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 22, 2012: Third Sunday after Epiphany

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

A couple weeks ago I mentioned the fact that I’ve worked in a variety of group homes and other residential settings for youth and adults with cognitive, emotional or developmental difficulties. Here’s a story from one of them, where I worked during my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I love to tell this story. It’s one of my favorite parables of grace, so you may have heard it before.

During my last year of college I spent my Saturday mornings working at a group home for boys with emotional or behavioral concerns – kids who’d been removed from home and school because of violent or disruptive behavior. There were only about eight to ten kids in the house at a time, and two staff members charged with keeping order – making meals, planning outings, and creating opportunities for the boys to talk about their lives. In reality it often felt like refereeing a high-speed soccer match as the boys tumbled around the house fighting with each other and breaking anything that wasn’t nailed down to the floor.

The toughest kid in the house was also the youngest, a Native American boy named Kyle who’d grown up on a reservation in northern Minnesota and had seen his brother shot on the front lawn of their home. He was nine, but his anger at the world was so immediately palpable that all the boys made way for him when he entered the room. He was unpredictable and aggressive, and frankly he scared people.

I remember a morning that began like most others, but ended very differently.

Kyle started the day in a bad mood. He’d gotten a phone call from his family up north and he was upset. He didn’t know what to do with his feelings. He didn’t know how to talk about them, so he began picking fights with the other boys instead.

My co-worker and I were nervous for a couple of reasons. First, the other boys were having a pretty good morning and we were hoping to get everyone out of the house for an outing to the skating rink. That would keep everyone occupied and having fun, and would make our shift go faster. If Kyle started making trouble, the chain reaction of conflicts was sure to land everyone grounded in their rooms and kill any chance for an easy morning. Second, Kyle had a storm brewing behind his eyes, and we knew from experience that he could get so angry that the only way to keep him, and others around him, safe was to physically restrain him. Kyle was a biter and a scratcher, and restraining him was never easy. Understandably, we were nervous.

It didn’t take long for our anxieties to be realized. Kyle picked one fight after another with every boy in the house, and got everyone so upset that we had to send him to his room to keep the other boys from ganging up on him. Once in his room we hoped he would find the space he needed to calm down, but instead we heard the slow wreck of bookcases being pushed over and toys being smashed. Then, the sound of glass shattering as he threw a chair into the window. My co-worker stayed with the rest of the boys while I went to investigate.

Opening the door of the bedroom I saw Kyle sitting on the floor surrounded by shards of broken glass, catching his breath and looking for something else to break. He was the definition of a wild child, but beneath the anger I could see that there was also fear and confusion and heartbreak.

“Kyle, you’ve got to get control of yourself,” I said, “or you’ll get hurt.” He looked me straight in the eye, picked up a book from the pile he’d made and threw it at my head. “Kyle,” I said, “you can’t keep destroying the house and you can’t keep attacking everyone around you.” Of course, he saw right through me and we both realized that, in fact, he could keep destroying the house and attacking everyone around him. So I pulled out the final threat. “Kyle,” I said, “we can’t let you hurt yourself or anyone else. If you keep this up we’re going to have to restrain you.”

That was it, the threat he’d been waiting for. He picked up another book, a heavy one I seem to recall, and chucked it straight at me. He called my bluff. All my training told me that once you set a limit you have to be ready to enforce it if you want to maintain discipline and rebuild a sense of structure for the kids. He was so deliberate though. He’d worked the situation so methodically, escalating to the point where someone would have to step in and take control, and it occurred to me this may have been just what he wanted. Sensing a moment full of potential in front of me, I took a risk.

“Kyle,” I said, “I know you had a bad phone call with your family this morning, and that you’re really upset. I don’t want to restrain you if all you need is a hug. Think about it for a minute and let me know. If you just need a hug, all you have to do is ask.”

It was a long minute while Kyle thought it over. I sensed it could go either way as he fell silent, considering what I’d said. Then his answer came. “Really?” And I walked across broken glass and scattered toys and sat down next to him. He folded into my arms and started to cry.

Jesus approaches those who would be his disciples and says, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” The apostle Paul writes, “the appointed time has grown short…for the present form of this world is passing away.” What both Jesus and Paul are telling us is that we live in a time when the good news of God is trying to break through the ordinary time of our lives, when opportunities for seeing the holy wrapped up in the ordinary, or the beloved wrapped up in the enemy, are right before our eyes.

Let’s stop here for just a minute and take this in. Today, this morning, right now, God has drawn near to us – to you – to call you away from your rage, or your fear, or your shame. Can you find that place in yourself? The place where you still feel small, still feel helpless or hopeless. Still feel alone. It may not be difficult for you to find. You may feel like that’s the place where you live, day in and day out. Or maybe you’ve locked those feelings up, hidden them away, and tried to forget they exist. The nagging worry that you have disappointed your parents, your children, your friends, your spouse. The grief of a love lost, or not yet found.

What happens when those feelings are left to fester? Pain can only be tolerated for so long before it transforms into some more tolerable sentiment. Maybe apathy. Maybe anger. Is that how we come to hold such bitter grudges towards the people we love and care for the most? Is it easier to hate, than to hold out hope that change may yet happen?

Jonah is sent to Ninevah, the home of his worst enemies, to announce their need for repentance. He expects nothing from them, worse than nothing, but miraculously they hear God’s call to repent and the entire nation, from the king to the common subject, turns from its violence and realigns itself with God’s work in the world.

Who have you given up on? Who have you written off? What would it take for you to shake off your discouragement, your disgust, and go after the very people you’ve come to regard as your enemies seeking not vengeance, but reconciliation?

Jesus calls to Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they drop everything to follow him. These ordinary people, living at the economic and social edge of Empire, treated their whole lives like “the help,” like cogs in the machine; when Jesus looks at these people and sees the whole of them, inside and out, they immediately leave the lives they’ve known behind and follow him.

Jesus sees you as well. Not just the “you” you present to the world, but the you that sits in the middle of the room surrounded by the broken pieces of your life. Jesus sees your jealousy. Jesus sees your anger. Jesus sees your shame. Jesus sees your guilt. Jesus sees all of you, and Jesus loves you completely. There is need to wait for the other shoe to drop. There is no point at which the whole truth comes out and God can no longer love you.

God sees you laboring down on the shore of your life, trying so hard to bring in a haul large enough to justify your place at the table. Rather than counting the fish in your net, or the good deeds in your day, or the dollars in your bank account, Jesus is calling you to leave the nets behind and follow him. The mess that you’re in, that we’re all in, isn’t one we can clean up by ourselves. We will need more than ourselves. We will need each other, everyone, all together. That is why Jesus calls us to go fishing for people instead.

The call to repentance is a calling from God to turn away from our sin. Modern ears, ears like ours, hate this word sin. We tend to immediately shut down, as memories or stereotypes of a religion of guilt and shame come to mind. That’s not the ancient understanding of sin though.

web in broken glass

Throughout the long history of Christianity sin has been understood less as a list of things that should not be done, more as a condition of the soul. A reality of human life. Like a doctor diagnosing you with pneumonia, it’s not something you do – it’s something you have. Sin is the reality of brokenness, like the shards of glass from the window that littered the floor, or the heart of the little boy whose family was destroyed by violence, or the children who gather in schoolhouses filled with bullet casings after the bombing ends. Sin is the web of brokenness in which we live our lives.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. Repentance, turning from sin, takes the form of discipleship where we are knit into a human net and cast out into the chaotic waters of life where people are hurting and drowning in their pain. “I will make you fish for people,” is God’s call on our lives to watch and to listen for those moments when hostility can be converted to hospitality. “Fishing for people” is not just a catch phrase for recruiting new members to the church, it is evangelism of a different order. Good news that looks like swords being beaten into plowshares. “Fishing for people” is another way to think about our relationship to the enemy, like Ninevah, which today lies across the river from Mosul, in Iraq. A way of relating to those who are not only different from us, but who we believe are irredeemably against us.

Jesus’ call to repentance is not a divine scolding, it is a divine invitation. It is an invitation to turn away from the web of brokenness and to be caught in the net of God’s loving embrace. God wants to catch us in our freefalling lives before we hit the ground, before we hurt ourselves or someone else yet again. God wants to restrain us with the freedom to be new people. God sees our suffering, our confrontational provocations of one another as individuals and clans and nations and wonders if, perhaps, we might be willing to trade fits of violence for evidence of love. Then God sends us out to be that evidence.

The invitation to Christian discipleship may be imagined as this: the assembly that gathers here each Sunday and joins hands as we pass peace, or joins hands as we bless one another for the week ahead, is the very tool that God has at God’s disposal as God sets out to heal the world with love.

We find ways to hold fast to each other so that the mesh of our interconnectedness will be strong enough to hold fast to the world as it gets caught in our nets. Hold tight to one another, sisters and brothers, and together we will fish for people.