Epiphany 3B: Becoming Who You Are

Image of ChristOLD TESTAMENT: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The book of Jonah is a strange story told in just forty-eight verses. There is little documentation as to who wrote it, under what circumstances, when it was written, and, for some, even why it was written. The story is of a fictitious character named Jonah, perhaps named and derived from the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai. But the folkloric and almost comedic tone of the story suggests that it may come from an independent tradition of the telling of miraculous tales. No one really knows, though, what genre or story-type would have sparked this book.

Leading up to our reading, the story is told of Jonah, who is a pretty well-known prophet as Old Testament prophets go not, probably, because of what he did or what he said but because of what lore says happened to him. Because, you see, Jonah was not the most willing of prophets. When God told him to go to Ninevah, Jonah didn’t question or hesitantly stammer out the list of weaknesses that made him unlikely for this mission. No, Jonah ran away! He went and found a ship and tried to sail away from God. And then, in the midst of a fierce and terrifying storm, Jonah fell asleep. So believing that he may have with his actions brought this calamity upon others, Jonah volunteered to be thrown into the sea. Well, you remember the rest of the well-known story: Jonah was swallowed by a fish, he prayed and prayed and remembered his God who had done so much in his life, and then the fish regurgitated him onto the beach. You know…apparently being a prophet is sometimes messy business!

Actually the “messy” part of this story is that Jonah’s acts not only got himself into trouble, but also endangered others. It’s a hard lesson. We are not lone rangers in this world. What we do, what we choose to do, and sometimes when we try desperately to save ourselves from change, we endanger others.

So the next time the Lord spoke to Jonah, calling him to go to Ninevah and tell them to change, Jonah obliged. He probably wasn’t that happy about it but, after all, once you’ve been thrown up by a fish, you pretty much listen. So he went to the people of Ninevah. Now Ninevah was a major city—lots of commerce and wealth. They pretty much had it all figured out. But somewhere deep inside of them, something was missing. There was still poverty; there was still inequality; and there was still the sense that this was not all there was. So they listened to Jonah. More importantly, they heard Jonah. After all, they were headed for destruction. So they vowed to change, donning sackcloth and fasting and begging God for forgiveness. When God saw that they really got it, that they really intended to change, God saved them from themselves.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple, the preacher at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, names “willful disobedience” as Jonah’s sin. He observes that God more often commands than seeks to persuade because what the deity wants of us is too hard for us. “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” (From The New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 501) While that may sound a bit harsh to our grace-filled 21st century ears, I think there is some truth to it. Sometimes God must do something a little rash to get our attention, to jolt us out of our complacency, to, in effect, will us to “disobey” ourselves, to change pathways from the one on which we travel, and follow where God leads.

Truthfully, though, the whole story is sort of a caricature. I think those who desperately cling to literalism would struggle a bit with this story. A big fish? Really? And an entire city on the brink of hell suddenly repent? Really? Maybe we CAN just chalk it up to grace. You know, amazing things happen on this journey of faith, things that we do not expect, things that we do not plan, things that make no sense. Divine mercy and compassion always win. Maybe that’s the moral of the story. And, when it’s all said and done, when we just can’t seem to make it work, just can’t seem to get on the road, God lovingly chases us down and walks with us to the right place. In Feasting On the Word, Donna Schaper reminds us of the old Jewish proverb that reads: “Whenever someone says, “I have a plan,” God laughs.”

And when it’s all said and done, Jonah really doesn’t change all that much. I don’t think Jonah is in line for sainthood any time soon. He’s like most of us. Maybe that’s the point too. God calls us all. And if we mess it up or just flat run away, God always gives us another shot. And even those of us who do everything we can to avoid where God is trying to take us can end up saving a city (if we don’t get swallowed up first!)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What message does it provide for you?
  3. How would you respond to Melville’s notion of “willful disobedience”?
  4. What parallels for our time do you see?
  5. What is our Ninevah?
  6. Do you think there is a prophetic word of God in play today?
  7. What does this say about our own calling from God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

For Paul, there was a sense of urgency here. He believed, it seems, that the “end of time” as we know it was coming quickly. Paul assumes here that although individuals are called by God, they also make choices for which they are responsible. Here, Paul is warning against being entrapped by the world’s values and not paying attention to what was coming. Paul urged his readers to remain unchanged even in the midst of a changing world. For him, believers need to keep a “long view”, without letting the world drag them down or away. Paul did not think that the world was objectionable or irrelevant but, rather, not the focus of where we should be living. For Paul, the new Creation is beginning to break in and we should be living “as if” it has already happened.

Well, on the surface, it seems that this Scripture was proved wrong. After all, here we sit nearly 2,000 years later, world essentially intact. And yet, it’s not wrong. We have been promised that there is something up ahead. Our faith tells us that at some point the Kingdom of God will come in all of its fullness and, in effect, I guess, “swallow up” (pun intended!) the world as we know it. Paul is not like those few in our current day that attempt to pin point the exact time when this will all happen. Paul just wanted to believe that it was coming AND that it was happening as we speak. It’s a message of transformation. It’s a call to live into it, to live as if the Kingdom of God has come. It’s not a threat; it’s a promise—and an incredible one at that! The Kingdom of God will come in God’s time and at the appropriate time. And whether or not it happens on your way home, tomorrow, or 3,000,000 years from now, it really is imminent. It’s the stuff that our faith is about.

The point is that we are called to live eschatologically, into the future coming of God’s Kingdom. And knowing the certainty and the imminence of, we are called not to remove ourselves from this world but to align its being with what we know is coming. We are called to live “as if” it has already happened.

 

“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].” (Thomas Paine, “The Crisis”, written December 23, 1776.)

 

America, In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

 

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

 

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

 

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

 

President Barack Obama

Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you think this relates to our lives today?
  3. What would that mean to you to “live as if”?

 

 

GOSPEL: Mark 1: 14-20

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Jesus’ first disciples are fishermen from Capernaum, a settlement that stretched along the lakefront. He calls two pairs of brothers—Peter and Andrew and James and John. The story is written in the familiar “call” formula used throughout the Scriptures: (i.) Setting—Fishermen by the sea; (ii.) Summons—Come and follow; and (iii.) Response—They left and followed. The fact that the men drop both occupation and family obligations demonstrates for this Gospel writer that their call comes from God. In fact, it indicates that Peter and Andrew left immediately to follow Jesus. Needless to say, this calling to follow Jesus represented an extraordinary interruption in one’s life and may possibly have even been offensive. For fishermen, a departure might have put the welfare of the entire family at risk. But Jesus provides a “substitute” for their current occupation—becoming, now, “fishers of people”. It doesn’t mean, here, that we are all called to be “fishers of people”. It just means that the gifts we have, God is prepared to use. It means that our calling is not to be something we’re not, but to become fully who we are.

But there’s something else at work here too. The story represents that these were relatively prosperous fishermen, implying that for that culture, the disciples were not uneducated or impoverished. They were not out of work. They actually had a pretty lucrative fishing business. (Boy, what is the deal with fish this week?) But the point is that they actually had something that they had to give up to follow Jesus. They had to give up the lure of this world—money, security—to become who they were meant to be. You know, God never promised that this road was easy; the promise was that it was the one that was right, that was who we are. And, really, if it was easy, why would we need faith at all?

And yet, this call story is not so drastically removed from our own. We are called each and every moment to change pathways, to become who we really are. But it means that we have to give up this self that we’ve created, this self that we’ve tried so hard to fit into this world. We have to follow. And that’s what discipleship is all about. It is not what we do; it is who we are.

 

The Christian writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells in one of her books about a time in her life when she was struggling mightily with sense of call. She simply could not figure out what it was that God wanted her to do and be. Did God want her to be a writer? Did God want her to be a priest? Did God want her to be a social worker? Did God want her to teach? She simply didn’t know. And in her frustration and exasperation, one midnight, she says, she fell down on her knees in prayer and said: “Okay, God. You need to level with me. What do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? What are you calling me to do?” She said she felt a very powerful response, God saying, “Do what pleases you. Belong to me, but do what pleases you.” She said it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch that place of her greatest joy, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most.

Another Christian writer, Frederick Buechner says, “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” Think about that. “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” But there are other times when God’s call does not come so much from a place inside of us but comes from a place outside of us. Sometimes we’re being called to places we never dreamed we’d go, to do things we never dreamed we’d do, to say things we never dreamed we’d say. (From “Where You Never Expected to Be”, a sermon by Dr. Thomas Long, October 22, 2006, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/long_5004.htm, accessed 14 January, 2012.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does this tell you about your own discipleship or your own calling?
  3. What is the difference between the notion of being a disciple as what we do and the idea of being a disciple as who we are?
  4. How does that change our view of our own calling?
  5. Do you feel like you’ve given anything up to follow Christ?

 

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Call is something you must do to save your life. (Dr. Virgil Howard, Perkins School of Theology)

 

The desire to fulfill the purpose for which we were created is a gift from God. (A.W. Tozer)

 

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 3)

 

 

Closing

 

You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity…Amen. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Proper 28A: Enough

Coins-in-a-jarOLD TESTAMENT: Judges 4: 1-7

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The Book of Judges portrays a major transition in the Biblical history of Israel. Prior to this, Israel was under the leadership of Moses in the wilderness and then Joshua in the conquest of the land in Canaan. After the Book of Judges, Israel was ruled by kings, beginning with Saul, David, and Solomon. This is the time in between, a time of twelve warrior rulers, called judges, who led Israel for brief periods in times of military emergency. Most scholars think that many of these passages do not represent true accounts but have rather been reshaped and edited (redacted) and so cannot be necessarily reconstructed into a succinct historical account.

This passage begins with the first phase of the story of the beginning of the decline of Israel and the decline in the effectiveness of the individual rulers. The repeating pattern throughout judges is present here: (1) The Israelites do evil, (2) The Lord turns them over to their enemy, (3) Israel cries out to the Lord, and (4) The Lord raises up a new judge who delivers them (for a period of time). We are not really clear here who the actual judge is. The three characters here are Deborah, who is a female prophetess who acts as a sort of arbitrating judge, Barak, a military general, and Jael, a non-Israelite woman who kills the enemy Canaanite general Sisera when he comes to her tent for refuge. The Jewish legends depict Sisera as a giant of a man who could destroy the walls of an enemy’s city with a single shout. In some ways, it is another “David and Goliath” story. Enter Deborah…sitting under her palm tree proclaiming words of wisdom, she calls Barak, an experienced military general (but probably nothing like the great Sisera!). And she calls him to go against this great army.

Interestingly enough, the Book of Judges contains the largest number of female characters of any book in the Bible—nineteen in all. But Deborah is probably looked upon as at least one of the most influential female leaders in the Old Testament if not in the whole Bible. It is actually a little unclear whether the “wife of Lappidoth” reference was referring to the name of her husband or if it means that she was “fiery” or “spirited”. It could be either. Regardless, though, nothing is said about her husband if there was one. So Deborah is depicted as strong and level-headed, a true leader who advised generals and led troops into battle. In a day when woman were considered property or chattle, when women did not speak and it was assumed they had nothing to say, when women were only there to produce children and heirs, Deborah stepped forward and led.

Deborah is often depicted as sitting under a palm—just sitting. Perhaps that is as powerful a statement as the fact that she advised generals and led troops into battle. Maybe that was her way of centering, of filling her life with much-needed peace. Maybe sitting was the way she gained inner strength to do what needed to be done. Maybe she was in prayer. It doesn’t really say. She just sat.

I don’t think that this story is meant to compel us to focus on one hero. After all, Deborah called Barak to lead and he led armies defending Israel against Sisera’s troops. And Jael drove the peg into Sisera’s temple. They all worked together. This passage shows that God can work through even complex power systems with multiple leaders. God does not command one system or structure. God’s grace is always at work. So, if you’re looking for a hero, maybe God is the one.

We don’t read it as part of this lection, but Judges 5 includes what we call the “Song of Deborah”. It is a song of remembrance of what God had done through these rather unlikely people, a reminder that things don’t always go as expected, and a reminder that violence is never the ending. Violence is still part of us today. Surely God does not call us to violence. Is there a way to use it for good?

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How do you see God at work in this passage?
  3. In what ways do you see God at work in the midst of our own social and political circumstances?
  4. What significance does the depiction of Deborah “just sitting” mean for you?
  5. Do you think that it is ever possible to use violence for good, to turn it around into something else?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=282056269

The Thessalonian letters are witnesses to the church’s struggle with the sufferings of its members, due to separation from leaders, alienation from friends and family, and threats of persecution and even death. The passage that we read speaks, obviously, of the coming “Day of the Lord”. Here, Paul claims that on this Day of the Lord, God will separate the believers from the unbelievers and for this reason, the believers can celebrate even now. But Paul continues to claim that the full consummation of the new age has not occurred and that, for this reason, believers must continue to be vigilante in the faith.

I don’t think that this is as much a “hold on, Friday’s coming”, as it is a reminder to not let the mire of difficulties and defeat get in the way of one’s true calling—the pursuit of holiness. In fact, rather than letting them get you down, perhaps they are part of that journey itself. And on that journey, we are called to encourage each other and help each other. After all, we are “children of the light”.

Much of this same imagery has been used in songs (such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) and in a lot of slave songs, describing a future hope even in the face of darkness and persecution. The images here are apocalyptic. They are visions and revelations that remind us that our future is secure in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The future coming of the Lord is not something to be feared. It is now. Rather than living in fear of what is to come, we are called to live in hopeful expectation for the glorious Kingdom that is breaking into our lives even as we speak. The “Day of the Lord” is now. Paul is not holding out something in the future but is instead trying to depict what a life pursuing holiness really looks like.

In Feasting on the Word, John E. Cole says that Jurgen Moltmann “declares that the coming of God should make believers “impatient” with the way the world is today.” That’s probably what Paul was trying to depict. He was not trying to scare people into repentance (in spite of what some modern-day tele-evangelists declare!); rather, he was trying to get them to see a different way and want it so badly, hold to it so tightly in hopeful expectation, that they could do nothing else but live into it, that they could do nothing else but walk in holiness.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why are these images sometimes uncomfortable for us?
  3. What changes when you look upon them as “hopeful expectation” rather than fear?
  4. What would it mean for us to want God’s vision to come to fulfillment so badly that we could do nothing else?

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 25: 14-30

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The passage that we read is the familiar “Parable of the Talents.” Here, though, a “talent” is a monetary unit. Yes, my friends, here Jesus is talking about money. Did you know that if we took all of Jesus’ teachings about money out of the Gospels, we would reduce them by more than one third? Did you know that sixteen of the thirty-eight parables attributed to Jesus are about money? Did you know that one of every seven verses in the first three Gospels in some way deals with money? In fact, Jesus spoke more often about money than about any other subject except the Kingdom of God itself? Now, my take on this is not that money is more important than other things. My take on it is that even in first-century society, money and people’s view of money was a problem—not because it’s bad or evil, but because it is so easy for we humans to fall into the trap of letting it reshape our lives into something that it’s not supposed to be, allowing it to rise to the top of our view, clouding our judgment, getting in the way of how we see each other, and somehow convincing ourselves that there is never enough to go around.

And in this parable, Jesus reminds us that, whether or not we receive equal shares of Creation’s bounty, God entrusts all of the resources that we have at our disposal to us. And, as stewards of these resources, we are called not to hoard them, not to let a fear of scarcity dig holes in our lives that we attempt to fill with material things, and not to let what we have deflect from the light we have been shown, pushing us out into the darkness. We are, rather, called to a life of abundance, recognizing that everything that we have comes from God and is given to us to use in the building of the Kingdom of God.

But if we don’t talk about money, how will we know that?   Jesus knew this and he knew the difficulties that we have. He knew that money and, specifically, the lack thereof, scares us. But he also knew that if we lose perspective of our money as a God-given resource, as a God-shared part of Creation, as a God-entrusted tool that we are called to use to build the Kingdom brick by brick, talent by talent, and dollar by dollar, we would lose that image of the one that God is calling us to be.

How much more applicable could a passage be for us today? We live in a world riddled with misuse of resources, saturated with greed, and filled with fear of what our economic future holds. You don’t have to go any farther than the front page of the paper, your living room, or access to the internet to see how bad it is. Apparently, what we need is a hero, of sorts. (Where is that wise woman sitting under the palm tree when you need her?) The truth is that the world around us probably makes this parable even more uncomfortable for us. Well, it has often been said that if a parable does not make you a little uncomfortable, you have probably not gotten its point. Several years ago at the height of our country’s economic collapse, CNN’s Anderson Cooper did a breakdown of the “top ten culprits of the collapse”—according to him the blame went to Congress, the White House, the banks, Goldman Sachs, Wall Street…I don’t know, I don’t remember the order. The point is, it’s not important. Because, in case you missed it, the number one culprit in Anderson Cooper’s countdown was you; in other words, it was all of us. And that third servant in the parable? That’s the one that hits a little too close to home. Thinking our voices too weak and our offering too meager, we are often guilty of burying those things that God has provided us. We are guilty of being afraid to use what God has given us. We instead hold onto what we think is “ours” a little too tightly until we literally suck the life out of it.

We do forget that everything that we have was God’s first and will be God’s when it is all said and done. In that respect, we are middle managers, stewards of that which is God’s. And the question then becomes, how do we as good managers invest God’s resources? How do we use our time, our talents, and our money? What do we do with those things with which God has entrusted us to further God’s kingdom? That is the whole reason why we have been entrusted to be stewards of these things. God knows that we are capable of getting it right, even if we haven’t yet convinced ourselves. God has given us resources beyond what we can count; indeed we are dealing in what could be termed heroic measures and all we’ve been asked to do is to be who God calls us to be.

John Westerhoff defines stewardship as “nothing less than a complete life-style, a total accountability and responsibility before God. Stewardship [he says] is what we do after we say we believe, that is, after we give our love, loyalty, and trust to God, from whom each and every aspect of our lives comes as a gift. As members of God’s household, we are subject to God’s economy or stewardship, that is, God’s plan to reconcile the whole world and bring creation to its proper end.” (John H. Westerhoff, III, Building God’s People in a Materialistic Society (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 23, (as quoted by Ronald E. Vallet, Stepping Stones of the Steward (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1989), 2)

So, being good managers of God’s economy means that all that God has given us is ours to use. It means that everything that we are should be used for God’s glory—our prayers, our presence, our monetary gifts, and our time and talents—all are used as witnesses to who God is and what God is doing in the world. Giving back of those resources, then, is something that we are indeed called to do. But it is more than that. It is an act of faith. It is the way that we prayerfully and faithfully offer ourselves to God. It is the way that we participate in the building of the Kingdom of God. So, what part of the Kingdom is ours to build? There…whatever you see is the part that is yours to build. Martin Luther said that “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all. But whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

But, obviously, there is something more here than money, something more than gifts. The point is that everything is of God. We are of God. We are called to offer ourselves to God. Our lives are lives of holiness. What is God calling us to do? What is it that give you life?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why are we so uncomfortable talking about money, especially in church?
  3. What message does this hold for our society in light of our current economic times?
  4. How are we called to “invest” God’s resources?
  5. What part of God’s Kingdom is yours to build?
  6. How does this passage speak to that “hopeful expectation” that we talked about before?

 

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Every noble life leaves its fiber interwoven forever in the work of the world. (John Ruskin)

 

Try, with God’s help, to perceive the connection—even physical and natural—which binds your labor with the building of the Kingdom of Heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draws you to itself; then, as you leave church for the noisy streets, you will remain with only one feeling, that of continuing to immerse yourself in God. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 

If my hands are fully occupied in holding on to something, I can neither give nor receive. (Dorothee Soelle) 

 

Closing

 

Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase, and grant us, Lord, in this our day, the ancient dream of peace.

 

A dream of swords to sickles bent, of spears to scythe and space, the weapons of our warfare spent, a world of peace remade.

 

Bring, Lord, your better world to birth, your kingdom, love’s domain, where peace with God, and peace on earth, and peace eternal reign. Amen.

 

(Timothy Dudley-Smith, The United Methodist Hymnal, # 426)