Sermon Seeds: Moving Forward/Embracing the Tension
Third Sunday after Epiphany Year B
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Moving Forward/Embracing the Tension
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by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
For many years, we held a Bible study on Thursday evenings in the church where I was serving. Most weeks, we explored the lectionary readings for the following Sunday, but once a year we spent our time together reading an entire Gospel (the one for that church year), out loud, from beginning to end, with everyone taking a turn. While I appreciate the lectionary, I found that annual practice immensely helpful for hearing so much that’s missed if the Gospel is read in pieces that are more like episodes in a longer story. As the shortest Gospel, Mark was a good one to begin with, but it works particularly well for a one-sitting reading, and I think that’s because of its pace. Read out loud, straight through, Mark’s Gospel conveys a sense of the urgency in the ministry of Jesus. (Also, more than once, our little group actually laughed in surprise at the questions the clueless disciples asked, given all they had seen and experienced, just a few verses or chapters earlier. You miss that in the lectionary approach to reading the Bible. Also, we recognized ourselves all too often in those clueless disciples.)
Ted Smith captures the urgency well: “Mark,” he writes, “begins like an alarm clock, persistently declaring the time and demanding some response” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). The Gospel takes off, without the beautiful infancy narratives, no manger, no shepherds, no elderly prophets singing praise to God in the temple as they hold the promised One, a baby, in their arms. Instead, Mark sets the scene with compact accounts of John the Baptist preaching, and Jesus being baptized and then driven into the wilderness (Mark gives the wilderness temptations two verses, while Matthew uses fourteen). At a clipped pace, the Gospel writer simply refers to John’s arrest so he can get on to his main point, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Even at the end of today’s reading, we’re not even halfway through chapter 1!
Time, then, and urgency are at the heart of this passage. In that first chapter, William Abraham writes, “Jesus sweeps through Galilee and takes it by storm….the underlying sense is that God is on the march in the ministry of Jesus” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). The time is now, Jesus announces: his very first words of proclamation are “The time is fulfilled” (v.15). Eugene Peterson even translates it as “Time’s up!” (The Message). This isn’t the kind of time we keep track of in our calendars and journals: days, weeks, months and years. It’s another kind of time, found in the New Testament but sometimes experienced today, too: kairos, as Fred Craddock describes it, “a time in which the constellation of factors creates an unusually significant moment” (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
It’s the kind of time we long for, especially as communities, and the people of Israel had been waiting for just such a moment, when the heel of this oppressor or that one (there had been so many, from Egypt through Assyria and Babylon to Rome) would be removed from their throats. They trusted in the promises of God even when everything around them contradicted and even violated the vision of justice and peace, of shalom, that was at the heart of those promises. The prophets spoke and sang of this hope, and how could the people of God not hold onto it, long for it, watch for it? And yet, how does one prepare for such a time? And how does one respond to it when it finally comes?
Much has been written about the response of the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. Why did they do something so drastic, and how could they up-end their lives so dramatically, and would that really be a good thing for us to do, that is, if we could “manage” it? (“Up-ending” and “managing” hardly go together.) We can’t help putting ourselves in that boat, or on that shore, doing our everyday work, casting our nets and minding our own business, fulfilling our commitments and dealing with the reality of having to work just to survive. Could we measure up to the standard of those disciples, and drop everything, too? We might wonder why and how those first four disciples could do such a thing, without even a stirring sermon from Jesus, or maybe a dramatic miracle, or better yet, the sky opening up and a voice announcing that this was God’s own beloved, and that they should listen to him. (We assume they weren’t around when Jesus was baptized, just a few verses earlier.) Such an incident would have provided some clear explanation for their abandonment of everything to follow Jesus. And it’s perplexing that men of such insight and response would then prove to be those same clueless disciples through much of Mark’s Gospel. What did they know, on that seashore, that we don’t know?
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we’re missing the point if we linger on such questions. This is a story about God, not the disciples or us, she claims in her sermon, “Miracle on the Beach.” To focus on what the disciples gave up (and whether we could do the same), is “to put the accent on the wrong syllable.” This “miracle story,” as she calls it, is really about “the power of God – to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before.” Now this way of approaching the story may, oddly, make us uncomfortable, especially in a culture that emphasizes our choices and independence, our ability to shape our lives and determine our destinies. We can do whatever needs to be done; it’s within our power; we can fix and improve everything; we can take hold of the future and make it what we want it to be. In fact, we have to do it, in order to please God and get to heaven. The better we are, the more saintly and sacrificing we are, the more likely we are to earn our salvation. Taylor rightly calls this “works-righteousness”: “What we may have lost along the way is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory” (Home by Another Way). Whether we’re ready or not, God acts.
And yet we do have the freedom to respond to God’s grace and God’s call (or not!). Those are words we say often, but what does that response look and feel like? Ted Smith helpfully suggests that Jesus doesn’t ask the fishermen “to add one more task to their busy lives. He calls them into new ways of being.” So he doesn’t give them a new list of things to do but “a new identity….a whole new life” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). On the other hand, Elton W. Brown acknowledges that our whole new life has a lot of work in it, including the work we do for the sake of the kingdom: maybe the fun part is throwing the nets out and bringing in the haul, although “[t]here are also the preparations, the mending of nets, repairing the tools that are bound to be damaged and worn….You can’t always be fishing, even if that’s your favorite part” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). We are caught (so to speak) once again in that tension between works-righteousness and a conversion experience of grace that really changes the way we behave. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that, like the disciples who turned in a new direction, we also turn our lives “in the same direction as God’s life,” and that means, perhaps, doing the same things but doing them “in a new way, or for new reasons.” What’s important is that “our wills spill into the will of God,” and then, “time is fulfilled – immediately! – and the kingdom is at hand” (Home by Another Way).
What about “the will of God”? What about the need and longing of the world, and the hope, and expectation, of the people? And what is this “kingdom” that Jesus proclaims has drawn near? William Abraham hears political content in Jesus’ message, and he offers us some hard words about it: our response shouldn’t just focus on self-examination, on “what we have done wrong, or where we need comfort and consolation and then turning to God to take care of our list of particulars.” We may want to concentrate on our own personal “piety,” but “kingdom discourse,” he says, turns our attention, and our energies, toward “current public and political issues” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Seashore photo by Sue Powers McKeon
Engaging, then, in “kingdom discourse,” we might consider the significance not only of “when” in this passage, but “where” it happens: on a seashore. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry by walking into the temple, the center of the religious life of his people, or even into the city of Jerusalem, and announcing who he is and what he is about. He starts out on the edges, even when he comes out of the wilderness, preaching in places like Galilee, and gathering his little band of disciples not from the religious leaders and scholars but from fishermen, here and there, along the seashore, the prosperous ones like James and John (with their boat and their hired men), and the poorer ones like Simon and Andrew, who have to cast their nets from the shore. We might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that Jesus is a good example of someone who is “spiritual but not religious,” but that wouldn’t really be consistent with where the Gospel story unfolds, would it? We remember from our Nativity and childhood stories of Jesus, like the Presentation in the Temple, that Jesus was an observant Jew, raised by observant Jews, and he spoke from within his tradition. I just finished a thought-provoking new book by James Carroll, Christ Actually, which left me with the feeling that his emphasis on, and exploration of, the important fact of the Jewishness of Jesus and the early church, could profoundly influence, for many of us, our approach to preaching.
For example, William Abraham writes that Jesus began his ministry out there, away from “the great centers of power” because “the ground has to be further prepared before he can speak directly to the powers that be” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Carroll is instructive about who those “powers that be” actually were – not “the Jews,” leaders or otherwise, but the Romans who were so brutally oppressing Jesus’ own people. (His ninth chapter of Christ Actually, “Imitation of Christ,” is particularly powerful as it draws his ideas together and then challenges us to examine more deeply what it means to be disciples of Jesus, to throw down our nets, so to speak, and follow him.)
This week, we observed a holiday that reminds us of the great struggle of a people whose faith in God sustained (and sustains) them through a long and hard experience of oppression. The personal response of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of countless other individuals, expresses faith in what God has done and continues to do and promises to do, and Jesus embodies that promise and that “kingdom,” that new and decisive way to live according to the will of God. In the United States, we have collectively recommitted, in a moment in our own history of both challenge and hope, to seek new occasions and new ways to walk in the ways of justice, healing, and peace. Dr. King drew together that public/political nature of the kingdom with our own call from God, away from old ways of being, to claim our identity as the children of God, and to live lives faithful to such a calling: “Now,” he said, “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter–but beautiful–struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the [children] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response” (A Time to Break Silence).
And so, whether we leave our nets for good, or return to them and catch fish in a new way, with a new identity and a whole new life, we are responding to Jesus, and to what God is doing in Jesus. This is not just a moment of decision, but a lifelong commitment, and we have something of immeasurable value to sustain us along the way, the promise, as Henri Nouwen says, that “the same Lord who binds us together in love will also reveal himself to us and others as we walk together on the road.” Christians are called to ministry, and “[t]he mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God” (In the Name of Jesus). This love permeates our lives, both public and personal, and reveals God’s own hand at work in our lives.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel)
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds
For Further Reflection:
Richard Rohr, 21st century (in Falling Upward)
“True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it. In fact, the best of modern theology is revealing a strong ‘turn toward participation,’ as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging. There is nothing to join, only something to recognize, suffer, and enjoy as a participant. You are already in the eternal flow that Christians would call the divine life of the Trinity.”
Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world.”
Booker T. Washington, 20th century
“Lay hold of something that will help you, and then use it to help somebody else.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 20th century
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration, 21st century
“Most of us have nicknames—annoying, endearing, embarrassing. But what about your true name? It is not necessarily your given name. But it is the one to which you are most eager to respond when called. Ever wonder why? Your true name has the secret power to call you.”
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 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.
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from God.
God alone is my rock
and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in God at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before God;
who is a refuge for us.
Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O God.
For you repay to all
according to their work.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.) Green is the color for the rest of Epiphany season, until Transfiguration Sunday, when white is used again.