The Third Sunday after the Epiphany and Annual Meeting – January 25, 2015
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Life is short. And we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind.
If there’s a watchword for the Gospel of Mark, it’s “immediately.”
By Mark’s telling, Jesus’ story begins with John baptizing him in the Jordan River. As Jesus comes up out of the waters, immediately the heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Immediately after that, the Spirit takes Jesus out into the wilderness, where he stays for 40 days and is tempted by the devil. When Jesus returns from that trial, he calls two sets of brothers: Andrew and Simon, James and John, all of them fishermen on the shore. “Follow me,” Jesus says. And, you guessed it, immediately they drop their nets and follow him.
They go to Capernaum, where Jesus teaches in the synagogue, and immediately he is confronted with an unclean spirit that needs some rebuking. Immediately after that, Jesus leaves the synagogue with his new disciples, enters the new disciples’ home to find their mother ill, and immediately he heals her.
You get the idea. And I promise I’m not exaggerating. All those “immediately” quotes are really actually there. And we haven’t even made it to the second chapter yet.
Mark’s gospel is the earliest of the four evangelists’ telling about the life and ministry of Jesus, written most closely to the time when he lived. It’s also the shortest, and the most urgent. You can read Mark’s whole gospel account aloud, start to finish, in about an hour and a half. It might leave you breathless, with all that “immediately” business, but it is possible. Everything feels like it’s right here in front of your face – like there are no extra words and there is no extra time that might provide cover or insulation from what’s going on in the story.
If “immediately” is the essential word for Mark’s gospel, then Mark is the essential gospel account for the season of Epiphany. Because that’s kind of how and what Epiphany is: right here, without extra words or extra time that might provide insulation from what’s going on. There isn’t much chance to think, before immediately something happens and we need to respond. A baby is born. The heavens are torn open. We find ourselves in the wilderness. Someone we love becomes very sick, very fast.
I think this parish has experienced the yearlong extended version of the season of Epiphany over this past year. It has felt like Epiphany as told by Mark the Evangelist: immediately and immediately and immediately. As a parish, we have received profound blessings and sustained devastating losses, all at about the same pace as that gospel, all about right here, in rapid succession, without the luxury of extra time or extra words that might provide insulation or protection from all that is taking place.
Karoline Lewis is a preaching professor who says this about Epiphany: “Maybe a life of faith can only happen in immediately, in the surprising, sudden, profound epiphany of God at work, God revealed in our lives. Because if we think that we can prepare for God’s epiphanies, that we can be fully ready for what we will see, well, then, God might be less than epiphanous.”
The texts in today’s liturgy support this immediately mindset that marks both this season and this gospel passage. God calls Jonah, tells him to get up and go to Nineveh and share a message of repentance. Jonah has learned that God will not be easily avoided (read: big storm, belly of a fish), so he goes to that city expecting that the people will continue on their path of destruction. But they don’t. The people believe him (and it doesn’t say immediately, but it might as well). No delay, no extra words, no extra time in this moment. They declare a fast. Everybody puts on the clothes of mourning. And (again, maybe immediately?) God changes the divine mind. God does not destroy the city, as Jonah anticipates. (And if you continue reading past today’s lesson, you’ll see that immediately Jonah is annoyed with God to the point of disgust…but that’s another story, a different sermon.)
Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth shares this level of urgency. He opens by saying “the appointed time has grown short.” (An echo of our blessing from the first?) So, he says, this is how you’re supposed to live. The world is changing. What you have known is passing away. And so put all your energy, all your focus, on how God is calling you to live right now. The peculiar details of Paul’s direction about those who are married and those who are mourning and those who are rejoicing and those who are buying bears its own conversation, and probably some disagreement. What I take from this lesson, though, is Paul saying that what we do right now, how we live right now, in these immediate moments, matters.
And again, we return to Mark’s gospel, his text of immediacy. “This is the fullness of time,” Jesus says. “The kingdom of God has come near.”
We’ve learned over and over again throughout this year of Epiphany at St. Augustine’s, that life is short, that we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. Like Mark’s gospel, so much has happened immediately.
And as Dr. Lewis says about God’s epiphanies, we have been changed. Without benefit of the extra words or extra time for preparation or self-protection, we have been called into those moments of life and death, of joy and grief. And in those painful and profound moments, as we have faced into them together, I believe that God has revealed God’s own self to us. In the warmth of a welcome. In the grief of a goodbye, and another, and still another. In the discovery and claiming of the stories we tell ourselves. In the comfort of a prayer shawl. In the celebration of a new priest among us. In the feast, together with everybody.
The fullness of time is a weighty thing. The kingdom of God come near will change us. And it does. And it has. And it will. And you, the people of St. Augustine’s Church, have borne this season of Epiphany with grace and steadfast love. And with a strong sadness, at moments. And in joy for the great gifts God has given us.
It will not always be Epiphany. We will not always tell time in Mark’s terms, immediately and immediately. Because, thank God, there are other seasons, too. Lent offers space to turn around, time for contemplation. Easter gives us resurrection and rejoicing. And the others…imagine the respite of marking our days in Ordinary Time.
There will be other seasons for us at St. Augustine’s. But what a gift; what a heavy and rich and full gift, to live this truth among all of you, that life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So thank you, for being swift to love. Thank you, for making haste to be kind.
May God’s blessing be with you all, right now; immediately, and always.