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Friday, January 23, 2015

What have we got to lose? (B3O)

"Jonah," by Rembrandt (I think)
The gospel of the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time takes up the narrative of Mark at verse 14 of the first chapter. We have already been told (in verse 1) that what follows is "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God," we have met John the Baptizer and heard his message, seen Jesus baptized, and driven into the desert by the Spirit. Now, a mere fourteen verses into the story, Jesus reappears with his own message, "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news." Things happen pretty fast around here. Today's gospel ends with the call of Peter, James, and John who leave everything to follow Jesus on his journey.

What would make them do such a thing? It's not a stretch to imagine that Peter was married, or had been, since we're about to meet his mother-in-law in a couple of weeks, and James and John may have been part of an extended family who depended on them for their sustenance in the hand-to-mouth economy of peasants who lived in a conquered nation within the Roman empire. And yet, we're told, when Jesus called them, they left their nets and did as he said.

The consensus of biblical scholars seems to be that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptizer, which accounts for the similarity of their message. John and Jesus both preached the imminence of the rule of God, and the need for repentance. John stood on the frontier at the Jordan, the boundary waters of the Promised Land, preaching to the pious, idealistic, and the merely curious that the reign of God is near. He urged them to wash away the past and their complicity in the compromises that had become barricades between them and the covenant they had with God. Enter the Promised Land, enter again into the covenant of God, he was saying. Cross over Jordan again to the place you received from God in the exodus. Reclaim your freedom, your status as the chosen, and start living in God's country.

These were dangerous words, because God's country was ruled by a different god, Augustus and then Tiberius Caesar, and that god had appointed a regent, several of them, really, whose purpose was to keep the pax Romana and be sure the money kept flowing in. John preached that "the ax was already at the foot of the tree," and that the messiah of God was near, the one who was going to clean up the mess of the world, and restore the kingdom of Israel.  John's message was, "the reign of God is at hand."

That became Jesus's message too, only Jesus had the death of John as a warning about strategy and probably about the nature of God's kingdom. It wasn't going to be like the kingdoms of this world. Ironically, it may have been his own baptism by John, and the spirit-driven "retreat" in the desert that followed it, which revealed this to Jesus. He was not the avenging warrior of a God who was angry and wanted vengeance. He was "beloved son," the first among many brothers and sisters with the same Abba.

Nevertheless, his preaching took the Baptizer's message: The reign of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news. How was it possible for Jesus to receive a baptism of repentance authentically, some have asked? Against the skandalon of his baptism of repentance by the lesser figure in the economy of salvation, the story of Jesus's baptism appears in all four of the gospels. By the criterion of embarrassment, scholars think that this event must have been historical. What matters, I think, is what we mean by repentance, or rather, what the gospels mean by repentance, which is different from what most of us think of today.

The Greek word that is most often translated as "repent" in the Greek is a form of the verb μετανοὲω which means, literally, "a change of mind," but we need to hear "mind" as a metaphor for the direction of a person's life, that is, of the whole purpose. It's like an interior U-turn, a going in a completely different direction. John, and Jesus after him, was telling people to look at their lives as they have been living them. Look at them honestly. His message was something like, "Okay, so you've joined me out here in the middle of what everyone thinks is nowhere, the wilderness, but we know better. This is the Jordan, people. This was the place where we first entered into the place of God's promise. How is that Roman empire working out for you? How is the pax Augustana working out for you? Remember Moses, Josue, David, and Solomon? Remember who God called us to be? Cross over Jordan again. Go in a new direction. Wash off the dust of the empire, and walk in the kingdom of God."

"Repent" wasn't so much about the kind of things we think of today as "sins," but about the direction of life, the focus of allegiance, the thing to which we give our heart (i.e., "cor-dare", credere, to believe, or better linguistically, be-love). The call to repent was a way of saying, "You're going the wrong way. Turn around." Mark's word for his book, taken from the preaching of Jesus (and John?) was evangelion, a word borrowed from Rome's civil religion, a word generally found in the plural that described the mighty deeds of Augustus that brought peace to the world. For the apostolic church, however, there was one whose victory over death made him victor over Augustus, and that person, the person of Jesus Christ, was the mighty deed of peaceful victory over the empire and its god.

So the "follow me" of Jesus probably was the end of a long process of conversion (turning around) for Peter, James, and John, who no doubt had also heard the preaching of John the Baptizer. It turns out, as we follow Mark's story, that those three and the others in the inner circle of Jesus had a different idea about the kind of band they were getting into, and the kind of evangelion that Jesus was preaching. It took a while to work all that out, longer, in fact, than Jesus was going to be around. But they acted on their best impulses, stopped what they were doing knowing that it wasn't the best they could do, and followed him.

The first reading tomorrow, from the satirical Book of Jonah, lacks the context of the whole story which we are supposed to conjure from our religious memory in its absence. But remember the whole story: God calls Jonah to preach in the huge pagan city of Nineveh because God wants them to be converted or else. Jonah makes a run for it, leaving for Spain. God sends a storm, the superstitious sailors assume the gods are angry and someone on board is causing the storm, and a game of chance helps them key in on Jonah, whom they throw overboard. God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah and vomit him up right on the shores of Nineveh. Clearly outgunned, Jonah does what God asks and preaches repentance in Nineveh. To Jonah's complete chauvinistic disgust, the Ninevites repent and the city is spared. This was not the outcome he hoped for.

While the details of the story are not primary for this Sunday, at least one line of the narrative sparkles in the light of the gospel: "When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out." God repented. What does that mean? Well, God made a U-turn in the story. God changed direction. Jonah didn't, which is why this book is read yearly on Yom Kippur in synagogues around the world. It's double-edged sword says that not only does God forgive everybody, even pagans, God also is capable of "changing direction," and we ought to be ready to follow.

It's the psalm that ties all this together for me. God repents. Jesus can repent, in the sense in which we're talking, submitting to John's baptism of repentance, to enter into a focused covenant with God that takes precedence over all other allegiances, compromises, and authorities. And we too are called to repent. "Teach me your ways," we sing this weekend. We hear Jesus's call to the disciples, "Follow me." We hear him say, in so many words, "Hey, how is that American dream working out for you? How expensive is the 'peace' you experience when it's purchased with blood and hatred and unspeakable violence? I have a different empire, a different God. What God wants is a family, and all of you, every one of you, friend, stranger, and enemy, are brother or sister to every other one. Turn around and believe in this good news."

Once again, like every year, every Sunday, every encounter with the gospel, we have to ask ourselves, "Really. What have we got to lose?"
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Here's are the songs we're singing at St. Anne's this week. I bet a lot of it is being done by a lot of you, too!

Entrance: The Summons by John Bell
Psalm 25: Teach Me Your Ways, by Rory Cooney, antiphon 2 (OCP)
Preparation Rite: I Say Yes, My Lord  by Donna Peña
Communion: Here I Am, Lord by Dan Schutte
Sending Forth: I Send You Out by John Angotti

I'm off to St. Louis for a concert, minister's day of renewal, and the Composer's Forum. Thank you for reading! I hope to be in touch soon.