Sunday, January 21, 2018

Service & Sermon for January 21st 2018 ... When we hear "come and follow me" ...

*Introit:          All The Way my Saviour Leads Me               VU 635

Call to Worship:
One: Come and follow me. I will make you fish for people.  
ALL: That’s a whale of a tale.
One: Go to Nineveh and call on them to repent.
ALL: No Thanks, I’m kind of busy right now.
One: You can flee, but God will find you and bring you back.
ALL: My days are pretty full, can I get back to you later?
One: Across time and space, the call to follow resonates.
ALL: Simon and Andrew left their boats and followed.
One: Come and follow me. I will make you fish for people.
ALL: Thank you God for finding us in the most unlikely of places, 
             and bringing us to where we are meant to be.

Prayer of Approach:
Gracious and loving God, you have called us over the tumult of our lives … your voice resonates within us yet too often we fail to listen … like Jonah, we throw out excuses and run the other way … yet you persist …
            You persist in calling us … you persist in loving us … you persist in being present in our lives and our world.
            O Holy One, call us and welcome us in that we may be like the disciples who left their boats and nets, putting the past behind them as they answered the simple words: “Follow Me”.
            We will follow wherever it is that you lead us,
We will follow the love and grace your forgiveness gives us,
            We will follow, sharing love with the world as we join together in prayer, 

*Hymn:          Seek Ye First The Kingdom                           VU 356

Scripture Readings:
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62                      (VU 779)
I Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20
*Hymn:          Jesus You Have Come to the Lakeshore        VU 563

I learned something new this week about the book of Jonah. I’ve always known it has a fair bit of exaggeration in it, but I had not encountered a commentary on it that stated clearly that the book was a satire … the WPOG curriculum states flatly: “Jonah is different from other books about prophets in that it is a satire profiling a prophet who is disobedient rather than faithful.”
          This kind of brought me up short. No one in the academic community sees the book of Jonah as a historic text, but rather a metaphoric text.
          No one can live in the gut of a whale for three days.
          Not too mention that Jonah ran off towards modern Spain before being swallowed by the whale, only to be barfed up on the shore a day’s walk from Ninevah – an action that would require the whale to move at physically impossible speeds from the Mediterranean sea, AROUND Africa up to the Arab peninsula where modern Iraq sits …
          But beyond the exaggerations and the metaphors, scholars follow up the satire observation by noting:
          The book of Jonah is uncharacteristic, when compared to other writing in the prophetic tradition, in its use of humour or irony to make its point. Humourous qualities, such as exaggerated behaviour (running away fronm God) inappropriate actions (sleeping through a violent storm) outlandish situations (offering a prayer of thanksgiving from inside a fish’s belly) ludicrous commands (animals must fast and wear sackcloth) and emotions either contrary to expectation or out of proportion appear throughout the story. But all of these qualities serve to underline the book’s themes.
          The book has a role disproportionate to its size within religious tradition, Judaism picking up on its theme of repentance, reads it liturgically on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

          So, a book written while the Jewish nation was in exile in Babylon, offers a satirical look at the life of a prophet, and from the inside of the Babylonian empire acknowledges that the nation is in need of MAJOR and immediate repentance … but in this story lies a mirror that the ancients would see, and that liturgically is at play when the text is shared on Yom Kippur … repentance is needed on the part of the Ninevites, but it is needed ALSO on the part of the listener.
          Where do we sit in the story?
          Are we the hard headed and stubborn Jonah who needs to be pulled back to God’s plan and desires?
          Are we the people of Nineveh, quietly going about our days oblivious to our misdeeds and our need for repentance?
          Or are we like the king, who on hearing the message seizes the opportunity and returns to God?
          The power of that mirror is that it helps us reflect on the places in our hearts and our lives that need to be addressed … the places where grace can break through and bring transformation. Where we can have an epiphany that calls to more than this moment and where we find ourselves.
          This theme carries on in the reading from Mark where Jesus calls more of his disciples.
          We have four fisherman – they have secure employment, they are comfortable in their lives and social status, they are pretty much set.
          Then along comes this Jesus character inviting them to leave their boats and nets behind and follow him … becoming fishers of men and women instead. An epiphany to go … to go and see where the journey may lead.
          It is quite the jump – leave everything behind – security, certainty, comfort and follow an itinerant preacher as he wanders around the country side talking about God … what would our reaction be if one of our kids did that? If we did that?
          Yet, here it is – central to our story and experience as a Church – as a faith community, we have a radical departure from everything we value and appreciate as a people and a culture …

          And this is the discomfort we are facing as a people today – the landscape around us has been shifting and changing, and things are not as they once were, so we face a call … a call to faith.
          We face a call and we await an epiphany that will show us where we are to go.
          This is where we can begin to understand some of what is unfolding around us that leaves us scratching our heads in bewilderment.
          Economically things are changing, the secure, good paying jobs are simply not here anymore, and precarious employment and uncertainty about retirement is the norm … people are frightened and uncertain and angry, so when a political candidate steps up and starts talking about making things better and offers simple answers to the complex issues, as frightening as it may be, people jump at the chance to reclaim past glory and will support them …
          Socially things are in incredible flux … all around us there are people who are NOT like us – their language, culture and skin tone are different … they want to live in little clusters and hang out with each other and not mesh into our society (they aren’t like the Italians and Germans and scots who settled vast tracts of land together, or lived in neighbourhoods together …) But that difference can make us uncomfortable and uneasy and leads to uncertainty, fear and even anger …
          So, in the face of anger and fear we seek something … anything … that will give us comfort and security.
          Churches are not immune – instead of embracing the uncertainty with the spirit of the disciples heading off to follow Jesus wherever the journey might lead, we instead will entrench ourselves, tighten the rules, clarify the dogmas, strengthen the thou shalt not’s and enforce the us or them paradigms … and we seek simple answers for complex questions …
          We seek comfort in the face of uncertainty
                   We seek certainty in the face of doubt
                             We seek safety in the face of fear
          But God calls us to something that is truly uncertain … our problem has been, as theologian Walter Bruggemann notes – that as Christians we are used to being victors and triumphant. This new context where we are not the victors, and we are not always right is different and truly disconcerting. The epiphany will likely not bring comfort, but will guide us to FACE the discomfort and meet it with faith and grace.
          In the last forty years something has happened that we are struggling to make sense of … when I started in ministry, a mere 25 years ago, full time ministries were the norm. I remember class mates wanting a part-time charge rather than full time, and they were out there, but they were rare.
          Ministry was a secure job – there were lots of churches, and there were lots of opportunities …
          Today, the landscape is different. Part-time ministries are the norm, and fulltime ministries are uncommon. Ministry is not a secure job, and the likelihood of secure employment with a comfortable retirement as a minister is more than just uncertain … and the context within churches is similar.
          Churches are struggling … they are fighting to keep the lights on and the doors open … congregations are dwindling and the average age is climbing … to be honest and blunt, as an institution the Church – across denominations – is dying … and the grief that is in response to that palliative journey is real and tangible and is leading to A LOT of anger … A LOT of fighting.
          When there is a death in a family, we ALL know stories about fighting over stuff … cherished mementos or valued heirlooms … families bicker and fight and real damage can happen over the silliest of things …
          The epiphany moment for us, in community … in faith, is to name the grief … to own the grief … to live the grief … and to begin to heal through it.
          In the Church today, we are in the same scenario as a family standing by the grave of a loved one. Big changes are unfolding around us, and things are changing rapidly … and like any family we are grieving, even if we don’t use the language … so, shall we try to run away like Jonah? Flee in the opposite direction to escape God?
          Or will we get angry and lash out? Will we let our grief turn to resentment and anger and tear down rather than build up?
          Or will we respond like the disciples and the people of Corinth? Will we face our mortality and embrace the epiphany? Will we have the courage to face our grief by letting go of the familiar and the comfortable and facing tomorrow KNOWING that God is with us, and that we are being called and invited AND welcomed to join in the journey that lies ahead?
          The WPOG summarizes it well when it notes:
Sometimes God calls when we least expect it, at an inconvenient time, or from an unexpected source. Are we, like Jonah, trying to avoid God’s summons? Or like the four fishers, ready to drop what we are doing and follow Jesus? Whatever response we make, God does not give up on us. Like the Corinthians that Paul was writing to, we are called to find ways to rearrange our lives, set new priorities, and treat one another as Christ taught us to. What is God’s ‘the time is now’ message to us, and to our faith community at this moment in our lives?
          And what are we prepared to do with that message?
          … may it be so … thanks be to God, let us pray …