Sermon for Epiphany 3B

Note for non-Powell residents: The example I use towards the end of the sermon, Paul Cardwell, was the former CEO of Powell Valley Health Care. He was convicted of and imprisoned for embezzling a substantial sum of money from the hospital.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Last week in my sermon, I spoke about God’s call, and how each one of us has been called by God to certain vocations in life, whether that vocation is the same thing you get paid to do, such as being a doctor, nurse, or schoolteacher, for example, or it is a type of vocation such as being a mother, father, daughter or son. This week in our Bible readings, we see two different examples of how people respond to God’s call upon their lives: Jonah, who runs away from God’s call and only returns under duress, and the disciples, who drop everything that they’re doing and leave their jobs and families behind to follow Jesus. Today, though, I would like to focus on Jonah, because I think his story still resonates with us many thousands of years later.

Those of us who grew up going to Sunday school think we know all about Jonah. He’s the guy who was swallowed by a whale, right? Well, actually, not quite. The story is that he was swallowed by a large fish, not a whale. Presumably, since we can’t imagine a fish large enough to swallow a grown human male, our imaginations have made the large fish into a whale. But, be that as it may, how many of us remember anything else about Jonah besides the fact that he was swallowed by a large fish? Some of us might. And while the fish part of the story may be the most memorable, it is not the most interesting part of the story. So, let me take a moment to refresh your memory, because in order to understand today’s snippet of the story, we need to remember the entire book of Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet. And before we go any further with that, we need to step back and define what a prophet is. When we hear the word “prophet,” most of us think of someone like Nostradamus, that is, someone who makes predictions about the future. While that was sometimes included in the Old Testament prophets’ job description, that was not the main part of their job. A prophet is simply someone who speaks the word of the Lord to the people. That’s it. And the prophets of the Old Testament called the people to account for their sins, and then, after the punishment for those sins happened, they spoke God’s words of comfort and love to the people. The prophet Micah summarizes God’s word to the people when he says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Because the Israelites did not do these things, even after the prophets repeatedly warned them, God allowed them to be conquered, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians.

It is the Assyrians that concern God in the story of Jonah. The book of Jonah opens up with God telling Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But instead of doing what God told him to do, Jonah runs away, and sets out for a place called Tarshish, which is probably located in Spain. In other words, Jonah goes to the complete opposite end of the Mediterranean from Nineveh. Why? Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which was the evil empire that had come in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah didn’t want to take the chance that, because of his proclamation of God’s word to the city, the people of Nineveh might repent and then God would not punish them. Jonah hated the people of Assyria so much that he would have rather seen them die for their wickedness than give them the chance to repent.

Jonah never makes it to Tarshish, though, for a mighty storm comes up, and all who are on the boat are afraid that they are going to die. Jonah tells them to throw him overboard, and the sea will calm down. The sailors do so, and the sea instantly calms down. Jonah, of course, thinks he is going to die, but that’s when God sends the fish to swallow him up. God really wants Jonah alive, because he wants Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh. Jonah has three days to think about things and pray, and then the fish finally vomits Jonah up. This is where our reading begins today: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” Jonah finally does what God tells him to do and starts proclaiming, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s the entire message. And instead of regarding him as some crazy street preacher who smelled bad—remember, Jonah’s just spent three days and three nights in the belly of a fish, who then vomits him up on shore—the people of Nineveh take his words to heart and repent, mourning and fasting, and not only the human beings, but the animals, too! So, God spares the people of Nineveh and does not bring disaster upon them. And Jonah gets upset with God, because he showed mercy to these bad people who conquered his own people. The book ends with God asking a question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

There are several lessons that God is teaching us through this story of the prophet Jonah. The first one is this: Sometimes the call that God places on our lives is not going to be easy. Jonah was called to preach to those people who he thought were his worst enemies. God calls us, each and every one of us, to speak words of love, compassion, and forgiveness, to those people who we consider to be the most unlovable, the ones who we think God could not possibly love. Take a moment and think about who those people are in your lives. Whoever they are, you are called to be a prophet to them: God’s spokesperson, telling that person that God loves them and will show mercy on them, because God is “a gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And even though it may give us heartburn to speak those words of God’s love to our worst enemies, if we believe that God is a loving and compassionate God, then we must believe that he is a loving and compassionate God for each human being that he has created: those who do their best to live a good life, as well as those who seem to do nothing but evil.

Another important lesson to be learned from Jonah, related to the first, is that God forgives. This month’s Bible study in the women’s circles covered the topic of David and Bathsheba, and after hearing all of the rotten things that David did, some expressed astonishment that all David had to do for God to forgive him all of these things was say, “I have sinned against the Lord.” That’s what happened in Nineveh in the story of Jonah: the people heard the word of the Lord proclaimed to them by Jonah. They fasted, they put on sackcloth, they cried out to God, and they turned from their evil ways and from violence. And God forgave them.

We are so thankful to God when God offers us forgiveness for the things that we have done. We marvel at his mercy: our sins are remembered no more. But when that same mercy is extended to people who we think have committed far more heinous sins than we have, what is our reaction? Resentment. We think that God should make those evildoers pay, and should not forgive them so easily. We can thus sympathize with Jonah’s reaction when God forgives the Ninevites. Jonah complains to God, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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 now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” We, too, would sometimes rather die than to see God extend mercy to those people who are our enemies.

But the lesson of Jonah is this: God loves each and every person that he has created and put on this earth. If he didn’t, how could we be sure that we are the ones who are loved? That same wonderful word of mercy that we have heard from God is extended not only to someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis, but is also extended to Paul Cardwell, the former CEO of Powell Valley Health Care. That same word of mercy is not only extended to you and to me, but to the terrorists of whom we are so afraid. All that needs to be done to receive that mercy is what the Ninevites did, and what Jesus proclaims in our Gospel lesson today: Repent, and believe in the good news. Repent and believe. As the verse in the hymn “To God Be the Glory” goes, “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God. The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Isn’t that great news? God has mercy on us and forgives us. Now, go and tell everyone you meet, even that person you think is your worst enemy. Amen.

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Sermon for Epiphany 2B

1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

What is your call story? When you go to seminary, this is the question that you get asked most frequently. What the person who is asking this question usually means is, “How have you heard God calling you into ministry? What is the story behind why you are here at seminary studying to be a pastor, diaconal minister, associate in ministry, etc.?” And the call stories are unique from one to the other—there is no person who has the exact same call story as the other. A great illustration of this comes from the movie, “Keeping the Faith,” where we see how the Catholic priest, Father Brian, and Rabbi Jake each heard the voice of God in different ways. Father Brian tells of how he was a “miracle child,” a child that his parents weren’t expecting, and of how, as a young boy, he had a feeling that he was supposed to return the favor to God and become a priest. Rabbi Jake, on the other hand, did not hear God’s call until he was older, and it took him a while to settle in to that calling. Both of these calls for both of these men were legitimate calls. Neither one was better than the other because of how or when the call came. And it was the same with all of the call stories I heard at seminary: some of the people there were what we called “pipeliners”: they heard God’s call into ministry at a young age, and went straight from college to seminary. Others, like myself, heard God’s call but took a very circuitous route before going to seminary: first going one way, then another. God calls both the young and the old, using the energy and idealism of the young but tempering it with the wisdom and life experience of the old. And ministry happens among all of these varied calls and missions that God brings to us.

Today’s story from 1 Samuel is one of my favorite Old Testament stories, and if it isn’t one of yours, I hope it will be after today. I think the reason why it is a favorite comes from two levels: first, what parent among you has not been woken up by your child in the middle of the night? Mom, I’m thirsty, can I have a drink of water? Dad, I’m scared, I had a bad dream. This story where the young Samuel disturbs Eli’s sleep in the night is proof that human adults and children have not changed a whole lot over many thousands of years. I can just picture old Eli crankily saying, “Samuel, I did NOT call you. Go back to bed!” But second, and more importantly, the story resonates with us because we can identify with Samuel’s difficulty understanding the voice calling him as God’s voice. “God, I think you’re telling me to go and be a missionary in Taiwan for 2 ½ years. But that’s crazy. Why would you want me to do that?” “God, do you really want me to be a pastor?” “God, do you really want me to . . . (fill in the blank)?”

But, you know something? Call stories are not just about me, and they are not just about clergy. Call stories are about each and every one of us. God has called each one of us to a vocation in this life. Before I go any further, though, let’s step back and define the word “vocation”. In contemporary society, when we say “vocation,” we mean “job,” or “career”. The word vocation, however, originates from the Latin word vocare, which simply means “call”. And sometimes you have the great privilege and wonder of being paid to do your calling. But other times, the job that you have is simply a means to pay the bills. So, we need to step back and remember the fuller meaning of “vocation”, and use it to refer to what God has called us as Christians to do in order to serve him to the best of our abilities.

This week, the confirmation class finished up our sessions where we learned about the life and some of the teachings of Martin Luther. One of Luther’s key teachings was about vocation. In his time, the only people who were considered to have vocations were priests, monks, and nuns. Sometimes, as a pastor, I still experience some of that attitude from people. My parents have a Catholic neighbor across the street from them who thinks that I am especially blessed because I have become a minister, and by extension, my parents are blessed because they have a child who has gone into the ministry. In contrast, Martin Luther said that being a priest, monk, or nun was not any more of a special calling by God than that of a shoemaker, for example. And although Luther was not trying to say that one calling was higher than another, it is clear from his writings that he believed the call to being a mother or a father was one of the most important callings that God could give to a person.

God has given each one of us a call in this life. Sometimes it is a call to be a pastor or a missionary. Sometimes it is a call to be a mother, a father, a daughter, or a son. Other times God calls people to be a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, or a social worker. Sometimes God wakes you up in the middle of the night with the call of your name and a clear idea of what he wants you to do. Other times, the Holy Spirit whispers to you as you go through life and nudges you gently into taking one path instead of the other. And at times, as we see with Samuel today, it is difficult to hear God’s voice. It is at these times that it is important to come together as a community and to discuss what that calling might be.

And, it is not only individuals that God calls to a particular vocation, but it is also communities. Since communities are made up of individuals with many different callings, though, it makes it that much more difficult to come together as a group to hear God’s voice telling us what the vocation is to which he has called us. Each individual, or groups of individuals, may have their own passions that they think the whole congregation should get behind. It is good to be passionate about those vocations to which God has called you; however, those vocations may not be what God is calling the entire congregation to. Starting on Sunday, February 8, we as a congregation will come together during the fellowship hour to begin the process of listening for God’s voice, and to see what vocation God might be calling us to follow as a congregation. This session will be a beginning: I’m not expecting that we will come up with the answer in one session, although the Holy Spirit may surprise me. Between now and then, I encourage you, in your daily devotions and Bible study, to be thinking about what Biblical story best describes, or is most similar to, the story of Hope Lutheran Church, and to bring those ideas with you on February 8 for discussion.

Now, here’s the thing about God’s calling: it is not always easy. We see that in the second half of today’s Old Testament reading. After the funny story of Samuel running to Eli three times thinking it was Eli who was calling him, Samuel settles down and says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” In that moment, I don’t know what Samuel was expecting to hear from God. A word of love? Of hope? Of compassion? If so, he was to be disappointed, for God gave Samuel difficult words about Eli and his family, who had not been following God’s instructions for worship in the temple. And then, Samuel had to tell Eli what God had said. Likewise, God’s calling to us is at the same time joyful and painful. Joyful, because we know that God loves us enough to give us work to do in this life and a feeling of purpose. Painful, because that work is not always easy, and will often break our hearts. Parents, how many times have you watched your children not listen to your wisdom, instructions, or advice, go their own way, and be hurt as a result? That’s painful. As both individuals and as a congregation, God’s call to us will be both joyful and painful. But we know that, through it all, God will be with us, by our side, urging us onward, advocating for us, and loving us to the end. What has God called you to do? What has God called us to do? Let us listen to God’s call and then go forth joyfully to do it. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Amen.

Sermon for Christmas 2B

John 1:1-18

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the staples of the Christmas season. In this story, as most of us know, an elderly miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas, is reformed by the visits of three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. We all delight in seeing how thoroughly Scrooge is reformed in the end, and we rejoice with him when he secretly sends a huge turkey to his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit. But, as I was watching my favorite movie version of this story recently, I was struck by a fascinating part of this story of reformation that often escapes our notice as we wait for Scrooge to undergo his transformation. Towards the end of the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge notices something sticking out from the spirit’s robes that does not belong there, and asks the spirit about it. The spirit brings forth two starving, malnourished children from the folds of his robes. And when Scrooge asks the spirit if these two children belong to him, the spirit replies, “They are Man’s. . . . And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

When Dickens wrote this story, he was calling attention to poverty and the issues which surrounded poverty in 19th century Britain. But isn’t it fascinating that such a warning against ignorance and want should come at the end of the visit of the spirit who is the most joyful of the three? And that is what we find in today’s Gospel lesson as well: In the midst of this beautiful, poetic chapter which opens up John’s Gospel, there are notes of darkness: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” But, you notice, there is still darkness. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came into what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Jesus, the one through whom this creation that we see around us came into being, comes to the world and is not recognized for who he really is. In the midst of the celebration of Christmas today, we see that there is still darkness and incomprehension of who Jesus is and what he means for the world. So then, what is the point of celebrating Christmas? Why did Jesus come if not everyone would recognize him?

“The light shines in the darkness.” What do light and darkness mean to you? I never understood how much my body depends on the rhythm of light and darkness until I spent a year in Alaska. In the wintertime, the sun did not come up until 10 am, and it set sometime between 2 and 3 pm. And we thought that we had it bad here in Wyoming! I don’t remember suffering from depression, as some people do. But what I do remember is this: I would set my alarm for 7 am, determined to get up and moving in spite of the darkness. But when 7 am rolled around, and it was still pitch black outside, I would hit the snooze button on my alarm clock and go back to sleep. The next thing I knew, light was streaming through the windows and it was 10 am! And then I had no problem waking up. Thankfully when this happened, I was never late for anything, and the people there understood that it was my first winter in Alaska and my body was adjusting. But it was a striking example to me about how tuned in our bodies are to light and darkness.

So then, when it’s dark, our natural instinct is to sleep. But darkness also serves as a good cover when we want to do things that are wrong and have a better chance of getting away with it. And so, darkness has come to symbolize evil, while light, which helps us to see, has come to symbolize the good. More than that: in John’s Gospel, light symbolizes the power and presence of God, while darkness refers to the powers of sin and evil which oppose God. More even than that: since sin in the Gospel of John is not a moralistic failing, but is rather ignorance and unbelief in the one whom God has sent, Jesus, then darkness in John also means ignorance and unbelief in Jesus.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness of ignorance and unbelief is all around us. We see it in the daily news accounts of hatred among different people groups in our own country, and outright wars in other countries. We see it in how women, children, and other vulnerable people are still mistreated in this country in the 21st century, and in other countries around the world. We see the darkness even among those who say they believe in Jesus, and yet cast out their children from their family when those children reveal that they are struggling with their sexual identity. And we wonder: why, if Christ has come and has shined his light, does the darkness seem so often like it has triumphed?

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.” The light has shined and it continues to shine. The light is here, but sometimes it needs to be searched for. When we seem overwhelmed by the darkness, the question to ask is not, “Why does God allow this to happen?” For, if we ask that, we will never get a good answer, and the darkness will then overcome us. Instead, we ask, “Where is Jesus in the midst of this? How is his light shining in the midst of the darkness?” And when we ask this question, we will see the light of Jesus shining in some very unlikely places.

“The light shines in the darkness.” In 2014, the Ebola virus spread over several countries in eastern Africa. In many places, it brought life to a standstill and people to the brink of starvation. But several doctors and nurses sacrificed their personal time, safety, and sometimes their lives to go there in order to heal people and to educate people on how to prevent the spread of the virus. Many more people from around the globe gave of their money to help send food and medical supplies to support this work in Africa, including people in this congregation. Still more raised awareness among other countries in the world that it is only a few countries that have been affected by the virus, and not the entire continent of Africa. Therefore, visitors and immigrants from non-affected countries should not be assumed to be carrying the virus and should be allowed in to other countries. All of these efforts to combat Ebola and treat people well are the light of Christ shining in the darkness of this epidemic.

“The light shines in the darkness.” The year of 2014 in this country has highlighted the fact that racial tensions are, unfortunately, not a thing of the past. The non-indictments of two white police officers involved in the deaths of two black men have caused riots and have caused people to take the side of either the police officers or the black men involved, with seemingly no middle ground to work towards peace. And yet, if you look past all of the controversy, you will see people, pastors and poets and prophets, working to make sure all voices are heard and to make sure incidents like this do not happen in the future. You will see non-violent protests, in the best tradition of political dissent, taking place, and voices that until now have not been heard, speaking out once more and being heard. This is the light of Christ shining in the darkness.

One more example, this one local, of the light shining in the darkness. Many of you know of my struggle as I discern how to involve myself with the pastors of the different denominations here in Powell, many of whom I do not always see eye to eye with. However, back in December, Donna Mann, a pillar of the community of Powell, died. And three pastors with their congregations, along with many members of the Powell community, were able to come together to do honor to Donna’s life. The Church of Christ; a non-denominational group which split from the Episcopal Church in a dispute with them; and an ELCA congregation, three groups with differing traditions and beliefs, were able to put aside those differences in the desire to honor the beliefs and traditions of Donna and her family. We don’t realize what an awe-inspiring witness that really was for the community. On the way out, one lady commented to me that we should do joint services more often. “The light shines in the darkness.”

All of this is why we still celebrate Christmas, even in the midst of the darkness that seems to overwhelm this world. Yes, the problems of ignorance and want are still present during our celebrations, as Charles Dickens portrayed. But Christmas is our time to shout to the world that Christ has come, that the darkness will not last, that it has been and will be overcome by the birth of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, into the world. And when God chooses to live among us, to “pitch his tent” among us, as the Greek literally says, then we know that the darkness of sin and evil will not have the last word. God has put the darkness on notice: the light shines, and the darkness will not overcome it. So, on this 2nd and last Sunday of Christmas, let us carry that knowledge with us. For even though there will still be darkness in 2015, we know that the light continues to shine, and that the darkness will not overcome it. Amen.