“The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways and put your trust in the good news.” Mark 1:14-20
(Westar Scholar’s Version, The Five Gospels, NY: MacMillan Publishing, 1883)
Our Hebrew Scripture lesson today comes from the book of Jonah. Most of us are familiar with the portion of this book in which a reluctant prophet is swallowed up by a big fish only to be spat up on the shores of the very land to which he had refused to travel. But few of us know the rest of the story which begins with this third chapter of Jonah.
G-d has called Jonah to proclaim a message to the people of Nineveh, perhaps the premier city in the western world at that time. Little wonder he was reluctant to engage this undertaking. The message he was given to deliver was bleak: You have 40 days to change your ways or your city will be overthrown. Jonah, having just escaped a storm at sea and a prison within a fish’s belly, has learned that it’s futile to argue with G-d. And so he begins a three day trek on foot across the city proclaiming this call to repentance.
To Jonah’s surprise, he turns out to be a persuasive if reluctant prophet. While the text does not indicate that from which the people are being called to repent, in the end they do repent, turning from their evil ways. And they are spared of calamity.
Not Written in Stone
As I read this passage there are three main points that seem to emerge from this story. The first is that we human beings are always capable of recognizing that the paths we choose for our lives, both individually as well as collectively, are not written in stone. The Hebrew word for repentance essentially translates to turning around and heading in a new direction. We are always capable of changing our minds, changing our hearts and changing our lives.
The second point is that there are times when G-d calls us to do exactly that. While it would be easy to read the text as an example of how a powerful G-d coerces a less powerful people into repentance with threats of punishment, what seems apparent is that if they continue on the paths on which they have been travelling, disaster will almost surely result.
I believe we live in such a time. Our recent lives as a people have led to such division and animosity within our country that we have seen our fellow Americans killed, others targeted for lynching and our nation’s capitol desecrated, all in prime time. Our new president and vice president were inaugurated within the protective bubble of 25,000 troops to protect them - from their fellow citizens! It doesn’t take much to recognize that however we got here, the time has come to change.
"Let's Just Move On," The Lure of Cheap Grace
In the wake of a long, bitter election in the heart of a pandemic capped off by an atrocity in the very heart of our government, it is tempting to indulge in a desire to simply “move on,” to ignore the harm to our nation’s soul that has occurred, to return to business as usual as quickly as possible, to let those who have harmed us off the hook.
But we cannot simply move on.
The Lutheran martyr of the Holocaust era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has taught us that we do not have the luxury of indulging in what he called “cheap grace.. the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, a grace without any cost…” Like the people of Nineveh, if we are to avoid disaster there must be repentance, a conscious recognition that our thoughts, words and deeds have proven harmful to ourselves and others and in the process harmed the good Creation that G-d loves.
An important part of that repentance must be an accountability on the part of the wrong doers as well as those who enabled them and encouraged them to engage in these harmful behaviors. To paraphrase Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, you must insure that there is justice.”
But here’s where the third point becomes most important. G-d does not give up on us. Any of us. Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He avoided G-d’s call to go to Nineveh, running away from that calling only to end up in the belly of the great fish, finally arriving on the shores of Nineveh after all. In the chapter that follows this one, Jonah, who really wanted to see the Ninevites punished, will pout over his success. He says to G_d:
“That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
And then he plops down at the edge of city and waits to die.
But even then, G-d is not through with Jonah. A large bush grows up over the head of Jonah to shade him from the scorching noontime sun only to be eaten by a worm that causes it to die. Jonah, full of self-righteous anger and indignation, laments over the fate of the bush only to hear G-d respond,
‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow;... 11 Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
The writer of Jonah leaves the reader dangling at that point. We don’t know if Jonah ever did repent of his malice toward the Ninevites. We do know he was capable and the text is clear that he should. But we don’t know if he ever did.
However, a larger point is evident here. All of Creation came into being from the very heart of a G-d who desires relationship. G-d loves all that G_d has created. When we lose sight of that relatedness, G-d calls us to return. And G-d never gives up on us.
So here is the hard part. If G_d never gives up on us, we are called to do likewise. Like Jonah, we do not get to throw our hands up and excuse ourselves from hearing and heeding the call of G-d. If my experience is any guide, it will not simply go away.
We also do not get to give up on ourselves. We do not get to write off everyone who does not hold our views as irredeemable and cast them into outer darkness. And none of us get to escape from accountability when we have harmed others.
As Jonah recognized in his dealings with the Holy One, the G-d whose image we bear and into whose likeness we are called to grow is “gracious… and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” As difficult as it may prove, we are called to do likewise.
But we approach this calling with no small amount of humility. We know we can never do it alone and our responses to our promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant reflect this: I will - with God’s help.
Heeding the Lessons from Jonah
I believe that it is important that we hear the lessons the Jonah story poses us in this tumultuous time. While we are often called by G-d to rethink our lives and change our directions, there are times when it becomes particularly incumbent upon us to do so. This is one of them.
In just a moment we will be celebrating the eucharist using Form C in our prayer book. It is my favorite eucharistic prayer. Its references to the good creation make my Franciscan heart sing. But it also carries an echo of the lessons we hear this day in the Jonah account. Listen carefully to the words we are about to say together:
Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
And to that calling, we all respond:
Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread.
As followers of the Way of Jesus, we must be attentive to G-d’s call to us, particularly in times when repentance is needed. Times like right now. Our Gospel today reminds us that following Jesus means helping to build the Kingdom of G-d as well as to repair it in those times when it falls into disarray. Times like right now. That will mean holding one another accountable for our harms to the body politic. And it means holding ourselves accountable in those times when we nurse our vengeful attitudes toward those who have harmed us without any consideration of how we might be reconciled to them. Times like right now.
Jesus recognized the urgency of the moments in which he lived. As our Gospel reading from Mark today reports it, the very first words of his ministry were the following:
“The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways and put your trust in the good news.”
Trusting G-d with our very being to guide us as we change our ways is essential to our following the Way of Jesus.
These words are as urgent today as they were when Jesus first spoke them. Because his own tumultuous times were, indeed, times like right now.
[A sermon preached at St. Richards Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, Epiphany III, January 24, 2021. It can be heard live at this link begin at the 26 minute mark though there were technical problems with its broadcast and recording
Harry Scott Coverston Orlando,
the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be
it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering
do not come in sound bites. Those
who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. For
what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to
walk humbly with your G-d? Do
not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love
mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but
neither are you free to abandon it. ©
Harry Coverston, 2021 +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either.– Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?- Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.- Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021