The Urgency of Now
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor © 2018
Third Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • January 21, 2018
It was a cold day in December; I imagine someone had to get here early to get the heat going. The church was probably decorated for Christmas and I imagine Rev. Lee Fletcher, the still new pastor, led songs of Advent and Christmas. At 2:30 PM the radio announced that the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been bombed; the nation had been attacked and was at war. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.
It was a rainy Friday in November. Everyone was waiting for the weekend, some preparing, some watching the clock. Suddenly, like that moment when a wind sweeps ahead of a storm, teachers were rushing about, some of them crying, some of the male teachers crying—unthinkable! President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, Texas. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.
It was a sunny Tuesday morning in September, a busy time for ministers. I was in an office with no media, trying to put together worship and a sermon for the coming Sunday. I was newly married and unlike my family, where no one ever called the office, my new wife had a habit of calling me mid-morning, interrupting whatever I was doing. Later, much later, we’d deal with that but on this day when she called I was irritable and put it off and then she told me: an airplane had flown into a tower in New York City and it was on fire. Moments later we heard about the second crash. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.
Like an old man telling the story of how his life was suddenly changed, we’re hearing someone’s memory, Peter’s perhaps, of how things suddenly changed. What stuns me today about the story we read in Mark, what has always stunned me, is its rush. “…immediately they left their nets and followed him,” the text says. Immediately: now, right now, they drop everything and go with Jesus. Much of the whole gospel of Mark is written in the present, in a slangy language our translation fails to convey. From start to end, it’s as if the whole text is saying, “Right now, right here, immediately.”
But I don’t live immediately; I live routinely—what about you? What I mean is that I have a regular set of things I do. I get up, get dressed, l make the bed, let the dog out, feed her, turn on CNN, let the dog out, go to the café, get coffee, read the New York Times and some other news. I drink my coffee, eat something. Tuesday I study the scripture text, write the liturgy: call to worship, prayer, pick the hymns. Wednesday I try to draft the sermon. Thursdays Jacquelyn often goes to work, so after I drop her off, I go to the bookstore and read. I finish the sermon. Sometimes I come down here when no one is around and practice. Fridays are off; Saturday mornings May and I go out for breakfast. Of course not every week is the same but you see what I mean? There is a routine to it all.
We do the same thing in most churches. When we consider a problem, when we think of a program, when we look at the next month, one question always pops up, one question must always be answered: “What did we do last year?” We look for what is routine; we say, “we always…” and fill in the blank with what we did last time and the time before. I don’t think we are much different in this way then others. I’m sure the Baptists plan pretty much the same way, they just do it with longer prayers. Catholics don’t make a move without consulting church tradition and Lutherans feel better if they can pin a Luther quote to whatever they are doing and the Methodists—well the very word “Methodist” comes from being methodical, from observing routines.
Contrast that with this scene in Mark. John the Baptist is arrested; there is a crisis. We have no notes about Jesus meeting with top advisors; no campaign plan is written. He simply says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Now repent means: change direction. To Jesus, the arrest of John means the same thing those events I mentioned at the beginning meant: everyone’s life needs to change and the time for change is now.
Next thing you know, he’s passing by some guys working, fishing. I’m pretty sure they’re just following their routine; I’m certain they got up that morning, put on their fishing clothes, got some coffee and pushed off into the cold morning without a thought about Jesus. They are doing what is routine and suddenly, with no explanation, no preface, no plan, Jesus appears, tells them to follow him, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A little farther on he sees James and John working on nets and it says, “Immediately he called them”; they follow him too. The urgency of the call grasps them; the urgency of now overrides everything and they become disciples of Jesus.
What are we to make of these calls? They look nothing like the calm, ordered church life we practice. I hear this story and I think, ok: a mission. But where’s the follow-up plan? What’s the budget? What are the demographics? I see Jesus coming to the disciples and I wonder if he wouldn’t be better of as part of a team ministry with a music person and someone to handle administrative stuff. Is there a graphic designer? Where are the cards with colorful pictures and the website prominently displayed? What’s the budget for this project? Are there reserves in case he runs a deficit? Would it be better, perhaps, to set out some interim goals? Suppose, instead of saving the world, we just save Galilee this year and work on Judah next year. Wouldn’t that let us focus our energies more effectively?
I know these stories are the poetry of God’s Spirit and we live in the prose of the world but I see here also something deep and profound. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the midst of a time of crisis and war, “we are confronted by the fierce urgency of now.” God’s call does not come as one of many possibilities; God’s call is immediate, urgent and absolute. “Immediately they followed him”: the words are stark and precise and challenge us today.
We meet together in the shadows of a transitional time. Our church has struggled through the high waves and winds of economic adversity as so many of us are struggling. Like a boat thrusting forward with its passengers splashed by spray, we have had moments when we wondered if we would be overwhelmed. Yet we are here today, and the question we must address is how we can go forward together in the cause of Christ. Deep in our fears is the lurking dread that our beloved church could die. To those who fear this, I say: don’t worry—don’t worry because we are already dead. Paul himself, writing to the Corinthian church, said as much: “The present form of this world is passing away.”
The urgency Jesus meets head-on is precisely this: that we are dead in our sins and that death is urgent. So I am not fearing the death of the church today. The only question is: will we hear Christ calling us to resurrection. We are already in the grave: the only question is, are we ready to walk out like Lazarus, are we ready to live now in the living Lord?
To live this way, means to live as part of the community of Christ. We’ve now read twice, once last week, once today, how he worked: not alone, not by himself, not on his own, but by connecting a community together, calling together others. We have already accepted the challenge of welcoming; now we must move further and at his command take up the mission of inviting.
The purpose of this invitation is simple: people need a purpose. So now is the time for us to invite others to find their purpose by following Christ with us.
We have this moment. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the jail in Birmingham to white ministers who urged him to go slower,
We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Now is the time for us, to listen to the call of Christ, to hear his call to proclaim good news, to learn to make the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness and welcome the very fiber of our daily life.
Now is the time for us to understand we are not here for ourselves or because of ourselves; we have been bought with a price and we are not our own, we are the body of Christ.
Now is the time for us to stop asking what did we do last year and start wondering what is God doing this year, for us to live in the urgency of now, peering by the light of God’s love into the darkness of this world.
Now: now, now. There is indeed, a fierce urgency to now. Now is the time for us to embrace the call of Christ and keep our eyes on the prize of his upward call.