Epiphany 3B (January 21, 2018)

“The present form of this world is passing away,” Paul writes to the Church in Corinth. “Form” here is a word that means “arrangement.” It’s real. It is an accurate depiction of something, just not the only way to look at it. Paul says that this “form” is “passing away,” or, literally, just “passing.” That’s the same word Mark uses in today’s gospel to say Jesus was passing the Sea of Galilee. In other words, we could rephrase Paul to say, “The arrangement of things is walking by, and will be gone. Dear Corinthians, whatever assumptions you have about reality are walking. Bye, bye.” For Paul, this is a good thing: we suffer because of other people’s arrangements. For Mark’s listeners, this was more stressful.

The gospel today starts with the passing of an arrangement. “John the Baptist was arrested.” This is a big deal. Mark tells us that people came from all over Judea to be taught and baptized by John, that practically the whole population of Jerusalem was at least paying attention to John. He baptized Jesus, who, the story implies, was one of John’s disciples. So, it’s likely that Jesus is connected to a group of people who followed John the Baptist, and who to some extent arranged their lives around him. John’s arrest—or “handing over”—would’ve demolished the arrangement John’s disciples lived. We build our lives around certain persons or institutions or core values. When those things disappear, we don’t know what to do.

The loss of John was a trauma, and this sort of trauma was likely on the minds of Mark and his first readers. The Temple had been destroyed. The Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors had collapsed, and Rome had a year of three emperors before Vespasian seized power. Before that, Nero’s persecutions had seen Christians “handed over” to be murdered. Chances are good everyone in the Church knew someone who had been handed over. In Mark, there’s one other person besides John who gets handed over, and that’s Jesus. Like John the Baptist, Jesus is handed over under guard, or arrested, and then killed by the authorities for reasons that do not meet legal standards but that we understand. The disciples had arranged their lives around Jesus. Jesus’ death destroys that. By the time Jesus is put in the grave, the disciples called in today’s gospel—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—are gone. A few women, like James’ mother, remain. The Church—the Jesus group—has no Jesus around whom to arrange themselves, and has none of the twelve key disciples to take the lead. It is the end.

And indeed, at the end of the gospel it is just as at the beginning: the one around whom we arranged ourselves is gone; there are four people besides Jesus (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and the guy sitting in the tomb); and, just as in today’s scene, something about Jesus says to get out of the old mindset. Today, it is the call to repent, which is an unfortunate translation. The word means “change your mind,” or, better, “get above and beyond your old mindset.” Or, maybe to echo Paul, “the arrangement of things is passing, so get out of it.” At the beginning of Mark, it is Jesus’ preaching that says this; at the end, it’s the resurrection. The tomb is empty. The women show up to anoint the body only to get an earful from another one of the faithful. “He’s risen from the dead! All bets are off! Okay? If the dead are rising, whatever way you were arranging the world has just been made irrelevant. Get out of your mindset, ladies. The old arrangement just walked by.”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frustrate any attempts to identify Christ with the things around which we arrange our lives. In Mark, when someone knows how God wants things to be, Jesus barges in, announcing, that’s just your arrangement. You can’t heal on the sabbath! That’s just your arrangement. You can’t feed thousands of people who didn’t work for it! That’s just your arrangement. You can’t have children in worship! That’s just your arrangement. You can’t take God to foreigners! That’s just your arrangement. You can’t interact with a woman who’s menstruating! That’s just your arrangement. You can’t do the things Jesus and the Twelve did now that they’re gone. That’s just your arrangement. That’s what the Resurrection says: crucifixions don’t stop God. God loves you whether you like it or not, and God loves your neighbor whether you like it or not. You can’t arrange that away, and nobody can arrange it away from you.

Our temporary arrangements of things crumble, periodically. Sometimes it’s stressful, sometimes it’s cause for rejoicing. Always, God is present, reminding us our arrangements are only that: our arrangements. Maybe life was arranged around a loved one. For eighteen months my life was arranged around caring for Audrey as a baby and toddler. When I went back to work, that arrangement walked. Gone. Maybe life is arranged around a traditional activity. It’s championship weekend in the NFL. Does anyone here care about the Jacksonville Jaguars? Of course not; no one does. Will people here watch their game? Yes. Why? We can’t not do it!

Some of our arrangements are harder to detect than that. They can be dangerous. I’ve shared before, I grew up with parents who did their best to teach me that everyone was equal, and that God loved everyone. Their parents did not grow up that way or raise my parents that way. I remember my paternal grandparents telling me that one of my Jewish friends would not be in the Resurrection, since that was for Christians, only. And I would think, “Well, what about Romans, where Paul writes that God will save Jews and Gentiles alike? Or First Corinthians, where Paul writes that God will be all and in all, so that it comes to pass that it doesn’t matter what you thought because God is in you?” My grandparents grew up as descendants of religious refugees determined to worship in their way and, unfortunately, demonizing all others. And their culture wanted proof that it was superior to others, especially those in Asia and Africa where people have a different skin tone and a different religion. So, my ancestors slapped Jesus on being a white Lutheran in Wisconsin. I love being Lutheran, having German and Danish (& Wisconsin) ancestry. If that is the sum total of Jesus we are in a lot of trouble! That’s just a construct my German and Danish Lutheran ancestors built to make themselves feel better.

And this construct can be lethal. On Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation of the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom, to protect health care workers who refuse to provide health care on religious grounds. And the cases cited by the Department are things like refusing postoperative care if you think someone is gay or transgender, or refusing to care for a child because it has lesbian parents. There are no Christian grounds to refuse to care for someone. Christ says we are to care for everyone. Someone asks for help, you give it. Flat out of stuff to give? That’s another matter. They’re asking for health care and you work for the phone company? Yeah, you have grounds to say, “I don’t think I’m qualified to perform this service.” But Christ compels us to help one another. He says, “Anyone can be nice to people they like who are doing things they approve of, but you Christians are to love even your enemies, people who can’t pay you back, and who you think don’t deserve it.” A person who invokes Christ to refuse health care to someone has slapped Christ onto a temporary arrangement—a constructed worldview that sorts people into worthy and unworthy. That arrangement is walking. The dead are rising. All arrangements are null. God loves you and your neighbor. You can’t take that away from them, and they can’t take that away from you.

Today, Christ calls us to get above and beyond mindsets that keep us or others from knowing that God loves us and others. We need mindsets. We need arrangements. Humans are wired that way. I like that the day is divided into hours, and that there are hours at which I can say, “No, I can’t talk, it’s two a.m. Leave me alone.” The key is, do those arrangements reveal God or do they keep God from people? It can be as simple as the hour at which worship happens. We need to agree on one so we know when to be here. But 8:00 and 10:45, except in the summer when it’s 9:00…and Christmas and New Years when it’s 10:00…and other special events as scheduled but we’ll tell you unless we forget? That’s just our arrangement. It can be as profound as a hospital deciding who gets care. Those decisions must be made, but when they’re made to discriminate against people, they’re not revealing Christ. Or our arrangements can be how we order our lives, what priorities we set. We ask ourselves, “Is this revealing God to me and those around me, or is it keeping God away?” God won’t be kept away. Get out of that mindset. That arrangement is passing.