January 21, 2018

Written by Rev. George Yando.
Preached by Patti Polowick on January 21, 2018.

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Psalm 62: 5-12
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Mark 1: 14-20

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Good News For A Change

We begin this morning with where we left off last Sunday. We were privileged to have as our guest at St. Andrew’s last weekend the Reverend Ted Hicks who facilitated an event intended to help our congregation through an process of self-examination and discernment. Ted led us through an exercise designed to help us come to a shared understanding about who we are as a Christian faith community, where we think God is leading us in our mission and ministry, and the kind of leader St. Andrew’s needs for its next minister to be.

Those of us who were here, for any or all of the weekend’s gatherings, heard the Reverend Ted Hicks talk about working from a generative rather than a problem-solving perspective. He began by suggesting that like so many individuals and groups [and I’m quoting from his sermon of last Sunday], “we have become used to identifying problems and then developing strategies to solve them or, worse, feeling powerless and defeated in the face of problems that seem so onerous and unsolvable.”  He goes on to say, “The problem with problems is that they are inherently negative. When we start from the perspective of problems we are starting with a negative viewpoint, a negative attitude, and negative energy.

And that negativity works against us right from the start – infecting every aspect of our living, including our life together as a congregation.”

There are good reasons for that well entrenched attitude: it’s wired into our brain’s programming in our survival instincts, our danger detector, the ability to home in on any sensory data that alerts us to a potential threat.  That built-in programming however also gives us a negative bias toward so much of what we see and hear; we tend to pick up on and tune into the negative stuff that is going on around us.  We are constantly being bombarded with so much sensory data, so much input, that we can’t possibility take it all in; our brains then place a priority on ensuring our survival and literally call our attention to all the negative stuff that might pose a potential hazard to our well-being and even our very survival.  That’s why if you see a thousand stories in the news, the tendency is to focus on the negative ones; the media experts know this and take advantage of it.  You know the old saying that “if it bleeds, it leads.”  That’s why 90% of the news in the newspaper and on television is negative because that’s what we pay attention to.

So ultimately we are kept in this negative state of mind which tends to screen out the positive news and allow in the negative news. As much as we might like – and often long for – more good news in our daily news coverage, the fact is, at a sub-conscious level, we actually crave the negative stuff.

This predisposition toward pessimistic and negative perceptions in our lives and in our world affects more than just how we view the news.  Our state of mind has implications for how we understand ourselves, our world and our place and role in it.

Which brings us to our text from the Gospel lesson we read this morning.  It was written by Mark as a kind of a summary statement of what Jesus taught.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

What follows immediately after — and “immediately” is one of Mark’s favourite words — is Mark’s telling of the story of the call of the first disciples:  “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

It first glance, the disciples’ response seems a bit impetuous, perhaps even irrational.  We’re apt to make life-changing decisions a little more deliberately than that.  They are often called “career trajectory decisions” nowadays and we’re a lot more careful about how we make them; we take time to consider them carefully before making a move.

But that’s just the point.  What’s being modelled here is not simply a career-changing decision; rather this is nothing less than an awakening to what is really happening in the world.  A whole new age has come upon us, a whole new beginning for humankind.  Nothing less than a “new creation” has happened, to quote the apostle Paul.

The way you respond to that kind of message is to leave what you are doing and start doing something new, something appropriate to the new age. And until you start living in the new age, the new age doesn’t come.  That’s the message of the New Testament, that’s the message Jesus preached and lived, that’s the message encapsulated in Mark’s summary of Jesus’ proclamation here: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” If you’re going to get on board with the Kingdom of God you have to leave the past and start living in the future. Which is the meaning of “repentance” Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” If Jesus came to announce a new age, then repentance doesn’t mean turning back to some old morality.  In fact, in this context, repentance doesn’t having anything to do with morality.  Repentance means “Stop what you are doing now, stop the way that you are thinking now, and embrace this new way of thinking about our world and living in it.”

Biblical scholars tell us these two stories — the summary of Jesus’ preaching and the call of the disciples — these two stories were independent memories in the life of the early church.  Mark had a reason for putting them together, one right after the other and it is this: the disciples’ response to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him is a model of what repentance looks like.   And it just may be that what is preventing the new age from coming in our day is not God’s tardiness in rolling it out, but our reluctance to get on board and participate in it.  As Jesus will say time and time again, “the Kingdom is here, the problem is that you just don’t see it.”  “Let the one who has eyes to see, see.”

The renowned Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “All great revolutions in men’s lives are made in thought.  When a change takes place in someone’s thought, action follows the direction of the thought as a ship follows the direction of a rudder.”  That insight serves us well when we consider the implications of what Jesus is announcing.  Repentance is not some negative, life-denying gesture, nor does it mean turning to a past way of thinking or doing at all.  Repentance means turning to a new way.  Repentance doesn’t mean to change from what we are to what we were; it means to change from what we are to what we’re going to be, to turn to what we have the potential to be at our very best, to turn toward becoming what God has created us to be, the real “us” at the very core of our beings.

The lesson in Mark’s arrangement of these two stories is clear: as the disciples modelled Jesus’ call to repentance, by following Him into the future He had announced, so too, the church in our day is called to be the first society to live in the future, the first community to model what life in the Kingdom of God is going to be like.  The church is to live as if the time has come and the Kingdom of God is already here.

That was the model we find in the life of the early church.  In order to become a member you had to repent of the past, put the old life behind you and put on the new life, begin living in the new world, the new creation.  That was symbolised for us in baptism and confirmation.  You put off the ways of the past, washed yourself clean of all that, and put on a new garment, one fit for life in a new world.   As Paul explained it, “Put off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” Or as in First Peter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

Whenever you read about the church in the New Testament, it is described in that kind of language. You get the impression that although they were living in this world, they were not of this world.  They were located in this age, but living in a new age.  They were living as if the time were fulfilled and the Kingdom of God already here.

So how do we do that, those of us still in the church in 2018?  First of all, we need to be realistic.  Although the new age has begun, the old is still very much with us.  Those who go out into the world to make it a better place had better go armed with that kind of realism; otherwise they end up in despair.  Paul’s talk of putting off the works of darkness didn’t say anything about ignoring the reality of the world of darkness; in fact, he enjoined his fellow Christians to put on an armour of light, and with good reason.  “I send you out as sheep among wolves,” said Jesus.  Seems only prudent then to go out with our heads up, alert to what is going on around us, to be alert to it, but not to be undone by it.

But at the same time, if you are going to do some good in this world, you must have a vision and be prepared to take some risks. If, as the futurists say, the problem is the way we think, then let’s begin by changing the way we think.  That’s minimum risk, but it’s where we must begin.  And the church, above all other institutions in this society, ought to be the one to do that.

Bob Dylan wrote in his signature song from the 1960s that, “The times they are a-changing.”  That pronouncement shouldn’t have come as news; Jesus told us the very same thing some 2,000 years ago.  “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus said, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Accept it as reality, the new reality.  Change your own thinking, then pass the word around.  And maybe, if we just pass the word around, the thinking around us will begin to change, and when we change our thinking, action will follow the direction of the thought as a ship follows the direction of a rudder.

It’s the same way with problems such as world hunger and so many of the other ills that have plagued human society.  If, as the church, we are the first society to experience the future, we can reveal for the world what that future looks like.  We can tell them that it looks like the world of the Good Samaritan, where your neighbour is anyone in need, even a former enemy.  It looks like that scene in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, the sick are cared for, the prisoners are visited, the thirsty are given water to drink.

It’s all there in the gospels, because wherever Jesus was, there was the Kingdom.  We know what the Kingdom looks like so we can pass the word.  We can announce that we don’t have to live this way any longer.  There is nothing technologically dictating that we live this way, nothing economically determining that it remain so.  The only reason the world exists half-underfed and half-overfed is because we allow it.

The futurists are saying that the problems we face are not problems of technology; they are problems of judgement, problems of decision-making, problems of attitude, problems of priority. What if the church were to take the lead in implementing a generative approach rather than a problem-solving approach? What if the church were to look at the whole of creation, the giftedness that is this world, its resources, its people, as beloved of God, fill with the potential to be so much more than it – and we – currently are? What if the church started to live as if it were the society that experiences the future, God’s future, the future called the Kingdom of God?  It’s what Jesus called us to do, to repent and to believe the good news.  It was a call to walk away from what you are and embrace what you will be.

Not that it’s easy.  It may mean talking up a cross.  But it also means this: what you perceive as problems in your life, as individuals and as a church, are not that God has arranged things in order to thwart your plans, nor is there some destiny keeping you where you are, nor are you being punished or picked on or persecuted.  What if the only thing that is inhibiting change, keeping you, us, the church, the world from becoming all that God has created us to be is that we just haven’t heard — and truly believed — the good news, the good news that God wants us to live, to really live!

You can, you know.  You can leave what you are and become what you are created and called to be.  That’s what repentance means. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.