Sunday, January 25, 2015

“YOUNEVERKNOW” - January 25, 2015

Texts: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

Many years ago, my friend Kevin got box seats to a couple of St. Louis Cardinals games through his dad’s work.  So four of us went to St. Louis for a great road trip.  The Cardinals were playing the New York Mets (back in one of those rare eras when the Mets were good.)  The young pitching sensation Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets, and the Cardinals’ pitcher was Jouquin Andujar.  Jouquin was a colorful character, a real hot-dog.  When he took his practice pitches before each inning, the last pitch he would throw wildly and like a bullet, about 15 feet up on the screen.  Besides just plain orneriness, he did this to intimidate the batters.  The message was, this guy is out of control, and if one of his pitches gets away from him, you could get hurt.

We loved Jouquin.  A reporter once asked him to describe the game of baseball in one word.  He was from the Dominican Republic, liked to be known as One Bad Dominican, and his English wasn’t that great, but he had a wonderful response.  The one word to describe baseball, he said, was “YOUNEVERKNOW.“

His math skills may have been lacking, but it was an inspired answer.  YOUNEVERKNOW.  

It’s true.  When you go to a ballgame, YOUNEVERKNOW.  One night, there may be a no-hitter and the next night, it may be 18-17 in 14 innings. 

YOUNEVERKNOW actually applies to a lot of things.  This morning we have read a part of the story of Jonah, and if you were asked to describe the story of Jonah in one word, a good answer would be Jouquin Andujar’s answer: YOUNEVERKNOW.

God asks Jonah, a prophet, to go and preach to Nineveh.  Nineveh was a foreign city, in Assyria, across the river from what is now Mosul, Iraq.  Nineveh was well-known as a decadent, evil place.  It was denounced for its violence and evil by the prophets Zephaniah and Nahum.  God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and not surprisingly, Jonah didn’t want to go. 

Jonah didn’t like these people, didn’t like the idea of God caring about these people, and personally, it would be fine with him if they all rotted in hell.  Jonah was not interested in “drawing the circle wide,” as our choir sang this morning.  And besides, Jonah knew it would be an exercise in futility.  There was no way the Ninevites would listen to him.  So he did what any self-respecting prophet would do: he got on a fast boat headed in the opposite direction.

That makes Jonah a lot like us.  If we were asked to do something that seemed just too difficult or too distasteful, our first reaction might be to run.  If God were to ask you to go to Mosul today, for example, most of us would not be chomping at the bit to go.

Jonah skips town and fast, but his escape does not go as planned.  The ship comes upon a terrible storm and it looks like everyone will die at sea.  The crew figures out that they are in this predicament because Jonah had disobeyed God.  So they do what they have to do.  Jonah is thrown overboard, but he ends up being swallowed by a big fish and then vomited up on  the shore.

This is where we pick up today’s reading.  The Lord asked Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh.  It’s an offer Jonah can’t refuse – I mean, he’s already done time in a fish’s belly.  So he goes to Nineveh.  He went grudgingly, he didn’t have to like it, but he went.

Nineveh was a very large city.  The passage says it took three days to walk across the city.  This may be a case of describing the city in legendary dimensions, but historically, Nineveh was for a time the largest city in the world.  This was the greatest urban center on earth.  God had told Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city.”  The Hebrew says literally “that great to God” city.  This may have meant great because of its size or importance, or great because God cared for the city.  And since God had asked his prophet to go there and prophesy, apparently it was “great to God.”

So a reluctant Jonah goes.  He travels one day into the city – he doesn’t reach the heart of town.  And here is his entire text: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  That’s it.  That’s his sermon.  In Hebrew, it’s just five words.  A five-word sermon that does not mention God, does not say why the city will be overthrown, and holds out no hope of escaping this sentence.  To be honest, it was a pitiful performance, a half-hearted effort.

But amazingly, the people of Nineveh responded.  Jonah doesn’t even mention God, but the people nevertheless believed in God.  They take the lack of details in Jonah’s message as an opportunity to believe that the future is open-ended, that there may be a chance for a reprieve.  They fasted, put on sackcloth, and repented of their sins.  The news reached the king, who followed the lead of the people.  He took off his crown and his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  He proclaimed that every living thing, human and animal, will put on sackcloth and ashes and repent of their evil ways and the violence in their hearts and perhaps God will spare them.

When we read this story in Sunday School last week, people were struck by the sackcloth and ashes.  What’s up with that?  We don’t have many modern-day equivalents.

Maybe thinking about that trip to see Jouquin Andujar took me back to college days, but I remember that when I was in college and had a big test the next day, maybe physical chemistry or organic or calculus, I had clothes I would wear when studying.  There might be a study session in the library, and I would wear a t-shirt that was just riddled with holes, almost falling apart, and some pants I had bought at an army surplus store for $2.  The night before a huge test, I wore the worst clothes I owned.  In time this became a tradition, but initially I just kind of did this intuitively – I was completely throwing myself into studying, and what I wore matched the feeling of desperation that we had over the situation. 

Sackcloth and ashes are a way of completely throwing oneself into mourning or into repentance.  You don’t just say, “I feel bad about what I have done” and then go about your business. Sackcloth and ashes meant that you took this with the utmost seriousness.  When they wore sackcloth and sat in ashes, the Ninevites’ appearance and lack of comfort matched their spirit.  They threw themselves into repenting and humility before God.

And because of their repentance, God decided to spare the city. 

This made Jonah very upset.  He was not at all happy that Nineveh repented, and the rest of the book of Jonah deals with Jonah’s disappointment.  Jonah was disillusioned and depressed by the success of his mission in Nineveh.

The lessons of this story can be summarized in that one word: YOUNEVERKNOW.

1.  YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do.  It was inconceivable to Jonah that God would want him to go to Nineveh.  He thought he knew better than God.

The thread that ties this story with our New Testament reading is this matter of calling.  Contrast Jonah with Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus says “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”  And Andrew and Simon and James and John follow.  Just like that.  No questioning or delay is mentioned.  Now I imagine there was some uncertainty, some sense of “what are we getting ourselves into?”  But nevertheless, they followed, because they knew that God had called them. 

2.  YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do, and then YOUNEVERKNOW how others may respond. 

Jonah had the Ninevites all figured out.  They were worthless heathen, beyond hope.  This was the stereotype, the reputation of the city.  But even if that reputation was deserved, every person in the city repented.  Men, women, rich, poor, slaves, merchants, craftsmen, boys, girls, royalty.  They all repented of their sin.  Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and repented.  (This gives us hope, because I have known more than a few cats who needed to repent.)

Jesus spoke of the city of Nineveh.  In Matthew 12:41, Jesus says, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”  Far from being a hopeless case, Nineveh becomes an example for others.  As lousy a prophet as Jonah was, the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God anyway.

Today, there are people that society has by and large written off as worthless.  As beyond hope.  The church can sometimes write those people off too.  What would happen if we took seriously the fact that no one is beyond hope, no person is beyond reaching?

The great German pastor Helmut Thielicke had an old photograph on his desk. It was a snapshot of a nativity pageant. A group of grizzled looking men are wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands. Another group of men is kneeling before them, feigning terror.  It is clear that they are supposed to be the angels, speaking to the fearful shepherds.

Why was this photograph the only one on the pastor's desk? Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain.  The men in the scene were all convicts, hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ.  These murderers and thugs were dressed like angels.  For Thielicke, it was a parable, not unlike the story of Jonah, a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to change us. The message of Jonah is that change is possible even in the most unlikely places and unlikely people.  YOUNEVERKNOW.

3.  The story of Jonah also tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring.  Jonah would not have imagined that God would ask him to go to Nineveh.  When he finally did go, he was pretty sure of how things would turn out.  In fact, he basically sabotaged his own message.  He was hoping to fail, trying to fail.  And yet, the people repented.

The fact is, YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring.  For Jonah, there were storms at sea, being thrown overboard, being swallowed and then barfed up by a big fish, and how many of us expect that?  YOUNEVERKNOW.

We may have the future planned, everything nicely mapped out.  But rarely does it turn out that way.  There are some of you who never would have believed you would be where you are today.  You couldn’t imagine yourself at Iowa State, or married, or in your line of work, or liking sweet potatoes, or in church on a Sunday morning.  Or in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning.  But here you are.  Like Jouquin Andujar said, YOUNEVERKNOW.
4.  As much as anything, the story of Jonah tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW about God.  Jonah assumed that God was just like him, assumed that God didn’t care about those no-good Ninevites, assumed that God operated in predictable ways. 

Have you ever noticed that an awful lot of people believe that God thinks exactly the way we do, with the same tastes, same likes and dislikes, same pet peeves, same political philosophies, same opinions?  It’s interesting, isn’t it?   

Marcus Borg died this past Wednesday.  He was a leading New Testament scholar and theologian.  Our theology class is familiar with Borg from videos they have watched and I think they read one of his books.  One of the qualities that drew people to Borg was his humility.  He didn’t claim to have all the answers.  He was a leading liberal voice, but was open to others and in conversation with folks who thought differently.  In fact, he wrote a few books together with a more conservative theologian.  An Episcopal priest in Houston, who said that he agreed with Borg about 75% of the time, recalled a time when Borg made a presentation at his church.  In the question time that followed, a woman asked, “But how do you know that you’re right?”  Borg paused and responded: “I don’t know.  I don’t know that I’m right.”

In a world in which everybody seems to be so certain about things, such honest humility is refreshing.

I love the king in the story of Jonah.  The king has a better insight into God than God’s own prophet.  He says to the people, “Who knows?  Maybe God will relent.”  He doesn’t claim to understand how God operates.  He knew that we don’t control what God will do.  But he also understood that what we do does matter.  And because of the people’s repentance, we read in verse 10 that God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.

This is a wonderful verse, because it says that the future is wide open.  The future is filled with possibility.  We are not just actors playing roles that are designated for us, but God allows us to help shape the future.  What we do matters. 

Jonah thought he had things all figured out, but he was wrong.  Like Jonah, we get into trouble when we think we know it all.  But the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.

To say YOUNEVERKNOW does not mean that we know nothing.  There is a lot that we do know.  That one word, YOUNEVERKNOW, is maybe best understood in the phrase, “YOUNEVERKNOW until you try.”

YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do until you
really listen.
YOUNEVERKNOW how others will respond until they have the opportunity.

YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring until you
have lived it.
YOUNEVERKNOW about God until you commit yourself to following in God’s ways.

YOUNEVERKNOW is really an invitation to give things a try – to give God a try.

The invitation is to commit our lives to following where Jesus leads us.  That might mean going some places we do not expect.  That can mean living without knowing all the answers.  That means the future is wide open.  But until you follow Jesus, well, YOUNEVERKNOW.  Amen. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

“Called Together” - January 18, 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

Samuel was young.  He was just a boy, and he did not have what you would think of as a typical living arrangement.  Samuel did not live at home with his parents, he did not live with his grandparents, he didn’t live with any family at all.  Samuel lived in the temple with the old priest Eli.

The way this came about was that Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was well advanced in years and still childless.  She had prayed and prayed for a child when God heard her prayers and gave her a son, whom she named Samuel and dedicated to God.  So when Samuel was old enough, he went to live at the temple with the priest Eli, learning to work in God’s service at the temple.  It doesn’t sound like that fun of a boarding school, but that’s the way it happened.

One night, lying in bed, Samuel hears a voice.  “Samuel, Samuel,” the voice calls out.  Samuel goes to see what the priest needs.  But Eli has not called Samuel.  He tells him to go back to bed.  It must have just been a dream or something.  But Samuel hears the voice again, and again tells Eli, “Here I am.”  But again, Eli says that he has not called Samuel.  So Samuel is sent back to bed.

And then it happens yet a third time.  And this time, Eli perceives that God must be the one speaking to Samuel.  He tells Samuel that when he hears the voice again, to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Samuel does as Eli instructs, and God speaks to him.  This is the call of the prophet Samuel.

To be real honest, it’s kind of a scary story.  As a child, I would hear this story in Sunday School and feel bad for Samuel, this little boy living what sounded like a sad and lonely life in this cold, dark temple where his mother visited him once a year, to bring him a new coat.  There were pictures of his mother bringing him a coat and Samuel was smiling and looked happy, which didn’t seem quite right to me.  Even though it involved a little boy, it wasn’t really that cheery a story for a kid to hear.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it as a great story, because it turns the tables on what we would expect.  To whom would God speak – a veteran priest, or a little kid?  Samuel wasn’t even a Levite, which meant that he was not eligible to ever become a priest.  Yet God spoke to Samuel.

Although, when we read the whole story, God was really speaking to both of them, and both needed the other in order to hear God.  On his own, Samuel did not comprehend that God was speaking to him.  But the message God had for Samuel was a message of judgment on Eli’s family.  His sons were corrupt and blasphemous and made a mockery of the priesthood, and Eli had sat idly by and let it continue – he was complicit in it.  God had a message for Eli, but Eli needed Samuel to hear it.  God had a message for Samuel, but Samuel needed Eli to hear it.  Both Eli and Samuel needed the other.

That is often the way it works.  We can have a hard time hearing God all by ourselves – we need each other.  Young Samuel needed the experience and maturity of Eli, who perceived that God was speaking.  But somehow, Eli wasn’t hearing God himself - maybe he wasn’t really listening – and it was the boy Samuel who gave him God’s message.

No matter what our age, we all need some help in hearing and responding to God and we all need support and encouragement in living our faith.  Our New Testament scripture is about Nathaniel, one of the lesser-known disciples.  Nathaniel is only mentioned in John’s gospel. 
Jesus has gone to Galilee and found Philip, and asks Philip to follow him.  For Philip, following Jesus means inviting his friends to follow too, and so he goes to his friend Nathaniel and says, “Come and see the one the prophets spoke of – Jesus of Nazareth.”

And Nathaniel says, “Are you kidding me?  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was not exactly the cultural center of the universe.  It was not known for producing important leaders, certainly not messiahs.  Imagine somebody saying, “Come and see the long-awaited messiah, Bernie from Zearing,” and you get the idea.  Yet Nathaniel learns that he has indeed come face to face with the kingdom of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  And it’s because of Philip.  Without Philip, Nathaniel doesn’t come to Jesus.

Most of us need help hearing God’s call.  Most of us need someone walking alongside us as we follow Jesus.

We live in a world where the notion of hearing God’s voice sounds, well, a little crazy.  The idea that God might speak to us, whether it is through a voice or a dream or a growing awareness or a deep conviction - however it happens, the idea that God might speak to us is for many people a little bit suspect.  And the ability to hear God’s call, to perceive that God is speaking to us, can be just as hard for us as it was for Samuel.

Frederick Buechner is a great preacher and writer, author of many books, both fiction and non-fiction.  One of the clearest messages woven into his many books is to pay attention - to your life, to the people with whom you are closest, to the things that happen to you.  This, he says, is the best and most authentic, way to experience yourself and God.
 You never know what may cause them.  The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before.  A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure.  But of this you can be sure.  Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.

God can speak to us in many ways, and as Frederick Buechner says, it happens as we listen to our lives.  But listening can be very hard, as we all know.  It was hard for Samuel and Eli, and we could all use some help.

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC on a cold January morning and started to play the violin.  He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.  During that time, since it was rush hour, thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.   A minute later, the violinist received his first tip: a woman threw a dollar in the till and without stopping continued to walk.  A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again.   In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while.  About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace.  He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it.  No applause; no recognition.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy.  He wanted to stop but his mother tugged him along.  So the child turned his head and looked backward at the musician as he walked.

No one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world.  He played very intricate pieces on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.  Two days before playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where patrons paid $100 a seat and up.

This whole episode was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post that explored perception, taste and priorities of people.  The questions were: in a commonplace environment at an unexpected hour, do we perceive beauty?  Do we stop to appreciate it?  Do we recognize brilliance in an unexpected context?

One of the questions this experiment might raise for us is, “If we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing beautiful, powerful music, then what else are we missing?”

What if God is speaking to us, is all around us, is like a musician playing beautiful, inspiring notes, but we are too busy or too cynical or too disinterested to notice?

Samuel at least heard the voice calling his name.  He didn’t have it figured out, didn’t know who was speaking to him, but he was at least listening, and with Eli’s help he made sense of it.  I wonder about us?  With all of the busyness of our lives, are we able to perceive the call of God?

We don’t have the advantage of seeing Jesus face to face as Nathaniel did, and not many of us are called in such dramatic a fashion as Samuel.  But what they shared was that it took another person to help them sort out the call.  Philip invites Nathaniel with this wonderful invitation.  “Come and see,” he says.  Philip doesn’t have it all figured out, he isn’t condescending, he doesn’t argue with Nathaniel, doesn’t tell Nathaniel, “This is the way it is.”  He simply tells him about Jesus.  Nathaniel expresses skepticism – Jesus is from Nazareth, after all – and Philip says, “Come and see.”  Decide for yourself.  Nathaniel does – Philip is his friend - and as he learns about Jesus, Nathaniel follows.

Old Eli helps Samuel to understand that God is speaking to him.  He points Samuel towards God and helps him receive the call.  That’s the way it is for most of us.  We aren’t called all by ourselves, we are called together. 

In the church, we need one another and we depend upon one another.  The church is to be a family, a community of faith, and we are to welcome others as brothers and sisters and love one another and care for one another as a family.

We are called together – that is, we discern God’s call to us with the help of others, as part of a community.  Together, we hear our call.  But we are also called together in the sense that we are called to be together.  We are called to community.  We are called to care for all of humanity.

This weekend we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was a great civil rights leader and social activist.  But at the heart of it, Martin Luther King was a pastor.  We take pride in the fact that he was an American Baptist pastor, part of our denomination. 

King popularized the term “Beloved Community.”  As he fought for justice, the goal was not to defeat his opponents, not to bring down the oppressors, but to bring about reconciliation.  King loved and prayed for his enemies.

The church is certainly called to be a Beloved Community, where there is peace and welcome and reconciliation are freely offered, but King extended that idea to all of humanity.  Our concern is not simply to be for ourselves and those close to us.  King understood that we are indeed “called together.”

King wrote an essay called “The World House.”  He wrote,

Some years ago a famous novelist died.  Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of [humanity]. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. . . All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.
King also said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people share in the wealth and goodness of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because human decency will not allow it. Racism, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.  In the Beloved Community, disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries.  Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent action.  At a victory rally following the announcement of Supreme Court decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses he said,

The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.  It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.  It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [people]. 
 King actually followed Jesus’ admonition to “pray for your enemies.”

When we look at our world today, how much do we need this kind of vision of a Beloved Community? 

Eli and Samuel needed one another.  Nathaniel needed Philip, and there were no doubt times when Philip needed Nathaniel.  In the church, we all need one another.  We are a family.  And Dr. King would tell us that we are part of a World House, a Beloved Community, and our goal is to bring others, to bring even enemies, into the Beloved Community.

We are called together.  Called to follow together, called to serve together, called to live together.  We need one another to hear God’s call, and we need one another to live as a Beloved Community.  May it be so.  Amen.