By Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin, Salt and Light Lutheran Church, Sunday, January 24, 2021, Mark 1:14 – 20
Well friends, it’s January 24. Far and away the most common response I’ve received to the question, How are you feeling since January 20? is…RELIEVED. Not a naive, “Oh everything is going to be fine now” kind of relieved, but a clear and palpable sense of relief nonetheless.
Two images of the nation’s capitol, two weeks apart, have now been seared into our psyches and could not be more striking…one from January 6, and one from the very same place just two weeks later on January 20. Nearly everyone who spoke on Inauguration Day spoke to this stark contrast, though Amanda Gorman said it best:
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.”
Weeks ago I decided that I was going to declare Inauguration Day a holiday and not schedule anything, so I could just soak in the whole thing, undistracted. And it was worth it. All 12 hours of it!
Of course, if I’m honest, there was part of me that was anxious, afraid of witnessing another, even uglier and more bloody coup attempt. But mostly I think I just needed to see it. I needed to see with my own eyes that at this dangerous crossroads we actually turned down the path toward possibility and hope.
What I didn’t know I needed was to see for hours on end how beautiful even an imperfect vision of a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered democracy is! What I didn’t know I needed was to see human beings, real human beings all over the country dancing again, singing, not gloating in victory but celebrating our shared humanity. What I didn’t know I needed was to hear in real time the multiple glass ceilings being shattered by a Black, South Asian woman being sworn into the second highest office in the land by the first Latina on the Supreme Court. What I didn’t know I needed was to be transfixed and transformed by the superpower of a self-described skinny Black girl whose gift of poetry and vision was recognized and developed, and who was given the opportunity and the support to hone her craft, to overcome her challenges, to speak in her own voice, to bloom on her own terms.
Not that I didn’t feel it before, but I ended the day on Wednesday hearing myself say with powerfully renewed conviction, “This kind of democracy, this kind of country, this kind of world is worth fighting for.” Or, given the terrible warring legacy of this nation felt in our bones to this day, perhaps I would rather say “This is a kind of democracy, country and world that is worth repenting for.”
Last Sunday, reflecting on the story of Jesus being baptized into a baptism of repentance by John, our own Bea Gilmore left us with a question: “Who are the John the Baptists calling for repentance today?”
I’ve been reflecting on that question all week, and I hope you have too. But today our gospel lesson invites us to deepen that question even further. This is a continuation of the story from last week, and what’s the first thing we learn about John the Baptist in the gospel for today? John is in jail. Imprisoned. Because he had done something wrong? Nope, except to publicly critique Herod’s personal relationships, while igniting a movement of people repenting of their complicity with the Roman Empire. Assassinating or imprisoning movement leaders is, of course, the oldest tool in the toolbox of empires, still being used to this day.
And so when we ask who are the John the Baptists calling for repentance today, we also have to ask how many of those John the Baptists have been silenced so their call for repentance has never been heard? How many would-be John the Baptists have actually been unjustly imprisoned? How many emerging voices from the margins have actually been disappeared? How many girls and boys the world over have simply never been given the opportunity and the support to hone their craft, to overcome their own challenges, to speak in their own voices, to bloom on their own terms. And so instead of their voices calling for repentance, it is their silence that does. Instead of their vision calling for repentance, their rage does. Instead of their joy calling for repentance, their grief does. Who are the John the Baptists calling for repentance today, and how many were born but whose voices were silenced?
But in the gospel story, John’s arrest is not the end of the movement, not the end of the call to repentance. When John is arrested, Jesus takes it up. When John is arrested, Jesus takes it up. That’s why movements for democracy and liberation may be temporarily delayed but can never be permanently defeated, because when one voice calling for repentance is silenced, another one takes it up.
And this is how 22-year old Amanda Gorman ends up re-igniting passion and vision for a just world the world over – because for every John the Baptist whose call for racial repentance has been silenced, SOMEONE else took it up!
That’s what Jesus did. John called them OUT through repentance, and Jesus called them INTO the kin-dom. John put out the call to repent OF destructive ways and our complicity with them, and Jesus added the vision for what to repent FOR. “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign – the kin-dom – of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds (Repent!) and believe this Good News!”
You see, repenting is not just repenting OF something harmful, it’s repenting FOR something beautiful.
That’s what Wednesday was for me. I believe that’s why Amanda Gorman’s poem reverberated around the world, because every word she said, every movement of her hands, and she her very self embodied a vision of beauty! A vision of beauty — a vision that does not gloss over the trauma that has gone before, the present injustice, nor the dangers that lie ahead, but a vision of beauty that holds it all.
“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped; that even as we tired, we tried; that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division….If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it. Because being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
This is a call to repentance. A call to repair. A call to repar-ation. A call to willingly, gladly, joyfully even, leave everything behind that gets in the way of THIS VISION of a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, just and democratic America and world, because it is so beautiful. Because it is such Good News.
This is a call to repentance, a call to put our whole soul into manifesting this vision, because it is here, right in front of our eyes “if only we’re brave enough to see it.” The reign of God – the kin-dom of God – is AT HAND. “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
This is an America worth repenting for. Amen
Solveig Nilsen-Goodin offers spiritual direction and coaching, as well as support and accompaniment for leaders, activists, organizers, healers, and anyone longing to “heal-the-whole” on any level. She is currently interim pastor/spiritual director for Salt and Light Lutheran Church/Leaven Community and is working toward her Professional Coaching Certification (PCC) focusing on accompanying people through the many ways we experience death and grief throughout our lives.