A Deeper Loyalty

Mark 1:14–20 , preached by Rev. Jane McBride on January 24, 2021

Amanda Gorman. When I expressed enthusiasm for her inauguration poem to my daughter, Eliza, Eliza said “Oh, yeah, I follow her on TikTok.” Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve got a whole new level of respect for TikTok! The poem says so much in such a beautiful, powerful way. I have many favorite lines. What I noticed about the poem as whole was the voice the poet assumed. She spoke for us, with us and about us. Again and again, she chose the pronoun “we” instead of “I.” She offered us a shared identity, a common narrative, and a collective vision of the work before us in a way that did not erase anyone’s distinctiveness, deny the importance of our differences, or sugarcoat the challenges we are facing.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

            To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters,

            and conditions of man.

            We’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

            Not because we will never again know defeat,

            but because we will never again sow division.

In a nation ingrained with such fierce and destructive individualism Gorman’s call to attend to our “we”-ness strikes me as prophetic.

The Gospel of Mark is like poetry; its language is simple, compact and clear. So much is being said in this one sentence: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

First of all, the backdrop is John’s arrest. The context is a power struggle, a contest between one version of the world and another. Which truth is true? Which reality is real? What is good news and what is fake news? Is Herod’s kingdom, aligned with Rome’s empire, the truth? Is inequality and exploitation and every one for themselves the most real thing? Or, is the way of life shown by John, and embodied in Jesus, the truth? Is the reality of who we are rooted in their path of humility and simplicity, equity and justice, mutual love and service? Are we humans beloved, interconnected and interdependent?

In no way do I believe that everything happens for a reason, or that God is in control, or that you and I are puppets of a divine master who pulls all the small strings of our lives. And, yet, I feel in that wordless, soul-ful place of myself that from moment to moment, we are loved, we are guided, we are nudged toward the goodness we need. So I don’t think it was an accident that this week I literally stumbled across some words of the Celtic theologian John O’ Donahue. In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, he says:

The core of the human is not some psychological cellar that holds the crippled shapes of our woundedness and destructive choices, but the soul, the core self that dovetails into the infinite. Meister Eckhart said: “The soul has two faces; one is directed toward your life, the other toward God.” Our literal lifeline is this continuity with the infinite. To realize and believe this increases confidence;  it can light up every thought, word and action. Ultimately, thought is the infinite, breathing inside the word. Our grounding in the soul means that regardless of how badly we think of ourselves, there is a wholesomeness in us that no one has ever been able to damage. The intention of friendship, love and prayer is to allow your heart to enter this inner sanctuary where it can regain its confidence, renew its energy, and quicken with critical and creative vision. The soul is the home of vision. (pp.206–7)

I’ve begun to hear the call to “believe in the good news” as a summons to believe in ourselves, to believe in one another. The good news is not a doctrine we accept intellectually. It is the promise that amid all the challenges of our lives, amid all the suffering we witness and bear and cause, we can find, and nurture, our best selves, our souls—both as individuals and as a human community. If we do not believe in humanity’s capacity to be whole, then this lack of trust will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Goodness will certainly fail. If we believe in ourselves and each other, then good things can happen. Goodness is possible.

According to Ched Myers, author of Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of the Story of Jesus, we have sorely misunderstood the imagery of “fishing for people.” Myers’ commentary is rooted in the recognition that the movement led by Jesus is an epic confrontation between two versions of truth and reality. In Mark, Jesus achieves healing through a power struggle with the personal and collective demons that sicken humanity. About “fishing for people” Myers writes:

This metaphor, despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, does not refer to the “saving of souls,” as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status. Rather, the image is carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere the “hooking of fish” is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Am 4:2) and powerful (Ez 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege. (p. 132)’

Myers points out that Mark portrays the fishermen not as peasants, but as an “independent artisan class.” Today’s passage mentions the hired men who worked for James and John. The fact that they could afford to employ day laborers to help them suggests that these fishermen were not poor. They were as close to modern-day middle-class folks as we can find in the Bible. Myers emphasizes that in ancient times, the workplace was shared by the extended family, and defined a person’s whole identity. So from the fact that Jesus called the disciples to leave their nets and their father Zebedee behind, Myers concludes that: “following Jesus requires . . . a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one.” (pp. 132–33)

President Biden also address our “we”-ness in his speech when he spoke about disagreement without disunion. “We can do this” he said, “if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.” He disputed the American ideology of a meritocracy, the myth of the level playing field, in which structural inequality does not exist, in which only the lazy struggle, and hard work alone can solve anyone’s problems. He said it so simply: “There’s no accounting for what life will deal you.” Sometimes we need a hand, he pointed out, and sometimes we are called to lend one.  “We are going to need each other” he insisted.

I’ve never been all that enthusiastic about patriotic displays. I do not believe in American exceptionalism. I do not believe we should give any nation our ultimate loyalty. As the hymn writer puts it, “This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” So I was surprised, and moved, to hear our new president speak about the soul—to declare, “My whole soul is in this,” and to urge us to “open our souls.” The work of fashioning a “we” transcends political ideologies, religious beliefs and national identities.

Jesus calls us to a deeper loyalty, an allegiance to the soul. Jesus invites us into a movement anchored in the human capacity for goodness—the goodness in each of us that allows for the flourishing of all. Of course, as the Gospel of Mark reminds us, this goodness and this unity does not emerge without struggle. Living from our core self means confronting our complicity in evil, learning to see our blind spots challenging the lies some tell in order to hold on to power committing to the fundamental re-ordering of socio-economic relationships that will establish justice and being willing to grow and change through pain. Let us believe in ourselves, believe in each other. Let us commit our souls to the good news that brings health and wholeness to all our relatives. Let us heed the voice of the one who said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Amen.