The past week has been an exciting one for our tiny state. Our long-time Senator Joe Biden became the first person from Delaware to become the Vice President of the United States. Since his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, attends Westminster when she can, and the Bidens have promised to return to Delaware on weekends whenever possible, there may be occasions when our ushers will be joined by men and women with short hair cuts, long black overcoats and little wires coming out of their ears. If you spot one, I suggest you not ask him/her for a worship bulletin. The Secret Service only recruits stoic men and women who have absolutely no since of humor.
Last Tuesday, on the mall in Washington, twice as many people as there are residents of our entire state gathered to see President Obama inaugurated. It was an amazing event. I have never been a part of anything like it. Everyone was friendly and gracious, and despite being packed together so tightly that there were times when the top half of my body was moving, but my feet were not, all seemed to go out of their way to be extremely courteous. Perfect strangers hugged each other as if they were long-time friends. People from every state, and who knows how many nations, were there to be a part of history.
Many of us can remember separate drinking fountains with signs that read: "Whites" and "Coloreds." We can remember the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, our citizens have elected the first African American President. We have come a long way - a very long way - and people of every racial and ethnic background gathered in Washington to savor the historic moment.
When President Obama gave his inaugural address, he did what he had done throughout the long presidential campaign. He generated enthusiasm by talking about changes we need to make as a nation and by holding out a vision of a new and better day. He urged us to recognize that we have certain responsibilities to our communities, our nation and our world. He reminded us that life is rich and rewarding when we give our best to a difficult task. And he challenged us to face this critical moment in the life of our nation and the world with courage, with virtue and with hope.
I don't know if President Obama looked ahead to today's gospel lectionary reading when preparing his inaugural address or if it is simply a coincidence, but in today's passage, Jesus calls for change and issues a life-altering challenge to follow him to a new day.
According to Mark's gospel, Jesus has been baptized and has spent forty days in the wilderness facing temptations and clarifying his vocation. Today's passage marks the beginning of his ministry. Jesus storms into Galilee proclaiming his message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Jesus urges people to reorient their lives. He challenges them to make a decision: continue on the same path or embark on a new and better one. Keep rambling down the long and bumpy road to nowhere or start heading down the road to glory.
Simon and his brother Andrew are tossing a net into the lake hoping to haul in a fine catch, when Jesus challenges them. "Follow me," he says, "and I will make you fish for people."
They cast aside their net and cast their lot with him. It wasn't long before Jesus spotted James and John sitting in their boats mending their nets and Jesus issued the same challenge: "Follow me." And they, too, left what they were doing and set sail for uncharted waters.
They left behind what was comfortable and familiar for something new and unknown. It was a high risk proposition, because they had only a vague idea of who Jesus was and where he would lead them. But it was also exciting for these young men. It held the potential of an abundant adventure. Following Jesus required both bravery and determination.
The challenge Jesus issued was not simply to travel to new locations or to try on a new career. He dared them to see life from a new perspective and to embrace a new identity. His followers were not simply going to engage in some new activities, they were going to become new people. Jesus' goal was not motivation, but transformation.
As it was for the first disciples, so it is for anyone in this sanctuary this morning who seeks to follow Christ. We are to learn from his teaching and example. We are challenged to live as he lived and to love as he loved. Christ says to each of us, "Follow me, and together we will spread the Kingdom of God throughout the world." Christ commands us to lift up those who have been beaten down or neglected, and to humble those who have become arrogant; to seek justice for those who have no voice, and to speak truth to those who are possessed by greed; to feed the hungry and house the homeless, and to stop those who abuse others and destroy community.
We are very blessed to be citizens of a nation that is ruled by a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We possess the power to influence our leaders and it is our duty to constantly remind them that the foundational principles of America are the biblical principles of justice, freedom and compassion.
I was grateful to see that on his second day in office, President Obama signed executive orders that direct the CIA to close the prison at Guantanamo and to prohibit the use of torture. Guantanamo had become a symbol to the world that Americans no longer respect human rights and we ignore the rules of the Geneva Convention. Photos of American soldiers humiliating Muslims ignited hatred in other young Muslims and became the perfect recruiting tool for terrorists. I am thankful for those in our armed forces who have bravely asserted that torture is not only ineffective in gathering useful information, but it also increases the possibility that our own troops will be tortured. Thanks be to God that it is no longer sanctioned.
Followers of Christ respect the rule of law and believe that all human beings have certain rights. We lose all moral authority to speak out against those who abuse human rights if we establish ourselves as a people who approve of torture.
There are enormous question marks hanging over our nation and our world. Where will we be one year from now? Where will we be five years from now? We are in the throes of turbulent times. Our nation is mired in two wars and an economic meltdown unlike anything seen since the Great Depression.
Our faith reminds us that the future is wide open. We will shape it by the daily decisions we make. God seeks to lead us to the best possible future, but our choices will determine our path. Will we choose to follow the guidance of the prophet who tells us what God requires of us? We are "to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God."
While we will never reach the point of unanimous agreement on how to cure the economy or reduce terrorism or improve our education system or lift people out of poverty or care for God's creation or provide everyone access to health care, we must move beyond the hyper-partisanship that prevents progress. We must convince our leaders to focus less on defending liberal or conservative ideologies and more on pragmatic solutions to the problems that are shredding the fabric of our society.
It is time for us to begin writing a new chapter in American history and the history of our planet. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, "Our time of standing pat...and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed."
And yet, make no mistake; heading in a new direction will not be easy. Not only are most human beings wired to resist change, but our government - with its separation of powers and competing political parties - is designed to resist change. Harvard University political theorist, Michael Sandel, says "The system is built for stalemate."
That is not a call for facing up to hard facts and resigning ourselves to more of the same. It is not a call to let go of the dream of a new and better tomorrow. Instead, it is a recognition that the road ahead will be filled with treacherous potholes and steel-plated barriers. However, we cannot take detours around the path we must take, simply because the terrain is too demanding.
If the first disciples of Jesus had carefully calculated all the demands of following him, they surely would have stuck with fishing. Making a living by fishing is backbreaking work, but following Jesus requires a Herculean effort. Jesus commands us to extend respect to people who annoy us, to forgive people who hurt us, to fight for justice for people with whom we have nothing in common, to have compassion on people who have made lousy decisions, to be courageous in the face of persecution, to give away a significant portion of our hard-earned money, to answer anger with kindness, arrogance with humility, selfishness with generosity, deception with truth and strife with peace.
Mark's gospel says that when Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John, they immediately left what they were doing and followed him. And thank goodness they responded rapidly, because if they had focused on all of the possibilities for failure and the degree of sacrifice that would be required, they never would have turned their world upside down and set the course of history on a new trajectory.
God has created us not as passive victims of fate, but as free people whose choices shape the future. God envisions the best for our world and sets forth fresh possibilities designed to enhance existence for all. God wants us to choose life and love, truth and beauty, justice and peace.
Some will caution us not to dream dreams that are too grand, not to aim for stars that are too distant and not to set our sights on accomplishing what seems impossible. But what I saw on the mall in Washington last Tuesday has rekindled within me a bright hope for the future. Blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics; Christians, Jews, Muslims and agnostics embraced one another and shed tears together, because we knew in our hearts that if a young African-American man raised by a single mother can rise to the highest office in the land, then some of those things we have previously discarded as impossible might still be within our reach.
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