Sermon January 25, 2015
Mark 1:14-20, Jonah 3:1-5, 10
This week I spent some time with my friend Marcia McFee. For many years, Marcia has traveled around the country leading worship and working with churches to create worship that is engaging and powerful. She got tired of always staying in hotel rooms and being away from her spouse Jordan so they began to dream about a new way to live this call. They bought an RV and are living in it. Marcia contacted me late in the fall to say they might come through Albuquerque. They had a few weeks between a residency in Texas and another in Arizona. I didn’t hear from her again until early January. At that point, she agreed to do a workshop on Tuesday of this last week. With less than two weeks notice, we put the word out to churches and 75 people gathered from all over the state for a lively workshop. There were 23 churches represented. It’s funny to me how much time I have spent planning events to have a few people respond and this one we threw together at the last minute and were stunned at the response.
I’m telling you this because I’ve been thinking about the scriptures this week. I’ve been thinking about my friends who just uprooted and began life on the road. I’ve been thinking about all the people who came to learn more about worship. I’ve been thinking about our hunger to know God and what causes us to say yes especially when we don’t have all the answers. Actually, we never have all the answers, but we like to believe we do.
Mark is an interesting gospel. Each of the four gospels has their own unique way of telling the story of Jesus. Mark is short and to the point. He doesn’t mince words. The reading today is from the first chapter of Mark. There isn’t an eloquent prologue or some background information. Jesus is already calling his disciples and rather than asking about pension plans or salary, they just left their nets and followed. I can’t figure out how they just walked away from everything they have known to say yes. He doesn’t give them time to pack up their worldly possessions or get some money from the ATM. They simply set off together. They had no idea what they were getting into, but something compelled them to say yes.
God called Jonah too. It didn’t go well at first. Ninevah was not a nice place. The people were violent and known for the terrorism. Asking Jonah to go there was like asking a Jew to go to Nazi Germany just after the Holocaust. (Interpretation, p. 140) His first response was to take off in the opposite direction and that landed him in the belly of a big fish. After surviving that fateful encounter, God tells him a second time to go to Ninevah and in the reading today, he goes. It is amazing that the people and their pagan king respond to the message and repent. They start praying like crazy and saying they are so sorry and they mean it. So God decides to let them off the hook. God gives them another chance. These stories give us a glimpse of God who doesn’t give up on us and invites us to start over with a clean slate.
The people in these stories say yes to God. They do so with no guarantees. It has been said that the real miracle of the Exodus story wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea, but the first few Israelites daring to step into the mud and begin crossing to the other side. On Monday, a group of us went to see the movie Selma. It is a powerful portrait of a period in our history. The movie centers on the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. but it is clear that there were many people who said yes with no guarantees. I was stunned by the courage and commitment of the people who showed up knowing that they would likely face violence, knowing that people were being killed just because they showed up, and knowing that things would not change unless they took the risk.
Today, we have our annual meeting and we will vote on a budget for 2015. It would be wonderful to bring a budget with more income than expenses. That is not where we are. Yet it is clear that God is here and there are so many signs that we are moving toward a future that is full of hope and promise. Passing this budget will require some courage and a good bit of faith. We aren’t the first church to do this.
Molly Baskette wrote a book about her UCC Congregation in Massachusetts. Ten years ago they averaged 35 people in worship, they had $200,000 in the bank and they owned their building. The building is three stories. It is not accessible and it is more than 100 years old. They had done the math and knew that at the rate they were going, they had four or five years left. Today their worship attendance averages 130. Their giving has more than quintupled in the last decade. When Molly started in 2003, they had 6 children in Sunday School. Today they have close to 100. They passed a lot of risky budgets over the last 10 years and last year, for the first time, they passed their first balanced budget. Her book Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too is an honest account of their journey. They moved forward knowing that there were no guarantees.
If we were certain about everything, there would be no place for faith. Life is never certain. Even those who feel they have everything figured out are fooling themselves. Life is not a straight line. It takes many twists and turns and requires us to hang on for the ride. There are times that we switch into autopilot. The church does the same. We just do what we have been doing and we fail to stop and consider the magnitude of it. Annie Dillard says that is foolish:
“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.
There is nothing in the Bible about God calling people into places that are secure and comfortable. God doesn’t provide a strategic plan with action items. God mostly calls us into the unknown and it requires a massive amount of trust to say yes. I’m wondering about the people who started this church 135 years ago. What an incredible act of faith on their part! God continues to call us today.
Last week at the Sanctuary meeting, I wondered aloud if there is a reason that the Vassar property has been empty for so long. It is costing us thousands of dollars. It is a big part of the reason we are presenting a deficit budget today. Could it be that God is calling us to something new? We have so many resources to offer the community. We don’t have money to spend, but we have a rich heritage, we have wonderful people with lots of gifts, and we have so much space. I think it is time for us to take seriously God’s call for us in 2015. The budget that we will vote on today is not about some black and white numbers on a page, it is about what God is doing with us at this moment in history. This call doesn’t come with all the answers, it requires us to actually put our toes in the mud and step out in faith. Honestly, we are taking a risk every time we say yes to God. I keep seeing the multitude of people in Selma linking arms and crossing that bridge into Montgomery. One of our members commented this week that the people in this church had his back and he had theirs. We are not in this alone. God is calling us to say yes as a community of faith and offering us the same words given to Moses and to everyone since who has asked, “How can this be?” God answers, “I will be with you.” And that is more than enough.