Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
January 26, 2003
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Some of you may recall that last June, on the Sunday of my ordination, I departed from the prescribed lectionary and used the story of Jonah as my text for a sermon on the notion of call. Well, here we are, back to good old Jonah, who today shows up in that lectionary that I ignored last spring. Jonah is one of my favorite Biblical characters. Itís not because he lived in the belly of a whale (which is how you usually hear it put). That truly is one of the memorable things about his story, but itís not what attracts me to him particularly. Rather, I think Iím attracted to Jonah because heís so much like me. We donít have his whole story in the lectionary selection this morning, but I trust you remember it. God called Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh, "that great city," and preach the word of the Lord to the heathens there. And Jonah said: Forget about it! Iím outta here! Iím going to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Thatís why he ended up in the belly of the whale. He was trying to run away from Godís call to him. God didnít appreciate it; so Jonah got dumped into the sea and swallowed by a great fish (which may have meant whale. I donít know if the ancient Israelites knew whales arenít fish or not. I rather doubt it.). After doing enough time in the great fish, God had him deposited on the shore, apparently having had an amazing natural immunity to stomach acid.
Thatís where we pick up his story this morning. Thatís why the bit we read begins "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time...." The word of God had to come to him a second time because he tried to run away from it the first time. Thatís why I say heís so much like me. Most of the time the last thing in the world I want to do is follow what I perceive to be Godís calling to me. You see, Godís call isnít usually merely kind, soothing words of assurance and forgiveness, although those are always present too. The story of Jonah, indeed, the story of Jesus, which is much more foundational for us as Christians, tells us that Godís call makes demands. Great big demands. Demands we donít want to meet. In Jonahís case it was to go to Nineveh, the capital of the enemy Assyrian Empire, and preach the word of Israelís God. Not exactly a cushy assignment. Iíd have run to Tarshish too!
But this story tells something more about the nature of Godís call. When Jonah finally gave up trying to run from God-something that isnít possible to begin with and that is likely to land you in the belly of a whale if you try it-something truly miraculous happened. When he preached the word of the Lord to Nineveh, that pagan and evil city (or so the Israelites thought of it in any event) something miraculous happened. Our story tells us that Godís message to Nineveh was that in forty days the city would be "overthrown." That is, God was intent on destroying the city. Godís message offered no hope of avoiding the catastrophe. Jonah is not John the Baptist, or Jesus, calling people to repentance. Heís just preaching a coming disaster. Yet when Jonah preached the message, something much more miraculous happened than the people in fact repented, which they did. More importantly, God repented. The story says: "God changed his mind...." Another translation has it: "God relented...." God was so affected by the repentance of the people of Nineveh that God, who weíve all been taught (wrongly I think) to believe never changes, changed. And the catastrophe was averted. When people respond to Godís call with faith and courage, miracles happen.
Last week in my sermon I asked: Who? Us? I asked, but I didnít answer the question. Today I want to say, and say emphatically, in response to last weekís question: Yes! Us! I am convinced that God is calling us in much the way God called Jonah. In much the same way Jesus called the first disciples, as we heard in this morningís reading from Mark. God is calling us, the members and friends of Monroe Congregational United Church of Christ, to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this community, in our nation at this perilous and difficult time, and in the hurting and hungering world. We can, and do, disagree on some of the details of that call. One of the great things about the UCC is that we donít demand uniformity of opinion. We can disagree and still stay in covenant, in community with one another. But I think we all agree with at least this much: God is calling us to be an alternative Christian voice to our society. We are called to be the voice of a Christian faith that welcomes seekers and even doubters, that encourages them, walks with them, and helps them find the path that leads them to the Lord even though that path may be different from our own. We are called to be a voice of a Christian faith that honors the entire person, heart and head; soul, body, and mind, without dismissing any of our God-given humanity. We are called to be the voice of a Christian faith that honors all people equally regardless of their gender, their faith tradition (or lack of one), their sexual orientation, their physical and mental gifts or limitations, their race, economic status, educational background, or any of the other criteria that we humans use to draw distinctions among Godís children for the purpose of puffing ourselves up at the expense of others. I believe that we are called to be the voice of a Christian faith that is willing to take a chance for peace, that will take the risk of nonviolence for the sake of the Realm of God. Although we are all Christians, our message is not the same as the message of so many other Christian churches.
Friends, I truly believe that our little congregation, and the United Church of Christ of which we are a part, have so much to offer to this community and to the world. You truly are the most amazingly warm, open, and welcoming Christian congregation I have ever known. We need to let all the people of Monroe and the valley here know that they will find a welcome here. Beyond that, the people of our society are longing for a new spirituality. All the studies say that Americans are spiritual even when the arenít "religious." We hear so much about how the "successful" churches are the ones that conform their worship to the norms of current popular culture and their message to cultural prejudices and fears. Many people do indeed seem to find what they need in those churches. And yet for all those supposedly successful churches, the vast majority of our fellow citizens in this part of the country have no church affiliation at all. The conservative mega-churches arenít reaching them, and neither are we. I am convinced that God is calling us to reach them. They wonít all find what they need here, but I believe that many of them would if they just knew about us and knew how we are different from the popular stereotype of a Christian church. Thatís our call, a call precisely to be different and to preach a different word to the world.
And thatís a very scary proposition. Thatís going to Nineveh and telling the people Godís going to wipe them out. Thatís speaking truth to the powers, and the powers hate it when you do that. But weíre about to take that plunge. You have before you today, or you will have soon, the proposed budget for our church for the coming year. You will vote on that budget in two weeks at out annual congregational business meeting. The Trustees and the Cabinet have already approved that budget. Many of you already know this, but for those of you who donít, that budget reflects a change in my status as your pastor from part time to full time beginning as of that congregational meeting on February 9. That change means a big increase in the budget, an increase of at least $20,000 a year, and maybe more, over this years budget and an even bigger increase over this yearís expenditures, which were less than budgeted at least with regard to the pastorís compensation package. That budget shows a significant deficit. We will be spending reserves to pay for full time pastoral ministry.
Thatís a big risk for both you and for me. I have already resigned my law job as of February 7. Iím going to Nineveh, and youíre being asked to come with me. Or rather, youíre being asked to authorize the journey we must take together. I canít do it if you donít approve it. And I canít do it if you donít support it. If we are going to sustain the journey for more than a couple of years, things have to change. We have to grow. Our giving has to increase. Those of you who havenít done so need to consider making a bequest to the church in your will. Iím taking the risk of leaving a relatively secure position in the law to serve and work with you full time when our current budget wonít really support full time because I believe God is calling me to do so and because I believe in you. But if weíre going to do this we have to do it together. I canít grow the church alone. The studies show that something like 70% of all people who come to a church for the first time come because somebody already there invited them. Iíll invite as many as I can, but Iím only one person who is new to this community. There are a lot more of you, and youíve been here longer than I have. I think itís obvious what that all adds up to. I can make a pledge, but I canít make up the budget deficit alone. I can accept that no one goes into professional ministry for the money, but I canít do full time work for part time pay. I think itís obvious what that means as well.
When Jonah finally got it and went to Nineveh, God prospered his work beyond even Godís expectations. Let us pray, and pray without ceasing, that as we begin our own new journey to Nineveh, God will do the same for us. Amen.