Leaving our Nets
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Our two lectionary texts tell of two very different callings. The first story we drop into is one of the high points of the book of Jonah. I know for many of us Jonah is a story we don’t often think about as adults; too often it is left to children. It is often understood as some odd story about a fish, and frankly it is a pretty misunderstood and misinterpreted book. The story is really a satire that teaches a moral lesson. Jonah’ s name is translated to mean “dove” and a “dove” in the Hebrew scriptures are overwhelming understood in a positive light, like the “dove” that informs Noah that the waters are finally receding and they can get out of the ark. Jonah is the son of Amittati which means “faithfulness”, so Jonah the “dove” son of “faithfulness” receives the word of the Lord to go to Nineveh. Of course, the son of “faithfulness” will follow God’s will and bring the word to the Ninevites, whom God has heard their cry of a pagan nation. So instead the “dove” boards a ship that is going in the opposite direction and heads out sea. He is apparently on board with some very religious but pagan sailors. For as soon as a storm appears, they begin praying and asking questions about which local deity could be causing this storm. The “dove” proclaims that his God is the “God of everything, of heaven, the sea and the dry land.” Then he tells these sailors to throw him overboard. You can interpret this request by Jonah in one of two ways — either he is actually concerned for the life of the sailors or Jonah is thinking he might be able to flee this calling even further by being thrown overboard and drowning. Rather than comply, this request just causes these sailors to row even harder. Jonah the dove prays and his prayer convinces the sailors to toss him into the sea. These sailors are suddenly converted and begin making sacrifices to the Hebrew God. As the smoke is wafting over these sacrifices, a great fish swallows the bird. The fish instead of eating the bird, transports Jonah the dove to the great city of Nineveh. The prophet walks a couple of blocks into the city, stands on a street corner covered in fish spume and simply says in “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be overthrown”. This sermon converts the entire city. The animals were even repenting of their sins. Surely the son of “faithfulness,” Jonah the “dove” will be overjoyed by their sudden conversion. This engaging sermon has converted the world’s worst city. Instead Jonah finally tells the truth. He reveals why he fled in the first place, telling God that I knew if they heard your word they would be converted and that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4.2). God responds to him asking “Should I not be concerned with Nineveh?”
This story has a lot to unpack; Jonah did not experience joy or excitement. In fact we see little change in Jonah throughout the tale. But what we do see is God’s faithfulness, God slow to Anger and abounding in Love for all people. Understood in its context it is really a bold story contained in the Hebrew scriptures. The only people who truly act faithfully in the story are the Sailors and the Ninevites who were enemies of the Hebrew people and by extension enemies of the Hebrew God.
Nineveh was the seat of Assyrian oppression toward the Hebrew people. This city represented a culture and society that was living against God’s shalom or God’s peace that was truly keeping people from flourishing. Jonah represents a prophet who is called to speak to an overwhelming power and call it to repentance and change. He in short, he was called to confront a system of oppression. We don’t often think about systems of oppression, partially because these systems are often hidden in plain sight, and partially because of privilege, and partially because they are very complex problems.
I am sure many of us have heard of the concept of a food desert — a location often in an urban or rural area where there is limited access to high quality healthy food. In the US it is projected that at least 24 million people live in food deserts. In fact, the York Daily Record ran a series of articles about this a few years ago, describing portions of York City as a food desert.  We know that a poor diet leads to negative health outcomes, disease, and a reduced life expectancy. What we don’t fully understand is how issues like this arise. Some of it is driven by market driven forces, an area might not be able to financially support a store, or the population is too sparse, and other times it is driven by neighborhood change and turnover.
Communities and churches all across our country have responded to this in creative and imaginative ways. In 2015 after the death of Freddy Gray and the aftermath that followed, schools and business were closed in the city of Baltimore. The lockdown continued for two weeks. Leaving children without free or low-cost meals from school, and because public transportation was shutdown, many people couldn’t travel to get food they needed. Pleasant Hope Baptist Church began receiving phone calls from people struggling with hunger. The congregation quickly responded giving help to those in need, driving around the city, delivering food, and helping their neighbors. This experience sparked a larger vision. They transformed their small urban campus into a small urban farm growing over a thousand pounds of produce annually. This experiment then morphed again as the church started a seasonal farmers market, where they sold this produce alongside a network of regional farmers. Reinvesting any money they made to grow and incentive a network of churches in the city of Baltimore to begin similar ministries.  This was a unique response born out of dire circumstances. But it was a response rooted in their ethos as a congregation. The ethos to love neighbor as self, the ethos to be a caring community. This was a response that was a born out of a call, a call to confront an unseen system of oppression and a call to get out of the boat and fish for people by meeting a real-world need.
Last week, your session empowered a small working group to begin the process of thinking about the future of Eastminster. Empowering them to begin looking at different methods to develop a strategic plan and begin a process that will help us discover together the future God is calling us to. In the coming months you will begin to hear more about this process and about this developing conversation. I know the strategy that is born will be out of our ethos as a congregation and will help us to look at how we need to adapt to our world and the problems we are facing as a congregation and as a community. This is an exciting time as we continue to discern God’s call for Eastminster. I would encourage you to be in prayer for your session and your pastor as they begin to weigh the recommendation from this group as we continue the work of getting out of the boat, leaving our nets behind, and following Jesus into our future. Let’s pray….
I had a seminary professor that was fond of saying that you need to exegete the congregation. What he meant by this is you study a scripture over the course of week and then you write your sermon with your congregation in mind, using illustrations that come from their context, their culture, and their community. You write your sermon for your whole congregation and not just a portion of your congregation. Which makes sense. When I worked fulltime with youth I would share stories that would connect to their context and their reality as teenagers. After seeing the events unfold on Wednesday I have been wrestling with how best to address them as your pastor, asking the questions what does Eastminster need to hear in this moment? Do they need to hear a message of lament, challenge or of hope? As your pastor I have made a commitment to always share the truth with you and to work for the peace and unity of the church. We have just started what I hope will be a long relationship, yet we are still getting to know one another, we are still learning to trust one another. In these last few months we have continued to face a lot of reclosing of in person worship, the continued and escalating pandemic, a heated election cycle, and now a national trauma. You have only heard me in this pulpit 16 times and only 8 of those times have been in person. I don’t have the benefit of seeing how you react, what you connect with, what you laugh at, or how the spirit moves in our community. There are portions of the congregation I haven’t even met yet and even the ones I have, I haven’t seen your entire face. Sometimes it feels a little like I am driving through a dense fog. I can see a few feet in front of me, but not much beyond that. In light of this national trauma I wanted to share three words, a word of lament, a word of challenge, and a word of hope. I will speak to a small camera in the back the room and share a message and trust that God will speak into your life through it.
A word of lament, I imagine all of us are hurting right now and a little confused. On Wednesday, I was in a zoom meeting with the Presbytery, on one screen I had the zoom and the other screen I had video from a newsfeed watching the destruction in DC. It was difficult to watch, difficult to maintain focus in the meeting, but I didn’t feel like I could look away, I felt my body tense, I had moments where I felt like I might cry, I turned off my camera and one point and said a prayer for our police, our leaders, our nation, and even the instigators. I thought about how I would explain this to my boys, what questions they might ask. I felt the brokenness of our system that would allow this to happen. I felt anger and pain at many of the images, but in particular at some of the symbols that were being carried. The symbols of hate from white supremacists, the nooses, the gallows that were erected, the slogans about the holocaust. I also saw people carrying crosses, and invoking the name of Jesus and God. I felt the weight of how the church has failed. God is not aligned to a party or a candidate. God at all times is on the side of the people, the poor, the oppressed, those without rights, God is not aligned with hate, discrimination, or worldly power. I thought about all the students I have worked with over the years and how many have been turned away from the church because they saw Jesus being mixed discrimination and hate. Many of my students have told me over the years that they loved Jesus but not the church. This pain made me think about the prophet Jeremiah, who ministered during a period of brokenness to a broken people and he lamented “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are destroyed. How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet?” How long oh Lord? How long oh Lord will we see disaster after disaster? Crisis after Crisis? Pandemic after pandemic? But in the midst of pain God listens, God always hears our pain. God is the eternal witness. God has seen pain and heart break from the beginning and God’s eternal promise is God’s presence within that pain. That God will never leave us or forsake us. That God has indeed known suffering. The very Christian symbol of the cross is a symbol of the empire, the empire that used the cross to put to death Jesus but it has become of symbol of life and a reminder God is with us in midst of any suffering and God is with those who are oppressed.
A word of challenge, I know we are all confused by this attack. We saw these images and it is hard to process, hard to understand. I think we need to recognize that was a large crowd with very mixed intentions. Most went to D.C. to exercise their freedom of speech. There is nothing wrong with this, everyone should have the freedom to do this. But there were others in that crowd that came with very different intentions, just like we saw in the crowds this past summer. Their intention was not to support democracy or free speech but to do damage, cause mayhem and harm. In truth much of it is the result of rhetoric that allows hate to stand unchallenged. When I have spoken to my colleagues of color, none of them have been surprised by this attack. One described the attack on the capital as the same spirit that lynched black men and women all across our land. The same spirit that in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina overthrew an elected town counsel. Four hundred armed men plotted for months, ransacked the town and then murdered 60 people.  Those 400 men were celebrated. I am sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, and please know that it makes me uncomfortable. I think sometimes the work of the spirit is to sit in our own discomfort. I think the work of the spirit is calling us to repentance, to listen one another, and talk with one another, not to demonize one another, but to listen and talk.
A word of hope. From our scriptures today, we see two images. The first is an account of the first day of creation, God hovers over the waters, and night and day are created. We see again light and water and God creating order out of chaos. The second we also see God acting and moving. Jesus is baptized by his cousin John, the heavens are torn apart. Nature itself is upended in this moment, creation is changed at the baptism of Jesus. And out of that very rupture the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. The Greek here implies that the Spirit is infused into Jesus, that it comes into him. A new reality is transforming all things. John who cries out on the banks of the Jordan a word of lament and challenge, “repent and be baptized.” John who says he is unworthy to serve, unworthy of Jesus. John will usher in a new baptism. Baptism is the reality in which God summons us, God imparts to us faith. Faith in Jesus, and this the true presence of the Church and the world. That baptism opens our hearts and our minds to be instruments of peace and unity to our neighbors and to our community.  This is our hope, that we can be God’s instrument of peace and unity. When we see violence, it should create in us an urgency to be agents of love and change in this world.
God hears our pain. God calls us to repent, listen and talk. And God longs for us to be instruments of peace and unity in this world.
 Jeremiah 4:19-21
“Out of Town Guests”
There is a massive Gothic Clock at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh Scotland and this clock is set 3 minutes fast in order to help people catch their trains on time. There is one exception to this 3-minute rule, for the last 118 years the clock has been set to the proper time on December 31st so that the community could ring in the new year at the proper time. This year the hotel decided not to reset the clock in order to have 3 minutes less of 2020.  Obviously this won’t really change the time, the sentiment however is understandable.
Our scripture is a familiar and beloved story. It beings in chapter two of Matthew. A king named Herod is sitting on the throne. This king was really a local official who had been installed by the Roman government in order to enforce the Roman laws. A group of Magi appear from the East, most likely a caravan of religious advisors from an area in Babylon or Persia. Western Christian Tradition places the number of Magi at three, Eastern Christian Tradition places this number at 12.  Whatever the number in this caravan, it is a group outside the Jewish faith that has come to pay homage to the new born king.
The direction from which the Magi come is important and is likely one of the reasons for Herod’s strong reaction. Herod had no fears about an attack from the West — the Roman Empire was to the West. But to the East he was greatly concerned of an attack. At one point he had to flee his throne and make his way to Rome, because of an invading army made of local dissidents and people invading from the East. As a result, Herod had a series of fortresses built all along the Eastern border and it was constantly guarded and monitored. He also worked on a hearts and minds campaign and sought out projects that that benefitted the Jewish people including rebuilding the temple. But his term on the throne was anything but peaceful; he was embroiled in internal conflicts with many of his own children vying for their seat on the throne.
Herod is frightened by the appearance of this caravan and scripture writes all of Jerusalem was frightened as well. Jerusalem is bracing to see how Herod, this violent leader, will react and what kind of strife it will cause. The Magi are called to appear before Herod and they explain their desire to meet the child known as the “King of the Jews”. This was a title Herod had already assumed and used regularly. The author of Matthew is wrestling with the question of who is truly the king? Is it the child whose birth was foretold by the angels, or the one on the throne appointed by Rome? Is it the one who uses his power to frighten and control, or the one who came as a humble child and taught about Love? Is the King the one who causes all of Jerusalem to react with fear, or the one for whom the Magi were overwhelmed with Joy when the saw him?
2020 has been a year that many of us would like to forget. David Kessler who cowrote the famed 5 Stages of Grief with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross reflected on our pandemic experience in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review. He shared that as a nation we are feeling many different griefs — grief over how the world has changed, grief over the loss of normalcy, grief over the loss of connection, fear about the economic toll. This is not something we have experienced as a nation in generations, the closest recent event would have been September 11, and how the world changed after that tragic event.
David Kessler describes what we are feeling as an anticipatory grief. We recognize that there is a storm out there, that it could make landfall in our life, but it may not. This perceived threat violates our sense of safety and our understanding of order. We are all trying to process this experience as we live through it. He shares that everyone processes this grief differently and it is not orderly or linear. We can see how they have shaped our national conversation. In the very beginning of this crisis there was a lot of denial, “the idea virus won’t affect us.” I remember a student telling me about it in February and thinking this was just something he read on Twitter. We have seen how some have experienced a level of anger; “You are taking away my activities.” Or how some experienced bargaining, “okay, two weeks home, maybe a month, and everything will be fine.” Many of us have experienced sadness, “the sadness of not knowing when this will fully end, when life will return to normal.” David Kessler shares that it is only through acceptance and finding meaning we will find health and wholeness.
Accepting that much of this pandemic is out of our hands, we can take care of ourselves, we can take care of our loved ones, we can take appropriate safety precautions. But much beyond that is out of our control. When those feelings of anticipatory grief become too much, we can pause, we can pray, we can take a deep cleansing breath, and we can come into the present moment and be mindful of what is around us. We can ask for help. In the midst of this grief we can search for meaning.
One of the ways I have found meaning is with my wife and children. I have probably spent more time with them in this last year, then at any other point in my life. I have also gone on more walks than the year before, read more books, and connected with old friends. I saw commentator call this the year of Zoom and flour; Flour based of the number people who have taken up baking.
As a nation we have continued to search for meaning in the midst of our corporate grief. The pandemic has been eye-opening for many. It has pointed out the financial inequality our nation is currently living with, and the tragic death of George Floyd has also forced us to reexamine how institutional racism has affected our community and nation.
The Magi search for the child and when they find Jesus they are overwhelmed by Joy. They pay homage to Jesus and offer gifts. This scene is truly breath taking, those outside the covenant are recognizing God’s love. These Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to leave for home by another road. They met the infant Jesus and a new road called them home, a road likely more difficult, less comfortable, and more dangerous.  This was driven by fear, but their encounter with Jesus changed the way they saw the world. Encounters with Jesus call us to new paths of understanding and compassion. This last year we have all dealt with grief and fear. Our work is to continue to be present with Jesus in the midst of this experience and work together to find meaning and build a better future.
 The NIV Application Commentary on Matthew, pg 94.