Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | January 24, 2021
Mark 1: 14-20
Sometimes the way to tell the story of a Bible reading is to ask, “Is this story telling us to do anything, and if so, what?”
In today’s reading there is one phrase that rings out to me and which I want to explore with you, and that is, “Repent and believe in the good news.”
The storyteller doesn’t define the details of repentance. It’s as if we who hear the story should be moved within our own heart and mind to figure that out for ourselves. It’s easy enough to look around see in others what needs to change for the better. But the place to start is within our own selves.
Stories come to mind…
After some discussion, the church decided it needed a new manse. This was around 1982. I had been living in a ramshackle trailer parked next door to Round Lake Presbyterian Church. It was a yoked parish along with First Presbyterian of Tamarack. Ramshackle in the sense that there was frost on the walls in the winter and I was kept busy on a daily basis emptying the mouse traps. And the leaks; and various plumbing, heating and electrical issues.
After some shopping around they found a better manse; more of a mobile home than just a trailer. We moved up from a twelve by fifty to a fourteen by sixty. I was fine with it because a lot of folks around those parts lived in that sort of housing.
The new manse had to picked up from its location ten miles or so from the church and hauled on the back of a truck and set up in its new space. All the plumbing and electricals had to be hooked up. It was a fair bit of work.
A group of men from the church and community spent the better part of a day doing the work. It was a warm summer day and by way of thank-you I brought a picnic cooler that was filled with cans of soft drink and beer. People chose a drink according to how they wished to quench their thirst.
This was a community where it often seemed that no good deed went unpunished, or at least misinterpreted. Not long after we set up the new manse, word came around to me that I was in trouble for “drinking in front of the church.” Apart from anything else that happened that day, that was the story that was told. The minister was “drinking in front of the church.”
This was in a time before cell phones, the internet and social media. Yet rumors somehow spread like wildfire. At the next Session meeting I had to say something. One thing I said was, to some of the people who were at the meeting and who were also witness to the events in question, “You were there, yet a different story gets told.”
And more importantly, “Yes I served a choice of cold drinks to the people who so kindly volunteered their time that day. I happened to choose for myself one of the soft drinks, because I knew if I even looked sideways at a can of beer, that stories would be told of the minister drinking beer in front of the church. If I had chosen to do that, I would say in response to someone who didn’t like it, ‘so what.’ Yet even so that’s the story that gets told.”
To paraphrase the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is Northern Minnesota, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It was a lesson in how there are times when people believe what they want to believe regardless of what the truth may be. But regardless of what people may believe, truth is truth. It matters that people believe the truth.
The story is told that when Jesus began his ministry he went about with a simple message: repent and believe in the good news. Good news; good news is truth. At the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus, the nature of that good news is undefined. What follows in the story, through the words and actions of Jesus is what gives substance to the good news.
We can always tell what someone thinks to be true by seeing what they do. As in, actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, we have come to expect that politicians and others in positions of power and authority will lie to us.
We learn to accept the fact of the lie and we are lied to so often that we are no longer outraged by it.
When we are lied to often enough and we become used to it, the lie becomes reality and we begin to accept the lie as truth.
One of the biggest political shifts in the last decade has been Britain leaving the European Union. The country, which is actually four countries in union, was and is bitterly divided. There was a lot of rhetoric and fear mongering from all sides.
In the days leading up to the referendum on Brexit, the leave campaigners drove around in a big red double decker bus emblazoned with the slogan, “We send the EU £350 million pounds a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
But within hours of the results, leave campaigners were stepping back from their promises. Boris Johnson, who promoted the slogan, even said that that’s just the sort of thing politicians say in the heat of the campaign.
One of the challenges we face today is to discern the difference between fact and fiction. Between real news and fake news – the truth tellers from the lie spreaders. I try to address this challenge by reading from and listening to a broad range of sources, all with their own particular bias. Somewhere in the mix is truth.
When I was in high school one of the most valuable classes I took was English Grammar. Language is always evolving and changing. There are accepted ways of using the English language that do not conform to correct grammar. But that doesn’t make it right.
In our English Grammar class if we made even a small mistake, we had to make up for it a hundred times over. Literally, a hundred times over. Every time we misspelled a word, we had to write it correctly a hundred times. Every time we broke a rule of grammar, we had to write out the definition of the rule and show its usage in a sentence.
One time in a church I served, we were trying to put together a church website. When the website went online, I noticed right away that there were a number of misspelled words and grammatical errors. I said that these needed to be corrected right away. A website represents our organization and it needs to be done well. Someone took offense at my suggestion that she had not done the job correctly.
She came back at me and said, “I went all the way through university and got a bachelor’s degree and no one ever said anything was wrong with my spelling!”
Then your teachers failed you miserably! Spelling is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.
When Jesus announced good news, it was a powerful message – so much so that people set aside their livelihoods and followed him. Those followers who left their fishing gear behind and followed him were symbolic of the good news. This was not merely some flowery message about saving their souls for heaven.
To repent and believe the good news, might have something to do with turning away from the bad news. Not just the bad news of current events, but the bad news of an unjust world.
The “sea” of Galilee was a lake “owned” by Caesar. If anyone wanted to catch fish in it, they had to pay fees and taxes to the government. It was a hard way to make a living. So, in one sense they were not stepping away from a lucrative business. There was probably some sense of nothing left to lose in their actions.
This could be seen as a challenge then to Caesar’s economy. If they all stopped fishing, he would lose an income stream. It would show up the injustice of the system. The rich would no longer feed off the poor. The lies of the system would be revealed. Truth would be told. It would bode revolution. People would be set free.
That’s good news. Good news can be threatening to the status quo.
Jesus was not killed by the combined forces of religion and state because he was willing to compromise the truth. He was killed because he revealed the truth. His good news was too much of a threat to the lies underlying the power structures.
It’s important that people of integrity stand up for the truth; that we challenge the lies no matter how many times they are repeated. That we bring forth the good news at every opportunity. For the sake of truth – because not all opinions are created equal.
The sum total of 2 + 2 is not a matter of opinion.
The earth is not flat.
There is no valid scientific evidence that childhood vaccines contribute to autism.
The Jews did not stay home on 9/11.
It’s not okay to promote a racist agenda.
Hate will not have the last word.
Jesus is calling us to believe the good news that is still the good news.