Not So Long Ago and Not So Far Away

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Jonah 1:1-5, 10

I Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

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         Last weekend I went to the movies.  I saw the eighth and latest episode of the “Star Wars” saga, entitled “The Last Jedi”.  I am a fan of the story, so I was predisposed to like it, and I did.  There were some familiar faces, and some new ones.  Of course there will be a sequel.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t give away any spoilers when I say that the plot continues.  The scrappy ragtag remnants of the republic are up against the relentless and seemingly overwhelming forces of what is now known as the First Order and its Supreme Leader. After incredible challenges and great losses, at least some members of the republic escape to continue the story.  While the plot does thicken, it essentially remains the same.

This time, though, I was struck by two things.  They may not be new to the story, but at least they stood out for me in a new way.  One was that the remnants of the republic were mostly referred to as “the resistance”, by themselves and even by the First Order.  Now those who resist are those who refuse to accept or comply with something, or who attempt to prevent something by action or argument.  Resistance can be violent, but it does not have to be.  In “The Last Jedi”, this time, even in the midst of all the whiz-bang, characters were told that blowing things up was not always the best way to accomplish the goal.  Indeed, retreat could be the best and most viable option in order to resist another day.  The second thing I noticed was that while of course the First Order was out to “crush the resistance”, this time the reason they gave to do that was so that any hope, any hope, for continued resistance against the First Order would be crushed as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope in the last year or so.  For many of us, if our hope is not crushed, it is a little tattered around the edges.  Many of us have faced or are facing personal challenges in terms of health or finances, loss of a loved one or personal calamity.  Added to that is the fact that the world is a much more uncertain place than it was a year ago.  There are many decisions being made in government that seem to make no sense to many of us, no matter what our personal politics:  decisions that will poison the air, earth, and water for generations to come; the escalation of the rhetoric of racism, misogyny, and division; the increased pandering to the very wealthy and to corporate interests;  the dismantling of social safety nets and government agencies that promote the public wellbeing; and the flirtation with increasing militarization in national and international policy and with a cavalier attitude toward nuclear war.  It is hard to know even where to begin to resist these decisions, when it seems that every week there is some statement, action, or scandal that derails any forward movement.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus begins his ministry in a challenging time.  There is resistance to the Roman occupation of the country and to the puppet king.  Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist has been arrested for his preaching of repentance, and his preaching of the coming of the one who is powerful and will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus calls his first disciples to his ministry with the good news that the time is now, the realm of God has come near. They can believe in the hope of a new life and turn to God.  In this case he calls fishermen in the midst of their daily life to follow him, to use their fishing skills to bring others the good news of the realm of God.  And immediately they believe the hope of the good news and follow him.

Now we, as followers of Jesus in our time, are in a little different situation.  Jesus preached the realm of God as near, so near that people could believe in its reality in their own lives, and invite others to join them to live that reality.  The early church, especially after the resurrection, believed as Paul did in his letter to the church at Corinth.   The realm of God was so near that people should live as though the dominant social, economic, and cultural forms no longer operated in this new life. With us, we are more than two thousand years down the road.  While we realize that the realm of God is both present and coming in our lives, we live in the midst of a changing, wonderful, and sometimes scary culture. It often promotes a reality that is in direct opposition to the ministry of Jesus and to the reality of life with God in Christ.  So how do we as contemporary followers of Jesus keep our hope, keep our belief alive in this challenging time?  And just as important, how do we share our hope and our belief with others who may still feel like the least, the last, and the lost, and could use a little hope?

The Psalmist suggests we remember that the basis for our hope is our trust in God.  God alone is our rock, our salvation, and our stronghold, so that we will not be shaken from our hope.  We can pour out our hearts to God about our concerns and fears, and God will be our refuge.  Other forms of seeming power are delusion, vain hopes.  They will let us down.  God alone has the power we need and God alone is worthy of our love and devotion.

With this as a starting point, with God’s presence and realm not just coming but present in our lives, we might expect that God might do some things we do not see coming, especially where there is opposition to the reality of our life with God.  Our reading from Jonah describes one of these unexpected actions.

This is the second time that Jonah is sent to Ninevah.  The first time he refused to go, and ended up in the belly of a whale.  Apparently this experience at sea changed his thinking, because this second time he does go to Ninevah and he does preach the message that God gives him:  Ninevah will be overthrown in forty days.  Now the interesting thing is that the word translated here as “overthrown” can also be translated to indicate a turnover or a change of heart.  Sure enough, Ninevah, notorious for its wickedness, repents.  They really repent, with fasting and sackcloth, and they turn from their evil ways.  And in the face of their sincerity, God changes God’s mind, and does not bring calamity to them.

Jonah went to Ninevah, finally, because he was a prophet and that is what prophets do when they accept the call.  It was Jonah’s everyday life that God worked with to change a whole city for the better.  Sometimes it is just doing what we do normally that can foster hope.

I saw another movie last weekend, “The Post”.  This is the story of the discovery and publication of the Pentagon Papers.  This publication was instrumental in ending the Viet Nam police action.  I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that this publication was brought about by a small group of people.  And they did not wake up and intend to start a process of change on a national level.  They were living their everyday lives and doing their everyday jobs.  Then something showed up that they just could not ignore in terms of the damage that was being done to individuals and the nation by the  government process around Viet Nam revealed by the Papers.  So at great risk to themselves and their everyday lives they decided to make known what they had discovered, even though that knowledge was forbidden to the general public.  When that knowledge was made public, the things that had seemed so hopeless for so long around what was going on in Viet Nam began to change.  The police action ended, and there was some measure of hope that now the truth was out, things would be different.

For us, we may not be in everyday positions to bring an evil city to repentance, or to reveal a nation-changing truth.  But there may be for us some things we may think need changing, or may even need resistance.  How do we find our hope, sustain our hope, in the midst of our personal and communal challenges?  How do we respond to Jesus’ ongoing call to believe the good news of the reality of God’s realm, and to share that good news with others?  We already know that it will not be easy, after this last year.  It was not easy for Jesus and the first disciples, either.  Mark is called the “Gospel of Conflict” for a reason, and Jesus and the disciples did not just have conflicts with the religious and political authorities – they had conflicts with each other.  Jonah was a reluctant prophet at best, and after he had served to help bring about God’s work of conversion and mercy, he was angry.  He thought Ninevah deserved to be overthrown in that sense of true overthrow.  He berated God for being too merciful to this foreign city that deserved to be punished.  Those who brought to light and those who published the Pentagon Papers risked the loss of long friendships and the threat of jail.  And while the Viet Nam police action was ended, the revelations and the process of ending the action almost tore the country apart. and still have repercussions today.  The facing of our personal challenges is often fraught with difficulty and pain, as well as resolution and reconciliation.

But we cannot let conflict, or the possibility of conflict, stop us from finding and sustaining hope.  In conflict also we can trust that God is at work to do a new thing, as God did at Ninevah, and with Jesus and the disciples and the early church, and as God is still doing, every day, in this world now.  We cannot stop because without hope, we die.  The First Order and the Supreme Leader are right.  Crush the resistance, crush hope, and then we do nothing.  We do not look for hope.  We do not take the steps we need to take to sustain our hope.  Without hope, we do not resist those things that oppress us in our minds, bodies, and relationships, and so our hope is crushed once again, in a vicious cycle.  The good news is that we can get better at finding our hope. We can get better in what we hope for. We can get better in what we put our trust to sustain our hope.  One of the new characters in “The Last Jedi” puts it this way:  It’s not about destroying what we hate; it’s about saving what we love.”

So what do we love enough to save?  And when we decide that, who else loves the same thing and wants to save it, and where do we find these folks?  And when we’ve found them, what can we do together to save what we love?  Because not being alone, because shared purpose and action, give us hope, and help us sustain our hope.

And the great thing is, we often don’t have to look very far, or in unusual places, to find our companions in hope.  They, like us, live their everyday lives and try to use their skills to save the things they love.  They may be right here at Marsh Chapel.  Look around, at a worship service or a book discussion or a dinner or a service event.  Or they could be in our neighborhoods.  They grow or buy organic vegetables to preserve earth, air, and water that is not poisoned.  They may serve those who could use a little hope and help through their work that is the same as ours, or they volunteer in places in which we too can volunteer.  They may advocate or organize publicly, to expand the voices and presence of those too often ignored or unjustly maligned.  They may produce a movie, documentary, website, or blog, that inspires us to hope and action.  They go where the life is, and we can go there too, or even lead the way.

What do we love and want to save?  What gives us hope, that hope we want to sustain?  It’s not just about what we do.  It’s also about who we are and who we want to become.  There are people we can join for that too.

Mark Miller is a worship leader, a composer and performer of sacred music, and a musical theologian.  He is on the faculty of two universities, is married, and is a father.  And in the wider culture, it is also clear that at least some of his ancestors were not from Norway.  As an aside, for any Norwegians with us, don’t worry, we know it’s not your fault.

Anyway, Mark Miller in his everyday life and in his music recognizes the challenges to hope that we face both personally and communally.  And he presents the perspective that who we are is just as important to the finding and sustaining of hope as what we do – in fact, they are so intertwined as to be inseparable.  His latest composition has become something of a touchstone for many of us:  we sing it to ourselves, we sing it to and with each other, we sing it with and for those who can relate and who also want to find and sustain their hope.  It reminds us that in our faith and trust in God, we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do as our own best selves.  We can save what we love. We can find our hope and sustain it.  The song  is called, “Prayer Chant (We Resist)”, and it goes like this.  (sings):

“We resist.  We refuse to let hatred in.  We rise up.  We won’t back down.

We’re in this ‘til the end.

Pray for your enemies.  Welcome the stranger.  Show love to your neighbor.

We’re in this ‘til the end.”[1]

         Where do we find our hope?  Not so long ago and not so far away.  But right here.  Right now.  “ … ‘til the end.”  Amen.

– The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell


[1] © Mark A. Miller 2017. http://www.markamillermusic.com/product/prayer-chant-we-resist/    Accessed January 29, 2018

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