January 21, 2018

3 Epiphany

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            One of the things that I needed to accomplish in my first year of seminary was choosing an Episcopal Church where I would do my field education.  “Field ed” as we called it constituted being placed in a church where we would be a seminarian for a year or two – assisting with services, preaching, attending Vestry meetings, going on parish retreats, that kind of thing.

            I went to seminary in Alexandria, VA, just outside of Washington DC, and so there was no shortage of Episcopal churches in the area to choose from.  I found the church that I was really interested in serving as a seminarian, and it was St. Mark’s, Capital Hill.  The church was in a cool neighborhood near the Capital, it was a parish that was doing interesting things at the time, it was a place I really wanted to go.

            My decision made, I called the rector when it was time, and set up an interview.  I don’t remember much of my interview with the Rector except that I don’t think I impressed him very much.  I remember walking out of the interview feeling I had no chance of going to St. Mark’s.  So I went to the next church on my list, one that was much closer to the seminary – about a mile’s drive – and I interviewed with that Rector and had a much more favorable experience.  Here was the problem.  The church where I interviewed well, I didn’t want to go.  It was in a pretty boring neighborhood.  This church wasn’t really doing anything interesting.  And if the award existed for the ugliest church built in the 1960s, this church would have been a top contender.

            The Rector of that church, the ugly church, called me back and offered me the position as their seminarian, which wasn’t a big deal, since I was the only person in my seminary class to interview for it.  I accepted, and the day after accepting the Rector’s call to be seminarian at the ugly church, the Rector from the hip, cool, St. Mark’s Capital Hill called me and said “would you like to be the seminarian at St. Mark’s?”  What to do.  I said something to him I never thought I would have said, which was “Thank you, but I’ll decline.”  I made a commitment, and although I rather would have gone to the cool church, I sucked it up and went to the church no one else in my seminary class wanted to go.

            The book of Jonah is a story about a person going to a place he didn’t want to go.  In this case, it was Nineveh.  Jonah had no desire to go to Nineveh, not only because it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire – a staunch enemy of Israel – but also that Jonah couldn’t imagine that there was anyone in that area worth helping.  But God believed otherwise, and called Jonah to a courageous mission to proclaim God’s judgment against them.  Jonah didn’t believe that anyone would listen, but after saying one sentence, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the people, remarkably, listen.  And they part from whatever it was that they were doing that angered God, and God forgave Nineveh, because a reluctant prophet spoke truth to them.

            Much of the Bible consists of stories where people are asked to go places they don’t want to go and to do things that they do not want to do.  And while that is much of the Bible, it is also much of our life as well.  I don’t know about you, but the times in my life where I have felt God calling me to go, initially I have not had much interest in going.  But every time, after going, I realize how grateful I am that I went.  Because it is in that surrender to God’s leadership, where we grow most abundantly. 

            Once I arrived at that the church, the 1960s ugly one, I learned why I was there.  It was the people.  There are so many stories from that congregation, but I will share one: I met an elderly gentleman there who each Sunday came early and prepared the coffee for the whole day. 

He ushered most services, and when I asked him what brought him to the church, he told me the story of his son.  In the 1970s, his son committed suicide, and while this man was not much of a church going man, and probably agnostic at best, he wanted a church burial for his son, but all the churches he went to and asked, refused.  But not this one.  Not Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria, Virginia.  The Rector at the time said, “of course we will bury your son with the respect and the dignity he deserves.” 

            Ever since, this man, whom I saw early every Sunday, came, made the coffee, handed out bulletins, because he found in that church a priest who would bury his son.  He felt accepted, in the midst of the impossible scenario he was facing. 

            The question for us to ask ourselves is this: where is God calling you?  I would bet that if you can think of the one thing in your life that you don’t want to do, the one person you don’t want to confront, the nagging responsibility that keeps coming back to you again and again and again?  That is God calling you – calling you to where you are perhaps afraid or uninterested in going.  Will you go?  Will you accept God’s call to go to Nineveh or the ugly church you don’t want to go to and then find yourself surprised that that was where you belonged all along?  AMEN.