Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Simple": a sermon

Epiphany 3, St. Thomas’ Episcopal
January 25, 2015

Taken from Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Amen.
Have you ever had this happen: there is a situation.  It is bad.  You want it to change.  You get a little upset about it.  In fact, as you think about it, you get a lot upset about it.  You might even get peeved.  And you start thinking, and as you think, you come up with some great lines of what you are going to say, some zingers even, to make your point, conveying your frustration and as well as arguing for the change you want to make.

And there they are, your victim, I mean, adversary, the one you want put in their place.  You have an open, yet forceful stance.  You catch their eye and you say what you have been planning to say.  “We need to talk…”  It goes on from there.  You say what the problem is, and you want it to go to a different place.  And as you catch your breath, they respond with, “Okay.”

Okay?  Okay?  What do you mean okay?  Now,  as to getting what you want, you do.  Maybe.  But you had it all planned out.  You had it all ready.  Your scenarios and arguments were all in place, and before you got to use them they say okay.  You got consensus, but it was too easy.  What about all your planning and preparation!  Your big dramatic arguments worthy of Inherit the Wind are for nothing!  Arrrgh!

Disgruntled prophets are an ornery bunch.  They aren’t happy, and they try to make everyone else feel the same way.  This is the situation we see with Jonah today.  Now we do not see his pity party, that comes in the next chapter of Jonah, chapter 4. In fact your can read all of Jonah in just a few minutes.  It is almost a cautionary tale of how not to follow God.  You see, Jonah gave the word of the Lord to repent, but he did not want Ninevah, the great city, to listen to God.  And when he called out their imminent destruction in a mere 40 days, what did they do?  They had the audacity to listen.

Who had more faith, the people of Ninevah, who heard the prophet’s warning and changed their ways, or the pouty prophet who wanted to watch the fireworks and destruction that was to rain down before God changed God’s mind?  Jonah wanted to share the word of the Lord, but he wanted to add something.  Maybe a bit of flair to the message.  But you see, the message is enough.

Thankfully, the Ninevites, from the King on down, heard the word of the Lord and changed their ways.  God wants us to change our ways.  God wants none of us to be on the path that leads to destruction.

While we were at Council the last few days, I met a representative priest from the Diocese of Liverpool.  John was his name.  He told me the story of a youth he had worked with who had been a rough kid, or a troubled young lad as he put it.  He remembers him as extremely troubled when he knew him in his late teens.

A few years later, a friend who was a nurse asked a favor of  John, to go and visit a 22-year-old man who was dying of cancer.  Going to his house, the young man’s mother showed him upstairs.  Upon entering the room, John saw that it was the troubled youth he had met a few years before.  When he walked through the door, John heard the young man drop a few expletives in surprise and disgust upon seeing the vicar walk into his room.  John smiled and sat down.  The nurse had told John that the young man had not slept well in weeks, and so John went right to it.  “I hear you have not been sleeping well.”

“I can’t,” the young man replied.  “Why not?” John asked.

“Every time the lights go out, I see hands reaching up for me.  They’re gonna drag me to hell.”

“You’ve seen the movie Ghost one too many times,” John replied.  Their conversation went on, getting more and more honest, and finally John asked, “What troubles you?  What could be so bad that God would want you dragged off to hell?”  John then pulled out a piece of paper and waited.

After a long pause, the young man started a litany: lying, cheating, stealing, bad things, horrible things.  For the next hour and a half John wrote it all down.  When it was all down, John asked, “Anything more?”  Looking at the pages and pages that had already been written, “Nothing I can think of,” was the reply.

“Well then, we do not have to worry about those any more,” John said.  “Whadaya mean?”  “See here,” said John, “you told me, I told God.  And God told me, you’re forgiven.”  John then proceeded to rip up the sheets and sheets of paper.  “Wait, what are you doing?” asked the young man.  “You’re forgiven,” said John, and then he walked across the room and threw them away.

“Is it that simple?” asked the young man.  “Yeah, it really is,” said John.  They talked a bit more and John headed out.

The next day John came back, and the young man’s mother was furious.  “What did you do to my son?”  She, like her boy, threw a couple of expletives in along the way.  “What do you mean?” John asked.

“Come and see,” said the mom.  He followed her to the young man’s room.  John looked in, and she said, “I went to check on him this morning, and he was sleeping.  He is still sleeping now!”  

“I did not do anything,” said John.  But John knew, someone else had.

After hearing the litany of all the young man had done, John could have shaken his head and said he deserved whatever he got.  But he didn’t.  He could have added a judgmental tone or look.  But he didn’t.  He shared grace to a sin-sick soul.

Lining the shelves of my office are hundreds of books.  Most of them are about Christianity.  They argue their point of view, subtly and with nuance most of the time.  But it all boils down to the simple message of Jesus.  We want to make it complicated because we think that something this important cannot be that simple.

When food companies first invented the box cake mix, they had trials done.  People were wary of them, and did not want to use them.  Why?  Anything that simple cannot be worth using.  So what did the food chemists do?  They added a step.  They made it more complicated.  The made their mix so that it required breaking an egg.  That was enough complexity to make it “real” in the eyes of the bakers.  And, thus, Betty Crocker was born.  I think of all the things we add, or want to add, to make the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus more real to us by making it more complex.  Jonah wanted a wrestling match, so he could show how good a prophet he was.  God wanted changed hearts and lives.  I am glad God won.

When we look at the beginning of Mark, from today’s reading, we get the Gospel message of Jesus in a single verse.  Look at it with me.

Mark 1
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Verse 15 is the message that Jesus preached.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Unhear if you can the Bible-ese.  We are not shocked and surprised by it any more.  This was radical when he said it, and as Bishop Gulick reminded us yesterday, all true Christian formation is, at its core, subversive.  

“The time is fulfilled,” might be heard, “No more waiting.”

“The kingdom of God has come near,” could be heard, “The power and the rule of God is close enough to grasp.”

“Repent,” a military command for “About face,” or better yet, “Turn around!  Change your ways!”

“Believe in the good news.”  Don’t need to change that one at all.  Put it all together, de-Bible-esed and what do we get?  What is Jesus’ mission statement?

“No more waiting!  The power and rule of God is close enough for you to grasp.  Change your course, and believe this good, no, GREAT news.”

It would have to be that simple and that wonderful for hard-headed folks like the disciples, and maybe us, to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus immediately.  We do not have to add an egg, or make it complicated in any way.  Is it really that simple?  I think my new friend John, and Jesus, would both say yes.

When the young man passed away a few weeks later, John was asked to do the funeral.  All the young man’s biker friends were  there, and they all commented that their friend died a different man.  The song the young man chose for his final goodbye proved he had changed his ways, and that he believed the good news.  Not a loud heavy metal song of biker anarchy.  Nor was it a Christian song, per se.  It was a Motown great that was used to close out Ghostbusters if you remember it.  The great Jackie Wilson’s 1967 classic, “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher).”

Your love keeps lifting me higher
Than I’ve ever been lifted before
So keep it up, quench my desire
And I’ll be at your side forever more.

That song, and that sentiment, echo in heaven.  My friend John was beaming with joy as he told this story.  I would say the young man embraced some Good News.

“No more waiting!  The power and rule of God is close enough for you to grasp.  Change your course, and believe this GREAT news.”  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock