Time for a Change
Based on Jonah 3:1-10, 1Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
I suspect that if I took a poll of the persons attending worship today that a super-majority would say that they’re thinking it’s time for a change. That change could be in political leadership as we saw on Wednesday, to more civil personal and public interactions, in behavior towards preventing infection, in opinions about vaccination, in policies and procedures that limit our ability to live life as we once did, in the many ways we oppress, marginalize and demonize each other. We may be ready for change now because we are worn out by striving against the pressure of the unknown, by trying to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy, by the level of societal grief, by the psychic toll of our dehumanizing communications, and by the exile that we are living from the lives that we knew before March 2020. In religious terminology, the desire for fundamental change in our behaviors and mindsets is known as repentance. The English word “repentance” is translated from the biblical Greek word “metanoia” which means to turn around and head in the opposite direction.
There are a lot of things, large and small, that need to change and it is difficult to know where to start. Dr. Brené Brown, a social scientist who has spent much time over the last 20 years studying guilt and shame, suggests that maybe what we need to change first is how we hold each other accountable for our dehumanizing rhetoric and behaviors. In her “Unlocking Us” podcast from January 13th, Dr. Brown made a strong case for how important it is for us as individuals, communities and a Nation to get back to holding one another accountable for dehumanizing language and actions. Accountability is a huge part of recovery and healing (and religiously in moving toward salvation), and there can be no lasting unity without accountability. Holding each other and our leaders accountable without manipulating them with shame, will require humility, courage, vulnerability and persistence. Additionally, holding people accountable while seeking the healing of persons and systems will require repentance from all of us for our participation in maintaining those unhealthy idols.
Our scripture readings this week speak either directly or implicitly about the time being ripe for a change – for repentance. Whether it is the Ninevites deciding to repent after hearing the word of the LORD from Jonah or the implied need for repentance from our idolatry to worldly things in Paul’s letter, to the introduction of Jesus’ ministry calling Israel to “repent and believe”, all of our teachings today speak to us that it is time for a change of heart and mind. Before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer, asking for mercy as we struggle in this time of change…
Jonah has been spit out of the whale on the shores of Nineveh – which is present day Mosul, Iraq. Jonah is fully relatable in his human instinct to flee from the hard work of prophecy, especially since he would really like to see God wipe the marauding Ninevites from the face of the Earth. Jonah didn’t agree with God’s plan to warn the Ninevites – he didn’t think they deserved the consideration after their oppression of Israel. Yet, after God saved him from drowning during his failed escape, he decided to repent of his sin of not following God’s call. He committed to do what God had directed in the first place and walk the length of Nineveh calling them to repent and be saved.
Chapter 7 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian believers is chock full of his opinions on how disciples should conduct themselves so as to not distract from full attention to the Lord Jesus. In verse 17 Paul writes, “…However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches….” He is teaching that every believer should be prepared to give up anything that is getting in the way of a singular devotion to God. In this way, the three verses for today show that Paul is working to get the Corinthian believers to understand that it is time to change how they interact with the world – because the world they know is coming to an end.
Mark’s Gospel jumps right into the ministry of Jesus. Hard on the incarceration of John the Baptist for calling on Herod to repent of his sin of marrying his brother’s wife, Jesus bursts on the scene preaching the gospel of God and saying to folks, “…The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news….” Jesus wastes no time calling his first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, all fishermen from Galilee. He tells them that if they follow him, they will witness the gospel in action and gather repentant people for God.
Dr. Brené Brown’s work on guilt and shame calls us to consider that humans have been engaged forever in acts of dehumanization by placing people in categories which devalued them. Dehumanizing is a process of dualistic thinking (Us vs. Them, I vs. It) that creates the moral exclusion of a subset of humans from communal protections. This is how oppression always begins, whether it is Jews targeted in pogroms over millennia, Tutsis in Rwanda or Uighurs in China, indigenous peoples in all colonized countries, prisoners, or enslaved Africans and Chinese in the United States, the only way that these “less than humans” can be eliminated in a “moral” society is to label them as worthless. Once enough people in a community or nation agree that some persons’ lives don’t matter, then violence against that group is allowed to occur without accountability, remorse, guilt, shame or repentance.
Murray Bowen, a social scientist who developed “Bowen Family Systems Theory”, noted that family units and societies function in similar ways. For example, just as families that are dealing with increased anxiety in their system act impulsively to relieve internal stressors, so do human institutions. These impulsive actions cause a regression away from healthy functioning characterized by moral principles and a long-term vision. According to Bowen, American society began a regressive functional pattern after World War II. It worsened during the 1950s and rapidly intensified during the 1960s.
The “symptoms” of societal regression included a growth of crime and violence, an increasing divorce rate, a more litigious attitude, a greater polarization between racial groups, less principled decision-making by leaders, the drug abuse epidemic, an increase in bankruptcy, and a focus on individual rights over communal responsibilities. Overlay that with the sustained decline of participation in churches which began in 1965, and you have a “perfect storm” of regressive societal behaviors without a modifying religious influence. It is no wonder then that there is such nostalgia to return to a time prior to the end of the War before our society began to regress into impulsive decision making.
Bowen predicted that our current societal regression would continue until the consequences stemming from taking morally unprincipled actions on tough issues exceeded the pain associated with functioning in a healthier way. To put that in Christian doctrinal terms, the societal regression that we are in will continue until we repent and head in the opposite direction which requires us to truly believe in the good news of Jesus the Christ. What is that gospel you ask? According to the conservative journal Christianity Today, “…Jesus (the gospel) is the absolute interruption in the seeming continuity of the historical process. He is the “breaking in” that offers true life by giving voice to the voiceless, face to the faceless, and identity to the marginalized and oppressed of this world. He is the “scandal” that challenges every culture and every society throughout history. Ultimately Jesus of Nazareth, a person, is Emmanuel; God with us. He is a gift to be received, and that gift is the ultimate source of all hope….” Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is indeed time for a change – time for us to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus! Not only believe it, but to fully live into it, so that we leave behind our oppression and dehumanization of other children of God. Any words or actions in which we engage that are not loving and merciful are in fact sinful and put us in need of repentance – of changing the way we behave toward all our neighbors. The gospel requires us to hold ourselves accountable to speak up when we witness words, behaviors or policies that diminish the humanity and sacred worth of other persons. We, as disciples of Jesus and beloved children of God, are called to name how the words, behaviors or policies are unjust and/or dehumanizing, and then work with God and others to change that behavior or policy to be more just, inclusive and unifying. This will require us to fully repent, believe and live the good news. The time is now for a change. Amen and amen!