Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon: How (Not) to Answer a Call

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 25, 2015, Ordinary 3B
Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

How (Not) to Answer a Call

Well…finally.  Here we are.
As I stand here in this pulpit for the first time, it’s hard for me not to be struck by the odd coincidence of the Old Testament and Gospel readings that were offered up by the Revised Common Lectionary for today.  On the one hand, I’ve been very fortunate to have been called by this congregation less than seven months after my seminary graduation.  On the other hand, since God first began disturbing my comfortable life with this call, not long after I had completed my second year on the faculty of the University of Kansas, it’s been five and a half years.  So you might say that the whole idea of “call” has been on my mind for at least that long.  And here, today, the lectionary offers up two rather distinctive “call stories” for preaching. 
A good sermon is not about the preacher.  In this case, though, there is almost unavoidably more biography to this sermon than will typically be the case.  I promise to do better next week.

The beginning of Jesus’s ministry in the gospel of Mark is recounted in about as terse and direct a fashion as possible.  You’ve no doubt noticed that Mark doesn’t bother with a Nativity story; we go straight to (the adult) John the Baptizer, proclaiming his message of repentance and baptizing whoever came along to hear it.  (That John actually gets five whole verses, including a verse devoted to his wardrobe and a two-verse quote, is quite indulgent for the normally no-frills author of this gospel.
Jesus shows up in verse 9 to get baptized, an event marked (for him at least) with the tearing open of the heavens and a voice of blessing from above.  Forty days of temptation are covered in two verses, and finally, at the beginning of today’s reading it’s time to get to work.  The time is fulfilled,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of God has come near. 
So I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that an author who moves his story along so quickly is going to give us a fast-paced account of the calling of Jesus’s first followers, and indeed the whole story happens in five verses.  First Simon and Andrew, and then the Zebedee sons, James and John, are called, and their response is described with a word that Mark uses a lot in his gospel: “Immediately.”  To hear Mark tell it, the instant Jesus called out to them, with that catchy line about fishing for people, they just dropped their nets and took off with him.  As for James and John, they just walk right off Dad’s boat, without so much as a good Middle-Eastern kiss on the cheek.
Do you ever experience a moment when you hear a scripture, one that you’ve heard dozens of times, but this time you hear it, as if for the first time, and it sounds utterly crazy?  I had that experience with this scripture, and that word – “immediately” – some time after this whole drawn-out process of being called started.  It might have even been three years ago, hearing a sermon on this scripture.  I’m not sure.  But in the midst of reading and hearing this passage, my mind went straight to the thought…these people are insane. 
You don’t do that.  You don’t just get up and walk off like that.  It’s just…wrong.  You’ve got obligations.  Family.  Responsibilities.  You don’t just quit in the middle of Music History III.  You can’t sell a house that fast.  It just doesn’t work that way.
So if Mark put in this passage as a test of my willingness to respond to God’s call with absolutely no hesitation at all,…I failed.  I did plenty of hesitating, a lot of faltering, and some outright fighting against it.  I liked my life.  Loved living in Lawrence – I’m sure Gainesville’s a great town, but it’s gonna have to be really something special to live up to that standard.  I had great faculty colleagues, wonderful students, nice little place to live, good church family, reasonably successful academic career…plenty of reason to rationalize.  Yeah, I spent plenty of time trying out lines like why? you know I won’t be as good at that, don’t you?  can't do that to Julia, can I?  All sorts of lines and excuses and rationalizations came tumbling out until there were no more left. 
I still can’t help but believe, though, that once we take off the rose-colored glasses with which we Christians tend to read the Bible, we see that this is still pretty strange behavior from Simon and Andrew and James and John.  And you could argue that they paid for it.  Their lives were indeed turned upside down.  From good solid fishermen to followers of an itinerant desert preacher who came to a violent end, and then to leaders of a fledgling community huddled together around the fact that that violent end wasn’t an end at all, but the beginning of something unpredictable and unbelievable.  No, they were never the same again.  And when we look God’s call to us square in the face, we know that we can never be the same again.
While the immediacy of these four fishermen in taking up Jesus’s call still sounds hasty and rash to me, I have to admit that it’s far from the worst way to answer a call.  For that, we turn to Jonah.
We only read ten verses of Jonah this morning, but really, you can’t preach on Jonah without addressing the whole bizarre story. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah goes on the run instead, hopping a boat basically in the opposite direction.  God drops a big storm on the ship, and when Jonah is singled out as the one bringing on the bad weather, he ends up overboard and is gulped down by a great fish God had prepared for the occasion.  That’s chapter one.  The second chapter is a psalm of thanksgiving that Jonah prays while in the belly of that great fish.  It seems sincere; Jonah sings of being cast away into the deep but being rescued by God, like a lot of psalms do. 
So, when we get to today’s story, and Jonah gets Call 2.0, you’d think that the way this chapter goes would be the best of all possible endings.  For a proclamation of only eight words – “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”, Jonah’s ‘sermon’ was phenomenally successful.  Even if he was barely trying Jonah managed to ignite one heck of a revival.  From the lowliest of citizens upward to the king himself, the whole massive city took up repentance in a sweeping and thorough fashion, and God in mercy spared the city. 
Now you need to understand what it means to talk about Nineveh taking up such an act of repentance.  Nineveh was marked by two things; brutal militaristic conquest and stunning moral debauchery.  Think Moscow at the ruthless height of the Soviet Union’s power crossed with the most hedonistic stereotypes of Las Vegas.  That’s a reasonable enough modern way to understand Nineveh.  If you weren’t from Nineveh you hated Nineveh, particularly if you were an upright type like Jonah. 
So chapter three would make a great ending for the book of Jonah, but instead we get chapter four, where Jonah cinches the deal as master of How Not To Answer A Call.  In the face of a stunning preaching success, the likes of which would have made Billy Graham blush with envy, Jonah throws a temper tantrum.  He actually prayed to God like this:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was in my own country? This 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.  And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Now let that sink in for a bit.  Jonah did not want to live in a world where God forgives.  Jonah was ready to watch the sky fall on Nineveh.  If he had to contaminate himself by entering such a wicked and debased and evil city, he at least had the right to be able to watch God destroy it, and now he wasn’t even going to get to see that.  Stupid God, being all merciful and forgiving. 
Unfortunately, this is where we have to remind ourselves that Jonah is less distant from us than we think.  Who is it that we hate, or fear, so much that we don’t want to see God extend mercy and forgiveness to them? 
Think through the twentieth century for just a little bit.  A hundred years ago, maybe it was Berlin, and “Kaiser Bill,” who occupied that role as the acceptable nation to hate.  Then a little more than twenty years later, it was Germany again, and that awful shrieking little man with the bad moustache and murderous intent.  For several decades that role then shifted to Moscow, perhaps, with a succession of callous dictators and an army and spy apparatus ready to stifle dissent brutally at home and sow violence abroad.  Or maybe one of that regime’s offspring, down in Cuba.  Maybe Iran and the Ayatollah took up that role for a time.  Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.  Maybe now it’s ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, practitioners of an outright medieval brutality.  Or possibly that strange dictator in that strange country, North Korea.
Our culture is quite adept, as have been many cultures over the centuries, at producing new enemies to hate in unison.  And “hate” is the word; mere fear isn’t enough.
The trouble is, that’s not how we’re called.  Jonah thought he could get by answering God’s call while holding on to his own enmities and prejudices, even as much as Jesus’s own disciples may have thought it was still o.k. to hate the Romans, for example.  But that’s not how we’re called.
Yes, “we’re.”  Just because I eventually did drop that beautiful life and vocation and go back to seminary; just because I’ve picked up and dragged my infinitely patient wife off to a new place and a new vocation; just because in a couple of weeks a bunch of people are going to say a bunch of words and lay hands on me and call me “Reverend”; none of that means I’m the only person in here called by God. 
Maybe you’re lucky enough that you don’t have to uproot your whole life, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling on you to be a bearer of good news to those who need good news most.  And that calling doesn’t allow for you to nurse your long-standing prejudices either.  They don’t look like you?  They don’t live in the right part of town?  They aren’t American enough for you?  They don’t share your good upright morals?  They don’t “believe in the Bible” (whatever that means)? 
You love them anyway.  You bring good news to them anyway.
After Jonah’s rant in chapter four, and after an incident with a qiqayon (a kind of bush) that springs up to shade Jonah only to be burned up in the heat, it is God who has the last, unanswerable word in this book.  When Jonah laments the demise of the bush and again claims to want to die, God responds with a response that was apparently unanswerable for Jonah, one that points up Jonah’s prejudices (and our own) as so lacking and untenable in the face of a loving and merciful God:

“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

We look at Nineveh – any of our possible Ninevehs – and see brutality and corruption.  God looks at Nineveh and sees lost children.  And God calls us to see the lost children in Nineveh, not just the brutality and corruption.
God calls us out of our safe homes to bear witness in the strange and threatening world.  God comes along the lakeshore, calling us away from our fishing boats.  God moves down University Avenue and Archer Road and Main Street and NW 13th Street, through The Duckpond and Haile Plantation and your street.  God moves among the university classrooms and halls and offices, through Shands Hospital and the museums and concert halls, and maybe even through the Swamp and the O’Connell Center.  God walks where we are and calls us, and isn’t interested in our judgments on those to whom he calls us.  Our job, if we really want to be followers of Christ, is to bear witness, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, justice to the oppressed, and mercy to the lost children of Nineveh. 
That’s how to answer a call.

For that call, to all of us, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH '90): "For the Beauty of the Earth" (473); "Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore" (377); "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" (281)

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