slogans, jesus' first day at work, & how to hold things

god be with you

So we have two more weeks until we enter into the season of Lent.
The plan up til then is to follow along with the lectionary, that schedule of Bible passages churches around the world explore each Sunday.
And we’re doing that for a couple reasons:
one, its always good to go back to the lectionary as it forces us to explore other stories than the ones we agree with and like;
and two, these next few passages take us into some pretty important questions that as humans and as the church we should be asking and rumbling with.

And that question this morning is a big one:  ‘Why Jesus?’
Which is to ask: ‘Why follow this guy?’ ‘Why his faith and spirituality?’

So today, to lead us into that question, we talk about:

– what i do saturdays at 1130am.
– Jesus’ first day on the job.
– how to hold things. 

But first, let’s say a prayer …

//

If I can make it happen, one of the things I enjoy doing at 1130am on a Saturday morning is listening to CBC Radio’s Under the Influence with Terry O Riley.

It’s a program on marketing, branding, and advertising.
I like it because it does a great job helping people become media literate and safely navigate this really dangerous consumer culture we live in.

There was this one episode awhile back about the host’s pet peeves in marketing and the one he said drove him the craziest is bad slogans and mottos.

Slogans and mottos,
he explained,
are meant to do one thing:
they are meant to convey, however creatively, the meaning, the ‘why,’ and the deeper purpose behind the product, group, business, or whatever it is. 

O Riley said bad slogans drive him crazy because bad slogans should never exist in the first place because companies, businesses, and organizations should already know their ‘why’ and already be able to easily articulate it. If you can’t do that, he said, get out and stop what you’re doing.

So to give us an idea of just what a bad slogan would be,
I found a few he mentioned,
and then went and found a few myself:

Carl Jr’s – “If it Doesnt Get All Over the Place, It Doesn’t Belong In Your Face.” – Yes, because we all love eating burgers in their respective pieces.

Nina’s Photos – “I shoot people and pets.” – Grandma is becoming a burden, let’s go get family photos at Nina’s.

Okotoks Tourism  – “There are a number of things to do here.” – Did they lose count? What is ‘a number?’ 5? 6? How long should I plan to be there for?

And churches, always the champion of terrible websites and social media, are pretty good at bad slogans too. Here are a couple official mottos of churches that shall remain nameless:

The Liberal Religious Alternative.” – Are you the alternative to liberal religion or are you the alternative to conservative religion?
A busy and thoughtful place.” – Yes, because being busy is a healthy and good thing people want more of.
A congregation of the UCC.”  – ‘Sorry, we dont have an identity outside of our larger denomination.’

Looking at these, O Riley’s got a point, doesn’t he?
They don’t say much, and if they say anything, its a bit vague and confusing to say the least.

There’s a reason why we need to have good branding and marketing.
There’s reason we spent a year figuring out our own church motto.
And that reason is simple:

It matters. It helps communicate the the heart of what you’re all about. 

//

So why talk about this?

Well, because there is this story in the Bible and it is the story about Jesus’ first day on the job.

Mark begins his Gospel
not with the story of Jesus’ birth,
but 30 some off years later with Jesus’ first day on the job,
with his first day of stepping out into the life and work he’d become famous for.

Which you think would be this grand occasion, right?

I mean,
It’s starting to happen!
The one who is God with us and for us,
the one who saves us into a new way of being human and alive in this world,
the one who will show us what God is like in the deepest and most personal of ways,
the one who liberates and restores,
he’s here!
Jesus is starting to do his thing!
This is a day of cosmic significance!

So you’d think,
no, you’d even expect,
with all that divine energy about to burst onto the scene,
that Jesus would begin in a place like Jerusalem with trumpets and fireworks,
with jets writing ‘The Messiah is Here!’ in the sky,
you’d have the Rockettes dancing on a barge floating down the Jordan,
and Rage Against the Machine getting the crowds pumped as Jesus walks down the street.

I mean, of course he would! Whats about to happen deserves that kind of beginning!

But thats not how Mark begins his Gospel is it?

No.

Instead of all of that, Mark has Jesus starting his first day with no fanfare whatsoever, saying only this:

"God has come near, change how you live, and believe!"

//

Now the questions we should all be asking, because it certainly seems like the questions Mark wants us to ask, are:
Why begin with this?
Why is this the first thing Jesus says publicly?
Why this way? Why these words?
What is Mark doing?

And it’s here we remember that Mark is trying to do something.
He’s got a story to tell.
He’s trying to convey something particular about Jesus to a particular group of people in a particular time.
And so,
we always have to ask,
what’s he doing?
What is he trying to set up by beginning his Gospel with this?

Well, what he’s doing is giving us the slogan and the motto of Jesus:

“God has come near to us so change how youre living, and believe!” 

What Mark is doing,
is letting us know,
right off the bat,
the heart and why of Jesus,
and within that,
he’s offering us a very important truth about the kind of faith and spirituality Jesus is inviting those fishermen into.

Are you with me so far?

//

But before we can get into that,
I think it can be helpful for us to get this:

There is a certain way to hold things.

When it comes to the things in our lives and worlds,
be it our relationships,
wealth,
status,
love,
health,
politics,
the Bible,
whatever it is,
there is certain way we’re meant to hold them.

Which is to say there is a certain way they are meant to be carried and used:
there’s a way we can use them that can draw us deeper into life,
and there’s a way we can use them that, at best, leaves us stagnant, and at worst, draws us away from life. 

And this is certainly true for faith and spirituality.

One way we tend to think of faith and spirituality,
which is to say, how we think about that Divine Mystery and our connection to it,
is that it’s about getting God to come to us.
It’s about getting the God who is way up there to come and be with us way down here.

And because we see it as about getting God to come to us,
faith and spirituality become about doing what it takes to make that happen:
often becoming about not just believing, but to do it with certitude,
about trying to not just act and think, but exist in very particular ways,
and about having to complete a check list of duties and obligations,
all of it meant to ensure that we’ve done, are doing, and are is good enough for God to come near to us.

Now, if we were in charger of branding that kind of faith and spirituality and coming up with a motto and slogan for it, maybe something like this would work:

Believe, Change How You Live, and then God will come near! 

The heart of it all is earning our way into the loving and gracious presence of God.

Which then shapes how we hold the thing.

Because its all about trying to ensure God’s presence is with us,
we hold it pretty tightly,
we clench our fists around it,
we need to control it because the risk is just too much, the outcome is just too big to mess up.

Anyone know that kind of faith and spirituality?
Anyone here ever hold it that way?
Anyone ever experience the life that brings?

I sure have.
I think we all do, in some way shape or form.
I think there’s even a general cultural assumption that this is the way you hold faith and spirituality,
this is religion,
you hold it tightly, you white knuckle it, always working hard to do enough to bring and keep God near.

And maybe it’s there we find the answer to our question.
Maybe that’s why Mark begins his Gospel the way he does.

Because he knew,
just like I discovered,
and just like some of you did,
that holding faith and spirituality this way doesn’t lead us deeper into life,                                    
but takes away from it.
He knew it only brings division, anxiety, guilt, shame, and exhaustion,
of always comparing ourselves with others,
of never knowing if its enough,
of always having to be on the offensive,
of always having to do more and more to earn God’s presence,
and so no wonder he has Jesus saying what he does right off the bat,
because the faith and spirituality of Jesus,
the way he invites us to hold it,
is exactly the opposite of this. 

//

Mark begins his Gospel the way he does,
with giving us Jesus’ slogan and motto,
because it reveals to us the answer to ‘why Jesus?’ and shows us the kind of faith and spirituality he invites us into,
and it needs to be mentioned right off the bat because what he’s offering is that huge and important:

It’s a brand new way to understand our connection with the Divine.
Its a brand new way of holding faith and spirituality.

“God has come near to us so change how youre living and believe!”

Thats big news.

God has come to us. 

Not because we did something right,
not because we believed with enough certainty,
not because we gave enough money or said the right prayer,

but because God wanted to,
because we are worth it,
out of extravagant and indiscriminate love, God has come near to us to be with us and for us.

The faith and spirituality of Jesus,
our connection with the Divine,
begins not with the pressure to change and believe,
but with a Love that has already come near. 

And here’s the thing about that …
if it begins with love,
how we hold it changes.

Suddenly we dont have to hold it so tightly,
because the whole thing isn’t about controlling the outcome,
the outcome has already happened,
God’s already here,
we are already loved and accepted,
so we loosen our grip,
we we can hold it lightly and openly,
and we let God guide us forward into a never-ending journey of letting that love shape and colour everything we are and everything we do.

//

“God has come near to us so change how youre living and believe!”

Thats the heart of Jesus.
Thats what we are all about.

Love is here.

Behold it, Hold it, and Follow it as it changes everything.

And so we end our time this morning doing just that.
If youre here today trying to get God to come near,
if you’re here exhausted from the work,
if you fists are clenched around your faith,
I invite to loosen your grip,
to hold it openly,
to let it go,
and as we sing this final hymn,
let that love draw you deeper into life.

Amen.