January 21, 2018: Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Not long ago Barb and I took a hike on Bald Hill with some friends. It was a cold winter day and we were all feeling a little sad and depressed. But at the end, as we came into the big meadow before the parking lot, the woman who was with us suddenly stopped and pointed.
“Behold the Lamb of God!” John the Baptist cries out in last week’s gospel, John’s version of the call of the first disciples.
Our friend just said “Look!” and handed us the binoculars, and there it was, perched on the barbwire: a bluebird—not bright, not obvious, just an ordinary little bird, with a dusting of blue on its head and wings and a pale orange breast.
In today’s gospel, Mark’s version of the call of the first disciples, John the Baptist isn’t involved and Andrew doesn’t go and get his brother. Mark pictures Andrew and Simon mending their nets along the shore. But that’s OK. In a way, that’s the point. The gospel writers aren’t concerned with the facts—they’re concerned with the truth, the deeper truth—and there are always multiple perspectives on the truth—there have to be–and the truth in Mark is finally the same as in John anyway: that “this is the time of fulfillment,” this present moment–that the Kingdom of God is “at hand” and is always at hand, if only we will “repent.”
Repent: the root in Greek, metanoia: to change our minds. To change our point of view.
“There are two ways to live your life,” Albert Einstein says. “One is as though there are no miracles. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
We’re Christians. We choose the second way, or try to.
But first we have to put down our nets—the nets of our simplistic notions about science, for one thing, our pre-quantum notions.
The nets of our pride, our greed, our fear.
This is the challenge for me in prayer and for all of us. If I pray for twenty minutes, I must try to put down my nets a hundred times—try to call myself back to the present moment, try to control my monkey mind—back and forth, back forth, until half the time my twenty minutes of prayer is simply twenty minutes of realizing that I don’t know how to pray, that I can’t pray.
And that’s OK, too. That is prayer. Prayer isn’t what we do, it’s what God does, and God can’t work in us until we realize how much we need him.
I was talking to a young man the other day who is having a hard time letting go of the hurt and resentment he feels at the way a group of his friends have treated him—have excluded him, ignored him. He knows it’s not good to hold a grudge but he just can’t seem to get past it.
When I asked him, so what do you do with this in prayer, how do you pray, he said, “I just sit there and realize how much I need Jesus.”
Behold the Lamb of God! The bluebird on the barbwire!
It’s tricky. It’s subtle. It’s hard.
One of the things we were talking about on our hike the other day was the fires in Southern California, and the floods, and the terrible mudslides. We couldn’t get that little girl out of our minds, the little two-year-old who is still missing.
Her grandfather and her father and her six-year-old brother have already been found–dead.
Only the mom survived.
What could we tell her—the mother of these children? What difference could a bluebird make to her, in the midst of her suffering and her grief? What does prayer really mean when rivers of mud are pouring through the front door and flooding the kitchen, higher than the granite countertops?
I don’t know.
That there are cycles in nature, maybe, of fire and flood, of life and death—that we are all part of much larger systems, and systems within systems, and that in some way it all makes sense? Or maybe just that this is a mystery, a great, great mystery, and that things are always changing–that the “world in its present form is passing away,” as Paul puts it today–and time is always “running out,” and all we can do is pray, and all we ever learn in prayer is that we’re not in control and that we are not God. Only God is God.
Not the facts, the truth. The deeper truth.
As Wendell Berry puts it in one of his “Sabbath Poems,”
the incarnate Word is with us, / is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign / but everything that is.
A few years ago when my mother died my brothers and I started going through her things, especially her journals, her crabbed and bitter journals. You almost needed a magnifying glass to make out the words, her writing was so small and cramped.
But in the midst of those journals I found a card, a recipe card, 4 x 6, with the words of Amazing Grace written out in her own best hand: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, / that saved a wretch like me!”
It feels silly doesn’t it, to be so heartened by a little card, to see it as a sign that beneath my mother’s bitterness there was hope, and faith–and a sign intended for me, now, to give me hope. It feels almost superstitious.
And yet that’s the call–not to magical thinking, but to faith–to a change of mind—a leap.
Think of all the people who saw Jesus walking by and never followed him, or never looked up at all. Think of how everyone abandoned him in the end. Think of how they killed him. “There is one among you you don’t recognize,” John the Baptist tells the crowd earlier in the Gospel of John—because Jesus isn’t just God–he is a man–isn’t just on high, but here, hidden in the midst of things.
A bluebird, on the barbwire, on a cold winter day.
But a blue bird. So lovely when you stop to look. A little bird with a dusting of blue. A pale orange breast. Amazing grace, amazing grace, when you pick up the binoculars. When you change your mind.
When you repent and believe in the Gospel.