January 21, 2024
You may be wondering why we are reading three passages from today’s lectionary and what in the world I see as a connection among these three passages. I think I’ll keep you guessing for a little while. I’d like to begin by taking each one of them in turn and unpacking them for you.
We begin with the story of Jonah. The passage you heard this morning is actually a little deceptive because it’s lifted out of context. I’m sure all of you have heard of “Jonah and the whale.” That story is also widely misunderstood because it too gets lifted out of context. In order to understand what’s going on with this ancient legend, you really have to stick all these parts together and get the whole picture of what is a quite fanciful yarn. In essence, so the tale goes, Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh and cry out that the city will be severely punished by God for their wickedness. Jonah instead runs away. He books passage on a ship going the opposite direction. But God sends a terrible storm that threatens to sink them all. To save the crew, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard and God will quiet the seas. So they throw him over, down he goes, and God sends a whale to swallow him. He spends three days and nights in the belly of the whale (I told you this was a fanciful yarn). The whale spits him out on dry land, and Jonah relents and goes to Nineveh, crying out to the residents God’s message of doom and destruction. The people of the city hear and respond by fasting and wearing sackcloth as an act of contrition. This pleases God who then chooses to spare the city (that’s the part you heard this morning). Jonah then gets angry and depressed because God has forgiven the people of Nineveh as Jonah figured he would, and he goes outside of town to sit and pout. But God makes it clear to him that compassion for these Assyrians in Nineveh is part of the divine program and Jonah had best get on board.
So what’s going on here? What we are dealing with is an ancient Hebrew parable – much like the parables Jesus told. Most biblical scholars believe this story was written after the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon, and it’s addressed to the Israelites who were bitterly angry after their treatment at the hands of the Babylonians, and even more so, the Assyrians, the people for whom Nineveh was a major city, and who invaded Israel and ravaged cities time and again for generations. Jonah is a comical character, who just keeps making a fool of himself as he is driven to silly extremes by his hatred of the Assyrians in Nineveh. The parable is told, in much the same way Jesus did, to suck in the listeners with an engaging little story and then whomp them upside the head with the deeper message. In this case the message to the Israelites is: get over your seething rage at the Assyrians. It’s time to forgive and move on. In short, get a life!
Next, let’s take look at this reading from First Corinthians. This is the apostle Paul writing to the church at Corinth. It is also a passage that cries out to be understood in the context of the whole letter. The Corinthian Church was, like churches some of us have been familiar with today, in deep trouble. It was on the verge of splitting up into rival congregations. Some were followers of Paul, some of Apollos, and some of Cephas. In addition, there were those who were overly strict moralists who believed that marriage itself was to be rejected by the truly faithful as a lure away from ascetic purity, and on the other hand, those who believed in unrestricted sexual license (the notion behind the phrase, “All things are lawful”). Into this hotbed of hostility, Paul sends this letter. And in it, he tries to identify to some degree with all sides, and with none. He calls for unity, and says neither he, Apollos, nor Cephas should be the object of Christians’ allegiance, but Christ. He agrees that “all things are lawful” but says that “not all things are beneficial [or] . . . build up.” And then we come to today’s reading in which he sides, to a degree, with those on the opposite side of the fence. He says, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none,” echoing something of his other statements about his own preference to not marry. So Paul is urging the Corinthians to find unity because that is the way of Christ. And in our passage he is trying to scare the bejeebers out of them to get them to shape up. He says that the time is short, and “the present form of this world is passing away.” In other words, the world is coming to an end any day now, and there are more important matters at hand than bickering over allegiances, theology, or even morality. The fact that he was wrong about the rapidly approaching end of the world is perhaps not as significant as the truth that he was calling upon the Corinthians to wake up to.
Which brings us the third reading from the Gospel of Mark. Here we find Jesus beginning his ministry by walking around finding guys hard at work as fishermen and calling to them to drop their nets and follow him. The amazing part of the story is that, indeed, that’s exactly what they do. Though, reading a little deeper into the narrative, it may not be quite as amazing as it seems. It appears that Jesus must have developed something of a reputation by this time as a very learned Rabbi, and it also seems that these four fishermen already knew Jesus. Still, it’s pretty remarkable that they were ready to become his disciples in an instant, without a moment’s hesitation. I’m reminded of the wonderful scene in the TV series The West Wing when Josh seeks out his high-priced lawyer friend Sam to join the speech writing staff of Governor Bartlett who is running for the Presidency. All it takes is a look from Josh through the meeting room door window at Sam, and he gets up from his chair in an important meeting to walk out the door. When they ask him in astonishment where he’s going, he replies, “New Hampshire.” I think this episode with Jesus and the fishermen must have been something like that. He called, and they dropped everything and followed.
So, now I’m ready to answer your query about what in the world these three stories have to do with each other. We have a parable about a guy who was called by God in a dramatic fashion to a mission that was totally abhorrent to him, and he tried every way he could to run away from it but ultimately had to do it in spite of himself. It is a story addressed to people who were being called to completely change their course in life, even though they would initially find the idea revolting. And it is the story of a city full of people who heard a prophetic message and found their hearts changed.
We also have a letter to a church filled with people who were about to blow the place to smithereens and were being called to a new and higher life of unity. The approach was to shift their perspective by scaring them into changing their minds.
And we have a great rabbi who has built relationships and demonstrated his powers, and who calls four fishermen to change their careers and become disciples of his ministry, proclaiming good news to those who were ready to listen. He told them he would make them into fishers of people instead of fish, calling still others to respond and take up the journey of faith.
These are all stories about different kinds of people receiving a divine summons by different means, in differing circumstances, and responding in divergent ways, but all being drawn to a new life and a new mission.
When Dadgie and I were in seminary we had a brilliant professor and mentor by the name of Jim Ashbrook (I’ve spoken of him before, I’m sure). Jim once summed up the amazing diversity of callings and responses, of people and circumstances, with the phrase: “There are many gates into the holy city.” From our study of ancient Jerusalem we learned that there was the Damascus Gate, the Sheep’s Gate, the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, and others – all different configurations and sizes. So, we knew his meaning: there is more than one way to find the treasure of divine purpose and meaning in life; this is so because there are many people coming from many different directions. This is a message that it took me some time to internalize. When I first entered seminary, I had come from a very dramatic experience of calling into the ministry. It made me something of a “Jesus freak”, as the old expression went. I felt that anyone who had a genuine calling must have had a similar experience to mine. It was only in time that I learned how many different gates there indeed are. I found that some folks had been reading a book and suddenly a light went on and everything made sense to them. Others had been brought up in the church and simply moved inexorably toward a deeper faith and a role in ministry. Still others came out of a history of doubting and questioning everything, and brought all those doubts and questions with them as they took up the path of faith.
This morning we sit here among friends. They each also come to us through different gates. And this we celebrate and affirm. In our church diverse beliefs, experiences, and approaches are not a cause for shame, they are a cause for rejoicing! They are a reflection of this beautiful, kaleidoscopic world that we have been placed in. This is given expression in one of the most sacred principles of the Free Church tradition; it is a doctrine we call “soul freedom”. We cherish this freedom of each individual soul among us to work out his or her faith in fear and trembling with no other member, no church potentate, not even a pastor, having the authority to dictate what that person must believe or profess. We believe that it is in such an environment of freedom that each of us has the best opportunity to learn, and grow, and find one’s way on this journey we call faith. All of this, by the way, is why we take votes at church meetings like we will be doing next Sunday, instead of having decisions handed down from the lofty throne of the pastor (in what I like to refer to as “the good old days”).
But, seriously, the recognition of the many gates goes even further than all this. We not only acknowledge that each of us comes to the journey by different means, we affirm that people all over this world come by different paths and through different gates. So we shun the hubris of claiming that our brand of religion is the “true path” and we refuse to condemn those who find faith through other Christian denominations, and even other religions.
What do our three stories have in common? Not a common experience of calling, but the fact that, out of divergent places, differing circumstances, and varied emphases, each of these were about people who responded, who at times even against their own desires or self-interest, ultimately said, “Yes” to that which was calling them to be more than they were. May you and I, entering through the many gates, keep finding ways to say, “Yes.”