“Now, is the time… to change”

“Now is the time!” Now is the time to believe the Good News. Now is the time to change our hearts and lives. Now is the time to follow Jesus the Christ. On Wednesday our national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s words roused us into our “now”.   

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms, as we free it, for there is always light

 if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.

(Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb”.)

“Now is the time.” I was a college freshman standing in the university bookstore holding a collection of sermons and essays. I imagine we all have thousands of these moments where Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or some deep whisper of conviction stirs in our souls, “Now is the time, follow me! Dr. King’s portrait on the jacket seemed to look right through me.  A visiting professor, whose name I do not remember, made an allegation that the church had “failed… the church failed to articulate an alternative vision of life in America.” The accusation distressed, troubled, angered and haunts me. I stood in the bookstore, holding King’s collective essays. I was working two jobs, living at home, and taking 18 hours of classes. When would I read it? Could I afford it? Was it a lightswitch or hearsey? My childhood preachers did not quote Dr. King. Growing up in the suburban white evangelical culture, I heard the racist rants about Dr. King, not from church or home, but on schoolyards and ballfields. As if it was wrapped in brown paper, I nervously set the book down and picked it up. Somehow I felt/knew/feared that the book could shake up my worldview. Who wants to risk changing their heart and life? I was theologically comfortable. And yet, I had this nagging sense that if I did not explore Dr. King’s words, I would somehow fail to follow Jesus. “Now is the time. Believe Good News. Change your heart.” Softly and tenderly Jesus was calling. Weird huh? Pastor Heather says I am a mystic, but I think I was seeking “to love God with all my mind”. 

Why did that moment matter? How do we change our hearts? How can we learn to love our neighbor as ourselves? Do we risk lingering inside some stranger’s shoes? Will we try to learn an opponent’s story? Maybe, love is striving to learn The Other’s story as well as we love our own. 

Last Sunday, my lips moved along familiar lines as Jerome Del Pino read excerpts from Dr. King’s  Where Do We Go From Here?  “One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do. Jesus said something altogether different. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘Nicodemus, you must be born again.’ What I’m saying today is that we must go from this (moment) and say, ‘America, you must be born again!’ In other words, ‘Your whole structure must be changed.”  That “Time was nowin 1967.  Do we remember that during the Civil Rights era, Belmont officially declined to welcome a Black family? “The Time is NowWhat will we change? How we we love? 

Now is the time! Believe the Good News, change your heart and life, come and follow me.” Surely, Jesus knew these small business owners before calling them to leave behind their nets, careers, boats, and business partners to follow God’s path. Perhaps Jesus designed and installed ceramic mosaics in the Roman private villas and public works around his adopted hometown of Capureuim. Mark tells us Jesus had come preaching the message, “Hear God’s good news. Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, trust this good news!” for some time. No doubt, Peter, Andrew, James, and John all knew Jesus before they left everything to come help build the kin-dom. 

Commercial fishing was a steady prosperous small industry. These first disciples knew a trade, owned boats, and hired staff. They paid hefty taxes to King Herod and Caesar, funding exclusive lavish pagan statues, infrastructure, and grottoes. These middle class pharisaic tradespeople did not visit the Roman baths their taxes paid for. Maybe they paid their taxes at Matthew’s tax booth. They surely knew a Zacchaeus or two. These fishers for fish belonged to a kind of regulated fishing union that required high annual professional license fees as well. Salted fish from the sea of Galilee was a delicacy exported to Rome! The ancient historian Josephus tells us that the ancient Judean economic pyramid featured elite rulers like Joana or Zacchaeus (Luke 8 & 19), then landed gentry like Barnabus (Acts 4, Matthew 20),  then wealthy merchants like Lydia (Acts 16), legal experts or scribes made a nice living, then trades persons like Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Priscilla (Acts 18), then gainfully employed hired hands, then the more fragile lives of laborers without guaranteed work, then subsistence farmers scratching out a living on meager farms, and finally unemployed destitute people without land or skills. There were also non-racial slaves, or indentured servants, who attached themselves to wealthy families for debts, security, and even the opportunity to learn a trade like accounting, fishing, farm management, wine-making, tanning, awning making, even royal administration (think Daniel and Joseph). The early Methodists banned slave-holding but lost their convictions in the American South, choosing culture over Christ. 

We often romanticize the notion of the poverty of Jesus and Christ’s early followers like Peter, James, John, Matthew, and Magdalene. This low-cost myth allows us to discount what we must give up to follow Jesus.  America loves a faith that only asks for ideas not actions. Jesus’ call to “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people” redefines what we live for. We no longer fish for profit and comfort; we fish for people, we work to build a community rooted in loving others as ourselves. We leave behind nets, boats, hired hands, family businesses, familiar docks, respect at the country club, and follow Jesus.

Thursday, I joined Steve Bryant’s retirement celebration as publisher of the Upper Room, hearing stories from Africa, South America, Mexico, and other places of the educational and discipleship work of our Methodist church! I heard Pastor Kim Capes, Steve’s longtime friend from seminary, share how four clergy colleagues debated what it means to follow Jesus as they began ministry together in rural Texas in 1978. Together, they pondered how to answer Jesus’ call us to lay down our lives. Rev. Cape shared their answer, “If we dictate the terms of our following Jesus, we have not laid down our lives.” What terms limit our following? What are we unwilling to change? Who are we unwilling to love? What comfortable terms limit our following Jesus?

Jesus does not call us into easy spiritual comfort but into powerful courageous living. If we practice medicine, law, or business, we do it not for profit but to bring healing to our neighbors. Lawyers work for justice. Architects, builders, and engineers help us heal our planet. Teachers foster life-long learners. Officeholders, politicians, and voters vote beyond your self-interest. Preachers stop fishing for congregational goodwill or church growth, instead embrace mercy and a humble theology.

It is 2021! “Now is the time”   Indeed, we are late for the Gospel Feast!  Do you hear the Spirit Jesus asking us, if the church in America has offered an accurate portrait of Jesus’ living to our nation? Have we failed to articulate an alternative to the American story? Do we peddle a low-cost gospel that woos people to comfort without expecting any changes to their hearts or lives?  America, church, friends, we must be born again! We must fundamentally change what we love and what we do. “Now is the time to change our hearts and lives.” 

Hear this Good News: We do not change our lives and loves alone! “Now is the time! Trust the Good News! Here comes God’s kingdom!” Jesus invites us onto a team. The Gospel is not about isolated individual belief or private salvation, but a collective movement to make God’s love tangible on Earth! “Here comes God’s kingdom!Christ comes giving away healthcare, feeding hungry crowds, healing mental illnesses, welcoming strangers, feasting with outcasts, forgiving 777 times, protesting in the temple, teaching love, breaking church rules, leading protests, making church leaders nervous, and challenging Caesar. We call Christ’s kingdom a kin-dom because the image of kinship and family better describes the Jesus movement than crowns or thrones. Jesus invites us to join in the family of other imperfect people, perfecting together the work of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. 

We do not come alone. We do not change alone! God is with us.  In “The Strength to Love”, Martin Luther King told how he hit his lowest point, when a firebomb chucked by  white domestic terrorist landed on his porch. King wrestled all night with God in earnest Gethsemane like prayer.  “At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced God. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forevermore.’… The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm. God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life… When our days become dreary with the low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows! This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.” Wesleyan’s might call this “sanctifying grace” or having our heart strangely warmed one more time. God is able! God is able to change our hearts and lives. God brings us not only comfort but the courage to change our hearts and become change agents. “Now is the time to change! Here comes God’s kin-dom” Now it is the time to trust the Good News and wade out into the deeper waters of Love and Justice.  Hear the Good News!   

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it 

for there is always light

 if only we’re brave enough to see it, 

if only we’re brave enough to be it.  

Amen.

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