For Such a Time as This

“For Such A Time as This”
Rev. Michael Livingston
1 Corinthians 7:29-31:  Mark 1:14-20

It’s official, the President’s name is Joe Biden and the first lady is Dr. Jill Biden.  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has new residents!  And as Nancy said to me, “I’m not afraid to look at the front page of the newspaper anymore.”  The news won’t all be good but it will be about the nation, the world, what is happening among us, rather than the singular focus on one profoundly unwell and destructive man with too much power and too little humanity.  I don’t know what you’re feeling, what you have been feeling since the inauguration.  I hope, true deep joy.  About their first encounter in Noting Hill, Hugh Grant says to Julia Roberts, “Surreal, but nice.”  Well, “nice” doesn’t do the day of inauguration justice.  Joe Biden took the oath of office, his third run for the presidency, charmed.  We need you now, Joe, not before.  This is God’s time and timing.  Kamala Harris put her hand on Thurgood Marshall’s bible and her Indian mother smiled from heaven, the second most populous nation on earth tied to ours in a wonderfully symbolic manner.  It was awe inspiring to set and see so much of the evening program in the magnificence of the Lincoln Memorial, that sacred ground, those eloquent words visible in the background, “With malice toward none, with charity for all…”  Awe inspiring, even if Tom Hanks did look like he was freezing.  Who will forget the magnificent fireworks display that closed the day? painting the sky in the glorious colors, not bombs bursting in air—joy!   The day was so much more than nice, yet surely, surreal.

“For the present form of the world is passing away.”  Watching this inauguration:  fences, masks, soldiers, guns, armed vehicles, barbed wire, barricades, empty streets, fist and elbow bumps, a virtual parade, half empty ballrooms, threats of violence hanging in the air, the historic site—a crime scene.  Among the spectators a seditious presence, some who may have aided an insurrection.  There was no outgoing president to symbolically transfer the enormous power of the office to the winner of election by a wide margin of the popular vote and the electoral college.  There were past presidents present republican and democrat, even Jimmy Carter at ninety-six sent regards to President Biden at this historic and history making ceremony.  Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell were surreal presenting gifts to Biden and Harris, McConnell trying humor and McCarthy just trying to get through it with false vibrato—the tension increasing by the word.  “Social” distance?  Kamala and Kevin may have been only six feet apart and they are both from California, but if felt like Kevin was in McConnell’s Kentucky and Kamala in the new state of Washington, DC (may it be so).  “The present form of the world cannot pass away soon enough.”

The NRSV is modern and gracious, thirty years old this year.  It is sensitive to the justice of inclusivity, diversity, and gender—though the day is still to come for a stronger text in these areas.  Paul writes “I mean brothers and sisters…”. Well, the “sisters” just aren’t in the Greek, just assumed.  And speaking clearly to the men, “…those who have wives, ‘live’ and be, as though you didn’t.”  Paul isn’t planning a bachelor party with beer and burgers until the world ends, a man cave for the end of time—he’s after something much larger here, much deeper and finer.  But we want to keep clear that we’re always translating here, women in particular, having to work to see themselves apart from the “male gaze” where they are objects or invisible, in the background, off-center, bit players in the life many bring into the world that so disparages them, abuses and exploits them.  The world ruined by men who think wars solve problems, that financial gain ensures well-being, that success is measured by piles of wealth—we love those richest person in the world lists don’t we?  Who is it this month Elon Musk?  Bill Gates?  Jeff Bezos?  I prefer his former wife Mackenzie Scott who last year gave away four billion dollars in four months—for people experiencing “… food insecurity…racial inequity, high…poverty rates…”. That brings her total giving to six billion dollars.

Paul’s words can be alarming, disconcerting, they can seem heartless.  Married?  Pretend you aren’t.  Celebrating?  Stop.  Dealing with world.  No more.  In mourning?  No more.  Wait now.  I still mourn, don’t you?  My brother, your parent or child, daughter or son.  I’m not letting that go.  I don’t really know what it means to live without mourning, as though my loved one had not lived.  How do we do that?  Why ask us?  What do we do about the 400,000 thousand dead this year the number rising by 4,000 every day?  A new variant on the loose and more victims to come.

We will long remember 2020 as a year of suffering and death—from the pandemic and from the killing of black and brown men and women by police officers.  The pandemic evidence of official disregard for all human life the killings evidence of the persistence of systemic racism and inherent and deadly bias against people of color.  We cannot be asked to simply act as if those things were not true, did not exist.  That’s what we have done since the founding of the nation; we’ve denied, suppressed, ignored the truth of our history.  So, the “uncivil war” Biden said it was time to end harkens back to the Civil War that ended slavery but was followed by a new reign of the horror of domestic terrorism that traumatized people of color and was tolerated by civil society and the un-rule of law.  You can’t mourn what you don’t acknowledge.  What you don’t acknowledge and mourn, cannot be healed.

May I return to the walls of the Lincoln Memorial again, for a moment?  It’s the last paragraph this is most often quoted, beginning with the words I used at the beginning, “With malice toward none…” but listen to these prophetic words earlier in Lincoln’s inaugural address.  Speaking about North and South, he said, “Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”  Not even Lincoln imagined the conflict would linger, roiling under the presidencies of thirty-six more administrations, one hundred sixty-five years later to this day.  What we don’t mourn and acknowledge cannot be healed.

Still, it feels like a door is opening.  This more than nice, yet surreal moment is pregnant with hope for what may, what could, come. The first thing Jesus says in the gospel of Mark, our passage, is “The time is fulfilled the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.  Can that be true for us now?

A black woman of South Asian descent is the Vice President of the U. S.  Good news.

A woman is the Vice President of the United States.  Good news.

The pipeline is done.  Good news.

No more wall construction on our southern border.  Good news.

This president cares about others. Good news.

This president cares about the planet, Paris here we come.  Good news.

Truth over lies and deception. Good news.

Systemic racism is under fierce attack again. Good news.

The federal minimum wage will be raised. Good news.

A real plan to combat the coronavirus. Good news.

Science is not our enemy. Good news.  (Dr. Fauci is a free man again).

Gone is the Muslim ban. Good news.

The children of DACA are safe from deportation.  Good news.

There is an “urgency of now” at work in this torrent of executive orders and planned legislation to undue much of the harm of the last four year.  This is good news.

The text from the Hebrew scripture that accompanies these texts from I Corinthians and Mark is the familiar story of Jonah and Nineveh.  But the text is just the lean results of Jonah’s visit.  He tells them God will destroy the city in forty days if they don’t get right with God.  And they repent—just like that and they are spared the retribution of an angry God.  All the texts today are about repentance, about turning away from one kind of life and choosing another, the bright light of a new day that God wants, that is possible for those who have faith, who know what truth sounds like, who care about others and want a future that is as wide as the earth, as bright as the sun, as deep as the ocean.  The time is now.  We’ve seen—again—just how ugly it can get.  How much harm can be done by selfishness and greed, by manly individualism versus beloved community, by whiteness versus God’s image on faces of all colors, by the violence of a mob or the bullets fired in unreasonable hate.  Jonah, Paul, Mark—God herself is telling us “Repent…”—turn around, the reign of God is as near as now, as close as any act of kindness, as present as a word of truth instead of torrents of conspiracy theories and mindless tweets.

In Mark’s gospel, the first gospel, where everything happens “…immediately,” Jesus calls the first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John.  Two sets of brothers, two of them fishing, the other two repairing their nets.  We rightly celebrate a progressive Jesus in the broad focus of his concern, in the sometimes-startling outcomes of his encounters with women, in the grace of his acceptance and the forceful way he challenged and sometimes chastised men for their treatment of women.  But there were no women in these boats by sea and fishing for people was a male pursuit.  This new world that Paul asserts is coming, this Kingdom, this Kindom, this reign of God that is near will change all of that.  Men aren’t enough.  Women, people of color, gay, straight and transgender, people of all faiths no faith, all religions and the “nones” whose numbers grow with every generation—all are needed for us to usher in this new day.  All are needed for our society and world to repent of the present order, the way of the world today:  warring, divided, exclusive, rich and made-poor, earth-destroying.

Pastoral scholar Brian Maas writes, “Paul echoes Jesus’ conviction that the time is drawing near: the time of final judgment. His call to repentance is a call to live a life counter to the culture’s everyday expectations—expectations that have changed little in two millennia. He calls the Corinthians to let their relationship to God overshadow and govern their relationships to money, to property, to one another, and to the world at large. Now as then, such a repentance leads to the new freedom, the true freedom of a life aligned with God’s priorities and not the worlds.”  We’re not talking here about the evangelical call of “turn or burn.”  We’re talking about the choice, the intentional life-saving change of mind and heart away from what is killing us all toward the better way we know is possible in the providence of God.

The world isn’t ending, it is being transformed.

And we’ve seen a glimpse of what is coming and how we’ll get there, and who will be leading the charge.  We saw it in the legions of ordinary folks turning legions of ordinary folks out to register and vote in an election as important as any in the history of our nation.  We saw it in the woman largely credited with leading that effort in Georgia, Stacey Abrams.  We saw it in the remarkable young woman whose poem riveted us in our seats and brought tears to our eyes.  Siblings:  Iet us hear again from our present and our future.  When she finishes, I’ll be saying Amen.  I hope you will too.