Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: Choosing the Right Arc

Matthew 4:12-23
Choosing the Right Arc
James Sledge                                                                                       January 22, 2017

I did not get down there for Martin Luther King Day last week, but his memorial is one of my favorite spots. I especially like walking along and rereading his quotes carved into the granite walls that arc along the memorial. One of my favorites is, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Dr. King was a pastor, but his status as civil rights icon means that many don’t appreciate how much Christian faith drove his civil rights work. It was about much more than people of color gaining the same fundamental right enjoyed by whites. It was also a deeply Christian activity that sought to embody God’s kingdom, God’s new day.
For Dr. King, the hope that all people would someday be one was not rooted solely in  what is possible if human beings strive hard enough. It was also rooted in the certainty of his faith that glimpsed a day when all divisions were ended, when what the Apostle Paul wrote came fully to pass. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
My fondness for Dr. King, and for his quote on “the arc of the moral universe,” caused me to do a double take when I happened upon an online column in The Washington Post with this quote.  “The arc of the political universe is long, and it doesn't have to bend toward progress or justice or anything else good. It can point backwards if that's where we aim it.”[1]

The column had the rather clunky title, “The United States might be the next Argentina,” and it talked about how both countries were among the top ten richest a century ago and thus attractive destinations for immigrants from Europe. But from there the two diverged sharply. There never was an “Argentinian Dream” anything like the American one, largely because of basic inequality. A few hundred families controlled an agricultural economy and the government. “Argentina is ‘what America might have looked’ like ‘if the South had won the Civil War and gone on to dominate the North.’ Which is to say that it was a semi-feudal aristocracy dependent on a steady supply of cheap labor.”[2]
The columnist worries that growing inequality in America could help us trace an arc more like the Argentinian one than the progress that has been a fixture in American history. In economics or politics, he writes, progress is not inevitable. It can bend the other way.
But what of Dr. King’s arc, that faith grounded arc that trusts in God as ultimate author of the future and seeks to live in ways that embody that future? I’m not at all sure the two arcs are incompatible. The fact that God will ultimately bend history to God’s desired end in no way means that human societies are not capable of taking their culture in the opposite direction for years, decades, or centuries. And in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus says that getting in sync with God’s arc will require a change of mind, heart, and direction.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” says Jesus. Unfortunately, centuries of use by the church have given the word “repent” an overly negative sense. It’s often heard moralistically. “Stop being bad, and be good.”  And while it can mean that, its more basic meaning is to change your mind. Jesus’ call is not a plea to stop misbehaving and be good little boys and girls. Rather it is a call to changed thinking and priorities and living that are in tune with God’s coming future.
I think that’s why the gospel writers link Jesus’ call to repent with his calling the first disciples. They go together. Getting in sync with the arc that bends towards God’s future means following Jesus and learning an entirely new way of living, one that is typically at odds with the ways of the world. That was true in Jesus’ day and still is in ours.
The story of Jesus calling those first disciples is familiar to many. Jesus walks along the shore and sees a couple of fishermen using casting nets. Presumably Simon and Andrew are men of little means and have no boat. Jesus calls them to come with him and learn a new vocation of catching people. And they immediately drop their nets and go with him. They just threw the nets away apparently. Perhaps because they didn’t have that much invested in their fishing careers, it was easier to drop everything. And as we learn the story of Jesus, it does turn out that the more you have the harder it is to become his disciple.
The next two disciples are better off. There is a boat, a family business that someday will be theirs – Zebedee’s Seafood. But when Jesus calls, they drop everything and follow.
There is some really big-time repenting going on here. Not because Jesus is a vegan or has moral objections to fishing as a career but because Jesus’ ways, the ways of God’s future, are strange and different from the ways that these fishermen know. It will take months and months of intensive training and internship for them to learn and change enough to teach others. There will simply be no time for fishing.
By now, many of you who signed up for them have attended the first meeting of your Renew Group. There are a number of hopes and purposes for these groups, but a big one is to help one another listen for where God, where Jesus, is calling us as a congregation. And if the gospel model holds true – and I’m convinced that it does – that call will inevitably involve repenting, a change of mind, heart, direction. And it will involve letting go, leaving some things behind. Not because they’re bad or wrong, but because they get in the way of going with Jesus.
At this moment in history, I and many others have a strong sense that there are forces at work in our world driving us in a direction counter to the arc that bends toward justice, towards God’s future. The growth of income disparity and inequality, fear and anger at racial, religious, or sexual diversity, nostalgia for the white, Christian hegemony of the 1950s, and the rise of tribalism and fear of the other are not compatible with the arc Dr. King saw. Nor are they compatible with the call to follow Jesus.
I know that for some of you, this situation is cause for despair, but I wonder if it is not an opportunity to witness. Right now, perhaps more than any time in recent decades, the world needs people of faith to trace that arc that bends toward justice, towards God’s future. And if we will turn, let go, and follow Jesus, listening to his teachings and obeying them, he will show us the way. And we will be the light to the world that we are meant to be.

[1] Matt O’Brian in Wonkblog, “The United States might be the next Argentina,” The Washington Post,, December 22, 2016.
[2] Ibid., quoting Alan Beattie in The Financial Times.

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