Sermon: Sunday, January 25, 2015: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5,10  +  Psalm 62:5-12  +  1 Corinthians 7:29-31  +  Mark 1:14-20

It was a cold February day during my junior year of college when my favorite radio station (remember those, from the time before playlists and podcasts and Pandora?) began broadcasting R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” on repeat for days on end. For all the times I’ve sung a song in this pulpit, I know better than to try and pull of an a cappella rendition of that one, but if you know it then you remember Michael Stipe’s voice on a punching, single-note drone, stream-of-consciousness culminating in the chorus, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine…”

That song, on continuous loop, for days was … well, disconcerting. I remember tuning in to the station as I walked to class and being confused about why it kept playing. I thought perhaps it was a tribute to a fallen rocker. Maybe Michael Stipe had died? Maybe R.E.M. had split up? I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I turned off my headphones and found a seat in the classroom. Afterwards I put my headphones back on, assuming I’d get a explanation, but no — R.E.M. was still blaring away.

Across the Twin Cities people began sharing the story. “Have you tuned in to 93X? Do you know what’s going on?” More than fifty people called 911 to report, well, something. Some people thought the DJs were being held hostage and trying to transmit a covert S.O.S. Others thought it was some kind of bizarre promotional stunt, and drove down to the station’s offices in Eagan to see what was going on.

The truth is that the radio station had been bought out by its rival, one of those huge national media companies, and the outgoing owners were playing the song on repeat as a kind of protest to what was happening to small, independent radio. It was exactly the kind of cause that college students could rally around, our ambient hatred of “the man” coalescing around a concrete focus. Never mind that 93X had only been broadcasting its format for about five years. Never mind that for almost thirty years that station had been easy listening. For us, it was the end of an era, and we did not feel fine.

That story comes to mind today for a number of reasons, none of them too subtle, but it first occurred to me as I read through Paul’s words of advice to the community in Corinth.

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

It’s not that Paul doesn’t care about history and tradition. In fact, at other points he goes out of his way to tout his own credentials as an educated person. It’s not that he is against the institution of marriage, which he writes about elsewhere in this letter, it’s that he believes that Jesus Christ is the sign that God is about to do something radically new in the world, something so big that it requires us to respond to the world with urgency, setting aside familiar things for the sake of God’s preferred future. It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it and, on that count, Paul feels better than fine, he is enthusiastic.

A similar dynamic is at play in the gospel reading from Mark where, once again, Jesus is finding his followers out where they live, in the context of their everyday lives. “The time is fulfilled,” he declares, “and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) And immediately (of course) Peter and Andrew, James and John, drop their nets and abandon their work and follow the Lord.

But it’s the first story, the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah, that really grabs me this morning. He’s been sent to deliver a message he doesn’t want to give to a people he doesn’t want to meet, the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, no friend to Israel. The entire short book of the prophet Nahum is an oracle foretelling God’s coming wrath against Nineveh in graphic language,

“Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty — no end to the plunder! … I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms your shame.” (Nah. 3:1,5)

That’s how people expected, how people hoped, God would deal with their adversaries, by humiliating them in a dramatic way for the whole world to see. Instead God calls Jonah to march into Nineveh and invite them to repent. You know what happens next: Jonah refuses the Lord’s call and heads in the opposite direction, hopping a boat to Tarshish. But a great storm hits the boat out on the sea, and the crew eventually tosses him overboard where he is snatched up by a “great fish” a whale or some other mythical sea creature capable of swallowing a man whole without digesting him for three days and three nights.

Left in his watery grave with nothing to do but consider his life, Jonah realizes the folly of his ways, the foolishness of his impulse to flee from God, as if God could be evaded by moving to another city, by changing your address. Just as he regains his resolve to do as the Lord has asked, the fish spits him back out onto dry land. When the word of the Lord comes a second time, Jonah does as Peter and Andrew, James and John, and he leaves the safety of what he has known to deliver a message to Nineveh.

Unlike Jesus’ disciples however, the journey Jonah is required to make is not so much about leaving a place, but leaving a state of mind, a preconceived notion. When the disciples dropped their nets to follow Jesus they were leaving their homes in order to take part in the new thing God was doing through Jesus. But when Jonah set off for Nineveh he was forced to revise his opinion of people he’d grown to fear and hate. In fact, he admits as much. After the people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning and repent of their wickedness God chooses mercy over vengeance, and Jonah laments.

“Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jon. 4:2)

You see, Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. He wanted to deliver a word of judgment, followed by a moment of vengeance. But people change. Hearts and minds are moved. Our harshest oppressors can sometimes become our allies, even our friends. Grace changes us, which changes everything. But still so often we deny others the possibility of being made new in the ways that we ourselves have been made new. We withhold from others the same grace that has saved our very lives.

God is calling to us this morning, but we aren’t all hearing the same thing. Some are convinced that we are now called to leave this place that has been our home for over one hundred years, not out of any disrespect for traditions or institutions, but because there is an urgency to God’s summons to be part of the new thing that God is doing in the world. Some are convinced that we are called to stay and work harder than we’ve ever worked before to preserve this home for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for future generations.

And I want to be clear: these scriptures do not take a position on that decision. They do not take sides, declaring who is right and who is wrong. What they do say for certain is that the call to follow where God leads us will change us. It may change our address, it may not, but it will change our hearts. We will not be able, we will not be allowed, to look on any person or community of people and write them off. We will be called, we will be sent, we may even be dragged kicking and screaming, into community with those we trust the least as a sign of the power of God to heal, restore, and recreate the world.

You see the present form of the world is always passing away. Disciples are always being called and prophets are always being sent. The nations are always being reformed and redeemed. Because God is always doing a new thing. That is the constant on which we can build our lives, that grace is real and that it changes everything. It is the truth that allows us to sing, “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”



Sermon: Sunday, January 19, 2014: Second Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:  Isaiah 49:1-7  +  Psalm 40:1-11  +  1 Corinthians 1:1-9  +  John 1:29-42

Over the past week we in the office, and many of you as well, have been busily preparing the annual book of reports on the ministry of this congregation which you’ll receive next week at the annual meeting.  The book of reports contains report after report, or letter after letter, by members of this congregation provided for the benefit of the whole community in order that we might reflect together on the shape and substance of our mutual ministry.

I struggled with my letter this year. I mean, I really struggled with it — not in the sense that I struggled with crafting the words, or reporting the facts.  No, I struggled with the tone. I struggled with finding the right way to begin talking about the blessings and challenges of our life together. As I hear the apostle Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians, I realize I might have been well-served by taking a play from his book.

Writing to a congregation that was divided and defined by petty jealousies and gross misconduct (which, I should say, is really not who you are as a people), Paul begins his letter with a thanksgiving for the gifts of the Spirit that have been poured out on the community.  He writes,

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:4-5)

That’s what we call “asset-based community development.” Writing to a community defined by their deficits, Paul makes a strategic decision to look for the strengths in this community, and he begins his communication with them by focusing on his gratitude for all that God has already given them in the form of spiritual gifts.

SPIRITUAL_GIFT_IMAGESpiritual gifts is a major theme of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Later in this letter he comes back to the subject of these gifts to say, “now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). After providing a list of examples of spiritual gifts that is much shorter than the one found in the Time & Talent inventory tucked into your bulletin this morning, Paul goes on to say,

“all these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:11-13)

So, we begin to see, when Paul commends the congregation at the beginning of his letter by giving thanks for the gifts of the spirit present in the community by saying, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” he means that when they are together, taken as a whole, they do not lack for anything. The reverse, however, is also implied. That when they are divided, by those petty jealousies or gross misconducts, they lose their ability to make proper use of the gifts and graces God has scattered among them.

The season of Sundays after Epiphany is filled with signs and wonders, manifestations of God’s glory revealed to all people. The prophet Isaiah declares,

“it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)

The ministry of Jesus, a ministry that began when wise people from foreign lands came to pay homage, intends to reconcile all peoples to one another, nation to nation and person to person. In fact, it appears that nation will be reconciled to nation person by person.

In my letter to all of you, which you’ll have the chance to read when you review the book of reports next week, I begin with a verse taken from the gospel of John that was used as the theme for our stewardship campaign this year. As Jesus and his disciples pass through Samaria, a foreign land filled with people marked by different customs and habits, he draws attention to the abundance that follows in the wake of reconciliation. Though his disciples were ready to get back to Israel, back to their home turf where they felt safe, secure and comfortable, Jesus instructs them to look at the people all around them, people they’d written off as being too different from them, and to see the gifts of the spirit present in them as well. “Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (John 4:35)

It is an epiphany for the disciples, a moment of insight as they realize that God is made manifest in people and places they’d been taught to avoid, to dismiss. People like the Samaritan women at the well with whom they’d just caught Jesus talking, who’d been so transformed by her encounter with Jesus that she dropped what she was doing and went back to her own community and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29)

In her invitation to the Samaritans, the woman at the well sounds remarkably like Jesus himself, whose first words in the gospel of John are found in the passage we heard this morning as he encounters his disciples for the first time. Following a loud and rather conspicuous identification by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, people begin to follow Jesus, so he asks them “what are you looking for?”  When they respond by naming him a teacher and asking where he is staying, or more literally, where he abides, he answers them, “come and see” (John 1:38-39).

“Come and see” is the answer Jesus gives to however the disciples answered the question, “what are you looking for?” This is instructive. People are coming to Jesus for all sorts of reasons. You have come to this house of worship for all sorts of reasons, looking for all sorts of things.

As you came into worship this morning you should have received a blank index card. It may have been handed to you directly or it may have been tucked into your bulletin. I’d like you to pull that card out now and write on it, “what are you looking for?”  I don’t want you to actually write what you are looking for. You might not know what you are looking for. Or you might have an immediate answer to that question based on how your morning is going, but also another answer that stays with you from day to day or year to year. Or you might know exactly what you are looking for, but feel a little shocked that such an intimate question is being asked in public. So, what I’m asking you to do is to write on this blank card, “What are you looking for?” and then to look at that question and listen to yourself, to the stirrings of your soul, for just a minute.

An extended pause to allow time for this activity.

looking-forMy invitation to you is that you take this index card, this question, home with you and that you tape it up somewhere you’re sure to see it. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Tack it to your bulletin board. Anchor it to your refrigerator with a magnet. Let it pester you like it was meant to, this question that Jesus asks those who would follow him. “What are you looking for?”

You may come up with an answer this week. You may come up with many. If you do, and you would like to, I’m also going to invite you to bring your card back with you to worship next week when you’ll be invited to put it in the offering plate anonymously along with our many other offerings, gifts given for the building up of the church. And if you don’t, if the question remains unanswered, or your answer feels too personal, then I encourage you to leave the card up where you can see it, to remind you that the God who is revealed in Jesus loves you, and very sincerely wants to know what you are looking for.

But also, that Jesus suggests that however you frame that question, whatever question you pose, the answer in some part is for you to “come and see.”  Come, bringing your gifts, your time and talents.  Come, and find people like you and people very unlike you, all bearing God’s gifts to and for and from this assembly.  Come, to receive God’s gifts again at the font and at the table.  Come, knowing that you have been gifted so that you can be a gift, blessed to be a blessing. Come with your questions, and look for God’s answers in and among the community of faith. Come, and leave your loneliness, your bitterness, your divisions behind.

Come, and see.