SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALOF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
THIRD SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
If you are familiar with the lectionary cycles will be aware that this day is the celebration of the Conversion of St Paul. I would love to claim that my failure to observe that great feast, bring together two of my favourite topics, conversion and St Paul, was because I was surrendering so great a liturgical and homiletic opportunity to a greater cause. Sadly it is not so – I simply failed to notice the feast on my calendar, so we journey on through the Sundays of or after (depending on what school you went to) Epiphany. My apologies to St Paul!
As it happens it’s not a bad set of readings with which to be faced when poised on the cusp of beginning an antipodean year. Yes, we all know that the church year begins at Advent, but realistically in the antipodes nothing begins before the end of January, so realistically we are beginning once more to dip our toes in the waters of faith-action. And we are confronted with a diversity of readings that reminds us how difficult, how challenging and yet rewarding it can be to be a People of the Book.
For that is what we are. It is as it happens what our Muslim cousins in faith call us, but it is what we are. We as liturgical Christians are all the more a people of the book, for we carefully ensure that our worship as well as our teaching is anchored in the written word. We are a people of the book. We jettison in particular the book that is our scriptures at great peril, for they are of the very essence of who we are, shaping, feeding, forming us. But what does a diverse collection of readings like these that we face today say to us? How do we read this book, these books (for the bible is many very different books) that we are dared and challenged and called to read?
The book we call Jonah, after its main character, is amongst other things, a glorious satire. Perhaps I am a particularly poor Christ-follower, but I see something of myself in the blundering prophet Jonah – not I hasten to add, that I have ever managed to convince an entire city to repent, not even had an entire city’s attention. Jonah gets so many things wrong: Apart from anything else he forgets to tell the people of the great city, an ancient equivalent of Tokyo or New York, that the message he brings is a message from God. He blunders along, annoying people, getting swallowed up and vomited out by fish, getting things right and more often getting them wrong, and suddenly despite his blunderings an entire metropolis gets a message from God. When they repent Jonah gets a fit of the sulks: like too many of us he was voyeuristically awaiting the moment when the judges kicked Nineveh out of the shared house, kicked Nineveh out of the chef’s kitchen, kicked Nineveh out of the prize-money. But the judge doesn’t, and Nineveh gets and responds to the message, and Jonah gets the sulks when his fun is spoiled. It would be as if I had spent my ministry striving for the inclusion of young people in the Church, but were to get the sulks because my new bishop is far younger than I am – or having fought for the ordination of women or gays were to sulk because women or gays are at last gaining rightful roles of leadership in the church. Jonah is a satire that makes us laugh at ourselves: do we want young people in “our” cathedral church? They may do things differently!
The psalms, by and large, are the love poetry of faith – even if one contains the chilling heartcry about the execution of an enemy’s children. The psalm on this occasion is a celebration of God’s faithfulness, of God as the source of meaning and succour to the psalmist’s life. There are perhaps times we can relate to this and times we cannot, yet this is precisely the strength of these 150 or so liturgical poems, running the gamut of human emotions and human relationships to the possibilities of God. They run even to the possibilities of no-God, and to the hatred of enemies, and if we think we are too pious to reach the former or the latter heart-cry then it may just be that we know ourselves too little, are deluded about our humanness.
How do you solve a problem like Maria, sings the mother superior. How do you solve a problem like Paul? For too long Christians have delved into the writings of Paul and found there either eternal if selective rules for all times, all peoples, all situations: “wives submit …”, or decided that he is so irrelevant that we never need break open his words again. How brutal a distortion either of those extremes is! Yet always we must ask who Paul was writing to, what situation he was addressing, what was the culture and circumstances surrounding those to whom he wrote his belly-fired, passionate letters of instruction. The Corinthian Christians were playing games with religion, using the Jesus-message as a tool of self-satisfaction and of the oppression of others. Christians have often returned to this abuse. How dare they? Paul challenges them and us to live each day as if the eternal judge were about to tap us on the shoulder. Of course we fall short of such a demand: he tells us that elsewhere. As he warns his correspondents not to dwell in prolonged mourning he is not writing a twenty-first letter of psychological advise: mourning takes as long as mourning takers, even to the closure of our lives. But he is asking us to know that it is the risen, bigger than death Christ who is beckoning, coaxing us through the darkness into renewed light, first temporary, then eternal.
Or, indeed, as Mark tells us, the Christ who beckons us to stumble on in his still warm footprints. The call of the disciples is the call of fallible, broken, rather Jonah like human beings like me or you or Paul – so perhaps we have ended up with the conversion of Paul after all! The call of the disciples or the call of Paul or the call of you or the call of me is the call to stumble on, embracing the future as God’s future, despite all its unknowns. It is not a bad reminder as we stumble into the realities of 2015.
The Lord be with you.