Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A piece of the action

Mark 1: 14-20
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 21, 2017


         Human beings, like many other species, are mimetic, that is, we imitate, we mirror, we follow what we see, often subconsciously, and it is a powerful influence on how we live, learn, and model behavior. It’s how we pick up on social cues or develop another accent. It’s how we learn how to love and hate, use violence and be compassionate.

         In this next Star Trek episode, the Enterprise arrives at the planet Iotia to investigate cultural contamination by the starship Horizon that visited over a hundred years ago, before the prime directive of non-interference. The intelligent and highly imitative Iotians have patterned their industrial society based on one of the books the Horizon left with them entitled Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. The planet is divided up into a dozen or so territories, each with its own mob boss and underlings. Two of the bosses, Bela Oxmyx and Jojo Krako, are vying to take over as the only boss when Kirk and his boys beam down. Captain Kirk comes to an unorthodox solution: to peacefully unify the planet into a syndicate under one boss, with the Federation as a silent partner.

         There’s been a cultural contamination in Jesus’ time and it’s called empire. One after another—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and now Rome—have enslaved and exiled and divided and occupied and oppressed the people of Israel for centuries. Some have imitated their oppressors and become accustomed to the occupation and the power that has been meted out to them. But most of God’s people are tired of being trampled underfoot, of surviving in the face of injustice, and long for God to keep God’s promises of hope and deliverance.


         So when Jesus comes to Galilee, the Appalachia of Israel, and proclaims that the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, has come near, to repent, to turn toward God, and believe the good news, of course Simon and Andrew, James and John drop everything to follow him. Time’s up for empire and injustice. He doesn’t promise them more fish or job creation or a return to some imagined glory days. Only that they will learn to do what he does, by imitating him. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

         Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are incredulous when they learn that the Iotians created their society from only one book. And yet that was supposed to be our story too. Like our Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors, we are People of the Book. God’s law, God’s word was supposed to be written on our hearts. We are made in God’s image, a mirror of God’s self. Since God’s people knew what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, following God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves wasn’t supposed to be that much of a stretch.

         Even when there are those who read the Bible as the literal word of God or those who take a more progressive view, we still can’t manage to love our enemies or forgive seventy times seven. No matter our stripe of belief or tradition, none of us follow completely blind despite our accusations toward each other. We all think for ourselves to some degree but in accordance with what we’ve imitated from others, what we’ve been taught.

         Someone once asked how many different religions there are and someone else wisely responded, “About 7 billion.” We all have our own take on the truth; we all tell it slant, through our own lenses of experience and emotion, education and upbringing, tradition and values. And yet we all want to love and be loved, we all want our lives to have meaning, even the most wretched, the most obnoxious, the meanest among us. Sometimes I wonder if the whole purpose of this existence is to continually search for our own truth, to grow and learn while in community with others, to share the journey without killing or hurting anyone in the process.


         Like the Iotians we too are intelligent, highly imitative people. And yet there are days it would be a relief if there was one divinely-ordered way in which all human beings are to live, if we had one teacher, one book, and all we had to do was follow them, imitate them in order to have unity. But that’s not who we are. We’re Muslim and Hindu and Jewish and Buddhist and Atheist and Agnostic and Sikh and Unitarian and Christian and Shinto and Jain and Baha'i. We’re Latino and Hispanic and Native American and European and African American and Asian. We’re queer and straight and polyamorous and single and pansexual and asexual and cisgender and non-binary and trans. We’re conservative and liberal and progressive and moderate and fundamentalist and centrist. We are the mirror in 7 billion pieces. We’ve followed, we’ve been the leader, we’ve looked to others for truth, we’ve looked to ourselves. There is no one book for this. If anything, all of us together are the book.


         As it is, Jesus is looking for a freely-given, wholehearted ‘yes’ when it comes to following him. Perhaps those fishermen, as well as the women who followed him, didn’t have to think twice because they knew that not only their lives but the lives of their families, their people depended on the new thing that was happening in this man. But we know that a piece of the action that Jesus is offering is going to cost us something, require something from us. It’s one thing to search for the truth; it’s quite another to live it.

         Samir Selmanovic, a self-described Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, writes this about following Jesus: “Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him; it was woven into all he said and did. [To]…summarize his selling point: ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not. Follow me, and might be empowered—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not. If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life. Follow me nevertheless. Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’” (1)

         If we want a piece of that action, we’re in the right place with the right people: flawed, imperfect, beloved, forgiven, each of us trying to live out the truth we know the best we can, not just for our own but for justice’s sake. Why not love each other well while we’re at it? Amen.

1.  Selmanovic, Samir.  It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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