Jan 24th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 1:14-20
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We have two great stories before us this winter Sunday morning. The story of Jonah is one of the best told narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures. Full of symbolism, satire, and power, it challenges us to think in new ways. The story of Jesus calling the disciples, from the pages of Mark’s gospel, with fishermen responding with immediacy and leaving their livelihood behind to follow someone they presumably don’t even know. One story is of a reluctant invitee rejecting a call. The other is a story of seemingly blind faith. And somewhere in the two, or between the two, we will find our sermon for the morning.
The story of Jonah is really something of the same story told twice. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh - “that great city” - and call the people there to repentance. Now, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians. The Assyrians and the people of Israel were not, shall we say, close. God is calling Jonah to go to the capital city of his enemy and share the promise of God’s grace and forgiveness with them.
Jonah’s response is telling. Jonah gets up and goes - in the exact opposite direction. Nineveh is to the east and Tarshish is to the west. Jonah heads toward the setting sun, rather than going in the direction of the breaking dawn of God’s redeeming love and light.
While making his way to Tarshish by sea, a terrible storm comes up. The sailors begin talking about who might be the one onboard causing this calamity. The eyes of their suspicion fall on Jonah, who readily offers himself as the cause and the cure. “Chuck me overboard and all will be well,” Jonah tells the sailors. (That will keep him from going to Nineveh and being part of God’s plan!) And with great foreboding and a prayer of repentance, Jonah is cast into the sea. And the storm stops.
But, a great fish - please note that the word is not whale - swallows Jonah and carries him around in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights. And then, presumably because Jonah sours the stomach of the fish, the fish barfs Jonah out on land.
That is the prelude to our passage for the morning.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” By now, wouldn’t you think God has Jonah’s attention? Same calling as before. “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I will give to you.”
Now, if we were to contemporize the story, let’s imagine that Jonah is an American and God calls him to go to Beijing, or Moscow, or Tehran, or to the capital city of any of our presumed enemies. These are huge cities, filled with people, centers of power, economic hubs, cultural cores, the heartbeat of their nations. Imagine being called to go and preach repentance and the promise of God’s grace in one of those cities.
Wisely, this time, Jonah goes to Nineveh. But Nineveh is so great a city that it takes a person three days to walk across the city. Jonah goes a day’s walk into the city - one-third of the way in - and preaches, in English, an eight-word sermon: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He turns on his heel and walks back out of Ninveh and sits down to watch the destruction of his enemies.
But…something unexpected happens. From the king to the cows, every citizen and animal of Nineveh repents, puts on sackcloth and ashes - a most uncomfortable sign of contrition - and they fast. It was as if everyone in the country observed a period of Lent.
And what happens? God forgives them. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
But that does not end the story. When Jonah discerns that God is not going to destroy the city, that the evil Ninevites had, in fact, repented, Jonah gets hot with anger. Jonah basically makes a speech to God that says, “I told you so! I told you that you would forgive them! That’s why I wanted no part in this! So, now take my life. I can’t bear to live it anymore.”
That night, God caused a plant to spring up from the ground. Some say it was the castor oil bean plant. That might give us an idea of how upset Jonah really was! And Jonah was happy about the plant, shading his head.
But, the next day, a worm eats the bush and Jonah is ticked off once again. And, again, Jonah lets God know exactly how he feels. “It is better for me to die than to live.”
Finally, God has had enough of Jonah’s drama. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” “Darn right it is,” says Jonah. God responds, “So, let me get this straight: you are all worked up over a bush you did not plant and which you did not grow and came into being in a night and perished in a night. So, should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred thousand persons, who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
And that’s where it ends - with a question. “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” Should I not care about the lives and well-being of one hundred thousand people and many, many animals?
Here’s the question: what if God really means it? What if God really means it when God calls us to do something for the cause of God and in the name of God? What if God really means it when we are commanded to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? What if God really means it when we are told that God will forgive and restore any who turn away from their past and walk in newness of life?
When we speak of God’s mercy and grace, it is always an easy conversation in the first person. “God forgave me.” It is only when it we move to the second and third person, “you” and “them,” that the conversation becomes more challenging. How easy it must be for God’s grace to wash over me. But, how difficult it must be for that same grace to wash over you - or them.
We heard a lot of talk about unity this week. It is a beautiful and elusive dream. Perhaps the most poignant statement of the week was when our new President said, “To heal we must remember.”
Maybe we need to remember that all people are created in the image of God and that means that all people have an innate and intrinsic worth. Maybe we need to remember that those who supported President Biden and those who supported President Trump are of equal worth in God’s sight, whether we view one or the other as modern-day Ninevites. Maybe we should take a little less pleasure in the pain and cares of some who are our sisters and brothers. Maybe we need to remember the times when our hopes and dreams were dashed or when we experienced an unanticipated victory and let that be a place where healing might begin. Maybe then, we can begin to speak a little more charitably, care a little more sincerely, and walk together a little more closely.
Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee and saw four working class folk - fishermen - and he called them to follow him. He invited them - he called them as God called Jonah. Their calling was simple and yet mind-numbing. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” What did that even mean? Where were they going? How would they eat? What about their families? What about their aging parents? How long will this take?
To follow Jesus would be either extremely naïve or the single most brilliant decision they would ever face. To follow Jesus meant accepting unknowing as a way of life. To follow Jesus meant stepping out, into the undetermined, with determination.
They did not ask for time to think it over. They did not consult with a job coach or even their spouses. In Mark’s own inimitable way, he says “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Nothing takes time in Mark’s gospel. Most things, in Mark’s gospel, happen “immediately.”
No shadow of the reluctance and ambivalence of Jonah. No disobedience or defiance. They go all in. The first disciples follow, trusting, believing, anticipating. They go to discover a new way of living.
And that is the invitation to us as well. What if God really means it when God calls us to live as God’s own people? What if God really means it when we are called as disciples of Jesus Christ? What if God really means it when we are called to love one another - to love all people - simply because they are created as much in the image of God as we are? What if God promises to forgive and renew and restore everyone, even as God has forgiven, renewed, and restored you and me?
Father Malcolm Guite is one of my favorite poets. He has composed so many extraordinary sonnets. This one is entitled, “The Call of the Disciples.”
He calls us all to step aboard his ship,
Take the adventure on this morning’s wing,
Raise sail with him, launch out into the deep,
Whatever storms or floods are threatening.
If faith gives way to doubt, or love to fear,
Then, as on Galilee, we’ll rouse the Lord,
For he is always with us and will hear.
And make our peace with his creative Word,
Who made us, loved us, formed us and has set
All his beloved lovers in an ark;
Borne upwards by his Spirit, we will float
Above the rising waves, the falling dark,
As fellow pilgrims, driven toward that haven,
Where all will be redeemed, fulfilled, and forgiven.
Let us go to Nineveh, that great city, or wherever Jesus Christ calls us to go, and let us see everyone we meet along the way as sisters and brothers. Let us share with them the loving kindness that we would extend to a member of our own family. Let us open our hearts to those in pain, to those in fear, to those who are confused, to those who are embarrassed, to those who are dismayed, to those who wander in dangerous ways. Let us be agents of reconciliation and reunification. Let us be children of God, and travel toward that haven, where all will be redeemed, fulfilled, and forgiven.
Because I think God really means it.
For now and evermore. Amen.