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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Every year, our health benefit provider encourages all the clergy to do some sort of activity to make us healthier, and thereby cheaper to insure. Usually these activities try to tackle some sort of unhealthy habit by substituting a new one. They say that after six weeks, you’ve developed a new habit. It takes that long of consistently doing something before our previous pattern can be re-written.
Sometimes we live in a rut. Our way of living, of acting and reacting, get comfortable, and we get stuck. We keep doing the same things over and over again, and they become a habit. It’s hard to get enough momentum to break out of the rut we’ve worn.
When we open the Bible, we find God’s people in the ruts they’ve created. We meet a God who breaks into our routine to bring us into a new way of being. We find people much like us, who struggle with their own habits, their own assumptions of the way things are. And we can wonder if God might be about to bring us up into something new, too.
From the Old Testament, we meet the prophet Jonah. Jonah’s job is to speak the word of God to people. Rather than the prophet’s usual job of speaking to God’s people, this time the prophet is sent to those people- people who aren’t God’s people. He’s God’s messenger, but when we meet him, he isn’t willing to carry God’s message. God wants Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that God is about to destroy them because of their sin. Jonah has no desire to preach to the people of Nineveh. He has no desire to give them the opportunity to repent. He sees no reason God should care about those people whose very way of living, very identity, makes them “not God’s people.”
Jonah has worn a rut of hatred towards the people of Nineveh. People in his culture believe the people of Nineveh are bad people. They are sinners, they do things wrong, they live horribly. They deserve punishment.
When God changes God’s mind and goes back on his word that punishment is coming to the Ninevites, Jonah is so angry, he wishes he were dead. Jonah can’t imagine living in a world where those people are forgiven. He can’t imagine God would care so much about them.
The book of Jonah ramps up the imagery. All the hyperbole in the story can make it laughable- but even as we chuckle over Jonah’s “I’m so angry I could die”- we catch ourselves wondering if we might not have worn our own paths of hatred or prejudice. Who is it we can’t imagine God caring about- who’s not worthy to be a part of our community of chosen people?
Who are our Ninevites? Maybe you, too, can’t imagine living in a world where those people are forgiven, a church where those people are welcome- Those blacks. Those complainers. Those gays. Those elders. Those feminists. Those conservatives. Those disabled. Like Jonah’s community, we’ve made a habit of lumping people together with one identifying factor and summarily deciding they are bad people. Those people.
Or maybe those people have specific faces. They are the people who have done something against you. What hurts do you relive over and over again to wear a pathway towards quick judgment? Easy anger? Your memory wears a grudge.
Imagine a soft road, maybe a country gravel road after a rainstorm. The cars and trucks that drive over it leave behind a rut where their tires have compressed the ground. The next cars that follow will likely follow in that path, and it will be difficult if they have to turn out of it, because they have to break out of the lip that’s formed. This happens to us, too. Our brains actually work like this. We make connections in our brains. The more often we make those connections, the stronger the connections become and the faster the connection is.
So if you have a certain judgment of a person or a group of people, and you keep thinking that way, it becomes easier and easier to associate that person and that label. Or if you have had a bad experience with someone, and you keep reliving that experience and telling yourself how horrible that person was for wronging you, it becomes much more difficult to see anything good in that person.
How can we possibly escape from this well-worn path of sin? God alone has the power to pull us out, into a new way of living.
Other books in the Bible encourage us into the new now. First Corinthians and Mark both have an urgency to their words. They are meant to shake us out of our habits to see that God’s kingdom is here, now, and we’d better get moving to live like we’re ready for it.
Through First Corinthians, we glimpse the urgency of the early church. People believed Jesus was returning at any moment. When Jesus declared that the kingdom of God had come near, and then promised to return after his death and resurrection, people believed him. The end of the world as they knew it was at hand. So, all those things that occupy our time, that use our resources, that affect our emotions, and use our energy might as well be cast aside- they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Everything that identifies a person is set aside, except for their relationship to the community of faith and to God. All that matters is being prepared to welcome Jesus and to live into the new kingdom God is creating.
These readings challenge our historic church. People have been gathering here at Cross for 137 years. That’s a history in which we’ve accumulated a lot of “we’ve always done it this ways.” We can get into a rut of thinking that the way we’ve always done things is the only way it can be done. There’s some safety in that- we know it works, or at least it works enough. We know how to do it. We know our place- what our role is to make it happen. It’s “tried and true” – no need to wait and see if it will “stand the test of time.” At a time when so much in our world seems to be changing so quickly, people want to have stability at church. We want it to be comfortable.
But making us comfortable isn’t what the Bible shows us as God’s goal. Think about Simon and Andrew, James and John- they had pretty much established their life path. Maybe not the easiest work, but it was comfortable in the sense that they knew they were fishermen, they had trained for it, they had an idea of what their future was going to look like. Then this Jesus comes up to them, calling them to be a part of his ministry, his bringing the kingdom of God- and they leave behind their known life to follow him. Jesus inspires a response. The disciples are able to leave their daily routine to be about new work.
Sometimes God enters our lives and changes our course. At other times, our lives change course, and God uses us in our new place.
As college students return for spring semester, you may feel like you have to figure your life out- and if you fail life is over. As other approach mid-life, or a sudden change in career, you can feel uncertain as to what is next. As elders set aside some tasks, you can wonder about your purpose. God uses us to carry on the proclamation of forgiveness, welcome, and love. Wherever life finds you, Jesus is there, and Jesus needs you to join in his ministry.
When we encounter God, we will change. We will change because our natural way of being is stuck in sin. God works to break down ways of thinking that exclude.
Our tendency is to hold on to grudges, to push different people away, and to maintain the status quo even when it’s not life-giving. That doesn’t mean that connecting with God has to be feared because of its instability. God is constantly faithful. It’s that faithfulness, that grace given to you, that will slowly and surely change you. God’s love will make you more loving. This is the promise God speaks to you through the scripture. The more you become familiar with the Bible, the clearer you will hear that. Even though our known way of worship or society has and will change, God’s power to give life, meaning, and forgiveness does not. The world may shift, God may reveal new ways of being, but still, God will forever act in love towards you and all creation.
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