The Fierce Urgency of Now

Because I preached about the magi on the first Sunday after Epiphany, I have been one-week off the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ll catch up next week, though.

Yesterday was the actual birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Below is the text of my sermon (BTW – the title of this post should have been the title of my sermon):

When we read the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find that Jesus’ “biography” differs because they each have his particular agenda to render a different perspective of Jesus.  A clue, though, to a Jesus story’s significance is its appearance in more than one gospel.  Stories like feeding the 5000, the transfiguration, the temptation, the crucifixion, and the baptism appear in every synoptic gospel.

Before going into the baptism, though, one story, the tearing of the Temple curtain, bears telling.  When Jesus died on the cross the temple curtain was torn apart.  According to ancient accounts, particularly by the historian, Josephus, the huge, thick curtain’s design was that of the heavens.  The tearing of the curtain appears in each gospel. (Mat. 27:51, Mar. 15:38, and Luke 23:45)

As far as the baptism story, Matthew and Luke described the scene as the heavens opening.  Mark, however, wrote, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

Only Mark linked the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his ministry, with the crucifixion, the end of his ministry.  The technique he used is known as an inclusio; think of it as literary bookends.  An inclusio heightens the narrative between the bookends, as though it were set apart.

At least for me, tearing implies urgency.  Certainly that the curtain was torn sounds more urgent than the curtain was opened.

That the Temple curtain was torn apart implies seeing into the divine world.  Thus, watching the heavens torn apart would be similar, being able to glimpse God.  Maybe not seeing God face to face, but certainly seeing God’s realm.  Maybe in that moment God was no longer separate from us.  God’s realm was a part of our world or perhaps our world was part of it.

By saying that the heavens were torn apart, Mark added urgency to this moment.  This was not some polite or decorous moment.  Think of it as shaking us awake; as if God was saying, “Look! Repent now!  The time has come.”  John the Baptist came to the river proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  And if that moment wasn’t enough, when we read Mark’s gospel we get the sense that Jesus was active and always moving.  Words like “immediately,” “as soon as,” “at once” come up frequently.  The Greek equivalent (euthus) appears 42 times in Mark of which 41 appear in the inclusioEuthus only appears three times in Luke and six times in Matthew.

Mark urged people in the first century to repent, to follow the way of Jesus because his return could happen at any moment.  The justice work, lifting up the poor, eschewing weapons of destruction to ensure peace, treating all people with compassion and mercy, had to be done.  Mark wrote this gospel probably about 35 to 40 years after the Jesus event.  People began to doubt if Jesus would return.  Mark’s urgency would keep them “on-task” so to speak.

Of course, centuries, even millennia, have passed.  Jesus hasn’t returned, but the urgency of Mark’s gospel remains.  We might remember the poetic “Let freedom ring” at end of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  But do we remember that he also said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”   That speech, among one of the greatest speeches in the English language pressed for racial justice with an underlying call for economic justice as well.  He said, “So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.  In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.  When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir… It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned.  Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’  We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.  And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”[1]

So how far have we come?  We’ve made progress in many areas, especially in racial relationships, even though we still have a lot of work to do.  But on the other hand, I think we’ve lost ground, especially economically, especially when it comes to the common good.  There are a lot of people in this nation regardless of their race who believe that they, too, have a check stamped insufficient funds.  That’s the animating passion of Occupy Wall Street.

It raised this nation’s awareness that our nation’s priorities are askew.  The 99% was a great slogan, deep down though, it was about the common good.  In the richest nation in the history of the world people shouldn’t get a check stamped insufficient funds.  That’s what Jesus taught.  True justice is the common good and the common good makes for a healthy community. The common good engenders true peace. When economic disparity in a community becomes too great, the community becomes weaker, less stable.  Those who can afford it can “buy” their way out of the predicament, whatever it may be.  Underperforming public schools – private schools.  Insecure neighborhoods – gated communities with a private security force.  In places like New York City why take the subway and bus when you have a chauffeur?   How about taking a helicopter from the city to your weekend home in the Hamptons or even the Berkshires and avoid the traffic.  And we might say, “Well, they earned it.  They’re entitled.”  That’s a point, except that if they can avoid the messiness that the 99% endure every day, there’s not a shared commitment to find systemic solutions.  Remember, the significance of Christmas was not a baby born to an unwed mother in a stable, but it was God’s incarnation to live among us.  God came down to share our common lot, to suffer, and to die so we can accept life.

Mark’s urgency.  The fierce urgency of now.  The 99%.  Clearly, God’s justice shouldn’t have to wait much longer because it’s been too long in coming.  That’s our call as Jesus’ disciples.  What are we going to do individually and collectively to make a difference?  What do we have to do to be justice makers?  Do we have the courage and strength to be the peace makers Jesus demonstrated in his ministry?  Are we doing enough?  Are we ready now to do more, or do we have to wait?  And if we have to wait, what are we waiting for?

Maybe something is stirring, though.  Last year we not only saw Occupy Wall Street, we also saw Occupy Boston and Occupy Oakland.  It spread to Occupy London and Occupy Paris.  Today, there will be Occupy Northern Berkshire in North Adams.   And did you read today’s paper that there will be an Occupy Congress on Tuesday?  But it wasn’t just the Occupy movement.  We saw the Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya.  People are starting to rise in protest against power that oppresses, whether it is economic or political.

Dr. King delivered his last speech in Memphis the night before he died from an assassin’s bullet.  The ending was haunting in that he was like Moses looking out from the mountaintop – he saw the Promised Land, but sensed he would not get there.  He began that speech, though, reflecting upon the era in which he would like to live:  Israel’s flight from Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation.  But King wanted to live in the second half of the twentieth century, “because the world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land.  Confusion all around.  That’s a strange statement.  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.  And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – something is happening in our world.  The masses are rising up.”[2]

Brothers and sisters, the work isn’t over.  There’s still a lot to do.  Are we ready to take on bigger challenges and respond to Mark’s urgency or the fierce urgency of now?  Are we prepared to accept the promises of our baptisms in order to hasten that day when our world and God’s realm will truly be one in the same?


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr.  I Have a DreamI Have a Dream Writings and Speeches that Changed the World.  edited by James. M. Washington.  HarperCollins: NY.  1992  Page 102

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr.  I See the Promised LandI Have a Dream Writings and Speeches that Changed the World.  edited by James. M. Washington.  HarperCollins: NY.  1992   Page 195

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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One Response to The Fierce Urgency of Now

  1. Jen says:

    Jesus certainly did speak with the oppressors of that time but He spoke to each as an individual. He never led an uprising or encouraged his followers to revolt against their oppressors. He didn’t categorize people into good and bad groups. He very much taught us not to judge and that includes our enemies, or oppressors. Maybe the millionaires didn’t see the poor people as they sped off in their helicopter because they were so focused on performing the neurosurgery they offered to perform for free and had to complete it immediately. Jesus judges us on what is in our hearts. Bet there’s at least a few within the 99% He’s not too crazy about. Jesus wants us to change from within by repenting and other things so we can better follow His teachings and show others His love for them by our example. That’s the urgency and it’s for all 100% of us as individuals.

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