Sunday, January 25, 2015

Where God Wants Us To Be

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1: 14-20

If they gave out awards for Bible stories the way they do for movies and TV, today’s gospel story would probably win Mark an Emmy for Best Director. The story of Jesus calling the fishermen to his cause is dramatic, fast-paced, well-structured and compelling.
As a faith story, too, it’s a winner. Good news is clearly proclaimed. And people respond immediately - dropping everything and changing their lives to follow God.
It’s exciting! Sometimes I think it would be fun if church were always like that. 
But it’s not. Life’s not like that.
Life’s more like Jonah.

In a scriptural library full of historical drama, pundit and panel commentary, a lot of documentary, some infomercials and a mini-series or two, Jonah is the only half-hour sitcom.
And it’s a doozy.

Jonah - like so many prophets - is called and given a task by God.
Get up. Go to Ninevah. Preach against them, because I have noticed their wickedness. 
This is classic prophet fare - go tell the evildoers they are in trouble.
So Jonah promptly gets up and goes.
Goes in exactly the opposite direction, as fast as he can hop on a boat.

You can’t blame him, really, if you know that Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrians, the folks whose mission in life seems to be to destroy God’s people and God’s country. Ninevah is across the river from present day Mosul, Iraq, and it was probably about as safe for Jonah to go there as it would be for you or me to run over to Mosul and announce to the Islamic State folks that God is mad at them. 
And if the Ninevites do repent, God will have to give up avenging God’s people and be nice to them.  This leaves Israel as the losers and the bad guys as the winners.
So Jonah knows that God’s plan here is a few cards short of a deck, and he skips town to give God time to think better of it.

No sooner is he underway than God sends a storm. 
The worst storm ever.
The sailors pray.  They toss all their valuable cargo overboard.  They seek divine guidance (any god’s guidance!) for the source of the storm.  Turns out it’s Jonah - who’s been sleeping through the whole thing. Woken up by the captain, he suggests to the sailors that they toss him overboard to appease God. They try instead to rescue him, fighting the storm to see him safe to land, but finally have to give up, and send him over the side.
In a drama, we’d cut to commercial at this tragic point. 
Instead we discover - as Jonah splashes down - that “the Lord appointed a large fish to swallow Jonah.”

It’s worth noting that despite Jonah’s clear lack of enthusiasm, the sailors pray to his God in the storm, and worship his God in the calm after. Prophetic success, in spite of all Jonah’s indifference and avoidance.

We return from commercial to find Jonah in the belly of the fish, strumming his banjo and singing to God in thanks for being saved from drowning. "Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land."
I do mean vomit.  The image of a great big fish ralphing out a prophet is an original part of this story.
I told you it was a sitcom.

And now we arrive at the point we heard this morning. God speaks to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh,  and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (God’s going to be a little more precise this time, ghostwriting Jonah’s speeches.  We all learn from experience.)

So Jonah goes. Goes into the city, but not to the center. And yells, “Forty days until Ninevah is destroyed!”
That’s it.  Not one word more. Shortest sermon or prophetic oracle on record.  And it gets the most overwhelming response.  

Ninevah repents.
Boy, do they ever repent.  
Every last one of them fasts and wears a hair shirt. And when the king gets involved, so do all the animals. Imagine a town full of penitent goats and pigeons.  Wearing hair shirts.
So God decides not to destroy them.
Once again, outstanding prophetic success from half-assed prophetic work.

Of course, Jonah has no real incentive to work at this.  He knows that if the Ninevites repent, God’s going to be nice to them, and that is going to be terrible for Israel, having their powerful and merciless enemy introduced as a new baby brother in God’s family…. Because you have to be nice to the baby, even when the baby clearly does not follow the rules.

You and I, much later, might be delighted to think of God’s mercy and forgiveness embracing the evil empire. But to get Jonah’s point of view, imagine how you’d feel if God announced that the Islamic State terrorists were your new best friend, perfectly suited to rule half the world and dictate American foreign policy.  Maybe domestic, too.
This is not change we can believe in.
And it makes Jonah furious.

There’s a final bizarre scene with an appearing and disappearing shade tree where God and Jonah argue about whether it matters that God’s ways are not our ways.

As the story ends, we’re meant to be left laughing at Jonah while the lesson sinks in: You can’t always guess what you want from God.
And God’s overwhelming successes can take root in our own sloppy indifference, and blossom while we try to avoid the icky changes they require.

Which makes it the perfect story for an annual meeting Sunday.

In less than an hour, while we enjoy a tasty potluck, we’ll take a look at the Ninevites that surround Calvary - a budget deficit, some leadership challenges, the plain fact that we just don't come to church as much as we used to, on average - and you’ll probably notice that those things could threaten some change at Calvary.

Not immediately.  Not profoundly. We’ll be here in fine form next week, and we have a lot to celebrate now. 
But that potential for unpleasant change is there, and I don’t want to embrace it any more than Jonah wanted to go to Ninevah.
If you feel the same way - if you want to bend all our efforts to bringing things back to the way they were, and better - that’s fantastic. Talk to our incoming Senior Warden; he’ll put you to work.
And that’s also why God gave us Jonah this morning.

Because at the end of the day, the story of this church is God’s, not ours, to shape. The unpleasant change that lurks over a horizon may also be God’s overwhelming triumph; our best efforts to get it right may be the laughably long way ’round to salvation, and no matter what, we end up where God calls us to be.

So today is a day to celebrate.
Because we’re here. And Jonah’s story assures us that being here (anywhere!) means that God is doubtless getting us where we need to go.  That storms and fish bellies and wild success are all equally valid steps on that way.

And while we may never win best drama, 
God works through laughter, too.
Human comedy is also divine.
And if God gets the last laugh, well, that’s a delight God wants to share with us, when we all end up where God wants us to be.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Aiming Too Low

John 1:43-51 (1 Samuel 3:1-20, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20)

Do any of you know Nathanael?

Nathanael is a man of pronounced  opinions. A man whose enthusiasms can be overwhelming, and whose contempt is equally strong.

One fine day Philip finds Nathanael with some good news: “That Messiah we’ve all been waiting for - he’s here! He’s Jesus from Nazareth.”
Hmph. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Nathanael thinks of Nazareth the way Broadway producers think of Peoria: limited, provincial, boring. 
Jesus from Nazareth? Nathanael’s eyes roll.

But somehow, when Philip says, “Come, you will see…” Nathanael comes. Comes with his low expectations and strong opinions geared up and ready, and he’s baffled by the way Jesus greets him,
“Aha! A faithful man with no deceit!”
Well, it’s true Nathanael hasn’t been hiding his opinions, but that’s still not the greeting you might expect.  
And when Jesus explains this sweeping personality assessment with the information that he’d seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree…
Well, I’m still scratching my head, and so are a lot of biblical scholars, but Nathanael’s instantly converted: “You are the Son of God! The King! You’re him!!
Nathanael goes from eye-rolling skeptic to devout convert in nothing flat.  He’s found God. Never mind that problem with Nazareth, now.

He’s not alone.
There are plenty of people in the world who’ve found God, or Jesus, because of a momentary encounter, an unexpected sense of being known, and valued.
After all, being known - not just recognized, but really known - is rare enough, and when the person who knows you sees you as valuable, praiseworthy, as Jesus does with Nathanael….?  Well, that’s truly powerful.

So there are plenty of people who have found their way to the church because the right thing happened in the right place at the right time.  
One visit - the right brief encounter with the pastor, the eagerness of the child handing you a worship booklet, a moment the person in the next pew - that meets the right needs, affirms the right things in someone’s life - and the next thing you know you’re a regular.  
Or on the Vestry.

Wouldn't it be nice for us - for you and me, here at Calvary this morning - if that happened every time someone walked through our doors?  Wouldn't it be easier to issue Philip’s invitation to, “Come and see,” if that powerful encounter were guaranteed?

I know how hard it can be to issue that invitation about church. I’ve known that every time I’ve asked you or invited you or pushed you to bring your friends to church.  
And known it every time I’ve asked you to volunteer for some responsibility here, to take on a piece of Calvary’s ministry.

The invitation to “come and see” - whether it’s to church or to a new ministry - may not get issued, or accepted, because, well, it’s not that exciting, it’s not what we need right now, I don’t know how to do it, or I’m not getting much out of it.
And there are a lot of people we might invited who are justified in asking, “Can anything good come out of the church??”

Really.  Christians look a lot like Nazareth, these days, to people who aren’t from here.

Still, sometimes, when we’re all really lucky, we do get Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus.  The invitation to church, or the new ministry, is easy. It resonates; it lifts your spirit and reveals God.
Alleluia!  Wonderful things happen.
And in the midst of that wonder, Jesus laughs a little, and says, 
“You believe because of that? That little thing?  I’m telling you, you ought to see what else is in store.”

Because really, these are little things, these happy encounters, and it’s barely the tip of the iceberg of what God has in mind.
Jesus did not come for the affirmation that converts Nathanael.
He didn’t come to help us find meaning in life, to fulfill our needs,
or to give us a boost through the week.

So if you are here for that, stop coming.
If that’s what would make it easy to invite your friends here, don’t bring them.
I mean it.
It’s not that those things won’t happen in church.
We do some of that quite well at Calvary, and the food isn’t bad either.
But Jesus says we have to be about much more than that.

In his rush to fulfillment, Nathanael misses what Jesus is here to do: to reveal the depth and breadth of the connection between God and us, to transform the relationship between God and the world.

If we’re here for - or want to be able to invite people to - predictable fulfillment and satisfaction; if we need a great youth ministry, compelling programs, world-class sermons [or exciting music], that sort of thing, to make the invitation compelling,
then Jesus is shaking his head at us just like he did Nathanael.
You think this is about that? About guidance, or comfort, or success?
I’m telling you, you’re aiming too low.

For Jesus, it’s about the greater things.
The real reason to come to church, the only reason to invite people to church, is to find out what Jesus is going to transform in us.  
To find out how Jesus is going to break you open to God. 

As a friend of mine told me recently: in Christianity, there’s no bench.
There’s no skybox, either. No bleachers.  
There is only the playing field, and you’re on the team.
Or there’s no game.

So we don’t get to come to God or to church to watch, to receive, to be entertained, cheered up, or to be fed. It might happen, but it can’t be why we’re here.

We can’t invite people for any of that, either. We have to invite people because we want to find out what Jesus will do with them.

We have to be willing to be not Nathanael, but Samuel, in today’s story, woken up in the middle of the night, when he thought he was still in training camp, to find himself already in the game.  Required to carry God’s Word to Eli - to family and friends - and then to the rest of the world, until the world is broken open to God.

Or to be more like Paul.  Paul, who is shocked by the discovery that Jesus has something for him to do, and that it’s going to take the rest of his life - and goes ahead and does it, inviting everyone else along with him, even though it seems his whole ministry is prison and storm and internal church fights that never seem to end. (And in which - as you may have noticed this morning, the fighting language is definitely not G-rated.)

I do want you to have that wonderful encounter with Christ that converted Nathanael.
But Jesus wants to be sure that we don’t stop there, content to be affirmed by God.
I’m telling you - he says to Nathanael, and to you and me - I’m telling you to see greater things.  
To see, and perhaps become, the bridge between earth and heaven.

It’s great to be enthused about Jesus,
but even being elated by Jesus is aiming too low.
You will see the world transformed, Jesus promises, the world broken open to God and heaven,
but only if we keep looking for more.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Beginning, Middle....

Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

 Once upon a time….
Or maybe “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…”
Those are magic words. 

It’s the magic of rich possibility and delighted expectation that comes with beginning a story - whether that story is a mystery or a comedy, a deeply human tragedy or an exciting tale of good triumphing over evil (with some dramatic space battles along the way).

The same magic can happen with other beginnings, too - not just stories, but years and relationships and projects and such. New Year’s resolutions carry that sense of fresh start and great potential, no matter how long they last.
New places can too.  Perhaps you like to explore.
Or do you enjoy the “new car smell,” and delight in new things?
Or like starting projects better than slogging through, or finishing them?

If that’s you (and maybe even if it’s not) this is a great Sunday, because it’s full of beginnings.  Did you hear that in our scripture stories?
“In the beginning…. the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

I’ve always been spiritually and emotionally attached to the miracle of God creating the universe out of nothing. I’m equally fond of the Big Bang Theory - the scientific idea, not just the TV show - because of the tremendous potential and wonder of this fresh start.
But there’s one tiny problem with how much I love God creating everything out of nothing.

Did you notice it when you heard the story this morning?
God doesn’t actually start with nothing.
There’s all this water there, already: water in the darkness, with the breath or wind or spirit of God roaming above it.  The “formless void” we hear about in our translation is just as much of a messy, wild, ongoing something as it is empty nothing.
In fact, this story tells us about God working with the waters, and the darkness that are already there: calling out light, and land to separate them from the dark and wet. 
This is a new story, a beginning, yes,
but it’s a middle of something, too. 

Which actually makes it a perfectly normal beginning.
The same thing happens with another beginning in today’s scripture stories.
We heard the story of the baptism of Jesus, “the beginning of his public ministry.” And it’s the exact beginning of Mark’s story, the first thing we find in the document that he calls “The beginning of the good news of Jesus….”
The very beginning.
And the middle, too.

Mark’s story starts in the middle of John’s ongoing, busy, important ministry of baptism.  And in the middle of Jesus’ life, not at birth or 18 or 21 or the equivalent ages of adulthood and beginnings in first century Israel.

It’s in the middle of a very ordinary day for most of the world, including all the people who end up following Jesus, or even fighting with him.  
The beginning of Peter’s story happens another day.  The beginning of Mary’s story was a while back.  The beginning of the story of salvation happens at all kinds of different times and places, 
most of them right in the middle of everything else, and most of them not seeming like much of a fresh start at all.

There are an awful lot of beginnings in the world, and in our lives, that feel more like the middle of a project than a blank canvas, and very few beginnings that have that nice crisp new car smell.

Some beginnings surprise us - appearing in a routine doctor’s visit or a phone call - and the special sense of “beginning” may be overwhelmed by the need to re-arrange the ongoing world to accommodate a baby, a diagnosis, a fantastic job offer.

Some beginnings are carefully planned and much anticipated and just don’t live up to their hype. New Coke, anyone?

Others sneak into consciousness - the discovery that a life-giving, life-long marriage was formed without noticing, while you were just being friends; or that years of “this and that” were actually the first steps in a vocation to heal or teach or build or something else.

And some feel vitally fresh to you or me, but are invisible or old-hat to the people around us (like the dozens of world-changing decisions I made in my twenties that surprised and impressed exactly no one).  Perhaps it even happened to Jesus: “Mom, listen, God is telling me to be a prophet!!  I’ve got to go get baptized!”  “Yes, honey, I know. Did you take the garbage out like I asked?”

And that’s the most wonderful thing about beginnings after all.
Better than the blank slate, the new car smell, the build up of possibility and expectation.  The best thing about beginnings is that we get them right in the middle of nothing much.
Right in the middle of the ordinary day, the dreary month, the dragging year.

From our very first stories about God, our “beginning” stories, we learn that wonder and abundance and new, fresh starts come right in the middle of the same old stuff.
Earth and sky, light and humans, all begun from a long-running wet mess.
The first rehearsal of resurrection is business as usual at John’s baptism shop.

It’s a truth we acknowledge at our own baptism, too, and it’s why the church calls on us to “renew” those baptismal vows regularly.
The promises we make at baptism lean heavily on continuing, persisting, striving…   We don’t make promises about what we will do for the first time once we’re baptised, but about how we will continue to become God’s children over and over and over again, in the middle of the busy life we already live.

That’s great news for me, because I’ve got a lot more business-as-usual in my life than brilliant inspiration.  And a lot of well-worn ruts that could use a new direction.
How about you?

Is there ordinary in your life that needs refreshing?
Or a busy, ongoing muddle where creativity would be welcome?
A stuck rut that demands your continuous attention,
a beginning you don’t even know how to wish for, much less plan?
That’s where God starts.
That’s where - often, if not always - our salvation begins.

If you’ve got a middle in your life that might be ripe for renewal, 
or even an ordinary and comfortable pattern - at home, at work, in relationships, in thought - that you’re willing to let God recreate,
take a moment of silence, right now, to offer it to God.

Just offer the middle-ness, the ongoing busy-ness of your life to God,
remembering that that’s often where God starts to make us new.

And as you offer that middle, that ordinary, the boring or busy to God, listen.
Listen, because sometimes, as God makes you new,  you can hear a voice from heaven whisper, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”