Suzanne G. Roberts, MD, MPH, MDiv
Sermon for Epiphany 3, Year B
January 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20; Psalm 62:6-14
Jonah, dried seaweed still stuck in his hair and smelling strongly of whale vomit, hikes for a day into the sprawling city of Ninevah crying, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” Saint Paul writes to the Christian community in Corinth: “The appointed time has grown short brothers and sisters, for the present form of the world is passing away.” And Mark tells us that after the arrest of John Jesus began his ministry in Galilee with this proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Do you sense a theme here? In each one of today’s readings I was struck by a sense of urgency, almost a sense of danger, and certainly a feeling that the writer was keenly aware that the world around him was rapidly changing, and almost certainly changing in ways that would not please God.
Perhaps that feeling is familiar to you as well. Do you ever feel as if our world is changing rapidly into a world that you don’t want to recognize? Our federal government is in partial shutdown because our lawmakers seem to talk past one another rather than with one another, our president describes Haiti and African countries using a hateful and degrading word that I would never repeat from the pulpit, white supremacists are emboldened to speak and march, spreading their messages of intolerance and hate, the seas are rising, hurricanes and floods are getting stronger, the rich are getting richer and the poor are growing poorer. Do you worry that we are moving in the wrong direction? And as all of this chaos swirls around us, fewer and fewer people are coming to church on Sundays; the majority of our neighbors think that the messages that we teach here are at best, irrelevant, or at worst, hateful and judgmental. How can we ask them to believe Jesus when he says: “The kingdom of God has come near, believe in the good news”? Does the world you see on the evening news look like the kingdom of God? How often do you hear the good news of the Gospel outside the walls of this Cathedral? If those of us who call ourselves Christians have a hard time finding God in today’s world, how can we expect the unchurched to find God? I come here on Sundays because at church I find comfort, hope, inspiration and friendship. I come here because I know that I will leave better equipped to confront the challenges that the world will throw at me, and, if I am fortunate, I might even be able to improve the world in some small way. How can I help my neighbor to discover for herself the strength and inspiration that I find through my relationship with God if she doesn’t even have a clue that God is already at work in her life and in our world?
I’d like to suggest that we try something that might at first sound counterintuitive. I propose that instead of trying to explain that we try to listen. Instead of being so quick to share our thoughts about how God has changed our lives and how God wants us to change the world around us that we first listen to our neighbors. Listening can be much more difficult than explaining, especially if our conversations are concerning issues that are important to us. Our country has become so polarized and our sources of information so one-sided that many of us are able to get through our days with little to no contact with people who might hold opinions that are different from our own opinions. As a culture, we have lost the ability and the social skills needed to respectfully carry on a conversation with people who might hold differing views, and the first skill that we lost was the ability to listen without feeling threatened or attacked. Earlier this week I was listening to news on the radio while I drove. The newscaster was interviewing a politician from the political party that I have historically been less inclined to support. As I listened to this politician I realized that my hands were gripping the steering wheel more tightly, my heart was pounding, and my breathing had sped up. When did we reach the point where just listening to a different opinion activated our primitive “fight or flight” reflexes? We need to learn to listen to people who we fear might not think as we do. We need to allow them to tell us about their lives; allow them to tell us about their struggles and their joys, their worries and their dreams. We need to keep quiet long enough to learn who they are, what motivates them, and what kinds of worries keep them awake at night. When we take the time to listen we will discover that most of us do have very similar concerns, and that most people are doing the best that they can to make sense out of their lives and the world with the tools and information that is available to them. Most of us want the same things: we want our homes to be safe, we want jobs that are secure, and we want our children and the earth to thrive and to remain healthy. Once we have listened to one another long enough to realize this then we will be well on our way to healing the divide that now separates us.
We worry that the world is careening off towards disaster, our country is becoming irreparably divided, and our churches are growing emptier every year—how is God asking us to respond to these problems? I certainly don’t have any easy answers, but I do believe that we can begin to address them by first asking ourselves these questions: what will my life in 2018 look like if I live it oriented around the teachings of Jesus? What needs to change? How can I listen to and love my neighbor better in the coming year? And how can I live my life in such a way that my neighbors who don’t yet know Jesus will come to understand him by knowing me?
Jonah, not handicapped at all by the seaweed and the smell of whale, preached only one sentence and a city of over 120,000 people immediately turned from their evil ways. I am afraid that that kind of success only happens in folk tales and Bible stories. We live in tumultuous and uncertain times and we have much work, much listening, ahead of us if we hope to help God heal our fractured world. But we are not in this alone; we have each other and we have Jesus. “Follow me” he said, “and believe in the good news.”