, Jesus has ushered in a new way of teaching and a new teaching, which will continue to be revealed.

The people were less amazed that the spirit was removed and more amazed at the power of the words of Jesus. Jesus did not just teach with facts; he taught with authority, and those words caused a change in someone’s life. Jesus’ teaching was not only informative; it is transformative. And that was the “new teaching.”

Sermon: Follow Me

Mark 1:14-20

I have sojourned through many Christian denominations on my spiritual journey. Each one came along at a point in my life when I was searching for something. I stayed with some for a more extended period than I did others, but I picked up something that continues to influence my life to this day in all of those stops. But with all the differences in worship, belief, and fellowship, there was one common element, in every instance when I journeyed into a new congregation or denomination, it began with an invitation.

In this brief passage from the Gospel of St. Mark, we have a few things happening. First, we have Jesus’ proclamation that “time is fulfilled,” and second, we have Jesus calling his first Apostles. Both of these are significant events and deserve a much more complete treatment that I will be able to give, but we shall soldier on and see where we go.

Time is an interesting concept. At a point in history, someone decided that a minute would be 6 seconds and that an hour would be 60 minutes, and that a day would be 24 hours, and so forth. Some project backward to Genesis when God speaks of creation in a “six-day” period and like to put our modern time on that story. But we do not honestly know what time means for God. In the biblical age, time was not calculated as it is today; days were different lengths and dependent on the sun’s rising and setting. People did not have watches or clocks; they looked up into the sky. Today, things are different.

Jesus comes along and says, “time is fulfilled,” but time is he talking about?

Because we know the rest of the story, we know that Jesus tells those following him that he is the fulfillment of all the law and prophets, fulfillment meaning completion. Fulfillment meaning something new is coming. Jesus says I will not leave you, orphans; no, he will give us something new.

St. Mark goes out of his way to place this story after John the Baptist has been put in prison. John represents that last of what we would call the Old Testament Prophets. John comes as a competition of what was and ushers in what will be the covenant of love. John is the bridge between what was and what will be. John is the messenger, the one who has come to prepare the way, but like Moses, John will not live to see what comes next.

In Jesus, we have the completion of the former covenant and the start of a new covenant, and in this covenant, all are equally loved and forgiven by the God that created them. The “time” of preparation is over, and the “time of repentance is at hand.”

I spoke of repentance a few weeks ago. Repentance, like sin, is a word the modern Church does not like to talk about. In the days of people wanting to hear that God loves them and there is nothing required of them, we do not like to hear about the fact that there is work for us to do that Christianity is not just a spectator sport that has been given to us so we can keep others out. This time of repentance ties in very nicely with what comes next in our story.

I mentioned at the beginning that each time I discovered a new church or denomination, it began with an invitation; we see that here as well. Simon, Andrew, James, and John were all going about their business when Jesus comes by. He does not launch into some long-winded speech about how horrible their life is and that they need a change. He does not offer to send the church bus by on Sunday and pick them up. He does not even ask them to come for a meal. He simply says to them, “Follow me.”

By me and others, it has been said that 80% of people who come to a church for the first time come because someone invited them to come. How many of you watching this on Facebook right now have clicked the little share button at the bottom of this video and shared it to your own Facebook page. No need to raise your hands. I looked just before I stepped into the pulpit, only two. Clicking on the share button and saying something like “Come and join us for worship” is like saying, “Follow me.” We are not asking you to go downtown and stand on a soapbox and invite people to come and worship; we are asking you to click a button and say, “follow me.”

Way back when, when I was sojourning in the fields of the Evangelical Church, I was asked the question, are “you a Christian?” or “are you saved?” Not wanting to be left out of the club, I would always respond by saying yes. I was baptized, I was raised in the Church, so of course, I was and am a Christian. Sometimes I would be asked if I “had found Jesus,” to which I often would respond, “I did not know he was lost.”

The decision to follow Jesus is a decision that we have to make at some point and time in our lives. Even if we are brought up in the Church, there comes a time, for we Congregationalists, that time is Confirmation, when we make a public declaration, we will follow Jesus. But that is only the start of the process.

Simeon, Andrew, James, and John instantly decided to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus. They gave up everything to follow some guy they did not know anything about. In another Gospel, we are told that Andrew as a disciple of John and John, told Andrew about Jesus, but in Mark’s Gospel, we do not know that. They decided to follow Jesus, but that was only the start of their journey.

Here is where it all comes together.

To be a follower of Jesus is to take on a radically different way of life; you have heard me speak in such terms in the past. Repentance is a radical change. Repentance comes from the Greek word that literally means to “change one’s mind.” To repent is to do an about-face, a 180-degree turn. Repentance is a radical change of one’s spirit, mind, thought, and heart. It is a complete reorientation of a life centered not on but in Christ Jesus.

Sure, repentance is about atoning for our sins, but it is more than that it has to be more than that it has to be a reorientation of our lives, how we think, how we feel, and how we act. We cannot profess to love Jesus on Sunday and then persecute people on Monday. We cannot believe and profess to follow the prince of peace while at the same time cheer on those committing acts of violence. We cannot profess to follow Jesus and not work for justice and mercy in every situation. And we cannot profess to love God with our whole heart, mind, body, and soul and hate someone just because they are different than you.

Jesus came as the fulfillment of all that came before. Jesus gave his life as the final sacrifice for the atoning of our sins. Jesus came to show us a new way to live and act, which is the way of love. Jesus calls us to be people of radical inclusion, not radical exclusion. Jesus calls us to repent to change our practices and see things through this lens of love. Jesus is hitting that share button and saying, “follow me.”

Jesus never tells us it will be easy. Jesus never tells us we will not be persecuted. Jesus never tells us to storm the halls of some government to get our way. Jesus never tells us to pass laws that force people to believe the way we do. Jesus never tells us to build big buildings that we struggle to maintain. Jesus says, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. Follow me, and I will show you a radical way of love.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to live our lives in such a way that if the bible were to disappear tomorrow, if church buildings were to be torn down tomorrow, people would still know that God loves them. The time is at hand, the time has arrived for that 180-degree turn, and the time has come for that radical way of love.


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