Sermon – THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY

Rev. Rebecca Anderson, MCCSJ – Jan. 22, 2012

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 The word of YHWH came a second time to Jonah: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach to them as I told you to do.” Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of YHWH. Nineveh was a city large beyond compare: it took three days to cross it. Jonah moved on into the city, making a day’s journey. He proclaimed, “Only forty days more, and Nineveh is going to be destroyed!” So the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth, from the greatest to the least. … And God saw their efforts to renounce their evil behavior. And God relented by not inflicting on them the disaster that threatened them.

Psalm 62:5-12 In God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God, who alone is my rock, my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. Only in God – my deliverance, my glory; my refuge is God. Trust in God always, my people; pour out your hearts before God, our refuge. Humankind is but a breath, mortals are just an illusion. Put them on the scales and the balance is thrown off; they weigh less than a breath. Do not trust in extortion, or put false hopes in stolen goods; do not set your heart on riches even when they increase. For God has said only one thing, only two do I know: that to God alone belongs power, and that you, YHWH, are loving – you repay all people according to their deeds.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 I tell you, sisters and brothers, the time is short. From now on, those with spouses should live as though they had none. Those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for, and those who rejoice should live as though they had nothing to laugh about. Buyers should conduct themselves as though they owned nothing, and those who have to deal with the world should live as if all their dealings meant nothing – for the world as we know it is passing away.

Mark 1:14-20 After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News.” While walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw the brothers Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the sea—for they fished by trade. Jesus said to them, “Follow me; I will make you fishers of humankind.” They immediately abandoned their nets and followed Jesus. Proceeding a little further along, Jesus saw the brothers James and John Bar- Zebedee, putting their nets in order. Immediately Jesus called them, and they left their father Zebedee standing in the boat with the hired help, and went off in the company of Jesus.

Today’s scriptures are all about change- predicting it, anticipating it, fearing it, and finding hope in it…. and remembering the Source of Hope, regardless of how calm or disturbed the seas may be.

It seems so appropriate that while we remain in the season of Epiphany – awareness of God with Us continuing after the Christ Child’s birth and affirmation by the Three Magi/Wise Ones/Kings – we also become aware of how this manifestation of God in our midst must – and is- changing us; calling us out of any complacency, ease, or business-as-usual to address the revolutionary fact that God calls us to embrace change leading toward greater wholeness… every day.

Please pray with me: God of the green pastures and still waters, God of the rain and of the rainbow, you restore our souls. You lead us in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. Even if, even when, we walk through the shadows that come with change, death, transformation… you are with us, you abide with us and remain with us, guiding our feet and hearts. Be in the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts today, Holy One, that as we share & hear this message we might recognize your movement among, within, and between us. Amen.

This week I chose to have all four of the lectionary scriptures read. As I was reading them over earlier in the week in preparation for this message, I noted how each of these passages speaks to the the theme of Epiphany- God manifest among us – and also to a very January- suited subject, which, for good or ill, has become an integral part of the Christian tradition. I’m talking here about the “End Times”; the Apocalypse; the study of which theologians and other religious scholars call eschatology.

I say that the End Times is a very “January suited” subject because of the Ancient Roman God Janus, for whom this month was named. In the religion and mythology of Ancient Rome, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions – and so also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually depicted as a god with two-faces since he looks to the future and the past at the same time. This is also true of beliefs about the end times in Christian tradition – for whatever we individually or collectively believe about traditional teachings on the End Times, theologians generally tell us that eschatology can embrace seemingly opposite experiences- those of change, loss and closure… as well as those of possibility, opportunity and hope — at the same time.

In ancient Rome the beginning of a New Year was one of many occasions presided over by Janus… and in our own time and context, I think it is interesting- and fitting, that this month Bill McBride began our sermon series by preaching on New Year’s Day about various Christian doctrines of the Apocalypse! Today’s scriptures and message build a little on these themes, bringing food for thought that I hope will also be nourishment for the journey ahead.

For we are, again (or still), in times of significant change.

We read today’s four scripture readings with two alternating voices because I wanted you to experience these readings as I did this week – as though they were in conversation with one another. The first two passages are from the Hebrew Bible- what we used to call the “Old Testament” … the third and fourth passages are from the Christian texts- the ‘New Testament’.

In the scriptures chosen for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings, a ‘conversational’ pattern repeats in the old and New Testament passages. The first reading, in each part of the bible, is about the threat of an End Time. An Apocalypse of some kind is predicted or warned about. “Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed” we hear in Jonah. And in 1 Corinthians- Paul’s Letter to an early Christian church – we hear him proclaim that “…time is short” and “- the world as we know it is passing away” as he instructs the followers to live as suited to such urgency.

Do you remember what I said last week about prophets? At one point I quoted Frank Honeycutt, who wrote in Christian Century magazine, “The thing about serving as a prophet is that you are forever stuck between what God wants and what the people want. It’s a rather tiring vocation.”

Prophets have, indeed, often carried sobering messages people have not wanted to hear; Messages about God’s displeasure with things as they have been, about critical changes needed. Messages about the consequences of resisting necessary change. Messages that can be a source of fear, which may use urgency or fear as a motivating tool. That’s pretty much what we hear in today’s passage from Jonah and in the 1 Corinthians passage as well. And, although I’m not fond of negative motivators, I’m honest enough to admit that, perhaps, there may be times and places where this approach may be necessary. Perhaps there are circumstances in which we human beings get so used to things as they are, that we can no longer conceive of markedly different ways of being, and need the dramatic wake-up call of a dire apocalyptic message. Perhaps?

Certainly many a social activist involved with demonstrations and protests against injustices has been motivated by the felt urgency of needed change- and has called out- like the prophets of old- to wake up those who seem asleep to the wrongs of the world and its destructive systems. Yesterday, for example, I found a brief paper I wrote in seminary about the use of apocalyptic imagery in teaching and preaching about environmental stewardship – noting the tendency to take an apocalyptic approach to raising public awareness of environmental crises… Of course there are many more examples of folks predicting a destructive future based on continuation of past practices….we can probably all think of others.

But that is not the entirety of the message offered this morning! That is not the entirety of what today’s scriptures have to offer! Instead, I want to point out to you the other face of the Janus god… the face that looks forward and offers hope… for this has also always been a key aspect of Christian eschatological beliefs (thoughts and practices associated with End Times). Forward-looking hope is also offered time and again, as it is today.

In today’s lectionary scriptures as we heard them- in dialogue with one another- Jonah’s prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction is followed by a positive resolution as the people of that community recognize the need to make changes pleasing to God, averting “the disaster that threatened them”… Then we heard from Psalm 62 some of the most beautiful language in Biblical scripture about finding deliverance and hope in God! “Trust in God always, my people; pour out your hearts before God, our refuge.”

And, as if in response to Paul’s message to the church at Corinth in which he warns that ‘the world as we know it is passing away,’ we hear in Mark’s gospel Jesus, years earlier, ‘proclaiming the Good News of God,’ saying “This is the time of fulfillment! The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News!” and with those words we are reminded that the world as we know it and have known it… is not yet all it could, or should be. Is not yet the Kin-dom of God we long for. That there is so much more wholeness and possibility, so much more to hope for than what we’ve settled for! And so, Jesus tells those seeking only fish from which to make a meager living… “Follow me; I will make you fishers of humankind.”

These scriptures – in dialogue with one another – have so much to say to me today. I hope you find them speaking to you as well. At my other workplace this week we were, in a single day, confronted with changes whose outcomes we could not predict. It was deeply unsettling and caused a lot of fearful acting out among professionals looking back at patterns from the past, and doubting that these changes could lead to anything good. And yet, within 48 hours we saw evidence of how our team is valued, and many began to acknowledge and work toward possibilities for greater stability, resources, and understanding long desired. Sometimes good can only come out of change, even when the change is painful.

In that work setting, the positive results came from a member of the team speaking truth to power and taking a risk because of belief in hopeful possibilities many others could not yet see. This team member was able to convey a sense of urgency to decision makers – saying hard things that needed to be said. It was an uncomfortable process… but it yielded results and slowed – (and may have stopped?) – a downward spiral of discontent and despair among the staff. It opened up the possibility for others to risk seeking something different rather than settling for dissatisfaction. At that job I saw Jonah’s story in action- that story of speaking uncomfortable truths to a people who could have turned on him… and I felt the powerful hope that can come out of unexpected, and even painful, endings.

Sometimes it does seem to take a sense of immediacy and urgency to shake us out of what we’ve come to expect and to believe we need. Sometimes it is only the urgency – the threat of destruction or great loss –that can awaken us to hopes and possibilities we have forgotten to believe in …or wish for.

In Mark’s gospel when Jesus appears in Galilee after his cousin John the Baptist was arrested… Jesus takes a different approach than Paul or Jonah did in those texts. Instead of focusing on how the known world is passing away, instead of focusing his message on the endings which are also happening at the same time and must happen to pave the way for what can be, Jesus frames his message as an invitation to Hope! Instead of saying ‘the world as we know it is passing away’, as Paul says later to the church in Corinth, Jesus says “This is the time of fulfillment! The reign of God is at hand!” Wow!

Kind of a different feeling to that – isn’t there? That sounds exciting! And hopeful. And it isn’t that Jesus is unaware of his own cousin John’s death. It isn’t that Jesus is unaware of the risk of doing things a new way, or of acting against the status quo…. no. Instead, there’s plenty of reason in scripture to believe that Jesus understood the great changes occurring, knew himself to be a catalyst for those changes, and recognized that painful endings might be required. Yet, he’s not focusing here on the loss of the familiar, even though he IS focusing on the need for change. Instead, as he proclaims the changes unfolding in his wake, Jesus proclaims them as ‘Good News’ and invites and encourages and admonishes the people to ‘Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News.” And they did! These responsible, hard working, fisher people ‘went off in the company of Jesus,’ and learned to bring hope, rather than merely more fish, to a world in desperate need of it.

Change can be excruciating… without being bad. That almost seems counter-intuitive, but I’m here to witness that it is very often true that when we let go of what is known, or what we’ve settled for, what we’ve come to expect as ‘normal’… that’s when we can most clearly see and potentially find what our hearts have longed for, what we have forgotten to continue hoping for.

Next week after worship, we’ll be joining together for a congregational meeting in which we will look at and discuss some possible ways of moving into the future. And, I hope, we will make some decisions. Things are changing here. Quickly. Change will happen whether we want it to or not. There are End Times in our near future here at MCCSJ… We can decide as a community whether and how to follow the possibilities Hope offers. We can decide as a community, whether hope looks as we’ve come to expect it, or if it shows up in a different form, leading us into the unknown. I invite each of us to spend time in prayer this week in discernment about how God is calling us to live out our longings for spiritual and faith community.

I’ve been talking with our Board for a few weeks now about my own calling to find more balance and wholeness in the life I live and the ministry I share with others. My end time with MCCSJ is coming soon so that I can again seek the hope of my heart too long delayed: time for unhurried prayer and spiritual practice, time for nurturing the relationships I’ve worked to establish with family and dear friends. Time to study, to make art, to create a home by living a more human and humane pace. My last Sunday with you will be Sunday February 26th. Five weeks from today. I won’t find it easy to leave, but I know my leave-taking is part of where hope lies.

I know that God is doing a new thing here at MCCSJ. I know it can seem risky, even frightening or unsettling, and certainly – (for some)– quite wearying – to be in the midst of this kind of change again, and to acknowledge the finite ends of resources this church has come to rely on as a safety net. I also know that each person in this church has within the potential to seek and find and be – with others – the kind of faith community you need, want, and may, perhaps, have been longing for. I also believe, strongly, that there is more urgency now than there has been in the past for this church… and also that there is reason for a great deal of hope along with this urgency, including possibilities for letting go of what is known, in order to follow and co-create what could be. Jesus called his first disciples to ‘Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News.” I believe that call can speak to MCC SJ today as well.

I’ll be praying for this church in the weeks and months to come as you move forward into and through this time of transitions. I would also appreciate your prayers for my journey, as I prepare to leave this work and faith community I have come to love.

A few years ago I wrote: “the study of End Times- is important because it provides an avenue for us to explore the Hope which is a core precept of …faith in the face of life’s never ending challenges. Since the early days of the early church, when Jesus’ much anticipated return did not occur as expected, considering end times has helped Christians grapple with the hope implicit in Christ’s coming again within the everyday context of lives often marked by hardship, grief, pain, injustice and other sorrows.”

Considering these things can offer a vision of hope if we remember to look forward to what might become, especially when we feel most drawn to find comfort in looking back. May this New Year bring newness of life for all the members and friends of MCC San Jose. May it be so. Amen.

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