Reflection for Epiphany 3B on Jonah 3:1-5 and 10 Mark 1:14-20 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
Call stories. Get any vocationally-minded group of folks together and you will eventually hear them. “When I first suspected God was calling me to…” “How I had that sense I was supposed to....go there, do that, be this…..and knew somehow that God was in the mix, that it was God’s will, plan, dream, demand….” depending on how they talk about these things….And if you were to be listening in on these conversations, the responses you hear may or may not be the ones you would expect. Many times as you hear the story told you will hear that the response to this call was…”um, no thanks”…. Or “Oh, God, I don’t think you mean me….surely you must be mistaken. Or, “God….you must have me mixed up with someone who is truly suited for the task….someone brighter or better or stronger or holier” Truth be told, most of us are much more Jonah than Simon and Andrew and James and John when it comes to being called by God. We are much more likely to be on the next boat heading off in the other direction than we are to drop everything and take off immediately after someone who says “come and follow me.” We don’t feel worthy. We don’t feel ready. Or we just don’t want to. We aren’t inclined to drop everything or add anything or risk anything. Life is fine just as it is. Jonah was called by God to go save some people he did not like from complete and total destruction. Imagine. Call up in your mind your worst enemy if you have one. Perhaps someone who has done you a grievous wrong. Someone who has hurt you or someone you love. Or maybe just someone who is so foreign to you, so “other” that you cannot imagine that you could ever have anything to say to them that would ever matter or make sense. And God says, “Ok, go give them this message…”Repent or I will destroy you and your entire country in forty days.” Well Jonah tries everything NOT to do this task, including boarding a ship going in the opposite direction. But in the end, despite his best intentions, he finds himself delivering one of the all time underwhelming prophetic messages, the one we heard in this morning’s Old testament reading….”Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Now the fact that this was heard and taken seriously may have had a whole lot more to do, as the scripture implies, with God than it did with the messenger, Jonah, but it took and everyone repented and fasted and put on sackcloth…even the animals. And God changed God’s mind and spared Nineveh. The part of the story that we do not hear today tells us more about Jonah’s response to God’s decision. You might think that he would be pleased that his prophetic message was heard and heeded, but this was not the case. No, he actually was quite upset with God that God changed God’s mind and spared these, in his mind at least, awful people. God was not seeing it his way, doing it his way. God simply did not make sense to Jonah. This is exactly why he had fled in the first place. His hatred was greater than his grasp of God’s mercy and he wanted no part in their deliverance. Some commentators speculate that Jonah suspected all along that God was going to spare those horrible Ninevites and that was why he wanted no part of this thing and fled in the first place. God, he suspected was far more merciful than he could ever be towards his enemies. But God continues to work on him and by the end of the story Jonah may have begun to accept the notion that not even a Nineveh (or a Jonah) is beyond God’s compassion and ability to transform.
And so we go from one call story to another….Jesus is passing by the Sea of Galilee and he sees Simon and Andrew fishing…for they were fishermen, and he says “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And just like that, no questions asked, at least as Mark tells the story, they leave their nets and they follow him. And so, too with James and John. He calls to them and they leave their father in the boat and off they go with him. What made them do it? What made them run towards him and not away? And why did these same four men who seemed to be so insightful in this moment spend the rest of the Gospel bumbling along never quite getting what it was that Jesus was saying, meaning, being? Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that this too may be more about the power of God than it is about us, that we may be underestimating God’s power to transform us, and that this story may provide a good reminder the potency of God’s action in our lives. She says, "What we may have lost along the way is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.” (Home by Another Way) It certainly started well for them, didn’t it? They “immediately” as Mark is so fond of telling us, dropped what they were doing and went off to begin their vocation as disciples of Jesus, or as one rather witty writer has said, the “DUH-ciples. Here they were, right up close and personal with Jesus, with him every day as he taught and healed and lived out his mission and they still couldn’t quite get the point of what he was really about. Mark gives them to us as teachers, but mostly through the things they do wrong or fail to understand. And yet, they have become our spiritual ancestors, part of that great cloud of witnesses that carry us. And they help us remember something else important as well. It is God who calls us for the work of the kingdom, and it is God who will enable us to respond. Whether it means stretching ourselves to try to see beyond our own small worldview to God’s vast kingdom vision, or believing that God can use us to transform the world, even if we don’t quite get how it all works at the time. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that, like the disciples who turned in a new direction, we also turn our lives "in the same direction as God's life," and that means, perhaps, doing the same things we have always done but doing them "in a new way, or for new reasons." What's important is that "our wills spill into the will of God," and then, "time is fulfilled--immediately!--and the kingdom is at hand" (Home by Another Way).
We all have our own call stories. Perhaps we have not named them as such. Perhaps we have not been ready to claim them until now. But we are all called by baptism to be co-creators with God in building God’s kingdom. We know that God desires that this is a kingdom of mercy and justice, peace and compassion. We know that we are called to love God and love our neighbor. We have Jesus, Emmanuel, God who is with us to show us how to be in this kingdom. We do not have to be perfect in our efforts. Those who went before surely were not! Whether we are like Simon and Andrew and James and John who did respond immediately but then spent most of the rest of their discipleship career bumbling along, well-intentioned but often confused, trying to figure out just what it was that this Jesus was asking of them. Hearts in the right place, but often feeling just a half bubble off in trying to do the will of God. Or if we are Jonah, boarding the first boat for Tarshish at God’s initial approach, needing a little rehabilitation in the belly of the fish, and still struggling to get our heads around God’s incredible capacity for love and compassion and forgiveness – but nevertheless finding in ourselves that spark of willingness to go and do simply because it is God who sends us – may we listen to God’s call on our lives and may we say a resounding “Yes!”