January 25, 2015

Two Calls, Two Reactions

As we make this journey through Epiphany and see how Jesus is revealed to the world around him and around us, we find today that God can speak in short, but powerful sentences, and just how stark of a contrast humans can have to hearing God’s call and invitation to ministry.

For Jonah, the word of the Lord is coming to him the second time in our passage today. In the case of the Gospel reading, Jesus, the son of God, the Word-Made-Flesh, God-with-us, is speaking with the voice of God to invite these fishermen to a new way of life. But in each case, those hearing the call react in dramatically different ways. We’ll look in a moment at how they are different, but let’s start by looking at how they are alike.


First -- the words they hear are brief. In Jonah’s first encounter with God, God uses 21 words to send him on his way: 

‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’
The second time, after the great fish (NOT A WHALE) spews Jonah out, God uses just 17 words:
‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’
From Emily Slichter Given. Check out her book "Building Faith, Brick by Brick." 
As Jesus finds his four new followers, who will become apostles, he uses the best recruitment line a fisherman could hear:
"Follow me and I will make you fish for people."
In many places in Scripture, God practices simplicity in choosing how to speak to people. I’m not one who easily or loosely uses the phrase “God spoke to me…” But the times I have felt and heard God speak directly to me, God knew me well enough to use short sentences and say it slowly. Maybe that’s why one of my mottos is “Brevity is next to Godliness.”

The second part of how these two “call” stories are similar is that they have a direct mission. Jonah is sent to cry out against Nineveh; James, John, Andrew and Simon are going to be fishermen of people. Or as Eugene Peterson writes it in The Message, Jesus says, “I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.”

Icon of Jesus calling the Disciples in Mark 1
There is no “hey let’s go for a walk and see where we end up” kind of call to this. God and Jesus are about as direct as they can be in what they are after.

It’s the reactions of the ones called that provide the clear differences. Those hearing the story of Jonah in generations after him would have found the story amusing, if not downright hysterical. I mean, the guy is called to share a message from God with a people to the East of Israel, and so naturally, Jonah goes… WEST. Who could blame him… Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, they were the enemy. The bad guys. The Assyrians were among the many nations that wanted the land that the Israelites believed was theirs by divine decree. (When you get home, read the whole book of Jonah, and imagine sitting around a campfire telling this story. See if you can find the humor and the irony in it.)

The four fisherman, however, simply drop their nets and head after Jesus at his simple invitation: Follow me. Mark does not record the reactions of their families, especially that of Zebedee, the father of James and John, who just watched his boys leave him with all the work. If those hearing the story of Jonah laughed at the irony, those hearing Mark’s Gospel would have been in shock at people like fishermen who just walked away from their work to follow an itinerant preacher and would-be Messiah. The reality is that they probably knew him or at least knew of him. They’d all been with John the Baptizer at one time, but JB was now in prison. Jesus’ invitation was, well, inviting and hopeful.

I think sometimes we expect a call from God, in whichever form of the Trinity, to give us long speeches or some big, pre-game, locker-room talk that will give us clarity or direction or comfort. As we see in these Scripture lessons, God doesn’t always do that. Jonah had no way of knowing what was going to happen in Nineveh, and Simon, Andrew, James, and John had no idea what lay on the road ahead for them. You have to wonder what the reaction would have been if Jonah had known the Ninevites would repent or these fishermen had known who Jesus really was and how many lives he would change and at what cost. God reveals what we need to know when we need to know it. I’m sure no one was more surprised than these Jewish fishermen when Jesus had his moments of openness to Gentiles and Samaritans. And when you read Jonah this afternoon, you’ll see how he reacted when the King of Assyria led his people in repentance.

Nineveh still exists, by the way. Today it is called Mosul, in Iraq. I dare say that Nineveh still exists in our own hearts, too. There are places to which God may call us that we do not want to go, or groups that we may think are beyond God’s reach or worse, we may not want God to reach them. We may not want to share the Good News with them that the Kingdom of God has come near. But as the story proves, that’s not for us to decide. Our job is to listen for the voice of God, the call of the Almighty, and to respond as faithfully as possible.

I can recall hearing the voice of God in worship in the parish in which I grew up, and on a nice long bike ride, and even, like last week’s lesson from Samuel, in the middle of the night. And not unlike our friend Jonah, I have attempted in vain to ignore or run away from the voice of God. Luckily, I have never found myself in the belly of a great fish.

I have no doubt that many of us have had a Jonah-like response to God at some point in our journey, maybe not to the extreme (though if it led to the belly of a great fish, I’d love to hear about it…). But I’m guessing that we have all had a time God said “Go East” and we went West, or God said “Pick up the phone and call this person,” and we said, “Ugh. That’s going to take up the rest of my day. Can I do it later? Tomorrow? When I have time? Maybe never?” Or God has said, “Those folks need to hear the Good News,” and we’ve said, “Really? Them?!” Even the disciples had a few of those moments with Jesus along the way.

If we were to shed our fear of bragging for a moment, I bet we could find a moment or three in our lives where we acted like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, where we took a really big gamble and said yes to Jesus. Where we made that phone call or when we didn't have time, but went the longer way to see our lonely or sick friend. Where we dropped our nets, our pens, our laptops, and learned how to fish for people. Because we didn't already know how, and we had to trust Jesus to show us the way.

Can you see how these are perfect stories for Epiphany? Not only is it about answering a call, but how, in answering yes, we are helping reveal God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the world around us.

As we make this journey through Epiphany, a season where we can re-commit ourselves to being the Light of Christ in the world, don’t be afraid to share your story, both the one where you acted like Jonah and the one where you acted like one of the fishermen in the Gospel. And don’t be surprised at the results when you do.

January 11, 2015

Water, water, water!!!

The Baptism of Our Lord
January 11, 2015

I have always had a fascination with water. I grew up at the bottom of a street that was a lot like of one of those old wooden roller coasters with the peaks and valleys. No matter which way we left our driveway, it was literally uphill both ways. Luckily, the few times I walked to school, there was never 5-feet of snow and it was a least downhill on the way home. There was a large drainage ditch for rain water coming down the hills around us, and the creek it created ran right out of our front yard and into a rock-lined trench in our neighbor’s backyard.  I remember being a small child and looking out the window just watching the water going along, sometimes at just a trickle, and sometimes rushing, and I often wondered where it was going. “To someone else’s yard is all that matters,” my dad would often say with a smile.

Some of my most loved hiking spots in the Great Smokey Mountains and in the South Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee follow beside streams and rivers. Some of those trails, like Fiery Gizzard near Sewanee and Abram’s Falls in the Smokies, end at a beautiful pool of water.  One of my favorite bike trails when I lived in Washington, DC, and owned a mountain bike was the Tow Path that parallels the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  It was all too easy to get mezmoreized at the slow-moving water or be startled by a turtle that popped its head out of the water. More than one fellow cyclist (luckily never me!) went tires first into that water because they weren’t paying attention. Among the greatest joys I have as a parent is to watch my kids play in the ocean and watch their love of water grow, too. Most days, I wish they had a little more fear of the water, too, especially when they want to run headlong into the Atlantic Ocean.

Water is all around us. Seventy-Two percent of our planet is covered by water. Our own bodies are 70% water. New Bern, North Carolina, sits at the intersection of two rivers, which converge to flow towards the ocean. We use water to bath, to drink, to cook, to clean, to play. Sometimes I think there are as many boats in this part of the world as there are people.  While many of us take water for granted, especially since we can take a left out of our front doors and be at the water in two blocks, there are parts of the world, even parts of our own country, where water is the cause of great stress because of its scarcity. If you ask most people, they’d rather the power go out in their house than the water.

Water is primal. When God began creating the heavens and the earth, water was already there. Whatever the “formless void” looked like, the writers of Genesis tell us that the wind from God swept over the face of the water. Even in the second creation story in Genesis 2, even before there were plants or herbs, a “stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground.”[1]  Almost every ancient creation story, no matter the religion, starts with water. According to some scientists, evidence of those primal waters of creation still exists. They’ve found similarities between the amniotic water we all floated in for 9 months and samples of the most ancient evidence of water at the beginning of time[2]. Maybe that’s why another researcher recently suggested that the reason we tend to come up with some of our greatest ideas in the shower is because the warm waters remind our deepest subconscious of the formative time in the womb when all was safe and warm, and we are free to be more creative.

Water is timeless. While it can change forms (Solid, liquid, gas), the molecules of today’s water have been around since the wind from God first moved across them.  While some water molecules have escaped our atmosphere into space[3], the odds are very strong that the same water molecules still exist that were at the creation of the world, that fell over Jesus’ head at his baptism, that washed the feet of his Disciples.  The same water that we drink. The same water in which we play. The same water has always been around.

Without a doubt, water is holy. There are far too many references to water in Scripture to talk about in one sermon, but from Genesis to Revelation and in almost every book of the Bible in between, water plays a role in telling the story of God’s work through and with humanity. There’s the story of Noah and the Flood, the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea, crossing into the Promised Land over the Jordan River, and even the prophet Jeremiah sitting in a well because the king was mad at him. God uses water to help fulfill the divine mission and let people know of God’s active presence in the lives of all creation.

So it is no accident that our Gospel lesson today, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we find ourselves at the banks of the Jordan with John and Jesus.  The whole season of Epiphany is about the revelation of who Jesus is to his followers and to the world, and so Jesus’ ministry, like our own, begins with Baptism. The world began with water. Jesus’ begins his ministry with water, too. There is debate about why Jesus presented himself for Baptism, especially since the Gospels all tell us that John’s act of Baptism was a sign of repentance and renewal of life, and many other places in Scripture tell us Jesus was without sin.  So in a Spiritual sense, no, Jesus did not have to be Baptized by John (Matthew’s Gospel even recounts a bit of resistance by John.)  But Jesus is about relationships. The whole purpose of the Word Made Flesh was for God to be in closer relationship with humanity. In order for him to have any validity with his followers, he didn’t need to present himself as perfect or better than them, “above” being Baptized as a sign of repentance and forgiveness. For Jesus, being Baptized was an act of solidarity with the people, to fully associate himself with the human condition.
In this moment of solidarity, we hear Jesus receiving an affirmation from God about the very core of his identity. “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I would argue that at our own Baptism and every Baptism we witness, we receive the same affirmation. “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you, I find great happiness.”  I don’t think we have to only hear it at a Baptism, but anytime we are doing the work of God in the world.  

Our Scripture lessons the next several weeks, especially the readings from the Gospels, will be about Who Jesus Is and how he is revealed to the world around him. We get to spend this Epiphany rededicating ourselves to our own ministries and our main task as followers of Jesus which is spreading the light of Christ in the world around us.  Such a perfect Sunday to launch the year-long festivities around our 300th Anniversary. Not only can we focus on the faithful work of the past, but more important, we have the opportunity to focus on the Baptismal ministries of the present and the future as well.  Neither Jesus’ baptism nor our own calls us to look backwards or inwards, but instead to look forward and outward, so that we as individuals and as a community can be the light of Christ the world so desperately needs.

In a moment, we will re-affirm our Baptismal Covenant, pledging that with God’s help we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, that we will proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, what we will continue in the apostles’ teaching. When have said those timeless and holy words, we will all again feel the waters of Baptism fall on us again. May that timeless, ever-present, holy water renew you in all the ways that you serve God.

[1] Genesis 2:5-6
[3] http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=2