Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
1st Reading: Johah 3:1-5, 10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
It is amazing how many little kid books talk about running away. We’d like to skip out on reading books like that to our toddler, but it seems to be a topic that’s hard to avoid. One favorite book is by Mercer Mayer, called “I was so mad.” You may have read this book before. The kid wants to do any number of things he’s not supposed to such as keep frogs in the bathtub, tickle the goldfish, prune the rose bush, juggle with eggs, and so forth and no one will let him, and so he gets so mad. It has been a good book for us to read so that our son can name one of his strongest emotions and know he isn’t alone. The problem is this kid threatens to run away from home. I’d rather wait until it occurs to Sterling or his school friends tell him that there is such a thing as running away. It is something many kids consider in their young lives, but I don’t like to think put ideas in his head. Maybe it is funny when little kids threaten it or attempt it, but bigger kids can pull it off and I can’t imagine the anguish of their parents until those kids come home.
In the scriptures for today, God is calling various people. Some come quickly when called and others run the other way.
We all have callings. We all have vocations. Some of our callings are in our work. Martin Luther talked about God calling all people. I went looking for Luther’s famous quote about how the woman who sweeps does God’s work as much as the monk who prays, but I’m sorry to tell you that there is no evidence that he ever said this. Furthermore the quote is more about works righteousness than it is about calling. It seems to say that God likes people to work hard and it is the quality of the work that gives glory to God. Luther’s doctrine of vocation is more about God calling us to work and service on behalf of our neighbor. God likes grocery clerks because the neighbor needs food. God likes teachers, because the neighbor needs an education. You get the idea.
We all have vocations and callings in our families, too. Some are called as aunts or uncles, parents, children of aging parents, brothers, sisters, and so forth.
God is always calling us. God calls us from our old realities and traps and falsehoods, into new life. God is calling us to bring us from a long-distance relationship into accord with God’s Kingdom, a relationship of presence and nearness and hope.
Jonah was called to preach to the people of Nineveh. Like the little critter from Sterling’s book, he ran away. We know what happened next to Jonah. He was thrown overboard, swallowed by a whale, and given three days to think about his refusal. This morning’s story picks up there. The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time. I doubt he was happy to hear from God again. I can just hear him declaring how mad he is. He’s mad at the people of Nineveh. He’s mad at God. He’s just plain grouchy. But he tried to run away and found himself in the belly of a big fish and spewed out on the shore. There would be no running away. He just hoped it was all a co-incidence. But no, now God is telling him again to go to Nineveh.
Nineveh was a Gentile nation. Why should they listen to Jonah or Yahweh? Nineveh was a very violent city. Certainly Jonah feared for his life. I doubt any of us would have accepted the assignment the first time around. We probably would have run away, too. And at times we have all run away from what we knew was right, what we knew was our calling. Sometimes we’ve been corrected, either by our nagging conscience, or by someone who could see the situation more clearly than we could. Sometimes we’ve corrected our course. Other times we’ve just continued running.
Contrast this with the disciples. They immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus. What was so different about them? Did they know Jesus from before? Was his personality just so magnetic that they couldn’t help themselves? Or maybe they were fed up and dissatisfied with being fishermen, maybe they had no hopes for their future, that when they heard someone articulating the vision that did hold hope and a future, they were just ready to go. They were tired of God far away and ready for God coming near. They were ready to fish for people.
The Corinthians were a mixture of Jonah and the Disciples. Sometimes they are running to follow God and sometimes they were running the other way. Paul urges them to run toward God and not all the temptations of the world. For him there was an urgency to the running, God’s Kingdom is now, it is present, we had all better listen to God’s calling. Furthermore, the world was dangerous and threatening. Christians were being persecuted. They were misunderstanding the Gospel and leading each other into temptation. They were forgetting what Paul had taught them. They were forgetting their calling and vocation. So Paul reminds them. He urges them to live in the moment—not to be too concerned with the past or preparing for the future. In this threatening world, all you had was today. You didn’t know what tomorrow would bring and you couldn’t control that anyway. All we have is today. This reminds me of people who get a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. Sometimes they have a sense of life that leads them to appreciate the moment. You can’t tell someone to live this way, in the moment. But sometimes we are given the gift of living in the moment. I remember feeling this way when Sterling was born. I’m hoping to recapture it a bit in my sabbatical. Sometimes we can live this way when we take a vacation or by practicing mindfulness techniques such as an alarm that reminds you to focus on the moment or daily devotions or even service projects and volunteering.
We are like the Disciples. We are usually somewhere on the continuum between running completely in the other direction when God calls us and running straight into God’s loving arms. And I think it depends on how comfortable we are verses how fed up we are, which direction we run because when we run to God we are eager and open for the new life God is offering. When we run the other way, it is often because we are benefitting from the status quo and we don’t want anything to change. We tend to live lives of privilege and comfort and because of that we often run the other direction. But we also know times of hardship and pain and we get fed up with this world and ready for the new life God offers.
In what ways are we fed up? In what ways are we ready for God’s reign?
Every time we have the pantry, I know I feel fed up. I get fed up with a world where people can’t find meaningful work, where the elderly and disabled fall through the cracks, where children are suffering because we don’t see food as a basic human right, and where nutrition is absent in the most affordable foods, and that it is so much about money and so little about giving life. It makes me feel that the work of the pantry is so important, plus the fact that it breaks down the barriers between the congregations that serve, it breaks down barriers between insiders and outsiders for our church, and I always learn something about myself and am challenged in my assumptions. As a result of the feeling of being fed up, many of us throw ourselves more into the work of the pantry. Others have been thinking more about advocacy or expanding our work in the areas of nutrition, maybe having some cooking and canning classes. In a couple of weeks four of us are traveling to Salem to talk to our legislators about the needs in our community and to hear what we can do that can help make the change this neighborhood needs. Any of you would be welcome to come to Ecumenical Advocacy Day. Talk to me if you want to know more.
I am not exactly fed up, but my body and my mind are dead tired as I try to plan for the 11th time Christmas, Lent, Easter—what will help people connect with God, what will wake them up, what will help them give and receive from this community, what can I say that I haven’t already said, how can I say what needs to be said in a way it can be heard? If I don’t take the time to listen to the Spirit, how can I expect to hear God in a new way and how can I expect you to take the time to listen to God. So I have this sabbatical planned. It will be a lot less talking and a lot more listening. And I hope you, too, get fed up with the same style and the same examples, the same mannerisms and embrace some new ones of a new leader for a little while. It’s ok to take a little break to listen to God and see what God might be saying differently through a different person.
If we’re fed up and accepting the call, God invites us to change the world, to see that the Kingdom of God is so close by and to make it close by for all who suffer because it seems remote when our systems oppress and hurt people. If we’re running the other way, God invites us to live in the moment and to witness what other people are going through.
Jonah was a big grump. But I don’t think the story really ends with him pouting by the fig tree because the people of Nineveh repented and God didn’t destroy them. Jonah spent three days walking through that city. I think his heart began to soften. He would think of the people of that city every singe day from then on. They became a part of him. He saw them and started to feel compassion. More than changing the Ninevites, God changed Jonah and changes us every time we are stubborn or pouting or running away by putting us in the midst of real people with real lives, Jesus Christ in the poor, the hungry, the weary, the grieving and so forth, until our heartstrings get pulled and we stop running from the one trying to give us life.