“Turning Around, Moving Forward”
February 1, 2009
I’m told that in an African game reserve, there is a sign that warns all visitors: “Advance and be bitten.”
That sign expresses both invitation and danger. It tells us that the way forward will not necessarily be safe or easy. It suggests that our actions have consequences.
In the life of our nation—and indeed, in the life of the world—similar warnings come from all directions:
When our leaders talk about the economy, they tell us: “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” Last week thousands of people discovered the truth of that statement as Caterpillar, Pfizer, and Sprint joined with several other companies in cutting thousands of jobs.
While we continue to look for ways to address global warming, one new study suggests that climate change is already so advanced that it is “largely irreversible” for the next 1,000 years.
As the United States prepares to pull out Iraq, some are starting to worry that Afghanistan could become for us the quagmire that it has been for so many other nations across the centuries.
“Advance and be bitten.” Our past actions have present and future consequences. What we do—or fail to do—in these critical days will shape tomorrow for years to come.
There seems to be a great caution sweeping our nation. People are putting off purchases, spending less. Even businesses in good shape are looking warily at customers and suppliers. Banks want to hold onto that bailout money as long as possible. Suspicion rules.
How do we move forward?
Paradoxically, by turning around.
In his inaugural address, President Obama called for an end to the “petty grievances and false promises” of politics. He called for “a new era or responsibility” and action that was not for “the fainthearted, those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” He was calling our nation to repentance—turning in a direction that is new and at the same time a long part of our history.
It seems as though some often maligned Protestant values—work, frugality, integrity, simplicity—might show us the way to move forward. But we will only come to these by turning around from where we are.
“Repent” is a word of radical action. It means to turn in a different direction. Turn even if all the authorities are saying keep going in the same direction.
Last April I went with Nat’s Boy Scout troop for a campout at Makoqueta Caves. Those who were driving had printed out directions from Map Quest. And everything was going well…
Until we came to the point where we were told to turn onto a “Level B” road. There were warning signs, of course, as you know if you’ve ever traveled down one of those lesser maintained Iowa roads. “Advance and be bitten.” But we kept driving—even though the road was muddy and the ruts were getting deeper. Map Quest told us that campsite was just over the hill.
After the scouts had to push two SUV’s out of the mud and we slowly backed down a narrow hill, we agreed that turning around earlier would have been the better action.
The only way to get to where we wanted to be was to turn around, to repent.
The lesson from the Gospel of Mark that we heard this morning helps us in turning around and in moving forward.
Our faith and our actions have consequences.
There used to be a poster at Harvard Divinity School that showed a rag doll being pulled through the wringers of an old fashioned washing machine. The poster read: “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” The road to experiencing the liberating love and mercy of God passes through the painful awareness of just how great our need for that love and mercy is. The road to such high ideals such as peace and justice passes through the painful awareness of how often we have worked against such ideals in very concrete ways.
After we’ve advanced toward Jesus, we often find ourselves bitten by his call to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and for good measure, to love our neighbor as ourselves. So often our following in the way of Jesus Christ seems put us out of step with the rest of the world.
Other voices tell us, “Look out for number one,” but we follow the voice that says, “Feed my sheep.”
Others suggest, “Don’t get mad, get even,” but we follow the one who teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
We are Christians, not because we are good, or right, or just, or “concerned.” We are certainly not Christians because we are “nice”—although one would hope that we are, as the saying goes, “As decent as ordinary people.”
We are Christians because with all of our doubts and questions, we trust in God as God is made known in Jesus Christ. Not everyone does.
Advance and be bitten.
Look at Jesus arriving in the synagogue.
It's significant that Mark sets the first episode of Jesus' public ministry in the normal gathering place of religious people. Jesus was Jewish and in most ways followed the usual religious practices of his people. We see him worshipping each week in the synagogue; we watch as he goes to Jerusalem to observe the major festivals of his faith.
His message, however, is anything but usual. He announces that the conditions of the world have changed dramatically:
The time is fulfilled
The Realm of God has come near
And as a consequence, new behavior is required.
And believe the good news.
Jesus doesn't show up to give us advice on how to live a better life under present conditions. Adapting so that we might prosper in a world of violence, racism, and greed is not the way he calls us to follow.
Instead, Jesus calls on those who hear to act. Repent and believe.
We are called, first of all, not to be nice, likeable people. We are called to repent—to turn ourselves around—and believe the truly good news that our lives are lived in the presence of a loving God.
Believing the good news is more than giving mental assent to some propositions. Believing is not to agree that God is love. Believing is to live your life as though God is love. Believing is to live your life as though these days, with all their uncertainty, are days filled with possibility and opportunity—the possibility of grace, the opportunity to love as we have been loved.
Jesus comes as a challenge to business as usual.
Now listen. A voice responds to what this Jesus says.
"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?"
The voice sounds unhealthy. The words come from an “unclean spirit,” we are told.
Speaking of “unclean spirits” is an ancient way of talking. We know better than to attribute physical or mental illness to demons. So this voice sounds unfamiliar. If we listen carefully, however, we might detect the sound of our own voice, our own spirit as well.
You see, there is a very real desire among many people to keep God at a distance. We, too, ask: “What have you to do with us?”
There are those who want God close by—for comfort, for assurance that they're O.K.—but who try to keep God away from their checkbooks, as though how we earn and use our money were none of God's business; as though congregations and their leaders should not speak of money or the right use of our resources even though Jesus spoke about money and its use more than he did about any other topic.
There are those who want God close by, but who try to keep God away from their relationships—as though how we treat those closest to us—and those quite different from us—has no connection to the words of Jesus about loving our neighbors as ourselves.
There are those who want to keep God away from their work life—as though what we profess about love and forgiveness has nothing to do with business, as though the value of people is not as great as the value of things, as though we leave our personal beliefs at the door to the office.
There are even those who want to keep God away from their religious life, which might sound strange at first, but it isn't really. Both faith and doubt can be used to keep God at a comfortable distance, far enough away so that we are not touched by God’s transforming love.
The voice of that ancient spirit sounds loud and clear in our world and in churches today: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We have our own programs, our own plans.” And we are sick to death because we don't dare come near to the living Christ.
Still, we sense that there is a power at lose in the world that is greater than our resistance. If we were to use religious language, we would call that power the Spirit of God. Mark points to it as the “authority” of Jesus—he speaks and even the strong powers of resistance, the powers that are alienated from God obey.
With our own resistance and alienation, still we are drawn forward by the persuasive power that love has to attract and convert. Even when we pull away, Christ comes with “authority”—with the ability to restore broken relationships, broken lives, and communion with God.
What is important in this story from Mark is something other than a miracle that affected a single sick person. What is decisive is the action of Jesus that confronts everyone—including those of us here today—with the call to turn around and to move ahead fully aware of the risks involved.
The action of Jesus—his authority—exposes the false peace and security that we build up around ourselves, never seeing the real danger in trying to live apart from the Giver and Author of life. The authority of Jesus leads to a healthy questioning of the established order.
You know that an encounter with God in Christ does not bring us into to a smug, settled state. An encounter with God in Christ does not bring absolute certainty to our lives. Those who heard Jesus in the synagogue were left puzzled, questioning. “What is this?” they asked among themselves. It takes a long time, a lifetime to answer that question. And so the One who has the power, the ability—the authority—invites each of us into a lifetime of following—of prayer, action, questioning, and joyful worship.
To move forward we often need to turn around first. This is the case in our individual lives, in which the call to repentance is accompanied by the call to get up and follow the living Christ. And we find ourselves at a point in our national life at which repentance—turning from the excess, the recklessness, the greed that has characterized our common life for over a quarter of a century—is needed so that we can move in directions that will bring us closer to the nation and the world that we seek.
Repent and believe. There are threats and dangers on all sides. And this is an incredibly wonderful time to be alive. The possibility of grace, the opportunity to love are greater than the dangers.
And move forward.