Mark 1:14-20 – The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany â€“ for January 25, 2015
â€œNow is the time! Here comes Godâ€™s kingdom. Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!â€ (Mark 1:15)
I did not answer the nurseâ€™s question.
She shared more about Godâ€™s judgment.
She shared more about Godâ€™s judgment.
I then responded to the most neutral of the hospice nurseâ€™s commentsâ€”the vintage trope that Godâ€™s ways were mysteriousâ€”with an equally banal affirmation that each person was different. She nodded like we were fellow conspirators.
She returned to her work; I returned to mine.
Such a coward I was. Wasnâ€™t I?
Though busy with making notes from a hospice meeting, and facing a list of names to call for my work in the ministry of bereavement, earlier that morning Iâ€™d read the Gospel of Markâ€™s declaration by Jesus: â€œNow is the time! Here comes Godâ€™s kingdom. Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!â€
What did the Jesus of Markâ€™s gospel mean by the nearness of â€œGodâ€™s Kingdom?â€
Is now the time of change? And what change will come to yourâ€”or myâ€”hearts and lives?
Of the many things I enjoy about working in a hospice is being around staff members who believe in God, and believe about God, differently from me. Though I have no statistics for proof, I suspect the workforce in hospiceâ€”whether the highly educated physicians or the underpaid and overworked home health aidesâ€”claims a larger percentage of people influenced by their religious faith than those in other careers. Everyone in hospice, even the administrative staff that may never meet the patients or families, is continuously confronted by death. In the myriad ways it could be understood, Jesusâ€™ statementâ€”â€œHere comes Godâ€™s Kingdom. Change your hearts and lives . . .â€â€”echoes from the hospice offices to the bedrooms of dying patients.
Of the many things I enjoy about working in a hospice is serving bereaved families who believe in God, and believe about God, differently from me. Death has rocked them. Unlike any other point in their lives, the faithful people who have buried a loved one will grow more deeply in their faith . . . or they will discard their religious beliefs like freezer-burned food. Those without faith may open to Godâ€™s love for the first time and discover a comfort theyâ€™d never experienced. Or, those without faith have further confirmation why trusting Godâ€”the â€œhigher power,â€ Allah, YHWH, Jesus, the Almightyâ€”was as beneficial as building a sand castle to slow a tsunamiâ€™s tidal wave.
The nurse (a colleague I admire) expressed sadness for the patients and families who faced death and didnâ€™t believe in Jesus. â€œTheyâ€™ll never see the pearly gates,â€ she said while I balanced a candle and a sheaf of notes. â€œYou and I know where they will be going, to the other place. How terrible for them.â€
For the millionth time in my life (I exaggerate, but perhaps not by much), I didnâ€™t engage in a theological discussion . . . or disagreement. Cowardly? Probably.
What is the good news of belief, of following Jesus? The nurse shared a little more, and I (of course) listened, but her words focused on the failures of those not being saved by, through, or because of Jesus.
What did Jesus in Mark mean about trusting â€œthe good news?â€ That some will get to the â€œpearly gatesâ€ and the rest will, well, go to hell?
Hereâ€™s the thing with my fervent and flimsy faith: I donâ€™t know what to think about pearly gates or â€œa better placeâ€ or who gets rewarded or punished. Iâ€™ve witnessed fellow Christians intentionally berate or belittle others. Muslims Iâ€™ve known have demonstrated such Christ-like mercy, they caused me to wonder if Iâ€™d ever reach their level of compassion. Iâ€™ve met â€œNonesâ€ (those answering the what-is-your-religion or what-is-your-church-affiliation survey questions by choosing â€œnone.â€) and have been stunned by their neighborly love. Who will be rewarded? Who will be punished? Or are future rewards and punishments more a human contrivance?
Iâ€™ve sat with a husband (and others like him) whose 40-something wife died a grim death from cancer. He (and others like him) simmered with anger about a flaccid, petty, pathetic God and I would never disagree with his reactions. If he allowed it, I put my arm around his shoulders. Nowadays, in moments such as that, while trying to be fully present with him, my thoughts may wander to my motherâ€™s final days. Prone on a hospital bed, her abdomen was barely crocheted together by rows of metal staples while the narcotic dilaudid flooded her veins to dull the unrelenting pain. I canâ€™t find it in myself to murmur clichÃ©s about the ways of the world and the ways of the One who created the world to the husband (and others like him). I just cry with him.
Maybe there are pearly gates. And maybe only confident believers will be welcomed inside, while the rest of usâ€”the Nones and ones like me with wandering minds and faithâ€”will trudge toward a hot spot that keeps getting hotter. Maybe I am a coward, theologically mute when I should debate those who praise some and condemn others.
Change your hearts and lives. A verse later, Jesus challenged the brothers Simon and Andrew, â€œIâ€™ll show you how to fish for people.â€
Iâ€™m a poor angler, a person with a cowardly faith. And yet, I will still wrap my arms around anotherâ€™s shoulders during the worst news. With inadequate words or humble silence, I pray for them to feel they are not without hope in the promised nearness of Godâ€™s Realm.
(Image from here.)