The Hill We Climb

Mark 1: 14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

Today’s Message

This week, we, as a nation, began the long, difficult journey back to a place of decency, respect, and freedom. At the inauguration of President Biden we heard powerful speeches and beautiful music. But I think the words of poet Amanda Gorman were the most moving. With just 723 words, she echoed the hearts of so many and opened the door to the transformation, the unity, that we as a people so desperately need.  In her poem called The Hill We Climb, Gorman shared these words:
“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”[i]

She went on to share a verse from the Prophet Micah:
“Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it.”[ii]

Amazing. What a beautiful articulation of Justice and grasp of the challenge that justice seeks. I mean, Micah’s as of yet unfulfilled dream of equality for all people is so clearly imagined in this text. The Prophet envisioned that “…everyone [would] sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.” No one would make them afraid.

This is so important for us to understand and live-into as we face the injustices of our time. Fear-mongering has become the norm rather than the exception. Hate-filled rhetoric specifically and intentionally designed to divide us by making us afraid of the “other” whoever the “other” may be. And disinformation; disinformation that came from a place of darkness and fear about the pandemic, has lead to an unfathomable 400,000 deaths here in our nation since this pandemic began, with many more expected by the spring.

So, what do we do? Where do we turn? Or as the poet said, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

Well, I think we can begin to find some answer these questions right here in the gospel text we have before us today. Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Change your hearts and lives! That’s big. That’s a key theme not only in Mark, but a thread we see running through all of the gospel accounts. Change your hearts and lives!

However, we must be careful to understand that Mark 1:15 is not a fixed theological formula, as if Jesus had only one sermon and delivered it in a variety of places. There are many other important themes and threads in the gospels. But, this core understanding of transformation allows us to both, enter the world of the gospel writers and to take a step back to take stock, and to open our eyes to the presence of injustice all around us. No matter what we’ve believed in the past, the truth is, as the poet so beautifully shared, “The norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”

What did she mean by that? Well, consider our text for today. Two sets of brothers (Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John) were called from their task of fishing. And the key thing about this text is their response. They respond immediately and decisively. Their vocation as fisherman gives way to what John Calvin called their “higher calling;” a higher calling to “fish for people.”[iii] But that calling could not have been fulfilled if they refused to change. What if Peter said to Jesus, “I don’t know if I want to leave the comfort of what I’ve always done and who I’ve always been.” What if John said, “What if we fail?” What if Andrew said, “Prove it! Prove to me that you are who you say you are.” What if James had said, “That not the way we’ve always done it.”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. I know change can be difficult. However, if we’ve learned anything from the darkness of 2020, it’s that the status quo, the refusal to accept that which is right before our eyes, perpetuates the darkness and even deepens it.

But there is hope. There is light. If we are willing to open our eyes and our hearts, seeing and feeling the plight of the “other” than we will be climbing the hill of justice. “…If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it.”

May each of us dare it! May we all endeavor to be the voice of compassion, summon the courage to be the arm of transformation, indeed, may we the people, all the people, live-into the calling of our faith; a calling to be the very soul of justice.  

May it be so for you and for me

Amen & Amen.


[i] Amanda Gorman The Hill We Climb (Poem recited at the Inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, held on January 20, 2021)

[ii] Ibid Gorman

[iii] Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

Follow Me

Third Sunday After Epiphany

January 24, 2021

Study Guide for Mark 1:14-20

First Thoughts

Here we go on an new adventure!  Starting today, through Lent (and hopefully beyond) we will be using this format for Bible Study. These study guides coincide with the text and message of the previous Sunday and are intended to promote a further and more in-depth study of the passage.  The Epiphany Season will feature Mark’s Gospel as this the B year of the RCL. But we will move in a slightly different direction during Lent. I will be preaching (and we will be studying) a sermon series called The Enduring Empire: A Contextual Study of the Gospel According to John. This is a series and I developed that focuses on the teachings of Jesus in light of the Roman occupation and persecution that John’s community was enduring. I will be sending all of you the study guides in advance and they will be posted on this blog.

General Background

What do you already know about the Gospel According to Mark as compared to the other three accounts? What’s the same? What’s different?

Mark 1:14-15

Theme

Jesus establishes his authority about who he is and what he’s up to.

Theological Perspective

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel follows his baptism and temptation. No birth narrative. No stories about his childhood. Mark gets right down to the nitty-gritty. The text tells us that Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (CEB)  

This passage is a summary statement that introduces themes present throughout Mark’s Gospel. These themes form the core of what Jesus’ disciples and, later, the early Christian church preached and taught. (We will encounter many of these themes throughout the coming year as we move through the Gospel of Mark)

However, Mark 1:15 is not a fixed theological formula, as if Jesus had only one sermon and delivered it in a variety of places. Instead, the themes here open into the way Jesus explained and expounded upon them throughout his ministry, in different places and contexts. They open into what the church developed into it’s primary theological understandings. In other words, the kingdom or reign of God came in the person of Jesus with the primary goal of changing human “hearts and lives.”

Food for Thought

How might “changing hearts and lives” still be relevantin the world today? …in our nation or community? The Church?

Mark 1:16-20

Theme: Calling of the first disciples.

Contextual & Theological Perspective

The power and authority of Jesus’ words are experienced in the call of his first disciples. Two sets of brothers (Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John) are called from their task of fishing. They respond immediately and decisively. Their vocation as fisherman gives way to what John Calvin called their “higher calling” to “fish for people.” Leaving jobs and families shows us that they were utterly convinced by Jesus about who he was and the nature of his mission.

Application

How might this immediate and decisive decisionby the first four still be relevant to us in our context?

Have you ever considered what your life’s calling might have been? What is still is? What it may yet be? How might “changing hearts and lives” fit into your sense of call?

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The primary source of information for this study guide: Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

The Work of Christmas

Let me begin today with a poem by the wonder philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman, as he reminds of the true meaning of Christmas in his poem, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
And to make music in the heart.[i]

But how do Thurman’s words connect with The Word or the Logos from today’s Christmas reading? Well, the best way to understand this connection is to realize that the Bible is not just one book. It’s a collection of many books and ideas and worldviews, gathered across centuries by hundreds of people, and compiled into a library if you will, where “new ideas sit side by side with old ideas”[ii].  The theology of the Bible is vast, expansive, and complex. I can’t over-state this point! The books of the Bible and often parts within books of the Bible, were independently written.

But that doesn’t mean the books are disconnected. The Bible, in my view, has an overarching story of progress. Theologian Rob Bell says, “The stories in the Bible – and the Bible itself – have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have”[iii] And I would add, like all great stories the Bible has a central theme. And that theme is “love of God and neighbor.” This is the reoccurring premise we see over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures and from the mouth of Jesus in his words and teachings. You see, Jesus was, and continues to be, the greatest revelation of who God is, and who we’re supposed to be as humans. That’s the point of the incarnation, of Christmas, of our very existence. So, it’s important to understand that the Bible is finally not a field guide about how to get to heaven. Rather, it’s about, in the words of John, “light and life.” Jesus came to be that light that guides us into an abundant life. And not just for ourselves, but beyond ourselves.  

I think we sometimes forget the second part. We’re called to experience life beyond our selves, our own comfort, our own pleasure, and our own concerns. And we are challenged to experience God beyond our group of peers, reaching out to and interacting with people who may not look, or speak, or act like us with open minds and hearts. This is why the Bible, and subsequently, our shared journey of faith is on-going. This is why we in the United Church of Christ say, “God is Still Speaking.” The Bible should never be the end of the conversation, always the beginning. The Word, the Logos, wasn’t just a theological moment back then, but the on-going, progressive, incarnate work of Christmas in the here and now. This is the essence of the light and life that Jesus represented.

So, when Howard Thurman says the work of Christmas includes things like finding the lost and broken and restoring in them a sense of inclusion and wholeness, he’s really saying, be the light and life to others. When Thurman says the work of Christmas includes feeding the hungry, bringing release and liberation to those in bondage, the marginalized, the oppressed, by rebuilding nations and bringing peace among people, he’s really saying, be all that you’ve experienced from God by being light and life to others.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I have a pond on my property. Now, I use the term “pond” loosely here because it’s really a low area where excess water collects. So, most of the time it’s stagnant, motionless. And yes, you can make the argument that there is life there, I mean, algae and mosquitos love it. And please don’t misunderstand me, I do value my little stagnant pond for what it is, but when I go to the Namekagon River it’s a whole different experience. The river is always moving, changing, evolving, and bringing forth life in new and wonderful ways.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The life we’re call to as people of faith is dynamic, passionate; we’re called to be the church beyond ourselves. Live the river, always moving, changing, evolving, and bringing forth life in new and wonderful ways.

Let me put a bow on all of this by offering you a quote from William Faulkner. He once wrote, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you will do this you will change the earth.” My friends, the work of Christmas has begun. Let us go forth and “change the earth” offering light and life to all, through acts of simple kindness, and by doing the hard work of restoring justice and propagating peace.  

In the name of the Incarnate One, the Logos, the Word. Amen, and the people of God said, Amen!


[i] Howard Thurman The Work of Christmas (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2014

[ii] Rob Bell What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything (Harper One, 2007) p.123

[iii] Ibid Bell p.116 He also stated, “The Bible is a library of books reflecting how human beings have understood the divine. People at that time believed the gods were with them when they went to war and killed everyone in the village. What you’re reading is someone’s perspective that reflects the time and the place they lived in. It’s not God’s perspective— it’s theirs. And when they say it’s God’s perspective, what they’re telling you is their perspective on God’s perspective. Don’t confuse the two.”