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The Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Finding Excuses

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

God calls us, not once, but again and again throughout our lives. God calls us to renew our baptismal covenant, to renew our life in Christ. Sometimes we are called to choose new priorities. Sometimes we are called to leave behind the things that have been keeping us from God, things that impede our discipleship. Sometimes we are called to make changes in our lives. Often a call comes to us when we are facing crises in our lives, for those are times when change is not only necessary, but even welcome. Whatever our call, it is a call to action. What is happening right now for us as individuals, as a church, as a nation? More importantly, how will we respond?

I was visiting my sister a number of years ago. I was sitting in the living room with my then teenaged niece. We were chatting, getting caught up. My sister called her to come and help with setting the table. She ignored her completely and kept on talking to me as if she had heard nothing. My sister called again a little louder. Once again it was as if Deirdre had not heard a word that was said. I asked her, “Why aren’t you answering your mother?” Her reply: “She isn’t mad enough yet?” Of course, my sister did eventually really lose her cool. Then Deirdre got up and did as her mother demanded.

Confronted with calls for action from God, we can find many excuses. “I didn’t hear you!” “I don’t understand what you want!” “It’s too hard!” “Find someone else!” “You couldn’t possibly mean me!” The real reason is more likely to be “I don’t want to” or “I’m afraid.

Consider the story of Jonah. God called Jonah to action. He was to go to the people of Nineveh to give them a message from God. God wanted him to tell them that he was going to overthrow them because of the evil things they had done. Jonah was their last chance. And you know! He refused. Like my niece with her mother he heard what God was saying to him. He ignored the message. God went to great lengths to move him to action. He even had him swallowed by a great fish and thrown up on the shores of Nineveh. Still Jonah was reluctant to act. Finally God got through to him. He began his walk through the streets of Nineveh. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he cried out to the people. And, much to Jonah’s astonishment, perhaps even disdain, they heard and believed. They changed their ways. They proclaimed a fast and everyone put on sackcloth. The whole of Nineveh’s society got involved in changing their ways. Nineveh was spared.

The story of Nineveh is a prophetic word to its time, challenging the nationalism that limited God’s love to one people, the people of Israel. It is a challenging message to the modern day Church in which Ecumenism seems all but dead. This is the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Last Sunday night in our area a handful of people gathered to celebrate our unity together. It was a wonderful, uplifting service. The speaker was engaging as she spoke of her dedication to the Ecumenical movement and her work in the World Council of Churches. Her message came to the converted. How do we get others to understand that “one church, one faith, one Lord” does not mean “my church, my faith, my Lord”? What a tragedy it is that we cannot eat at the same table? What a tragedy that we allow differing traditions to stand in the way of unity! In our own situation here in the Church Centre, what a tragedy it is that we allow petty differences to destroy our common life. We do not meet together for worship. We do not share a common vision for ministry. How do we change that? How do we transform this place, not so that we become one congregation worshipping in one particular way, but so that we share a vision of what it means to be church? I have to tell you, I struggle with it. I dream of being in a building of our own. It is simply too hard to work this way, to deal with the tensions that exist. Yet God has called us to be the church in this place. God has called us to share ministry? How do we work together to hasten the kingdom of God?

A wave of change swept across the whole world this past week as we all watched the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. In a world that focuses on the differences between people, a world that divides itself culturally, racially, nationally, barriers came down. It is there in his message, “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” What a radical change it is! What an amazing moment it was in the history of the world! There is no doubt in my mind that it is a response to God’s call on the part of a nation.

The call of the disciples is a story of how ordinary people are called to serve God. Jesus comes to Galilee with his message of the coming of the kingdom of God. Like John he calls for the people to repent and change their way of life. It is a call to action. He calls them to turn their whole lives around and act on the good news that is being proclaimed. He calls the people to radical change. Sometimes it is a call to leave the comfort and security of one’s livelihood. That is certainly the case as he calls the disciples away from their nets.

It is as he passes along the Sea of Galilee that he sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea. Jesus simply says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

It is a memorable line in scripture. It speaks to each of us. We find ourselves drawn into the story. At the same time, we wonder how we might respond, or even if we would respond. Most of us would be reluctant to do as Andrew and Simon did. To simply drop what we are doing and change the course of our lives! That kind of change takes planning. It takes careful consideration.

Yet can we see how it might happen, how they might immediately respond to Jesus’ request? Some people respond to the call of conversion immediately. They receive some flash of insight, a moment of enlightenment or awakening, and they become different people. Perhaps they are just sitting on the edge of life waiting for the call to something worthwhile. If the right person comes along with the right call they are up and away. They have been secretly longing for it. Life has prepared them for it. They did not choose it. It chose them.

The truth about following the call of God is that we cannot let our fears and insecurities about what might happen hold us back. We need to discern that it is indeed God calling us. We need to discern what it is that God is calling us to do. We need to bring it to God in prayer. If it rings true, then the way forward, the way to respond, will emerge. We can be sure that we are all called – called to repentance, called to transformation, called to be the people of God, called to be witnesses to the love of God in Christ Jesus, called to be.
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