A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Jonah 1:1-4, 15-17, 3:1-5; Psalm 62:5-12a; Mark 1:14-20
I am only 150 pages into Rachel Joyce’s bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so please don’t tell me the ending! While Harold is a simple, ordinary man, I often catch myself during the day wondering about who he is going to meet next on his journey and what insight they will pass on to him. You see, Harold is recently retired from a safe and predictable job. Harold doesn’t consider himself to be different from anyone else. He does not think he is unique in any way. But as the story unfolds, we are confronted with the truth that even small, ordinary people often find themselves at extraordinary points if they will but pay attention.
One ordinary morning in mid-April, a letter arrives for Harold. It is in a pink envelope and bears the news that a former co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer. Harold writes a cryptic two sentence response, leaves his house to take his letter to a mail drop, but he never mails the letter nor does he return home. He continues to walk from post to post to post until he is miles away. In what is probably his first impulsive act in his life, Harold embarks on a journey for which he is unprepared and over which he has no understanding. It is a story of a small, ordinary person finding themselves in an extraordinary moment.
When I read the story of Jonah and of the fishing disciples, I realize the same is true for each of them. None of them start their day thinking that they will receive an invitation from the Lord to do good work for the Kingdom. Instead, their ordinary lives are interrupted with something extraordinary and a redemptive pilgrimage ensues.
Jonah is told to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. But being a Jew whose prejudice is to hate the Assyrians, Jonah sets sail for Tarshish, the farthest port available. You know this story: there’s a storm; the sailors discern that Jonah is the cause; and they throw him overboard. An enormous fish swallows Jonah, putting him in “time out” to consider his rebellion against God.
While this may all seem far-fetched, I am guessing that each one of us can think of a time in our lives when we would not listen to anyone but ourselves. We heeded no warnings and heard nothing but our own wants and desires. We embark on a life journey toward the Tarshish that we decide is what we are all about in this world. And on the way, the storms come. The seas rage, and even after we have thrown off excess baggage, not to mention dumping a few people overboard as well, we end up in deep waters, drowning, only to find ourselves in the belly of a big fish. We do time there…three days and nights, or three months or three years…poking around in the darkness until we “get it”—come to ourselves—sober up–and are, in the end, vomited up on the shore exhausted and broken and lost, but with a second chance, which is in reality, the gift of repentance.
At last, we begin to listen as we have never listened before. We listen to hunches and intuitions. We listen to the pains in our necks and backs and stomachs as well as the deep ache of our souls. We listen for voices in unusual places. We begin to heed the dreams that will not dim, and we begin to wonder about the tears that seem to come from nowhere for no apparent reason. (William Dols, “Angry Enough to Die,” Just Because It Didn’t Happen…)
Yes, my guess is that every one of us in this room has said “no” to God and headed to Tarshish at least once or twice. We have had the ship of our career, our marriage, our health, our hope and dreams, our sanity and self, come apart in a raging storm, done time in the dark belly of the fish and been spewed out with a different idea of who we are and what life is about and just what God may want from us. (Dols)
So when this happens to Jonah, he heads for Nineveh and preaches so convincingly that the Ninevites repent, God repents, even (so scripture says) the cows and goats repent. It is the same message that Mark records as being the content of Jesus’ first sermon: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Now I don’t know about you, but this well-worn, often abused Baptist term, “repent,” is not appealing to me. It conjures up all sorts of images of evangelists and preachers and well-meaning parents who feel free to tell us how rotten, selfish and deeply defective we are. Just yesterday morning, my doorbell rang at 9:00. In my bath robe and bed hair, I went to the door to find two church ladies. Their Bibles were big. Out of the top of one, I could see a brochure with the question: “Do you know why there is so much suffering in the world?” The other held a piece of paper that simply said, “Repent!” Now I wish that I had been brave enough to do what my Dad did. He invited those witnessing from door to door into our living room, heard them without argument, and thanked them for coming. But then, the next night, he would show up at their houses, interrupting their family dinner and request the same courtesy! I wish that I had had enough presence of mind to tell these women that if they were looking for sinners, I knew of notorious ones: the Halls and Patillos live just down the street! I already knew that hearing their message of repentance does not compel me to immediately leave all my responsibilities behind, like Simon and Andrew, and follow Jesus. I respond most typically like father Zebedee and the hired servants. I remain in the work of the boat that demands my immediate attention. However, in doing so, I also delay the gift of repentance, in other words, a second chance, a new beginning, that Simon and Andrew receive immediately with their impulsive response.
I find it interesting that neither Nathaniel, last week, nor Simon and Andrew, this week, are asked about what they believe, their dogma or doctrine or morality. There is no “Orientation to Discipleship” class or communication workshop or even a class in pastoral care. There is no professional guidance, career counseling or salary package with benefits. Something just happens. Something from beyond grabs these small, ordinary people and invites them to impulsively join in what will be an extraordinary pilgrimage. What is important is that when Jesus calls them, they drop what they are doing in order to follow. It is a testimony of sheer impulsiveness. (John Buchanan, “Called,” 1-15-12)
The other encouragement I think the disciples provide is that they don’t always get it right. They repeatedly stumble. They are unsure of who Jesus is and what it is exactly that He wants of them. The disciples try pathetically to keep children away. They worry that there is not enough food to feed the multitudes. They argue among themselves about who is the best and brightest. Two even have the nerve to ask to be elevated above the rest. And while Jesus is arrested, interrogated, and tortured to death, Peter soundly denies knowing Jesus while the others—every last one of them—flee for their lives and hide in a room with the doors locked. Oh, they are ordinary, small people and because they are, it gives us pause to realize we are called to follow as best we can, wherever we are, with whatever abilities we possess. To follow Jesus is to go wherever He calls us to love God and to love our neighbor. (Buchanan)
Now this is the Sunday set aside for the annual State of the church address where we review how well we are following Christ in order to love God and love our neighbor. We can continue to use the traditional measures of church health for they are strong indicators:
+We have received 32 new members and have 5 candidates waiting.
+Attendance in worship continues to grow, hovering just at an average weekly attendance of 240. Interestingly, our highest attended worship service was not Easter but Christmas Eve with 355 people present.
+The median age of the congregation continues to grow younger with the birth of babies and young couples joining.
+We have participated in two international mission trips and experienced a nativity play that was a testimony to diversity.
+We have on the drawing board some walls that need to be taken down before this next educational year so that Preschoolers and Youth have the space that they need.
+We came back from a critical, financial crisis with a vengeance. Some of you say it is because I threw a tantrum in the pulpit and beg that I please not do that again. My response to these requests is: don’t put me in a position where I have to! Continue to be the generous people I know and believe you to be. In the one month of November, you gave over $100,000 making it the largest month in the history of the church. Therefore, we ended the year in the black, and we are beginning the New Year with 86% of the budget pledged and an entire month’s expenses squirreled away in the general fund.
+Our partnerships have expanded to include St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and with Highlands United Methodist Church right here on the Southside. The hungry and the homeless, the transients and disenfranchised continue to attend not just Breakfast each day, but Wednesday night suppers as well. I am so thankful for your hospitality, which I know is tested and tried, but how can we turn people away when that sign out there on the corner says, for all the world to see, “Where all are welcomed?”
Now all of these numbers are one way that we can measure the health of the church. But there is another way. We can gauge our well-being by remembering that our service to the community is not just about putting food in front of a guest or delivering groceries or paying a power bill or teaching leadership to a teenager. The health of our congregation is also determined by just how our hearts and the hearts of those with whom we serve are changed so that we keep hearing God’s call. God’s call has to do with receiving the gift of repentance so that we experience new beginnings in second chances. Service is often the way that calling comes to ordinary people like you and me. The healthiest churches keep providing opportunities for small, ordinary people to find themselves at an extraordinary point of following Jesus through service. So let’s try a different way of evaluating the state of the church.
For instance, last week, we were all privileged to hear and see Elizabeth Lott in her role as pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. Her words gave testimony as to how Baptist Church of the Covenant helped to mold her into a minister AND how this congregation, specifically, opened her ears to the possibility of a preaching ministry. She is not the only one.
Daniel Mitchell has recently been named the executive director of Valley Interfaith Promise in Columbus, Georgia. It is a nonprofit sheltering program for homeless families. He tells the reporter from The Columbus Ledger Enquirer: “I had no idea I would end up doing what I am doing.” But then he credits Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, AL as the place where his commitment to help the needy grew.
Take Alisha Damron Serungye. She is totally immersed in the Ugandan culture: teaching, recruiting and raising her family there. My favorite memory of Alisha as a Samford student was the day she did the children’s sermon here at BCOC. Never one to shy away from dramatics, she came rushing down the aisle carrying about six suitcases. And while I’ve forgotten the children’s sermon itself, I have often thought of all the items we packed in her figurative luggage that helped her hear God’s call. I’m referring not just to teaching aids or financial support but to encouragement, hope, prayers, presence and confidence.
Then there is Brittany Stillwell Krebs. She visited our congregation for a full month—brought her parents, her husband, professor and friends—in order to assess the appropriateness of her being an intern here for only one semester. Well, Brittany left us after two years to go to seminary and now she is the Minister of Music and Youth at First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. On the Baptist Women in Ministry blog, “This is What a Minister Looks Like,” Brittany says, “Before joining Baptist Church of the Covenant, I told people that I felt called to the ministry but that I was not called to pastor. ‘Don’t tell me women can’t be pastors,’ I would say, ‘it’s just not my call.’ After spending a few years experiencing Sarah Shelton as my pastor and seeing what it can look like when a woman pastors a church, I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, God could use me as a pastor someday.” She continues to mention the mentor she found in Valerie Burton at a time when Brittany was trying to discern the call to ministry. She says: “Valerie asked me, ‘Do you love the church? If you love the church—truly love the church with all her beauty and craziness—then you’ll be just fine.’”
There are others: Elizabeth Evans Hagan, Meg Lacy, Chad McGinnis, Matt Rich, and I have recently written recommendations for Will Yarborough, Anna Lautenschleger, and Zeke Stephenson for entry into seminary this fall. Still being called out from among us for vocational ministry are the willing and able. Do they have all the answers? No! Do they express hesitation and doubt? Absolutely. God isn’t looking for those who have it all figured out, or who have remarkable skills in their kingdom kits. God just wants small, ordinary people who are aware enough to realize that God’s ways are extraordinary and we are welcome to join in.
It is true that we aren’t all called to vocation. Most of us stay behind to mend the nets, tend the fire, and care for the church that provides a place where God’s voice can be heard and Spirit can move in hearts. We do not all have to drop our nets and leave home. This was the calling to Peter and Andrew. It was the calling of Jonah. But if these stories are about the great flow of God’s extraordinary call in our small, ordinary lives for unlikely pilgrimages, then we each have a story to tell.
Jesus says, “Come and follow,” and at some level, it is why we are each here today. God has been calling us. God is calling us, and God will continue to call us. The question is: how will you respond?