The Third Sunday after the EpiphanyJonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Since I was a member of the diocesan Commission on Ministry for the past seven years, I have talked and heard a lot about “call.” At first glance, our call stories seem to follow Jonah’s pattern. God singles us out and calls us to perform some task—to preach or to teach, to serve the poor or to comfort the sick. It can be a job to which we are powerfully drawn, yet it is almost always a job that will turn our lives upside down in scary ways. We might have to move, or give away money, or social standing, or possessions. Often, we run from this call, like Jonah, getting as far away from God’s annoying voice as we can. Of course, since no one can run from God, we eventually end up over our heads in some tumultuous sea, or cooling our heels in the noxious belly of a metaphorical fish somewhere, tossing and turning until we figure out that we had better obey the voice. Call—Refusal—Flight—Repentance—Submission. That’s the pattern that comes through the clergy narratives that I used to hear, over and over again.
Not surprisingly, that’s also the pattern that we preach to you guys in the pews: “Don’t you hear God’s voice nudging you to give of your many gifts? There’s a job out here in the church or in the world that God wants you to do. You can’t run from it; eventually it will catch up with you.” With this understanding of call so ingrained in our minds, we often don’t know what to do with Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John in today’s Gospel. “Wow,” we marvel. “Look at those faith-filled disciples. They don’t run from God’s call like I do. They don’t even have to think about it. They hear Jesus’ invitation, and immediately they give up their jobs and their families and take off with him. I could never do that. I’m much more like Jonah.”
That’s what I thought, too, when I first started reflecting on this week’s Gospel. “Did I ever make a huge life-change without running away first?” I wondered. And then it hit me. Yes, I did! And it wasn’t my call to ordination! Yes, once I was just like those disciples, throwing down their nets and hitting the road with Jesus. You see, when I was 21 years old, I went to France to live for a year at a French Protestant seminary. I was just supposed to stay and do some research in church history—just for the school year--before coming back home and going to grad school. But one day, after I had been there about 5 months, I was walking back to the seminary from town, and I suddenly decided to stay.
The story that I usually tell people is that I fell in love with my New Testament professor. I got engaged. That’s why I stayed. It makes for a dramatically romantic and even shocking story, but that’s not really all that happened. After all, my fiancé could have come back with me to the US. What happened was that I had entered into a new world in France, a world that I wanted to make my own. I had lived for 21 years in a very narrow world, a safe world, but a sad and confining one. It was all about pleasing other people, following the rules, working, doing what was expected. Suddenly, across the ocean in France, I found freedom: the freedom of expressing myself in a new language, the freedom to be remade from the inside out in a new culture. I found love, but I also found community—the close-knit community of the French Reformed Church. In the seminary dorm, I found friendship with men and women from countries all over the world, and I learned for the first time how God was working in those countries for justice, how the church was working in those countries to fight poverty and disease. I wanted to be a part of that world of limitless horizons and goodness: that world of freedom, love, and transformation. It’s hard to describe how I changed. Almost overnight, my life in the United States didn’t matter anymore. My family and friends, my old career aspirations …. None of it mattered. I had glimpsed something better. Something that I knew I had to join, or wither and die.
That world of new horizons, I believe, is what Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John saw in Jesus of Nazareth. They didn’t hear a call to do some difficult and annoying task. They caught a glimpse of God in Jesus’ eyes. They saw the immediacy of God’s reign of love and freedom and transformation in Jesus’ words and deeds. And nothing was going to keep them from holding on to what they saw. They saw the old oppressive world of fishing to provide food for Roman tables, as the emptiness that it was. They didn’t join Jesus to become brave and successful Fishers for People. They entered into Jesus’ world simply because they found life and joy there, and, stepping over the threshold into God’s Kingdom, their lives and their work were transformed.
Was it easier for the disciples, perhaps, to recognize the Good News in the physical person of Jesus Christ than it is for us 21st-century people, dependent on Scripture and the Holy Spirit? I’m not so sure. What I do know is that, as Christ’s Body in the world, the Church is supposed to be the community that calls us all into God’s amazing new life. The Church is supposed to be the place of life, love, mercy, and joy so wonderful that frightened 21-year-olds, hope-starved workers, jaded elders, and thirsty, starving travelers of all kinds will want the joy and love that we have. They will want it so badly that they will put their burdens down and join us. Our “call” is not something that God is mainly offering to people who want to be ordained. Our call is whispered into the ears of each one of us at our baptism, as we—often nothing more than helpless little babies—are drawn across the threshold of a new world and made into fishers of people. So often, people fall in love with God through the Church and think that means that they have to be ordained in order to live in the world that they desire. But that world is meant for all of us—old and young, rich and poor, saint and sinner—no exceptions. You don’t have to be a bishop, a priest, or a deacon to give yourself to living the Good News of Jesus Christ.
At our best, then, we as the Church are the place in which the world can see God’s mercy and love. When it comes down to it, this is the true message of the Book of Jonah. Jonah isn’t really a call story at all. It’s a story about God’s love and mercy. Jonah’s problem is not that he doesn’t want to give up his comfy everyday life to go to Nineveh. Jonah’s problem is that he hates the Ninevites. They are the evil arch-enemies of his people. They want to slaughter his friends and family. He doesn’t think that they are worthy of God’s—or his—attention. When God uses Jonah’s begrudging prophetic words—the short sentence that we hear today in our reading—to turn the people around and completely forgive the whole nation, Jonah is furious with God! “This is exactly why I ran away!” Jonah fumes. “Please just kill me God!” he rants. “If this is the way of things, it is better for me to die than to live.”
“Would you rather die judging and hating?” Jonah’s author asks us, “or live out of God’s love and mercy?” I saw the movie “Selma” last week, and during the movie, I loved to hate then-Alabama governor George Wallace and his minions who responded with such hardness and cruelty to King’s message of love and justice. “Boo…” I jeered to myself whenever they appeared on the screen. At the end of the movie, the writers included a little blurb about what happened to each of the characters after the events in Selma. For George Wallace, they pointed out that he was later shot in an assassination attempt and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. “Ha--serves him right,” I thought to myself. Later, my friend told me that the writers had left out one important fact. Wallace, like the Ninevites, had repented. He had repented of his cruel and self-serving racism. After he was shot, he experienced a religious conversion. He asked forgiveness of God and of Martin Luther King, Jr’s family. Both forgave him, and Wallace changed his ways. It’s too bad that the movie producers ran from an emphasis on mercy and repentance at the end of their movie.
Would you have forgiven Wallace, if you were King’s widow? Can you take the hand of someone who recently humiliated you, if it is offered at the Peace? Can you help the mean kid with her homework, the same mean kid whose bullying ways got you in trouble last week when you tried to defend your friend? Can you forgive the Patriots for “deflategate,” even though it looks as if they are always getting away with pulling a fast one? Can you pray for the members of Boko Haram with the same love and concern with which you pray for their victims? God’s call to us is not an individual task at which we succeed or fail. It is a joyful response to love and freedom. Each one of us is called, right now and every day of our lives, to choose love and mercy, to choose to live as a community of love and mercy, even over our own sense of fairness. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." That is the challenging and transforming Good News that God offered to Jonah, and that Jesus offers to us.May we run towards its promise.