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Cast Your Nets Deeper

(a sermon for February 10, 2019, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 5:1-11)

I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, daily life moves in a certain pattern and rhythm; and that pattern and rhythm exists largely for the purpose of doing what needs to be done!  It’s true, no matter where we happen to be in life (!); from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning, whether the main goal is to get ourselves ready for work, or to get the kids to school on time, or to maneuver through whatever “to do” list stands before us, I think you’ll agree that most of the time our attention and effort is focused on simply taking care of the business of day to day existence!

Every once in a while, however, in the midst of all that routine something happens that makes us profoundly aware of another dimension of our lives; something that reminds us in glorious fashion that there’s more to life than what consumes us in the here and now.  It might be that moment when you’re holding your child (or your grandchild!) in your arms for the first time, and you’re struck with the utter miracle of human life; or maybe it’s what comes in the midst of a particular triumph or tragedy, when all at once you suddenly grasp, if only for a moment, just how precious and fragile a thing life really is.  Or it might be something as simple as gazing into a brilliantly starlit sky on a cold clear winter’s night, pondering the vastness of the universe; and you get this feeling that reaches so far down to the depth of your soul that the only possible response is one of awe, because there’s this palpable awareness of a living God right there with you!

My point is that there are for each of us unexpected experiences in our lives in which the extraordinary enters into the ordinary and the divine is revealed.  And it is in such singular moments that we delve deeper into what life can be and is supposed to be; and while such times might well be clear and confusing, invigorating and exhausting, empowering and terrifying all at the same time (!), these are the events that somehow challenge us to move beyond simply living the shallow, day to day process of life; so to live our lives more fully and, dare I say it, with purpose.  Because these are the things that take us deeper:  deeper into life and yes, deeper into faith… because, really, what are we talking about here if not something akin to a call from God?

There’s actually great precedence for what I’m saying here; holy scripture is in fact, full of stories of men, women and even children (!) who are going about the everyday business of living, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, get the experience of God that calls them to something more.  From Abraham to Miriam to Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah and beyond:  the history and tradition of our faith is filled with moment after moment in which ordinary people, by the graceful intrusion of God, are suddenly given a glimpse of the true depth of human existence that comes from faithful living; and who, as a result of that experience, bravely move out of the regular pattern and rhythm of life in order to go where God would have them go!

And then there’s Simon Peter, whose response to that experience, initially at least, was pretty much the opposite!  You know, I’ve always felt that I can relate to Peter more than almost any other character in the Biblical story, because as you read the gospels, you find that where faith is concerned Peter represents equal measures of bold and enthusiastic bravado, on the one hand, and a spineless lack of commitment on the other; in other words, he’s a whole lot like me and, I’m guessing, maybe you, too!  But, if that’s the case, we can all take comfort in knowing that whatever else one can say about Peter, he always leads from the heart; and ultimately, if eventually, it’s a heart of faith!

This comes through very clearly in our text for this morning, in which Peter, a fisherman by trade, is sitting cleaning and mending his fishing nets, getting ready to put out to sea for the next night’s work; which is basically the same thing he’s done just about every single day of his life.  It’s just another day on the job; except that on this particular day Jesus, who was there on the shore teaching a crowd of people “pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God,” [The Message], asks Peter to take him out on the water in his boat, where he can better speak to the group as a whole.

That in and of itself was an out-of-the-ordinary event for Peter and the other fishermen with him, James and his brother John; but then, once he’s finished speaking to the crowd Jesus turns to Peter and says, “’Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’”  Now, understand that although Peter, James and John were probably capable as fishermen they really weren’t all that successful at it; the likely truth is that the three of them were barely able to eke out a living by fishing, and they’d probably tried just about everything they could think of to increase their catch, without any success. They’d “been there, done that,” so to speak, so you can understand Peter’s skepticism and even a bit of annoyance in his voice when he answers Jesus by saying, “’Master, we have worked hard all night long but have caught nothing.”  (“…haven’t caught a minnow,” is how The Message puts it!) “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

Of course, you know what happens next: Peter does indeed put down his nets into the deeper water, and ends up pulling in so many fish that the nets split from the weight of them.  Likewise, James and John come to help, but so great is the catch of fish that both boats begin to sink! It was the kind of day that most fishermen, professional or otherwise, only dream of; but understand, there was much more to it than that.  For you see, in this incredible moment of abundance out there on the lake a brand new dimension of life was revealed to those three fishermen; in an instant, every old assumption and expectation they’d ever had about life and living was suddenly and irreversibly swept away by the sheer magnitude and power of God’s presence in their midst.

But how does Peter respond to this?  Not with breathless excitement or joyful awe, not even a word of gratitude for the great catch of fish!   No, what Peter brings to this incredible, God-imbued, life shifting moment is… complete and utter fear (!), combined with an overwhelming sense of unworthiness that literally drives him to his knees.  “’Go away from me, Lord,” he says, for “I am a sinful man.’”

Now, we’re not told exactly why Peter reacts this strongly, but we can guess; as we’ve said, Peter’s a lot like you and me, and Peter reacted the way we might react!  After all, it’s not every day that you encounter God, and now, to see God’s power and grace embodied in this man Jesus… well, not only does that reveal something about the nature of the Almighty, it also has a way of revealing everything about you!  William Willimon describes this well: he writes, “God’s holiness is the mirror through which our pretentious goodness is seen for what it really is.”  There, in this mirror, “you see reflected every moment of your life, every secret thought, all the good little things you have done for bad little reasons, the way you live every second for you and you and you alone… who could stand to stare into that mirror for long?”  And who could experience that without being changed?

Well, certainly not Peter, and now suddenly, with James and John along with him, he’s out into the deeper water of life and faith in more ways than one, and it’s an experience both awesome and terrifying.  But it turns out that this is also an experience that brings both an assurance and an invitation: do not be afraid, Jesus says to them in the midst of their fear and uncertainties; because “from now on you will be catching people.”  And, of course, as we know, “when they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Now, did they know where they were going?  Not at all.  Did they feel up to the challenges that potentially awaited them?  Hardly!  Were they suddenly “over” the fear they’d just experienced, or the unworthiness they felt about it all?  Not a chance! But somehow they just knew they couldn’t stand on the shoreline or cling to the shallow waters any longer; because now they’d seen what can happen beyond the familiar waters of their lives, and now there was this challenge… this calling, if you will, to go out and cast their nets deeper than ever before… and so they just had to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

And how it was for Peter that day on the lakeshore… that’s how it’s meant to be for you and me as well.

It’s still how God works: in the midst of all our everyday dealings and the varied episodes of stress and strife, we’re being called cast our nets deeper than we’ve ever done before.  Now, you and I, if we’re being honest about it, do tend to focus our attention on the shallow waters of life.  Like I said before, we’re people who live our lives with a certain pattern and rhythm: we do our best to get by, we try to make ends meet, we approach the future with a cautious and conservative spirit, and we value maintaining the status quo; and we do all this because, frankly, it’s terrifying to do anything different!

But now here’s Jesus, bursting onto the shallow waters of our lives and saying to us, why not go deeper and cast your nets there? Don’t you know, he says, haven’t you figured it out yet, that you are more than simply flesh and blood; that you are more than your job, or your salary, or your daily responsibilities; that you amount to more than a random collection of biographical facts and figures? You are mine, says Jesus.  You are my beloved child!.  And if you’ll only dare to set aside your doubt and fear and cast your nets deeper, I will help you harvest so much more from your life and your living than you ever thought possible.

Even now, you see, Jesus is calling us to the deeper water! And of course, as it was for Peter before us, that’s a scary proposition for people like us.  I’m reminded of a cartoon from the New Yorker from some years back:  a man is talking with a friend about his life, and the caption reads, “This morning opportunity knocked at my door, but by the time I pushed back the bolt, turned the two locks, unlatched the chain and shut the alarm system it was gone!”  Frederick Beuchner puts it another way: he says that most of us would like to say we follow Jesus “joyously and proudly with a spring in our step and banners flying, and sometimes by God’s grace this is so.  But more often than not, we go dragging our feet, wishing we’d never heard the voice that now we can never entirely stop hearing, and knowing that it is never ours that is the power and the glory, but always his.”  But for those who would follow Jesus and would risk casting the nets of their lives deeper, there awaits a harvest previously unheard of:  a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being that invests itself into everything in life.

I know it scares us, beloved, as persons and as a people of faith, and sometime even as a church; this thought of breaking with “the way we’ve always done it” in favor of going deeper with our Lord Jesus, following him to places where we’ve never gone before.  It’s tempting to succumb to this notion that we’d just be better off staying closer to shore where it’s safe and quiet; but I ask you, how would it be if from this moment on if every voice and thought and opportunity before us came with a profound awareness of God’s might and creative power around us and within us?  How would it be if our motivation for each day’s routine of life was based upon the Lord’s leading and not our own?  How would it be if everything routine in our lives becomes brand new because we’ve become brand new; renewed and transformed into fishers of people, bringing the power and glory of our faith in God to family and friends and brothers and sisters we don’t even know yet?

It’s amazing what can happen… your life can change… the world can change!  But it all begins by you and I answering this call to put aside our doubts and fears and be willing to cast our nets deeper.  Even now, you see, Jesus is there, prodding us on to the wonder that is a life of faith; do not be afraid, he’s saying, because, you know what, the fishing’s gonna be good out there in the deeper water; just wait and see.

I pray we have the grace to follow.

And as we do, may our thanks be to the God who calls us now to the overflowing abundance of his grace.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 10, 2019 in Discipleship, Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Called Out and Sent Forth

10914810_943495065669859_3116296514221921099_o

(a sermon for January 22, 2017, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 4:12-23)

“I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men; I will make you fishers of men if you follow me!”

And just like that, or so the story goes, Peter and his brother Andrew – and very soon thereafter, James and his brother John – left their fishing nets, and everything else, to follow Jesus.  It’s the story we’ve all heard from the time we were in Sunday School, and it represents everything we ever need to know about the powerful nature of Jesus’ presence and call, as well as the open hearts and deep faith of those first disciples.  And one way or another, the message of that story is always the same, is it not; it’s the stuff of a great many hymns and a whole lot more sermons (!): that if Jesus is calling us, and if we have enough faith, then we also are going to drop everything else in our lives to follow him!

Absolutely!  That is, after all, part and parcel of our mission as faithful people in this and every age; to follow Jesus where and wherever he leads us, and in doing so, simply leave all our other worldly concerns behind, after the manner of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Just like that!

Except that, regarding those first four disciples, perhaps it wasn’t quite as simple as we’ve made it out to be!

To begin with, there’s a whole lot going on in our text for this morning beyond that pivotal moment when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew from their nets and promise to make them “fish for people.”

Actually, as Matthew sets up the story it’s all kind of… well, ominous!  John the Baptist has been arrested and imprisoned by Herod; Jesus himself has withdrawn from Nazareth to make a home in what might be considered a backwater village of Capernaum in Galilee; and this is to say nothing of the oppression of the Roman occupation that was on full display at the time!  Even Matthew makes a point in his gospel of reminding us that this was exactly the time and place to which Isaiah the prophet was referring when he spoke about “the people who sat in darkness” and those “who sat in the region and shadow of death.”  In other words, these were rough and turbulent times in Judea; and not by any reckoning an opportune or appropriate time for an itinerant preacher to be traveling the countryside, calling out to the people to “perceive and become a part of God’s in-breaking kingdom!” (David Lose)  And it certainly didn’t seem like the best move to choose a random gathering of fishermen to be your helpers in that endeavor!

And while we’re on the subject of those first disciples, let’s just be honest: while they certainly showed forth a great deal of faith, and yes, even courage in immediately leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, I think it’s also safe to say that they didn’t have a clue!  The reality is that neither Peter nor Andrew would have had any idea at all what being “fishers of people” even meant, much less to know where they’d be going or what they’d be doing in following Jesus.  These days we’d be sorely tempted to dismiss what those fisherman had done – to leave home, family and livelihood behind – as an impulsive act at best, or perhaps even irresponsible.  I’m not sure about that, but one thing is for certain: their response to Jesus’ call that day was anything but simple, or easy!

Now, none of what I’ve just said will ever lend itself to an extra verse of “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” but know that that’s exactly the context in which we come to our reading of this very familiar story of Jesus calling his first disciples.  But lest you think I’m simply ripping the narrative apart here, let me just add that this simply emphasizes the good news of it all; for what we have here is this undiminished truth of how during the darkest of times in the worst of all possible worlds, God’s light shone through.  Isaiah foretold it; that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” that that light comes to the world in the person of Jesus Christ… and that that same Jesus Christ, even now and even here, is calling you and me to follow him; just as he called those four faithful, yet admittedly unassuming fishermen so long ago.

Or, to put it another way, “he will make us fishers of men… if we follow him.”

But, having sung that, what does all that really mean for us in this day and age? Would it be safe to assume here that there would be very few among us who’d be so bold or impulsive as to immediately drop everything to walk with Jesus into the unknown?  Oh, there are a few who might be willing to leave the material world behind for a life of contemplation or service, but in all honesty, most of us have so much on our plates what with jobs and bills and families and all the rest of life’s responsibilities it’s not even conceivable, even for the sake of faith, for us to consider leaving our nets and boats behind.  But even as we say this, here’s Jesus, still standing on the shoreline of our lives, and still asking us to do just that, to leave everything and follow him wherever he leads us.

What we’re talking about here, friends, is the very essence of a call; no, let me correct that; it’s the call, God’s call to each and every one of us in our lives, and my point is that this call comes to us in ways that are amazing, surprising, unexpected, unsettling, life-changing to be sure, but in its own way, life-giving!  Because so often, you see, it’s God’s call, as well as our response to that call that makes us who we are.

But let me add something to this. You’ve often heard me say that as a pastor I have always felt “called” to ministry (and that’s been true for me from the time I was 15 years old!).  I’ve always believed that for better or worse God has always had this – this vocation, this work, this purpose – in mind for me; and truly, I can say to you now that answering that call has been the thing that’s helped shape just about everything else in my life! But that said, friends, when I say this I would not ever want to give you the idea that “the call” is something that is exclusively religious in nature.  For instance, I sincerely believe that those who are first-responders – firefighters, police officers, EMT’s and others – have a true calling to that work and it’s what gives them the willingness to go into situations the rest of us would run from!  Likewise doctors and nurses and so many others who are in the medical profession, those who work in assisted living facilities and those who volunteer at hospice day after day, year after year.  I also believe that teachers are called… from nursery school teachers on up; as are people who are caregivers of every stripe; even a few of our elected leaders, I believe, are as much called to their offices as they are elected!

But understand that “the calling” amounts to more than just having or doing the job.  It’s more than simply what these people do, you see; it comes down, ultimately, to who they are; it’s the direct connection that exists between how they live and what they believe, and it’s on that basis that everything else follows!  One of the more interesting news sidebars I’ve seen this week involved Steve Harvey; he’s the man who has a television talk show, and is also the host of “Family Feud.”  Steve Harvey, of all people, was actually invited this week to Trump Tower in New York so that he could meet with now President Trump and Ben Carson to address the need for urban renewal in some of our cities across the country.  And Harvey accepted the invitation (even though he was vilified in the media for it) because, he said, he was feeling a calling to contribute something positive to the discussion, even though he’s not at all a politician but rather a game show host! But that didn’t matter at all to Steve Harvey; in fact, here is what he said: “Your career is what you are paid for, and your calling is what you are made for.”

A calling, you see, involves much more than the task that’s before you; it has to do with what you’re made for!  And that’s especially true when it comes to God’s call.  That’s why it didn’t matter that at that moment on the beach, those disciples didn’t know what was to happen next; what mattered is that “Jesus saw something in them, something of value and worth,” and they responded. Janet Hunt, in an essay about our text for this morning, has written that perhaps those four fishermen had already sensed that they were made for “something beyond the work they were raised in,” and that perhaps that “’something more’ was somehow related to their faith.” If these disciples could just be bold to trust Jesus enough to follow, they would find that “deeper, truer” call on their very lives!

And the thing is, the same can be said for you and me today on our journeys of faith.  It has been said, you know, that so much of our faith amounts to call and response: God calls us out and sends us forth; our challenge is to respond.  We listen closely and carefully; we seek to discern the meaning of God’s call on our own lives, whatever shape or form that happens to take, and then we decide if we’re going to be bold enough to trust God in following that call wherever it may lead.

Of course, the journey that follows is not always not as murky as it seems; the truth is our God also offers up words and gifts of mercy grace and hope along the way that, as the psalmist has sung, offers “a lamp unto [our] feet, and a light unto [our] path.” (Psalm 119:105)  It does however, often happen in mysterious ways! I’m thinking of a classmate of mine from back in my seminary days: his name was Steve, and like so many students at Bangor Seminary, he had experienced a call to ministry relatively late in life, and though he had tentatively decided to explore this possibility by taking some classes in theology, he really had no intention of becoming a church pastor at all!  But before long, first as a lark and then as a… well, calling, he’d become a supply preacher and then the regular student pastor of this tiny little congregation out in the backwoods of rural Maine.  And though by his own admission he was enjoying that experience, and though his faith was ever deepening because of the relationship he was forging both with God and with the people in this little congregation he was serving, even then Steve is emphatically saying to all of us at school that this arrangement was only going to be temporary… but of course, it wasn’t!

I think Steve is retired now, actually, after having served several congregations throughout New England over the course of many years; but last I heard, he’s still doing supply preaching around whenever he can!   I once read an interview with Steve that ran in Down East Magazine some years ago; and they asked him about his call to ministry.  And do you know what he said?  He said, “Well, yes, God was calling me… and eventually, I just stopped saying ‘no!”

That’s the thing about our God, beloved; he’s relentless!  Sometimes the only real question that remains whether we say no…or yes!

I ask you, friends; where do you suppose God is calling you right now?  Understand, a true calling does not necessarily have to involve a major career change; who knows, you might be being called to a change in attitude!  Maybe it has something to do with the course of your relationships with those around you; or perhaps it involves standing up for what it is you really believe in, and in what is just and right, most especially when you’re likely to get shot down for doing so.  Or maybe today you’re only feeling that restlessness and yearning that comes in know, deep down within ourselves, that God has made us for something more… you just don’t know what it is yet!

The bottom line is that you have a purpose, and a true ministry in this world.  And even now, Jesus is there, still calling each one of us o’er the tumult and all the competing voices of life, so that finally we might be sent forth to do our part for the sake of his kingdom.  God’s call happens in a multitude of ways; it even happens here in the church and in our life together… perhaps even in an annual meeting?  Who knows?  Wherever… make no mistake, God is calling!

I pray that whatever that call happens to be, you’ll say yes.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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What Are You Waiting For?

10914810_943495065669859_3116296514221921099_o(a sermon for January 25, 2015, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20)

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

As Mark’s gospel tells the story, that’s about all there was to it. Two fishermen called by Jesus to follow, and they do; that’s all, with no more details and very little that would offer up any dramatic coloring. In terms of storytelling, that’s pretty striking: I mean, if you and I were writing the story we’d probably want to at least set the stage first; maybe give some background on these would-be disciples; say a little bit as to how and why something like this happens; or, if we were feeling particularly creative, perhaps even speculate as to the inner psychological dynamics that motivated them at this one particular moment to leave everything to follow Jesus!

In short, we’d fill in the blanks; but not Mark. As is typical of his version of the gospel, Mark’s story is lean and sparse, and it tells us virtually nothing about Simon and Andrew; all we know is that on the basis of a brief, ten-word call, they left it all to follow Jesus. And we are left to marvel at both the immediacy and the sheer audacity of it: that these men would quite literally abandon everything else in their lives – their work, their homes, their families, any semblance of financial security or even normalcy in their lives – all to run off after some itinerant preacher who has just come by announcing that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is now!

Even given that we know this story, it’s still a hard thing for us to comprehend! And that’s because for all the times as children we sang “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” in all honesty most of us could not in our wildest imaginations envision leaving everything behind on the basis of a simple invitation and promise. Life is much more complex than that! After all, we’re people with lives and responsibilities; you can’t just go change the entire direction of your life on an impulse! You’ve got to weigh all the possible options; you need to do research; you have to clarify your values and put together a feasibility study. You don’t just get up and leave… immediately!

And yet… as Mark tells it, when it comes to these disciples of Jesus, that’s exactly what happens!

And therein lay the truth of faith that’s at the center of this story: that at the beginning of faith, there’s a call; and it’s a call that aches for a response. Bottom line, you and I can talk about faith and we can profess to living faithfully, but that only takes us so far. Because before you know, here’s Jesus, standing there on the shoreline of our lives, and calling out to us as simply and as clearly he did to those fisherfolk of old: “Follow me.” The call is clear, unalloyed and inevitable; the question is – it always is – how we’ll respond to it.

And the fact is that responding can be quite, shall we say, disruptive.

One of the first things I discovered when I entered seminary years ago was that the whole idea of being “called” to ministry was not as clear-cut for many of my classmates as it had been for me. As I’ve shared with you before, I’d known pretty much from the time I was 15 years old that this is what I wanted – this is what I needed – to do with my life. But for a lot of others, the mere fact that were at Bangor Seminary and were even contemplating a call to ministry represented a major disruption of everything they knew to be true about themselves and their lives.

There was, for instance, the mathematician who gave up a tenured position at an Ivy League college so he could immerse himself in the study of theology; there was the former CIA operative (or was he… we never quite knew for sure!) who always seemed like he was struggling with his place in the world; the retired newspaper print man whose children were perplexed as to why he was spending their inheritance on seminary tuition; the young woman who’d spent some time homeless and living on the streets of Boston. And then there was the man who several years before had been working as a manager at a drug store on the west coast and one night was shot at point blank range during a botched attempt at stealing drugs from the pharmacy.

Incredible stories, representing a vast array of life experience; certainly far removed from my own. Yet there was this one thing that had brought us all together, and it was this nagging feeling inside of each one of us that God was calling us to something more; the notion that we should leave everything else in our lives behind to follow Jesus. It was a sense of call that was at once clear and confusing, exhilarating and devastating all at the same time; and truth be told, a whole lot of my classmates that year simply hadn’t a clue why they they were there, much less have any sense as to what they were supposed to do next!

Now, I’d like to tell you that all of us ended up engaged in some sort of formal ministry or “Christian vocation,” but in fact some of those who’d arrived in Bangor that fall disappeared soon thereafter; and there were more than a few who struggled our whole three years together trying to figure out the reasons they were there at all. But at the end of the day (or the end of the degree, in this case) most of us just kept following the call. It was best summed up by one classmate of mine who used to say that he didn’t decide to go into the ministry; it was just that God had called him there, and at some point he simply “stopped saying no to God.”

I think that at the core of it, that’s what’s amazing and challenging about our Gospel reading for this morning: not simply that these disciples left everything to follow Jesus, but that they’d even said yes to begin with! Because we know, do we not, that there are a multitude of reasons we can find not to say yes; every reason in the world to hold back, to wait to see what happens before we act. Ann Weems writes about this in her wonderful book Reaching For Rainbows: “Christ said, ‘Follow me,’” she says. “And, of course, I’d rather not. I rather pretend that doesn’t include me. I’d rather sit by the fire and make my excuses. I’d rather look the other way.” But, she goes on to say, “I said YES and that means risk… it means here I am, ready or not.”

The flip side of all this, of course, is illustrated in our reading this morning from the Old Testament book of Jonah; specifically the story of God’s call to Jonah, who it is safe to day was perhaps God’s most reluctant prophet. Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance to the great and much despised city of Ninevah; and as we pick up on the story today, we find out that as Jonah proclaims God’s call to change, wonder of wonders, the people of Ninevah actually hear this word and repent! Which is great; except if you remember your Sunday School, this wasn’t the first time that God had called Jonah to go to Ninevah! The first time God calls Jonah, Jonah responds by saying in effect that he’d rather die than go to Nineva; and in fact, immediately books passage on a boat sailing in the opposite direction!
Eventually, after several misadventures, including one involving a huge fish with a stomach ache, Jonah relents and says yes to God; albeit with a continued amount of anger and grumbling. But the question remains: why did Jonah keep saying no? Biblical scholars suggest that politics, prejudice and fear had a whole lot to do with it: the Ninevites were his people’s most hated enemies, after all, and Jonah wasn’t about to be the one breaking down those boundaries. Moreover, what if he did go to Ninevah, and what if the Ninevites did repent of their sin, and what if God were actually to forgive them… then where would Jonah be?

It’s one thing, after all, to go out there and do something good for God; it’s quite another to have give up old and cherished ways of thinking and being in the process; to let God change us for the sake of a new vision and a divine purpose! Truth be told, Jonah was never one for that kind of change, which was a shame, because when Jonah said yes, that’s when amazing things started to happen.

I said this last week, and I’ll say it again: we are all called to ministry; each one of us here has been set apart as ministers of the gospel, and called to some unique facet of God’s purpose and plan. We are being called to follow God where God leads, and amazing things happen when we follow; so why do so many of us say no? Why do so many of us spend our lives fighting that call, saying no because we can’t let go of old assumptions, worn out predjudices and lingering fears? Why is it always “not me, not now?” Why do we insist that God find somebody younger; somebody more financially secure; somebody with more skills; somebody better, somebody… else? Honestly, the question we really should be asking is how many missed opportunities have their been for God’s vision and purpose to unfold all because we were reluctant to step up and step out as true disciples?

I remember that in one church that I served as pastor, for several months in our time of prayer we’d been lifting up the name of a young man who, suffice it to say, was in a world of trouble. He was the estranged son of one of our members; he’d some real substance abuse problems; he’d been in and out of jail several times; and frankly, most of the time nobody, including his parents, even knew where he was or even if he was alive. But God love them, that congregation was always supportive of this kid, prayerfully and otherwise.

Eventually, however, the boy’s father moved away and over time we sort of lost track of how his son was doing. After awhile, it occured to me that we had no longer had any real sense of what we were praying for, and so one Sunday I simply opted not to lift his name up; and much to my surprise but probably not to yours, I heard about it! Quite emphatically, in fact; as I tried to explain my reasoning to one of the women of the church who’d come to ask me about; as I suggested that since we knew nothing of what was happening with him, maybe it didn’t make sense to keep lifting up his name, she just said simply, and not unkindly,”Just because we can’t see him doesn’t mean that God doesn’t see him; so it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t continue to stand in the need of our prayer.”

And you know what, she was right.

It is true that that God is doing so much in our lives, in our world, and as illustrated by our annual meeting last week, in our church; but it’s also true that so much of what God wants to do involves us and our willingness to follow. It may very well be that that at that moment in his life, that one particular young man was being held together by the prayers of some strangers in some sanctuary a million miles away from him; what if we had said no to that? By the same token, it may very well be that right here and right now our God has a purpose in mind, a vision and plan that involves one not-so-random group of church folk gathered for worship on Mountain Road; what would happen if we said no to that; or more to the point, what will happen if we say yes?

Jesus is still calling, beloved; he calls us o’er the tumult of life and living; calling you and me to cast aside the nets of normal life and to embrace a new life, that of being fishers of people.

So what are we waiting for? What’s holding us back? There’s so much that can happen: some of it difficult, yes; a lot of it challenging; but also remarkable, life-changing and life-giving. Amazing things can happen in following Jesus, but it’s all contingent on a response from us, an answer to the call.

I hope and pray that each one of us will have ears to hear the call, eyes to see the possibilities, and the faith to say YES.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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