January 21, 2018

2018 Jan21

Epiphany 3 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger on January 21, 2018

 

The geography contained in today’s Bible readings is vast. Jonah is in Nineveh, which is modern-day Mosul in Iraq. Paul is writing to the Christians in Corinth in Greece. And Jesus is at the Sea of Galilee, which is modern-day Lake Kinneret in the northeast of Israel. Our stories span almost 2,000mi.
Each of the stories are small bits of larger stories. I would be so brave as to say that all three are taken out of context, probably in order to provide some inspiration to us on a cold Sunday morning in January.

  • The Ninevites turning from their evil ways doesn’t do justice to the wider story of Jonah’s own journey away from and then back toward God.
  • Paul’s 2 sentences out of a much longer letter doesn’t paint the picture of the concerns of the Christian community in Corinth that Paul was addressing.
  • Jesus’ call of His first Disciples is just a small part of the beginning of His ministry in Galilee.

What the stories have in common theologically is the turning of people to God. Last week, we witnessed the characters in our stories seeing God in a different way. This week, we read about a turning to God.

  • Nineveh was a powerful city, and is still a key city today. The people were notoriously corrupt and misguided. God sent Jonah to sort them out. Jonah did not want to take on that challenge, and he actively ran away from God. After the whale incident, Jonah finally accepted God’s call, and the people of Nineveh turned away from their evil ways and turned toward God. Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and Jonah has a meltdown that finishes the Book of Jonah. But the point of today’s portion is that the people turned toward God.
  • Lots of things are going on among the Christian community in Corinth. Paul attempts to sort out the divisions that they had written to him about. In this short passage of one long, run-on sentence, Paul is telling them that their current earthly situations are immaterial, because it is only the heavenly realm that matters. Paul encourages the Corinthians to turn away from their earthly squabbles, and turn toward Eternal Life in Christ, which Paul believes to be imminent.
  • Jesus’ turning of Simon, Andrew, James and John is more straightforward. He calls them, and they immediately follow Him. Turning away from their fishing, and for James and John, away from their father, and turning toward Jesus appears to be quite simple.
  • These stories are inspiring. They illustrate how turning to God is the simple act of saying “Yes”, and it involves some personal sacrifice of the earthly behaviors that often get in the way of seeing the path to Eternal Life that God has laid for us.

The stories can also be intimidating. They don’t include the personal journeys of those who turned toward God. The Presiding Bishop and Bishop Mary want us to engage in evangelism,


an Episcopal form of evangelism

that is gentler and more

interpersonal than the forms of

evangelism that come to our

minds when the E-word is spoken.


Today, I believe we need to speak of turning to God as a journey.


Last week I shared the story of an atheist who became a Christian. She made it clear that it wasn’t through hearing the personal stories of Christians that led to her conversion. It was her own experience of God that did that. When I speak of journeys, I am suggesting that we need to help those on the verge of joining us here that turning to God is a journey for most people. For some, it IS like Simon, Andrew, James and John. The call comes, the recognition of God happens, and they’re off! But for most people I meet, including many of you, faith is a journey with lots of twists and turns. When we extend that personal invitation to a friend or neighbor, we need to make sure that they know that being on a journey is OK.


We are completely wrapped up in our material lives, that is more true now than ever. And the Western Church has affirmed this. We have house blessings, we decorate for Christmas and Easter, we place a high value on medieval Christian statuary and Renaissance Christian art. We place high value on marriage such that Paul’s statement, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none,” seems odd to us. We honor the producing and preparing of food and drink. And our sanctioning of the material world as good in the eyes of God goes on. Asceticism as a way of life is best left to the Early Church Fathers of Northern Africa.


Call to mind the person you could most likely invite to St Stephen’s. You tell them what you love about St Stephen’s, and how you are nourished spiritually. This is laying the groundwork for the time that you will actually extend the invitation. Over a glass of wine, that person asks, “What is it like being a Christian?” If you respond,


“Well, Lent is coming up, and we are encouraged to proclaim a fast, and everyone, great and small, should put on sackcloth. We don’t worry about today, just as those who have wives are to be as though they had none, and those who buy are to live as though they had no possessions. This is all because being a Christian means that, when we encounter Jesus, we immediately leave our current lives and follow Him.”


If you present the main thrusts of today’s stories, that person is NOT going to come to church with you, no matter how spectacular our Choir and Organ Scholar are!


What is missing from these readings are the spiritual journeys of the Ninevites, the Corinthians and the first Disciples. Were we able to illustrate to that person you are on the verge of inviting that Simon and Andrew had heard of Jesus, His healing, His preaching, and they were impressed by it, and that over time, they became more and more intrigued by this, it might be more encouraging to hear that they left their jobs as fishermen to become fishers of people. Had we read that the Ninevites were living personal and corporate lives that were unsustainable for both the individual and the community, and one-by-one they started to realize that the community would eventually collapse, it might be more encouraging for that person you want to invite to reflect on what parts of their lives are unsustainable.


Just so you’re sure, I’m not criticizing Holy Scripture. I’m simply pointing out that we don’t have a full picture of what is happening for the characters in our stories. The call to follow Jesus is not a simple call to follow. Saying “Yes” is the simple part; the following is the challenging part. Living that call includes inviting others into this experience that we know. Knowing that turning to God can be a journey, a process, rather than a point of no return, can help in our endeavors to extend that personal invitation.


Skip Parks has been working with the Board of Trustees on a way that we can engage in evangelism as Episcopalians. His workshop called “Moments” is itself a sort of journey. There were 12 of us at the initial workshop. The 5 of us who met for the follow-up last week realized something key to the journey to evangelism: it’s about being comfortable sharing with another person that we even go to church, nevermind the more personal aspects of being a Christian. So, the beginning of our journey to evangelism is to be out as Christians, to say to another,


“I go to St Stephen’s on Sunday

mornings, and I believe it to be a

valuable part of my life.”


So, if just being able to share that we go to church is a journey, then hearing these stories of wholesale turning one’s life over to God must be terrifying to someone who doesn’t have an experience of church or who hasn’t been in a long time!


What I want you to do is to start to think through your journey as a Christian. There may have been a moment when you just knew, or you may have always been a Christian. However your journey started, think through it. Re-live some of the twists and turns, and find out if you need anything for the next step along your journey. If you need something from me for your journey, that’s what I am here for.


As you reflect on your journey,

think about how you can share

that with another person,

someone you love and trust.

These are the first steps of being

able to admit that you do go to

church to that person you might invite.


All throughout the Bible, God and Jesus are demanding. Today’s Bible stories are stark illustrations of just how demanding God is. God came as Jesus Christ to further emphasize that the expectation is that we commit our whole lives to God. But we are human, and as God knows because God came to us in human form, we are not always capable or willing to give our all. It is then a journey, a journey that requires our own personal reflection and our corporate prayer on Sunday mornings. The Eucharist is our reminder that we always have a connection with Jesus Christ, and that we are accepted and loved, regardless of where our journey takes us at any particular moment.


So, let today’s Eucharistic Feast be the beginning of your journey of reflecting on your journey. As you come to the altar, bring in your heart that person who you might invite, and begin the journey of being able to extend that personal invitation to join us here on a Sunday morning.


The lives of the Ninevites, the Corinthians, the first Disciples were no less complicated than ours. God is no less demanding now than in their times. But what we know now is that God has sent the Holy Spirit to accompany us on our journeys of faith. And as we recited in the Psalm:


In God is my safety and my honor;
God is my strong rock and my refuge.
Put your trust in him always, O people,
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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