Tuesday, February 14, 2023

HOMILY: "Following"

A Meditation on Mark 1:12-20
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Community Church of Durham


In seminary many years ago, when there was work to be done late at night, or a decision to
sort out, I was drawn to a particular room, above the library, known then and now as the Bonhoeffer Room. And I’d bring my books and my papers, and I’d study at a long table in an old seminary classroom, steeped in history, looking out on Broadway, Harlem and the city that never sleeps. And usually there’d be others in the Bonhoeffer Room, seminarians from all over the world in those days—studying mostly, or sometimes sitting in a corner, eyes closed, thinking things over.

That room had a peculiar kind of energy about it. Magnetic and dangerous at the same time. You probably remember that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian, a pastor whose faith would compel him eventually, not only to resist Hitler’s Nazi regime, not only to assist Jews escaping Germany’s holocaust, but finally to participate in attempts to overthrow and even assassinate Hitler. And for this he was, just before the liberation of Europe in 1945, executed in a German prison as a traitor to his country.

Six years earlier, in 1939, Union Seminary had offered Dietrich Bonhoeffer a tenured appointment and an opportunity to build a protected and privileged life teaching progressive seminarians and academics in the US. It was a city he’d come to enjoy, and a discipline he treasured. And it was a seminary training some of the 20th century’s great religious leaders and (even more) some of its bravest social justice warriors. But legend has it—that it was there, at that same table, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany and the resistance that would occupy the rest of his life. He’d sit there, deep into the night, smoking cigarette after cigarette, hour by hour by hour—weighing his choices, scanning his academic offer, reading his bible. And knowing that a decision to return to Berlin would cost him at least his freedom, and maybe, probably, his life.

So peculiar was that space—that room above the library—that some of my friends swore up and down that they still smelled Bonhoeffer’s cigarettes. The sacred incense of conscience and indecision. Though smoking had been banned from the building for many years. There was an almost palpable sense of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s companionship there and his wrenching discernment around faith and war, resistance and vocation. Do I stay or do I go?


“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.” The gospel picks up Mark’s story this morning, just after Jesus’ baptism, and then just after his forty days in the wilderness. But notice this. In Mark’s Gospel, the proclamation of God’s kingdom is almost always framed by news of some kind of violence, or arrest, or state-sponsored oppression. This time: “after John was arrested.” Somehow the “kingdom” Jesus comes preaching, inaugurating, even embodying is a challenge to the “kingdom” of Rome, the powerplay of empire, the violence that seeks its own privilege through threats, intrusions and attacks. After John is arrested by Roman puppets—for preaching a revolution of values, for suggesting a popular uprising around equity and solidarity—after this, Jesus comes with good news of another “kingdom.” And not a “kingdom” that is distant or merely philosophical or utopian—this kingdom of God is at hand, close, in the spaces between our bodies, in the needs and opportunities facing human communities in ordinary places like Nazareth, Galilee, Gaza, Jerusalem. The kingdom has come near—here!

Note that this is the “other side” of Advent. By the way. If we’re moved by the sweet expectations of Advent, by the sense of ‘not yet’ in December, by the promise of a world made new by a baby born in sweet obscurity, this—right here, this morning—is the promise revealed. This is the expectation realized. This is the kingdom come. A prophet preaching peace and love. A prophet building a ragtag community of discipleship and inclusion. A prophet taking a couple of loaves and feeding a whole neighborhood of need.

But every time, every single time, Jesus comes to call the curious to discipleship in the midst of an actual historical moment—not abstract moments, or situations, but actual human moments of need and crisis. And most often, the backdrop is violent and harsh, the Roman Empire in full swing, the suppression of dissident voices, the occupation of lands and cultures, the police state destroying black bodies, the Christian Nationalists in Congress dedicated to misogyny and the rolling back of women’s rights. In these moments, Jesus comes to Galilee. After John is arrested (and he, too, soon to be executed), Jesus comes to Galilee.

And in no time at all, he’s searching out partners, collaborators, friends, disciples. It turns out that you can’t proclaim the good news of God by yourself. Or maybe we should put it this way. It turns out that Jesus chooses a community-based model for proclamation and witness. Faith isn’t a personality cult. Faith is collaborative and shared. So early on, Jesus makes a commitment to identifying and training disciples, who build with him a beloved community dedicated to God’s love and mercy in living color. “The time is fulfilled,” he tells them, “and the kingdom of God is at hand…”

And that’s how this text, this story, lands in our midst today. The kingdom of God is at hand. Follow me, he says. The kingdom of God is ours to embrace. Follow me, he says. The kingdom of God is our way of life. Follow me, he says. The kingdom of God means partnership and communion, shared resources and common cause. Follow me, he says. The kingdom of God means forgiveness and mercy when we make mistakes. Follow me, he says. The kingdom of God means loving your enemies. Follow me, he says.

You can see how Dietrich Bonhoeffer was smoking cigarette after cigarette after cigarette in that classroom in 1939. What does discipleship mean in a world of Nazis and atomic weapons? What does discipleship mean in a world of antisemitism and misogyny? What does discipleship mean in a world where Tyre Nichols is murdered in Memphis? And George Floyd in Minneapolis? And Michael Brown in Ferguson? And Brionna Taylor in Louisville? If the kingdom of God is at hand—if it’s in our hands!—how will the people of God welcome it and embrace it?


Now I want to confess that I am prone to what my seminary friends often call The Messiah Complex. And I’m surely not the only one here. The Messiah Complex! This idea that discipleship means saving the world, saving the whole world from all its madness. This idea that Christianity itself is a call to fix it all, redeem it all, and anything else is failure. And I get it. I can hear it in my own words this morning.

But the Messiah Complex is a recipe for sadness, at best, and colossal dysfunction at the other extreme. I know that too. If we believe we have to save the world, or only we can save the world, or Jesus calls us to save the world, we are missing the whole point. I really do believe that. The whole point!

The call to discipleship is a call to participate, to join the movement. It's a call to a different kind of community, an empowered community, a unique network of relationships and friendships and partnerships. It’s not a call to save the world; but it is most certainly a call to love the world, to pray for the world, to celebrate the world, to bless the world—even as Jesus did, even as Jesus does. And that requires a huge commitment, a big change of heart and orientation; and probably not just once, but a continuous commitment to change and responsiveness and creativity and LOVING.

It's also a call we answer together. I want to repeat that—because that gets at the real problem with the whole Messiah Complex business itself. The call to discipleship is a call we answer together.

And that’s where Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in 1939, as Hitler’s program of genocide, destruction and hatred gripped Germany and Europe, as he weighed his tenured appointment at Union. He was called to be with his people. He was called to struggle with his people. He was called to resist with his people. The question was not: Will I save the world? The question was not: Will I fix the world’s broken heart? The question was: Will I follow Jesus? The question was: Will I commit, anew and in this moment, to the kingdom of God? The question was: Will I offer my energies to the LOVING of my people, to the BLESSING of all peoples, to the GOSPEL that reconciles all peoples in one human family? And if I will—if I make that commitment—will I take up the cross and go where Jesus is leading me?

You see the difference? You are not called today to SAVE THE WORLD. I am not called today to SAVE THE WORLD. It’s not ours to save. It is ours to love and honor and bless. That’s a costly vocation itself—but it’s a vocation we can embrace together, and practice together, and celebrate together. It’s a call we answer together. Look around you this morning and I think you’ll see a church that understands.


In a few moments we’ll gather again at the Table to celebrate God’s love and to answer Jesus’ call. To take the Body of Christ in your hands is to answer the call. To take the Body of Christ in your hands is to join the ragtag band of bumblers and lovers that follow Jesus. To take the Body of Christ in your hands is to know that you too are loved beyond any measure and needed for the blessing of life and the tending of creation.

And when you soak that bread in the juice, in the Common Cup, you are one with the Great Spirit that moves in Jesus and in you and in all who seek peace and treasure life. When you soak the bread in the juice this morning, you are one with the Great Spirit that has cherished you from the beginning of your beginnings and will follow you all the days of your life. When you eat and drink this sacrament, you are saying yes to the kingdom that has no ending, and to the grace that gathers up our many lives, and our many broken pieces, in one sweet love. You are the resistance. You are the kingdom.

So, my friends, let us follow Jesus where he leads.

And let us turn together toward the healing light.

And let us eat and drink to the glory of God.

Amen and Ashe.