January 22, 2012
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2012
The Rev. Bradford Ayers Rundlett
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1st Corinthians 7:29-31
I grew up in the deep South (or as they say “I growed up in da South”), that unique and quirky part of this country called “the Bible Belt,” where Baptists and Roman Catholics both told me if I wasn’t one of them I was doomed to eternal torment. We “episcopals” (which is what some folks down yonder call us cause “Episcopalians” has too many syllables even for a Southerner) were few and far between, we were known to partake of demon alcohol and to question the Bible - a lethal combination. On their side the Baptists could quote chapter and verse at the drop of a hat, and the Roman Catholics had an infallible leader. All we had was The Book of Common Prayer (and the world “common” has a whole different meaning in the South). Though they might disagree vehemently, my friends on both sides knew the truth and we Episcopalians didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of being saved. So I was reminded most every day of my life. I did give my life to Jesus once in a Methodist Church – everyone else did and I didn’t want to be the only one sitting in the pew – no one thought that was good enough, even my Methodist friends who said if my heart wasn’t in it, it didn’t count. I thought they should’ve told me that before I went to the Altar. I guess they thought everyone with a lick of sense knew that.
In all fairness, all Southern Baptists and all Roman Catholics are not so rigidly judgmental and dogmatic. And together they gave me a gift; I wanted to know a lot more about the faith I was born into, the faith that insisted on God’s love and grace. If we were right and they were wrong, or the other way around, I wanted to know. And the one thing we Episcopalians could do that they couldn’t, was ask questions. So I did, and still do.
According to the ancient books that were collected and deemed sacred, our ancient Middle-Eastern forebears believed that God, Yahweh, knew their every thought, word, and deed, and judged them accordingly. No one could pass that test. And yet, in the story we have this morning from the Book of the Prophet Jonah, God judged an entire city full of sinners to be righteous – not because they actually obeyed the Ten Commandments and lived by the Golden Rule, but because they recognized their failure, and with genuine remorse cast their fate on Divine mercy. As stated in the ancient text, “Because the people of Nineveh acknowledged their sin and turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind and did not bring calamity down upon them.”
Is this twenty-six hundred year old story true? Is that how it will go down in the end? Is a last minute confession as good as a lifetime of faithfulness? Is it our sincere remorse and desire to be better that saves us? Is it undeserved mercy, God’s generosity? Or is it both?
Paul, who lived about nineteen hundred and fifty years ago, was certain that Jesus would return at any moment, and therefore declared that standard operating procedures were no longer necessary or even applicable. There’s no time to shower and shave; no need to start making dinner. It will all be over quite soon, and if you aren’t already a true believer, it’s just too late. Paul was not impressed with last minute confessions, nor our pitiful pleas for mercy. When the Son of God comes to judge the living and the dead, Paul believed some people would be escorted to Paradise, and a whole lot of other people will be left out, consigned to perpetual darkness. The key is faith, and if you don’t have it, you’ll be locked out of Heaven forever.
Is that the way it will be? The people who believe Jesus is The Messiah, The Christ, will waltz through the pearly gates, while those who called him a charlatan and false messiah will be doomed for eternity? What about people who are open to believing, who even want to believe, but have some honest doubts? What about the millions of good people who haven’t heard the Good News, and the millions more who “in good faith” believe something else? And what about all the moral people who grow up in cultures that embrace a different faith and view Christianity is a false religion?
Mark, who wrote a Gospel about nineteen hundred and thirty years ago, also believed the time was growing short, “The End” was days away at most. And if folks aren’t willing to drop everything and follow Jesus to the cross, even his sacrifice on Good Friday won’t save them. In his version of the Good News, our love of God and faith in Jesus have to be so all consuming that jobs, homes, money, even family, must count as nothing. If you’re not willing to walk away from your home, your family, and your livelihood, and follow Jesus, you simply don’t have what it takes. And if you back down when the going gets tough, you lose.
Is that what it takes to secure a seat on the train to Gloryland? We have to abandon everything and everyone?
Honestly, our sacred writings present different scenarios and requirements for salvation. When it comes to who’s in and who’s out, we can read just about anything we want into the Bible. If we could eavesdrop on Churches across America this morning we’d hear it all – from only those who give themselves to Jesus with all their heart and mind and soul - and who tithe, and who attend a certain Church – are going to be saved, to Jesus died once and for all and his death is not in vain even for the worst scoundrel who ever lived; everyone is saved. And of course there’s every theological blend in between as well. Pick the book; pick the chapter and verse you want. And stake your eternal fate on it. It’s religious roulette.
But beware. When we look at all sixty-six books in the Bible, not including the Apocrypha, when we study the sacred texts in their original context (as we should if we really want to understand what’s in them) the overarching picture is judging what The Almighty is going to do with someone else is not a good idea. And the only people Jesus warned might end up on the garbage heap of Hinon, were small-minded religious men who presumed they could judge who is welcome in the Temple, the house of God, and who is not. That kind of certainty is arrogance. It’s the one thing sure to get us into trouble. If anything will get Heaven’s doors slammed in our faces, that will.
We cannot afford to be so presumptuous. We are, after all, finite creatures trying to understand infinite mysteries. The prophet Isaiah warned "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than our ways and [God’s] thoughts than our thoughts.” [55:9]. Perfect understanding of God is beyond us. As a wise Priest one said to me “Some things remain a mystery until we get to the other side and see God face to face.”
Thus when Job questioned God, God responded quite tersely "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you understand. Who determined its measurement? Who prescribed the bounds of the oceans and seas? Who created day and night? Who makes the wind to blow, the rain to fall, the lightening to flash? Who gives wisdom and understanding? Is it you? Tell me, for you seem to know everything. [paraphrase of 38:4-36ff].
If there is even one requirement for entrance to the Kingdom of God, I think it must be humility. And it should not be the fear of being left out, but the greater possibility of being welcome in that determines how we live whatever time we have.
In this season of Epiphany we look for revelation of God in creation, in words that ring true declared by the Prophets, in the witness of the saints and martyrs, and in the love Jesus demonstrates for all humanity.
And we remember an ancient hymn perhaps three thousand years old [62:6-9] -
6 For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in God.
7 God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.
8 In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge.
9 Put your trust in God always, O people, pour out your hearts before God, for God is our refuge. God is our salvation.