Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Epiphany 3B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
January 24, 2021
Six years ago this past October, my former bishop M. Thomas Shaw came to the end of his earthly life. He was a unique and gifted leader in the Diocese of Massachusetts and in the wider Episcopal Church, deeply committed both to innovation and to rootedness in the Christian tradition. He was also a monk of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, living in the order’s monastic house in Cambridge just across from the Charles River. As he neared two decades of service as bishop, he announced his decision to retire and called for the election of his successor. Shortly after that, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died just days after Bishop Alan Gates was ordained, as it turned out. But about two months before that, in August, Bishop Tom shared a letter with the diocese to let us know where he was in his treatment and to offer gratitude for the support he felt. Characteristically, he spoke about his life of prayer. “My prayer feels different from day to day. Some days there is an expansiveness to it, and on other days, it isn’t so easy, though there aren’t too many of those days.” But what truly stood out to me, and actually became the theme of a retreat I led that fall for the members of Episcopal/Anglican Fellowship as we went on retreat at the monastery, was what Bishop Tom went on to say about time. “I am looking forward to what God will bring in this new time,” he said. And then he continued, “You know, too often in our culture time is perceived as a problem; all of us, at some point, feel we don’t have enough of it. Yet, because of Jesus the Messiah, all time is now God’s time. It is part of the unfolding of God’s glory. We are invited into it as an experience of the presence of God. I believe that is where our prayer, where our life together in gathered community, where our participation with God in making all things new is taking us: into the heart of God.” In his own particular temporal location, at a moment when perhaps one could imagine feeling a lack or scarcity of time, what Bishop Tom was inviting us to contemplate and embrace with him was a sense of time as belonging to God, as an invitation to “experience the presence of God,” as – with a ring of Epiphany -- “part of the unfolding of God’s glory.”
The brief references to time in our readings this morning made me think about Bishop Tom’s meditation. They made me think about what it might mean to hear these particular readings in the season of Epiphany, located as we are on its third Sunday. As I’ve shared in previous weeks, Epiphany invites us to contemplate the light, the radiance of God’s manifestation in Jesus Christ, and to be transformed by it. The word “glory” is much associated with this season, as will become especially prominent in the story of the Transfiguration in three weeks. Epiphany calls us into doxology, a word that describes our expression of awe and praise at the glory of God – δόξα being the Greek word for glory. As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes doxology, it is energizing. Our response to God’s glory opens us to the mystery of God’s presence, and God’s deep freedom to break into our world, to bring new life into it, to make all things new, and to call us to honor and collaborate with God in that newness. Today’s readings lift up God’s time made manifest to us, to use Bishop Tom’s phrase, subtly but unmistakably reaching into human lives and pulling us in, calling us to follow, taking us into the heart of God, leaving us forever changed.
In his first letter to the community in Corinth, the Apostle Paul says “the time has grown short.” What our translation renders as “the appointed time” is in Greek καιρὸς, a term that can be contrasted with χρόνος. While χρόνος is often understood as sequential time, καιρὸς is sometimes translated as “the moment of danger or opportunity.” It can have a tipping point quality to it, a time for action. And indeed, Paul speaks of this time as having “grown short.” The word he uses, a form of the verb συστέλλω, can in other contexts be used to suggest cloth being rolled up—I have the image of a coat being drawn together in order to be buttoned. I am also reminded of Madeleine L’Engle’s image in A Wrinkle in Time of the tesseract, in which she uses an illustration of drawing together space-time as if of folded fabric to allow passage through its wrinkles. The message that time is drawn together or “grown short,” for Paul, means that one’s relationship to the structures of the world fundamentally changes. We are not to be enthralled to the order of the world as it stands. Embracing God’s time is meant to transform us as we live in this world.
Our reading from the Gospel of Mark also foregrounds a conception of transformed time. Mark’s rendering of the narrative is highly compressed. “After John was arrested,” Mark states, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mk 1:15). Jesus’ first proclamation in Mark’s gospel begins with the statement that the time is fulfilled. Here again, the Greek word is καιρὸς. But rather than “grown short,” as Paul used it, Mark speaks of καιρὸς as “fulfilled,” a term Mark does not often use (in contrast to the Gospel of Matthew, where it shows up a great deal). This idea of καιρὸς fulfilled is then linked to the kingdom or reign of God being “at hand.” God’s reign is not out there, far away and remote, but near, and it calls us to respond. More specifically this fulfillment of God’s time and this nearness of God’s reign calls us to repent. As we will explore further in the season of Lent, the term translated “repent” is μετάνοια, to have a change of mind, a transformation of our perception, the lens through which we make sense of and thereby make our way in the world. The fulfilled quality of God’s καιρὸς, the nearness of God’s reign, calls us into glorious transformation.
From out of God’s time, Jesus calls others. And as he does so, the immediacy of this time, its in-breaking, transformative quality is lifted up for us. He sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting their fishing net into the Sea of Galilee, and says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mk 1:17). No introduction, no “this is who I am and why you might want to listen to me.” Talk about a cold call! He just launches. And here I also consider it noteworthy that word for follow me is even more abrupt than the English translation. It’s basically an interjection: come here! And what he promises is not simply that they would fish for people rather than actual fish, but that they would be changed. Our translation misses this subtlety but I think it important, as it is unique to Mark: it actually reads “I will make you become fishers of people.” Not, follow me and *poof!* you will become perfected fisherfolk. But come, follow me and you will begin to become new and to draw others into that becoming.
An invitation to embrace God’s fulfilled time has a way of breaking in and changing everything. We can see it in Jesus’ use of the word “immediately.” It’s one of Mark’s favorites. Immediately, they drop everything and follow him. And then again immediately Jesus sees more fisherfolk, James and John, and calls them as well. By contrast, when God called Jonah in our first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10), Jonah oh so humanly resisted the call that he go and preach repentance to Nineveh. He resisted to the point of casting himself into a stormy sea, being swallowed by a great fish and spat up back onto the shore. Finally, he accepted this call and entered into a process of transformation -- the Ninevites changed their ways and even God changed God’s mind, much to Jonah’s ultimate irritation. In Mark, the disciples are highly human as well, but at least in this regard they do not follow in Jonah’s footsteps: they drop their gear immediately, leaving their father in the boat with hired fellow-workers, and they go. God’s fulfilled time was manifest to them in these simple, yet glorious invitations, and they stepped in. They stepped in and began the process of being forever changed. To Christ be the glory.
This week we entered upon a time of major transition in the life of our country. We saw a new administration step into its work. I was struck by conversations in and beyond in our community by the sense of hope and possibility – particularly as embodied in the words of Amanda Gorman who shared her poem “the Hill We Climb” – to uphold justice, to begin in greater earnestness the work of repair that we so deeply need in this country, especially around racial and economic justice. I observe a greater sense of hope and resolve to address climate change, and to truly and effectively to respond to the terrible reality of COVID as it continues to wreak havoc our country and the world. Among the executive orders that rolled out immediately, I was struck by the affirmation of the rights and dignity of LGBTIQ people, and for the first time in four years I have a sense that this administration has my back and that of my family. If this is a moment of profound καιρὸς, of danger and opportunity – and I believe it is—then in this moment the call is to embrace God’s time. There is an urgency to this call, knowing that embracing God’s time is meant to change us deeply, from the inside out. Come! Christ says, follow me, step fully and unreservedly into a glorious process of being transformed. Nothing will be the same, including the very world through which you walk. Follow me, and I will make youbecome fishers of people, fishers who proclaim with their very lives the reign of the God who promises to gloriously makes all things new. To return to Bishop Tom’s words, this call is meant to be prayerfully embraced. Not with a sense of rushing to get everything finished all at once, but with an urgency of deliberate openness, opening ourselves to profound transformation, and indeed gratitude. As Bishop Tom shared: “May each of us be opened to the possibility and the hope offered through God’s gift of time.”
 The Right Reverend M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE, “A Message from Bishop Shaw,” August 25, 2014. https://www.diomass.org/diocesan-news/message-bishop-shaw Accessed 1/24/2021  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978, 2018)  Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (New York: Dell Publishing, 1962, 1981), 75-78.  John R. Donahue, “Mark” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 904-905.