If you were to record the amount of time you spend doing various activities over the course of several weeks, what might an activity diary reveal about you? If you didn’t count the hours you spent sleeping and eating, what would be the top three activities in your typical week?
If we as a congregation kept track of the way our church spends its time, what would an activity diary reveal about Open Table? How do we act collectively to be the church? What activities of Open Table constitute the key actions of the church?
As we delve further into the first chapter of Mark, we start to recognize a pattern in Jesus’s activities of ministry in Galilee. Today’s reading repeats a sequence of activities established in last Sunday’s text: He preaches a message, casts out demons and heals the sick, withdraws for prayer—and starts the cycle again. His pattern of ministry might be a way for us, as Jesus followers, to assess and balance our own commitments—as individuals, as a congregation.
I spoke last week about our need for prayerful silence, inspired by Jesus’s command that silenced the unclean spirit. We’ll see in upcoming passages in Mark stories aplenty about healings. But today I’m interested in the last two verses of this pericope. I’m interested in Jesus’s ministry of proclamation. I’m interested in how you and I engage in proclaiming a message.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “That’s what we pay you to do, Ellen. You’re the designated preacher.” But that’s not entirely true. I hope you know me better than to worry I’ll expect you to start evangelizing on some street corner or passing out religious tracts. But you, too, are able to “proclaim a message.” Rosemarie will do so next week during our quarterly potluck. And there will be plenty of time for others to share a story from your own journey if you wish. And there are other ways you proclaim the message—without having to get behind a pulpit or even sound churchy.
Today’s reading makes it clear that at the very heart of Jesus’s ministry—and therefore at the very heart of ours—there is a message to be shared. In this important first chapter that serves as the thesis for all that follows, Mark’s Gospel leads with a message about “THE MESSAGE.”
Today we can instant message, Facebook message, text message. We can message through email and message boards. We have politicians who try to stay on message. We have businesses who do brand messaging. We have a modern paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.
But what was Jesus’s message? What was the kernel of his many sermons and parables and dialogues and teachings and healings and acts of compassion? What was the message of his life? His death?
If you were asked what was at the heart of Jesus’s message, what would you say?
Would it be “Homosexuality is a sin?” I ask because I would bet good money that someone is preaching that very message in another pulpit in town at this very moment.
Let’s go back to the very start of Mark’s Gospel to see how this author establishes his theme. Mark begins this way:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. . . .”
And immediately Mark introduces John the baptizer, the forerunner of Jesus, who is proclaiming a message of repentance. Jesus, a disciple of John, was baptized by him. Shortly afterward, John was arrested, and Jesus launched his own ministry in Galilee by “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (meaning a change in direction), and believe in the good news.”
Note: If the message is not “good news," it’s not Jesus’s message.
As we pick up the story today, Jesus has been proclaiming a message of good news and healing the sick. When he sneaks off for time alone, his disciples hunt him down and complain, “Everyone is searching for you." Jesus responds, "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." Mark continues: “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
But what specifically was Jesus’s message? Verse 15 says it’s about “the kingdom of God.” But not all scholars agree on what Jesus meant by this kingdom. And the disciples are consistently depicted as not understanding what he meant. The Greek phrase traditionally translated into English as “the kingdom of God” is Basileia tou Theou, which might be better translated as the reign of God or the rule of God to. Announcing God’s eventual reign on this earth—not some sweet by and by heaven—is Jesus’s consistent message—often developed through cryptic parables. As Mark will soon show us, Jesus’s message poses this paradox: God’s sovereign reign is at hand yet is not quite here. Some scholars talk about the now and coming kingdom of God. God’s way IS already present here—but not yet fully.
The good news is that God has a kingdom of love and justice. And that it is already being realized—not fully, not finally, not yet. But it’s on the way. Sometimes little bits of it are already peeking through. And this kingdom is not at all like the kingdoms of this earth. God’s rule, as the parables will reveal, differs greatly from humanity’s empires. That is good news. The first will be last and the last will be first in God’s upside down way of doing things. The new rules are not yet in play.
But there are moments. There are times. When the little guy wins. God’s reign has not been completely ushered in. But there are signs. There are symptoms. Of God’s justice for those who’ve been pushed aside.
And we are going to see a sign of God’s now and coming reign tomorrow at 8:00 at the probate court on Government Street in Mobile, Alabama. We are going to see a glimpse of God’s justice that no one saw coming quite this soon. We are going to know what is possible when the Spirit of Love breaks loose.
No, God’s kingdom will not be fully realized in Alabama on February 9, 2015. There are likely to be protestors who will say nasty things. There may even be unforeseen impediments. But we get to glimpse what this world will be like when God’s loving, just, and peaceful ways seep into our society and flavor all our dealings and shape us into the kind of people we CAN be.
When some of us stand beside K and S tomorrow at the Probate Court, we are sending a message. When we take Open Table signs with us, we are sending a message.
Our message is not: Believe in Jesus or you’ll go to hell.
Our message is: The kingdom/kin*dom of God—the way this world will be when God’s reign of love holds sway—looks like this. Here we plant the sign of God’s reign. Here we stand, just inside the figurative gates of that kingdom that has partially materialized but has yet to unfold. Here is a moment, a partial picture, a foretaste, a premonition of what we imagine God’s future to be.
Our message is about God’s now and coming reign.
Our best medium for expressing that message is our lives.
Like Jesus, we can live as if God’s reign has begun. The first chapter of Mark will end with a final story about Jesus’s healing a leper—who then cannot help but “proclaim” that Jesus had healed him. Oddly, Jesus will try to curb some of this messaging. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” Jesus will warn. Some think he wanted to keep a little more control over the messaging until his followers really understood it better. There may be times and ways that are not appropriate for sharing the message. But proclaiming that message is, according to Mark’s Gospel, central to Jesus’s ministry.
Some of us don’t really want to hear that. We want to follow Jesus without doing or saying anything controversial. Certainly we will try to send a clear message without demonizing those with whom we disagree. But we also bear a responsibility to speak up, to engage in acts that send a clear message.
A blogger recently posted her thoughts about the value of small churches. She values small churches because they permit the time and energy it takes to foster “transformational, redemptive relationships." As she puts it: “The tangled web of life together is impossible to navigate in a sea of hundreds of nameless faces.” She praises small churches for being able “to use everyone’s gifts and passions and voices.” And she cautions that “growth doesn’t mean numbers”—despite the corporate models for success we import into the ways we do church when we should instead trust in “God’s economy.” She closes this way:
“Small pockets of love do matter. Justice, mercy, and hope ripple out from small acts of kindness and love. One life can change one other life, and those are little miracles. If we are always thinking ‘we’re not big enough, strong enough, cool enough, sustainable enough, ____ enough, we will miss out on amazing people and opportunities to love and live right in front of us.” What is required is “bending our ear and heart toward the ways of the kingdom of God–where the ways of the world are turned upside down, the last shall be first and the first shall be last, where learning the ways of love one relationship at a time supersedes everything else.” *
That is a message I need to hear. And proclaim.
Our heavenly father/mother, hallowed be your name. May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen
*Escobar, Kathy. “Small is Plenty” in http://shelovesmagazine.com/2015/small-plenty/ (Feb. 3, 2015).