Sermon – January 25, 2015 – Epiphany 3B

Third Sunday after Epiphany B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Jonah 3
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

When I started college, I actually stopped going to church for a few weeks. Surprising, right?

It wasn’t that I was having a crisis of faith. It wasn’t that I suddenly had better things to on Sunday mornings and church wasn’t a priority any longer. It wasn’t that I was mad at the church I grew up in, or a pastor, or anything like that.

I stopped going to church when I started going to college because I was suddenly living in a brand new town six hours away from everything I’d known before. I was surrounded by new people, in a new environment, with new challenges and new expectations. In short, I was living in an introvert’s worst nightmare.

In that situation, then, going to a brand new church, with people I didn’t know, where I was already uncomfortable… it wasn’t going to happen. No way. Maybe later, but not right away. I had to get settled first. I had to meet some people. Get comfortable.

That’s where Angel and Sarah came in. They were two members of the campus congregation, and truthfully, I don’t remember how we met. What I do remember is they introduced themselves to me, we talked about campus congregation and the Thursday night worship services, and they invited me to “come and see”.

Still, for a few weeks, I didn’t go—I was still too shy to go and meet a whole group of new people. I wanted to, but never got up the courage. Thank God for Angel and Sarah, though. Whenever they saw me on campus, they’d call me by name (how cool is that?) and ask how I was doing.

More than anything, that’s what I remember. They called me by name and extended an invitation. That was enough—I ended up worshipping with the campus congregation for four years and became super involved in the campus ministry at Capital University. It was something so incredibly simple—calling by name, and an invitation. It was easy to extend that invitation. It took a few seconds.

And it changed everything.

It’s also what makes Jonah’s story so funny. You know how it goes: Jonah gets a call from God on his cell phone with a message saying he’s been outsourced to Nineveh. His mission, which he doesn’t have a choice to accept, is to give them a proclamation of judgment and doom: forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown! So long, see ya later! Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Pretty good news for Jonah, I’d say. He hates Nineveh with a passion. Really, really hates Nineveh. Nineveh had been the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the Empire that destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered the people to the corners of the empire so they could never again be a community. 10 tribes of the Israelites were lost because of Assyria. Forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown? Great! About time,

Sounds like a pretty cushy job, too. Nineveh is such an evil city, Jonah is only telling them of their inevitable fate. The city is beyond all hope, and is going to be destroyed, end of story. Jonah even gets to be there to watch it happen! Court side seats, how sweet is that?

So why on God’s green earth does Jonah run away? Why, if this job seems to be everything he could have ever wanted, does he get on a boat in the opposite direction, abandoning his duty, having to go through getting swallowed by a big fish before he’ll finally go and do what God tells him to? Does Jonah know something we don’t?

Yes, yes he does. Jonah absolutely knows something we don’t.

As a blogger who follows religious topics, I’ve seen all sorts of articles about the state of the postmodern church, the worries and fears about declining church attendance, and the “death” of Christianity. I have read plan after plan for how to revitalize the church, how to change worship to be more accommodating, how to organize committees and boards and mission teams to make church outreach more effective, and many, many other things. If we can just find the right combination of programs, personnel, strategic plans, vision statements, goals, and resources, we can save the church and finally get back to doing God’s work in the world.

It’s all very complicated, requiring lots of careful planning, training, teaching, and the latest and greatest publications from the most talented minds in theological thought to pull off this spectacular, remarkable feat. And it’s very difficult to pull off, requiring constant effort and maintenance. Not everyone will make the cut.

Does this sound like the general tone of things? Isn’t this how God’s work is done in the church?

Ah, but, that’s right, we were talking about Jonah. That’s why Jonah ran, right? Because he didn’t have all the right training, or the right books, or the right staff, or the right ideas, or the right programs?

Nothing of the sort, actually. Quite to the contrary. Jonah flees from God’s orders because he knows that his job is disgustingly easy, and because he knows exactly what will happen when he finishes it. We see it right there in the story.

Jonah marches into Nineveh, this hated city, and for one day, repeats the sentence given to him: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s all he does—a simple, blunt announcement from God. And look where it gets him.

With just that one sentence, he convinces the king of the city to order his people to repent of their crimes, to go into mourning, to beg God for forgiveness. The repentance spreads through the city: even the animals are put into mourning, covered in ashes and sackcloth. The change is so profound, so spectacular, that God decides not to go through with the plan to destroy the city: they literally changed God’s mind.

Which is exactly what Jonah was afraid of, and why he knew he didn’t want this job: he knew that, by simply proclaiming God’s message, the city would radically alter itself, and God would spare the city. He knew all it would take would be to go to the city and do what God told him to do.

You see, he did know something that many Christians have pretty well forgotten over the years. He knew what his job was, and that, if he actually did it, the results would be remarkable.

I was recently part of a group that took a look at the second chapter of Acts. The section in particular that was talked about goes like this:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

The group was asked what they thought of that particular description. Do you know what the response was?

“I wish God would add to our numbers.”

My first thought: all of that great stuff, and the only thing we focus on is the numbers? How far removed are we from being actual disciples of God? My second thought, though, was this: if we want the same results we read about, maybe we should start copying the same methods.

When Angel and Sarah invited me to be a part of my college’s campus congregation, it was so meaningful precisely because it’s unusual. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should, especially among mainline Protestant Christians in North America.

By and large, we are extraordinarily bad at inviting people to be a part of our faith journeys.

By and large, we are extraordinarily bad at taking care of our neighbors, unless we think we can get something out of it in return, such as butts in the seats.

By and large, we are extraordinarily bad at studying the Word of God, at prayer, at gathering together for worship and fellowship and meals.

Is it because it is too hard? Is it because we’ve given up? Is it because everyone’s told is that being faithful servants and disciples of God is beyond our reach, beyond our ability, beyond our finances, beyond our resources?

I don’t know. I don’t know why we are so bad at these things. What really worries me is that maybe we’ve been bad at them for so long because everyone says we’re not capable of being who God has called us to be.

I want you to listen to me very closely. Everyone is wrong.

Everyone is wrong because the Holy Spirit couldn’t care less about a congregation’s programs or staff or how learned they are in doctrine or how trained they are in special evangelism techniques. The Holy Spirit loves taking inadequate people (and we’re all inadequate people) and making them into something new.

Everyone is wrong because God didn’t care that Jonah entered the city of Nineveh hoping and praying that they would be destroyed. Through the proclamation and call to repentance, God sparked a revolution that saved the city from destruction.

Everyone is wrong because Jesus didn’t care that Simon, Andrew, James and John had never met him before, or, if they had met him, never considered him someone worth following. He called to them, and he invited them into a journey of faith. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” he said, and with that single invitation, sparked another revolution that has been passed down to us.

In none of these stories did human beings create these sweeping changes. In each one, God changed the world through the simplest, most basic of acts: calling, speaking, inviting, praying, sharing money and food.

Through these simple, basic acts, God brought the Holy Spirit like a whirlwind of fire and ignited the hearts of people. God can do so much with so little. Words are all it took to save the city of Nineveh, to invite the first disciples into a new journey—words were all it took to create the universe. Simple words. Simple acts.

It doesn’t take much to invite someone along on your faith journey. It doesn’t take much to study the Bible, whether on your own or, preferably, with other people. It doesn’t take much to pray together, to gather together, to share meals, to support one another. It doesn’t take much to share the good news of Jesus Christ, summed up beautifully and perfectly in the first words of his ministry, words that would find their fulfilment in his death and resurrection:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God is right here, right now, near at hand.

Everyone is wrong when they say it can’t be done. Everyone is wrong when they say it’s just too hard. It isn’t. It’s simple.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

If we let go and actually let ourselves do this, to share the good news through word and deed, I can’t wait to see what the Holy Spirit can do with us.

Sacred Space and Hospitality

Last week, the Duke University administration approved using the Duke Chapel bell tower to broadcast the Muslim adhan, or call-to-prayer, before the weekly jummah prayer service. Two days later, the administration reversed its decision in light of heavy criticism and “serious and credible concerns about safety and security”. Instead, the adhan was sung outside the chapel before those who wished to participate in the jummah headed to the chapel basement.

News outlets picked up the story and sensationalized it. High-profile speakers like Franklin Graham encouraged donors to pull their support from Duke University as a sort of sanction against the administration. It is implied that threats were made against the campus and students.

The question is this: is it okay for a Muslim call-to-prayer to be broadcast from a Christian chapel bell tower? The complaint seems to be that, because it is a Christian chapel, it is inappropriate. It is a Christian building meant for Christian use.

But, consider this. Muslims have prayed in the chapel basement for years. And while Franklin Graham may be referring to this when he says that the chapel has probably already been “desecrated”, it doesn’t change the fact that other religions have been using the chapel building for worship long before now. Where was the outcry then? Why is the call-to-prayer in the tower more offensive than Muslims worshiping in the chapel building?

Some claim it is offensive to have such a public display of Islam while Muslim extremists throughout the world are committing violence against Christians. To this I say, hogwash. If the call-to-prayer is an offensive reminder of the actions of extremists, then so too is the beautiful Duke Chapel carillon, and every Christian bell tower that “forces” passersby to listen to Christian hymns, a reminder of the centuries of violence by Christians that continues to the present day. Then there’s the irony of those who threatened violence and harm to the school and students if the bell tower was used in this way. Christianity has a long, bloody history and present of violence and terrorism that, no, is not behind us.

Some claim that allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the bell tower is another example of Christianity being pushed out of the public eye and replaced. A quick look at the Duke Chapel worship schedule and religious life pages would say otherwise. Christian worship is held every day at Duke, and the vast majority of official religious groups on campus are Christian (the chapel schedule for Friday doesn’t even include the weekly Muslim jummah). Our country is overwhelmingly supportive of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. We occupy more space in society than is healthy for a country that claims religious freedom as one of its core tenets.

In my mind, the question is not about sacred space and desecration. Is God’s blessing and holiness so weak that broadcasting the adhan a few minutes each week from a building already used for Muslim worship would be enough to drive God’s spirit from the ground? Hopefully not! If so, every sinner (i.e., every last human being) that walks through the doors of the chapel and does not immediately receive forgiveness has long since driven God out with their unholiness and the question is a moot point. I have more faith in the power and strength of God’s presence than that.

Instead, the question is about hospitality. Christianity and the sacredness of God are firmly entrenched at Duke Chapel. Though the university is not a university of the United Methodist Church, it still claims strong ties to that church. If Christianity is under attack at Duke, it is from secular society, not Islam. Christians at Duke University have little to fear from their Muslim brothers and sisters.

But even in the United States, where Christianity is not under attack, we remember that the history of our faith includes long periods of persecution. We remember that, in other places around the world, Christians do live under the threat of violence from their neighbors–even from their Muslim neighbors. And we remember that, in those times, non-Christians, including Muslims, protected and sheltered us because it was the right thing to do.

Allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower is not on the same heroic level as Christians protecting Muslims in Egypt or Muslims guarding churches in Kenya. But it would still be a gesture of hospitality and welcome from one group of God-fearers to another. The chapel, and almost every congregation and church I know of, is used for more than Christian worship because Christians all over the world recognize that welcoming the stranger is part of our calling as disciples of Christ.

Perhaps one day, we will finally see past the extremes of all faiths and remember that we human beings are not so different after all.

Featured Image: “In an all blue world, the beginning” by Corey Butler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Looking Forward to a New Year

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in my first call for eleven  months. Time flies when one is busy! Here are some of the major life events that have happened this past year (plus a few months):

October: Regional assignment (draft).
November: First interview.
December: Second interview.
January: Started first call at Faith Lutheran Church.
February: Officially ordained as a Pastor.
April: Officially installed at Faith Lutheran Church.
June: Married!
July: Niece born!
August: Officiated at first wedding.
September: First baptism (niece)!
December: Christmas!

Whew! Busy, busy year.

There have been some exciting developments at Faith Lutheran Church this past year that hold promise for the future, too:

  • We started a Care Ministry to assist those needing long-term care and caregivers who need time to relax and unwind.
  • The congregation’s biannual fish fry was a resounding success each time. It’s one of the best events the congregation sponsors, and always raises a good amount of money for charitable causes.
  • Slowly, but surely, the youth are being challenged and called upon in the church.
  • Two more ELCA churches in the area called new pastors, and the three of us are exploring ways in which we can work together.
  • In addition, the priest at the local Episcopalian mission restart is super ecumenically minded and is excited to work with us on a number of inter-congregational ministries.
  • We restarted both Lent and Advent midweek services.
  • Sunday School was moved out of the Sunday service so that the children and youth could fully participate in worship.

2014 has been a whirlwind year, and I hope that 2015 is just as full, just as exciting, and just as God-breathed! Happy New Year!

Featured Image: “Happy New Year” by Morgan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Living an Ecumenical Life in 2014

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. I think they deserve a fresh batch of bananas and new typewriters as rewards for their hard work!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,800 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

An Experiment in Church Youth Leadership

A few weeks ago, the children and youth of Faith Lutheran Church put on their annual Christmas program telling the Lukan Christmas story. As part of that day, the youth took over every worship leadership role (except mine). They don’t often get to do this, even though I have strongly encouraged them to sign up for worship leadership.

This was a great opportunity for our youth to shine. They stood up in front of the congregation and read each reading in loud, strong voices. They collected the week’s offering and brought it, and the communion elements, forward. Before the service began, they prepared the bread and wine, and they greeted everyone as they came in the door. I even had a Confirmation student serve as the assisting minister that morning.

On the Friday before the program, I brought him into my office and ran through the service with him. Thankfully, I had already prepared a handout detailing which parts of the service were his responsibility. As our assisting ministers usually prepare the Prayers of Intercession each week, I took the heat off of him and did those as well.

Coming into the office, I knew that he wasn’t all that excited about being the assisting minister. Though he agreed when asked, he was having second thoughts about the whole thing. We went through the service bit by bit, and then, I heard words that I wish everyone in my congregation could hear when they think about helping in worship: “Wow–this isn’t as hard as I thought it would be!” Ding!

On Sunday morning, we again went over the liturgy before the service, and I promised him that I wouldn’t let him get lost and I wouldn’t hang him out to dry. He led the Kyrie, the Nicene Creed, the Prayers of Intercession, the Offering Prayer, and the Post-Communion Prayer. He set the table with me and held the chalices during Holy Communion. The last words heard by the congregation were spoken by one of their youth: “Go in peace, Christ is with you.”

After worship, we went back to my office, and I thanked him for the excellent job he did leading the congregation. He then gave me fantastic news: he thoroughly enjoyed leading worship and wanted to be added to the list of people who serve in worship, especially as the assisting minister.

Isn’t it amazing what the youth in the church are capable of when we let them?

An ELCA Pastor's reflections on life and the church

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