Preamble to worship
Today as we read further into the Gospel of Mark, we encounter the first time that Jesus mentions the central symbol of his movement: “the kingdom of God.”
Today, I will reflect on what this symbol might mean and its implications in today’s climate of sharp division and social crisis. To do so, I reflect on the last four years and on the inauguration last week of a new U.S. President.
Just over four years ago, on November 6, 2016, I preached a sermon here on marriage and then left for a week of vacation to get ready for the wedding ceremony at which Kim Boyes and I were married; and as it turned out, that week was pivotal in more ways than I had imagined. It was not just the occasion for our wedding. It was also the week when, for the first time, a fascist was declared the President-elect of the most powerful nation in the world.
That victory of the now former President — whom today I call “45” due to his status a the 45th President of the U.S. — was in many ways an accident. Stil, it had a big impact on the world, and on me.
On November 20, 2016, when I returned to this pulpit after the wedding and the U.S. election, I reflected on the implications of “45’s” surprising victory, and immediately ran into trouble with some in the congregation. In different ways, this trouble has continued ever since; but perhaps with the end of “45’s” harrowing career as president, this will now change.
In January 2017 during a congregational sharing circle to discuss what I perceived to be a new era of human history, I said the election of a fascist as U.S. president had thrown me off my bearings; and I concluded that my best option was to conduct ministry from a prone position. Perhaps today I can get back on my feet. We will see.
It is often said that church should be above politics. But as the first words uttered by Jesus suggest, almost everything about Jesus is political. The Good News, whatever it involves, is bound up with Jesus’ vision of a new kind of kingdom; and Jesus, whether as a figure in the gospel stories or as a spiritual reality within our hearts, is a Christ or King. For me, it’s all political.
Text: Mark 1:4-20 (Jesus call his first followers)
On Wednesday as I watched the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, I cried. I cried in relief that the 45th president was no longer the most powerful man in the world; I cried in grief at the damage done to the hearts, minds, and lives of so many as a result of “45’s” fascist fantasies; and I cried in joy that President Biden’s words seemed calm, respectful, and hopeful. Although many social problems remain, I am grateful that the most powerful person in the world is no longer one known for his instability, ignorance, and immorality.
My tears were a sign of how the past four years have weighed upon me and how happy and surprised I was that the 45th president had not succeeded in overthrowing the rule of law in the United States (although he came close) and that against all hope he had slunk away.
Biden’s inauguration was met with relief by most people in the world, although this did not include the political elite in Russia . . . or the political elite in Alberta. Alberta’s Premier used this halcyon day to react with fury at Biden’s decision to keep his election promise to once again halt the Keystone XL pipeline project.
All of us should feel the pain of families and communities thrown into turmoil by the loss of work that will flow from the end of this project — in Haridisty and Oyen in Alberta and in similar American towns along its route.
But given the stakes involved in the US. Presidency — from nuclear weapons, to the disastrous American response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to racial injustice, to the oncomging freight train of climate disaster — the loss of jobs on the Keystone project seemed to me a foolish thing upon which to focus on Wednesday.
After the failure of an insurrectionary mob on January 6 to overturn the certification of November’ US. Presidential results, I was pretty confident that ‘45” would leave office peacefully. Even so, I was anxious about further trouble, up to and including his use of nuclear weapons. My anxiety dissipated as Biden was inaugurated as the new Commander in Chief of the United States.
Some have suggested I shouldn’t focus so much on the United States, which is not our country after all. But notwithstanding my appreciation of Woody Guthrie’s “This land is Your Land,” which Jennifer Lopez sang at Wednesday’s inauguration, I don’t view the United States as belonging to the people who live there either.
Guthrie’s song is aspirational more than descriptive; and U.S. citizens have a similar relationship to government as Jesus and his friends did to the Roman Empire. Yes, the U.S. is a republic with democratic features whereas Rome was an imperial monarchy. But the ability of ordinary Americans — or Canadians — to effect the direction of their governments is often minimal, in my opinion. For one, U.S. democracy is constructed in such a way that it often creates minority rule.
In the November elections, “45” came within a hair’s breadth of winning a second term despite gaining seven million fewer votes than Biden. In three states — Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin — Biden eked out razor-thin victories: 40,000 votes in total. If these margins had been reversed, the Electoral College would have delivered “45” a second term, to the detriment of everyone in the world.
His victory in 2016 had been largely accidental — the result of Russian manipulation on social media; a ludicrous intervention by the FBI Director in the last 15 days of the 2016 campaign; the ugly depths of racism and sexism in the United States; and the anti-urban bias of the U.S. electoral system, which allowed him to win despite gaining three million fewer votes than Hilary Clinton. In 2016, the difference was 75,000 votes scattered over four battleground states.
So, it seems fitting that “45’s” defeat in 2020 was also largely accidental. Without the COVID-19 pandemic and his uniquely disastrous response to it, “45” would have won a second term in a landslide, and the U.S. would have stopped being a democracy or a place where civil rights and the rule of law were respected.
But does Biden’s inauguration mean that the kingdom of God has come nearer? I don’t think so. The new administration gives the world more breathing room in which to heal. But I have little confidentce that in the crises Biden named on Wednesday — from white supremacy, to the pandemic, to climate disaster — his administration will make much of a dent on any of them.
I pray I am wrong about this. But given that many social crises are global in nature, it is difficult to make progress on them as long as humanity remains divided into competing nation states.
Still, we live in hope; so I am glad to have next week off. I hope this pause will give me space in which to let the change in the zeitgeist symbolized by Biden’s inauguration sink in and allow time in which to wonder what might be next for us.
Jesus calls us to a politics that is quite different from that of either the 45th or the 46th President. The kingdom of God is not about one tribe or nation over another, or about one king or president over another. It is a realm in which sovereignty rests within each person. As bearers of the Risen Christ, we are called to create a global community that might undo the damage of empire and build a society of equality, sustainability, and compassion.
Jesus doesn’t leave a blueprint for how to heal the world. Instead, his Gospel is about the preliminary work — confronting our illusions in ego and tribe; suffering the death of these illusions; and rising to a new life that is closer to universal love.
In today’s story, Jesus calls a few fishers to follow him, and immediately they drop their nets. Their surprising reaction might be a reflection of Jesus’ charisma and their restlessness as poverty-stricken workers.
In the first reading we heard today, Thomas Moore suggests that finding one’s calling is a long process of reflection, struggle, and transformation. I sense echoes of this in the ups and downs of life even as I am drawn to the “struck-by-lightning” quality of the story of Jesus and the young fishers by a lakeshore.
As later parts of Jesus’ story show, these first followers know nothing about where he is leading them. But over time, Jesus reveals himself as a compassionate and humble teacher of a new way of life that flows from disillusionment. Jesus’ friends do not see this at the start. But we hope and pray that they — and we — will see it by the end of the journey.
The four-year reign of the 45th U.S. President was for many a nightmare of lies, stupidity, and cruelty. Happily, I believe the new U.S. administration will brighten spirits everywhere and open more space in which we can find other pilgrims who are willing to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross, and then beyond into new life.
May we use this space to more clearly hear a Divine call and to courageously follow it into a mystical knowledge that the kingdom of God has indeed come near