It would be remiss for me to even begin this sermon without first saying Thank You. Thank you for listening to me, thank you for encouraging me, for walking with me on this path of discernment. Today I feel a good deal of warmth and support emanating forth from these pews, and I know that I’m not imagining it. So thank you.
Truthfully, though, as grateful as I am for this wonderful congregation, this is also something of a scary place to stand, as I know so many of you know. There are too many theologians and scholars and generally smart people sitting in these pews for me to be entirely comfortable! At first, I thought about asking Jane just how many people in the congregation had themselves gone to seminary so that I could reference it right now. But then I thought better of it!! I’d rather not know until I’ve finished!
So, allow me space to be a little nervous, and the grace for this sermon to have its flaws.
Some of you know, and some of you may not, that I attended seminary in New York City. Now, living in New York City was a veritable feast of ideas and images during the three years I spent there as a seminarian. Among the many messages projected into the streets by various moneyed interests (for every stretch of visible acreage in Manhattan comes with a hefty price tag attached), a few memorable slogans stand out: there were, of course, the brightly lit, screaming advertisements for the same three or four movies that surfaced over and over again; the cheesy posters for apparently highly profitable plastic surgeons; the scantily-clad bodies implanting expectations of physical beauty upon all our brains; and, the obligatory post-9/11 reminders that “If you see something, say something,” emblazoned across the sides of buses, on the lit tops of taxi cabs, even—and perhaps most effectively—on each and every Metrocard bought for even a single trip on the subway.
You don’t need to visit New York City to know what it means to be assaulted by messages. In fact, all you need to do these days is turn on the television for a half an hour. We’ve all experienced it, and over time, we’ve found ways to tune out any and all signage. Over time, these messages have became more and more garish and neon with the hopes of attracting the attention of passersby. Yet as a seminarian, of course, the messages that often most intrigued me—and discomfited me—were those espoused by the many preachers of the city streets.
Likely many of you have encountered this phenomenon before, even on the admittedly more placid streets of downtown Minneapolis. Perhaps aided by a megaphone, or standing atop a bucket, I remember the message proclaimed by my first street preacher quite clearly: “The Kingdom of God is At Hand!” he said. Not only was this particular man of course standing tall atop his step AND projecting forth his message at high volume, but he was also aided by a handmade sign which rested in front of his chest and across his shoulders: “THE KINGDOM OF GOD,” it read across the front; and across the back: “IS NEAR!!!”
Yes, these preachers discomfited me, as perhaps they have you—and this became something of an annoyance, as living in New York City I was likely to run across one of these preacher at least once a week. At times I would imagine grasping all of their pamphlets from their hands and scrambling off with my loot to the nearest trash can, perhaps saving one for a later destruction of a theological kind. They made me uncomfortable because evangelism as a concept makes me uncomfortable, because conversion implies that someone is doing something wrong, that they are believing something wrong; because the entire interaction assumes that I know something you don’t know, and that my life experience trumps yours.
The message “The Kingdom of God is At Hand” got under my skin because, communicated in that particular way, and to this particular me, it meant something deeply offensive to my notion of self-worth, of individual intelligence and intuition, and the ability of each person to determine what is best for them.
Well. Suffice it to say, I didn’t realize for my first chance at preaching here in First Church, that I would have to unpack all of these emotions and meanings behind such a loaded phrase!
After all, our text from Mark today is a story about being called, about taking the risk to follow, and the one reason it gives us for why Simon, Andrew, James and John left their livelihood, their families and their identities to follow Jesus, was just this: that Jesus preached “The Kingdom of God Has Come Near. Repent, and Believe the Good News!”
And then boom. “Follow me.” Just like that. And then, they actually DID! What, was there some kind of miraculous force afoot? Jesus could command the oceans and the weather, cast out demons and cure leprosy—haven’t you ever been suspicious that maybe, just maybe, he could also command people to bend to his will, too? I mean, I feel like there’s a lot left out in this passage.
After all, the storyteller in me wants to know more about these disciples. Maybe they were dissatisfied with their lives as fishers? Or perhaps they didn’t get along with their parents, their wives, their children? Did they struggle with leaving their homes? And what did Zebedee, father of James and John, have to say? Why didn’t he go? Wasn’t he there, too, amidst the fish and the salty sea and the whipping wind? And after they left, how did he have the strength to pull in the haul cast by three men, two of them much younger than himself?
It’s lucky for the storytelling sides of us that we get clues from the rest of the Book of Mark about what was going on. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, when we’re looking at biblical passages, that they weren’t written directly for our eyes and our ears, but by and for a culture and society completely separate from our own. As biblical scholar Antoinette Wire puts it, sometimes believers tend to confuse the voice of God with the author of the text—even to the point of idolatry. Because of that, the way we understand even just the word “Kingdom” today—whether it’s in the church pew or on the streets of New York City—might be something very different from how it was originally intended.
So, as M.C. Hammer would have put it in my youth—let’s break it down.
We don’t know a whole lot about the author of Mark. We have some old traditions about who he or she was, but scholars have largely rejected them. We do know that likely the book of Mark was written about 40 years after Jesus’ death, and that probably it was written for a Gentile audience.
And there was, indeed, an audience! The actors in our community will appreciate that the book of Mark was more likely performed orally, from memory, than read at home in solitude, or even out loud from a transcript. There is a high amount of drama in this gospel, and it was simply written—this was so the person performing the story of the gospel might be able to better remember the story.
Most importantly, Mark differs from the other canonical gospels in a few important ways. First, he has no story of Jesus’ birth, as Matthew and Luke do, and not even a poetic rendition of the Word made flesh, which we find in John.
No, what we find in Mark is this wild man—John the Baptist—eating locusts and honey, paving the way for Jesus’ ministry; we have Jesus’ baptism, and the spirit of God a dove alighting upon the shoulder of Jesus; we have 40 days and 40 nights of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and then this: the calling of four disciples to leave everything they know to help form the world anew.
Not only do we have an unlikely BEGINNING in the Gospel of Mark, but we also find a very different ENDING. Now, I’m not talking about opening up your Bible and looking to the very last verse Mark. Instead, I’m talking about what biblical scholars refer to as the ORIGINAL ending of Mark. You see, the gospel—remember, written by an author we know very little about—originally ended shortly after Jesus’ death. Three women—Mary, Martha, and Salome—went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. There, they encountered a messenger, who told them that Jesus had been raised, and to go tell the disciples. Instead, the women fled the tomb, and they said nothing to anybody—because they were afraid.
THAT is the original ending of Mark.
Later scribes or gospel writers would add different endings, two of which are recorded in our canonical gospel as the twelves verses immediately following this ending. But leaving those aside, one intent of the original author becomes clear: the teachings of Jesus, before he was ever crucified or raised, were as important to his message as his actions of death and resurrection. Even if no one had ever dreamt of a resurrection, the triumph of life over death in Jesus was made clear in his teachings, his miracles, his conquering of leprosy or paralysis or hunger or sin.
The kingdom was not near because Jesus was about to be crucified. The kingdom of God was near because Jesus preached a new way of being and belonging in the world; a new vision that made old laws seem trite, that didn’t recoil at the touch of a leper, a new vision that granted women the right to be apostles and even the despised tax collectors a seat at the banquet.
This kingdom, this new era of communal belonging, was so mind-boggling that even Jesus’ own followers—those fishers who leapt up at the first beck and call—had a difficult time understanding it, and we’re given examples of this all throughout the book of Mark.
And our reading from 1 Corinthians shows us the challenge those in Corinth also had in reordering their communities according to this kingdom. So certain were some in the Corinthian church that the Kingdom was right here, right now, that they broke particular societal norms held within the larger Greco-Roman or the smaller Jewish culture, thereby upsetting other members of the church! Paul’s letter to them was a desperate plea attempting to balance the members’ beliefs about kingdom’s presence RIGHT NOW, against the practical need for them to engage with the rest of the world in a way that the rest of the world actually understood!
This is the challenge that we, too, face today: the challenge of discerning the meaning of the kingdom of God, and how that meaning interacts with who we are and how we engage with one another and the rest of the world. Apparently, if the disciples are any example, figuring out just what Jesus meant by “Kingdom” is a pretty difficult task, and it’s not made any easier by our modern day associations of hierarchical rule and male domination that accompany the word itself.
Yet remember, our eyes and our ears are not “fluent,” so to speak, in the language and metaphors of the ancient Mediterranean world—and as such, we’re likely to miss that Jesus’ claim, “the Kingdom of God has come near!” would have sounded quite striking in the Kingdom of Caesar. Certainly, those living in Corinth, a city only recently rebuilt, would have heard the phrase “Kingdom of God” as a great rebuke to the overextension of Roman power.
And certainly those fishers in Galilee, another defeated colony of Rome, would also have heard it as such.
But even this knowledge may not erase a certain tarnish on the word “Kingdom,” perhaps implying serfs and dominance, ladies-in-waiting, powdered wigs, or the use of power restricted to only one gender.
So, I propose that we find some word akin to the Kingdom to describe what we mean when we refer to this foundational, inclusive, generous way of being in relationship with one another.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Latina feminist theologian from Cuba, offers one alternative I particularly like. Dropping only the letter “g”, Isasi-Diaz proposes replacing Kingdom with kin-dom, making clear her belief that when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality, we will all be KIN—sisters and brothers, friends and grandparents, neighbors and cousins, step-parents and great-uncles, parents and children.
Families come in all shapes and sizes, related by blood or not. But all families hold in common a certain commitment to one another. Our families bring us into mutual relationship with each other, and imagining the whole world related to each other with a familial commitment to the well-being of all as family is downright extravagant. That is the vision of the kin-dom, right here, right now.
So we have come a long way from that street preacher in New York, demanding repentence and conversion. And remembering his sign, which had such an effect on me, I wondered what sign I would wear, were I challenged to walk the streets of Minneapolis proclaiming my values. So I made one. Here it is. It says: WE ARE ALL KIN.