Today’s scripture readings:
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Like many of you, I spent part of this past Monday commemorating the Martin Luther King holiday by reading some of his speeches and reflecting on his legacy. What struck me this time around was how much Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks about hope—which, actually, is a remarkable thing when you consider all that this Civil Rights leader had to feel hopeless about.
It’s not like the movement for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s was smooth sailing. There were many disappointments along the way. It took longer than they had hoped to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and even though President Johnson wanted to be supportive, it required an enormous amount of pressure to get him to do it, as he stalled to avoid upsetting southerners who were part of his political coalition. Later that year, at the Democratic National Convention, when Fanny Lou Hamer attempted to unseat the all-white delegation from her state of Mississippi, President Johnson called an impromptu news conference to prevent TV stations from covering her speech live. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
All of that is to say nothing of the retaliatory violence black folks experienced as cracks began to appear in the foundation of white supremacy upon which America was built. From church bombings and home arsons to anti-Freedom Rider mobs that attacked integrated Greyhound buses making their way into the south, from unrestrained police violence against peaceful protestors to black families harassed as they attempted to integrate all-white neighborhoods, even as the Civil Rights Movement made gains, it often seemed like one step forward and two steps back. If he could have looked into a crystal ball and seen the future, I doubt Martin Luther King would have been surprised to see that more than a decade after our country elected its first Black president, a white police officer sworn to serve and protect would casually kneel on the neck of a Black man until he died, and white nationalists would storm the Capitol and parade through its hallowed halls waving Confederate flags. How could Martin Luther King speak so eloquently and confidently about hope?
Today’s Gospel lesson begins just five verses after John the Baptist has baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, and the first thing we hear is that John was been arrested. After John was arrested, the author tells us, Jesus came to Galilee, speaking in Mark’s Gospel for the very first time. He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” It’s kind of a strange statement following on the heels of this jarring news about John the Baptist’s arrest. It would be a little like Martin Luther King arriving on the scene of yet another black church bombing and saying to the crowd that has gathered, “This is our time. God’s blessing is upon us. Trust that God is at work and believe the good news.” It seems, frankly, a little disconnected from reality.
When I hear that word “repent” in this passage, what immediately comes to mind for me is the image of wacky street preachers on soap boxes proclaiming hellfire and damnation to random passersby, or the lone guy who shows up every year at the Pride festival reading from the Bible and handing out anti-gay pamphlets to LGBTQ folk who have come to celebrate their community’s liberation, or those radical Westboro Baptist protestors who picket military funerals announcing God’s judgment on America. So the word “repent” isn’t a word I really like very much. I bet you’ve learned not to like it, either.
Well, hear me out, because I think the people who use Jesus’ call to repentance as an opportunity to condemn everyone who disagrees with them have got it all wrong.
The word for “repent” in the original, biblical Greek literally means to be of a new mind or new heart. “Repent” actually means, “change your hearts.” In a different translation of the Bible, the Common English Bible (which is actually the official translation of the United Methodist Church), this verse is translated, “After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” This translation doesn’t say “repent”; it says, “Change your hearts and lives.” That’s actually what repentance is about: changing our hearts and lives and committing to a different way of seeing the world. Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary says that what Jesus is actually saying here is, Wrap your minds around a new reality. Have your minds blown by what God is doing in Jesus, and then believe in the good news. Believe that a different reality is breaking into the world than the reality of law, sin, death, and hate, which have been the norm. Be of a new mind and believe that a new reality is at hand. Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel are an invitation, even in the wake of unsettling news about John the Baptist’s arrest, to adopt a different mindset, to peer through the present circumstances and imagine new possibilities, to choose to live into a different reality.
Andre Willis, who is a philosopher of religion at Brown University, makes a distinction between two different kinds of hope. He says, on the one hand, there is “shallow hope.” That’s the “familiar kind—you know, ‘I hope my career is successful,’ ‘I hope my kids do well in school,’ ‘I hope my pizza comes soon.’” But Willis says there is another kind of hope, “deep hope” that is more elusive but more necessary. “Deep hope” may not necessarily offer to fix what we see is broken. He says: “A deep hope might be as simple as forms of togetherness, that is people and communities still come together… Whether they can improve the situation or not is not the question—it’s the togetherness itself. It’s not future-directed or future-oriented. It’s not engaged with a kind of probability question about what’s coming later, but it’s fully present.”
Willis says that Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed “deep hope.” He argues that King actually understood that all his dreams were not going to come true, that his project ultimately would not be totally successful. But he knew he wouldn’t be judged by what his hopes were and whether or not they were accomplished, but by the “quality and depth of commitment to himself and others in his community, in his own heart.” That, Willis says, is deep hope. In the face of great challenges, “the best thing we can do… is to prepare for what’s coming. We don’t need a romantic story about how we can overcome the problem.” The best thing we can do—what “deep hope” calls us to do—is to “be present to it. Be together with others in it, and face it honestly.” “Deep hope” calls people together, even in the muck of reality, so we endure the journey we’re on and persist in our efforts for change-making, even when success seems elusive or uncertain.
Jesus’ call to “be of a new mind” and Andre Willis’s reflections on “deep hope” have been helpful for me this week, just two weeks after the Capitol riot and attempted coup, and as a new president is inaugurated reiterating his intention to unify the country. I don’t think it’s going to be so easy. White nationalism won’t be quickly snuffed out. The coronavirus won’t be easily defeated. Economic inequality won’t be effortlessly rectified. Climate change won’t be suddenly reversed. We shouldn’t be naïve about the challenges we face; but neither should we give up hope that, even if change does not come quickly, God will ultimately bring that future into fulfillment. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “Deep hope” calls us to trust that the future is in God’s hands, calls us to peer beyond our current reality into that future and imagine that God is indeed at work. “Deep hope” calls us to hold to that promise as we walk the path together toward our longed-for and God-promised future. Change your hearts and minds and believe this good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rolf Jacobson, on Sermon Brainwave, “#765: Third Sunday after Epiphany (Ord. 3B) – Jan. 24, 2021,” from WorkingPreacher.org,published January 17, 2021, accessed January 18, 2021, https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/765-third-sunday-after-epiphany-ord-3b-jan-24-2021.
Mark Riechers, “Defining a New Grammar of Hope,” on To the Best of Our Knowledge, published January 22, 2019, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.ttbook.org/interview/defining-new-grammar-hope.