This sermon comes from agitations with my denomination. This week a new Presbyterian denomination was formed. Maybe you didn’t hear the news. Maybe you don’t care. 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have cared.
The split happened primarily in response to changes in our form of government and specifically because of language that will allow for the ordination of LGBT individuals. It’s not surprising. It was in many ways, inevitable. Several congregations in our own presbytery have already asked for and received dismissal from the denomination.
I approach this subject this morning with a lot of anger. As some of you know, I was not raised Presbyterian. I chose to be Presbyterian. I chose to learn our history and polity. I chose to go through our ordination process. I put my wife and myself through a lot of agony, a lot of will I or won’t I, to be here. There were some major adjustments to worship and liturgy that was not familiar to us. I am heavily invested now, whether I like it or not.
So I’m angry, because I feel judged by the words of those who are choosing to leave or contemplating leaving. They say that I don’t care about the Bible. They say that I don’t believe in Jesus. They say that I don’t care about evangelism or mission. Because they can’t come right out and say “we don’t like gay people” they, question the credibility of my faith. And that makes me angry.
But it also gives me pause….
There are parts of the critique of our denomination that I have to take to heart. Some of them are critiques that I myself have leveled against us. And though I am frustrated with the means, I do believe that, at least to some extent, we do share the same ends. I wouldn’t use the verbiage of “depopulating hell” that one of this week’s speakers used, I think at the heart of his message was a desire to see the reign of God proclaimed and made known through all of creation. I too want to see the church innovate in creation of new communities of faith. I too want to see the church diversify in ways that are more representative of what the world looks like (though I don’t believe there is a ‘right kind of diversity’). I too want to see the church live into the future in more meaningful ways than it currently is.
I can’t stay in my anger. I have to hear the voices of those who are leaving as voices that carry some modicum of truth that I must allow to shape me and my actions. That is how I choose to hear them and that is how I choose to engage the scriptures this morning.
Today’s scriptures are about course corrections. They are about divine course corrections. They are about God stepping in and calling us to be something other than what we are right now. And because of that, they are difficult scriptures to hear.
There is a risk when studying Jonah in getting caught up in the “big fish” discussion. Was it a whale? Was it a big fish? Like Jesus, we spend too much time preaching the person instead of preaching what they preached. What Jonah preached, though albeit somewhat poorly, was repentance. Repentance isn’t some complicated thing. The Greek word that we encounter in the New Testament metanoia literally means to change directions. What Jonah tells the people of Ninevah is that the path they are on is one that leads to destruction. Now we don’t know much about what Ninevah was like at the time of Jonah, but we can guess we know from the book of Nahum that they raised on at least several occasions an army that would attack the people of Judah. This explains Jonah’s animosity towards them. Jonah is calling them away from their violent ways and warning them that it will lead to a bad end.
Perhaps the voices of discontent from this week will call us away from destructive behaviors. Maybe we’ll listen and begin to put an end to the voices within the church that have injured people. Maybe we will take this as a cue for the church to reclaim its spot as a place of healing and wholeness, a place where people are mended and not wounded further. Maybe we need to hear a prophetic voice calling us away from anything in the church that even remotely resembles violence against another for any reason.
The passage from Mark reminds us that Jesus’ message was also one of repentance. Jesus was calling for a change of direction in those who would listen to his message. Unlike Jonah, though, Jesus was offering a new direction in and not simply a rejection of an old one. He wanted his followers to live their lives toward God and toward others in such a way that it attracted them to the Gospel.
Maybe this passage is part of the problem. We think of people as items to be won and trapped instead of beloved people that God wants to redeem and draw into community. Becoming fishers for people is not about baiting them into church. In fact, it is more about changing the vocations of the men involved than it is about techniques for bringing people into church. It’s a message to them that where once fish were your business, now people are your business.
As the church, people are our business. People’s lives are our business. People’s needs are our business. People’s fears and hopes are our business. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were having their lives and careers altered.
I hear so much from mainline churches that we want to stay away from attractional models of church that draw people in through entertainment and spectacle. I sometimes think that in response we’ve decided to make our churches as unattractive as possible as if to say if you’re here you’re going to be miserable like the rest of us as we deal with budgets, buildings, and bequests.
So maybe amidst all of the noise of this week we can hear the voice of the prophets calling us back to the mission of the first church. The mission to be about people. Certainly we follow Jesus, but following Christ always leads us to others. If we follow Christ as the disciples did, he will lead us to the blind, and the lepers, and the widows, and to children, and to the weak, and to the ostracized in all their many forms.
Being in the people business means that we are also in the people we don’t agree with business. The other thing that gives me considerable pause is that some folks that I really like and respect were in Orlando this week. Friends in this presbytery. Friends from my former presbytery in Pittsburgh. Friends. People I love and care about. People I can’t easily dismiss. People with whom I don’t want to sever ties.
Fishing for people sometimes means we’re struggling to hold on to slippery relationships that seem like they could easily get away from us. The very human tendency to sort ourselves into interest groups of like-minded people, to schism and splinter, has to be fought. To write people off because of differing viewpoints devalues them. It devalues us as well.
I choose to see what is happening in our denomination as an opportunity to make some much needed changes in the direction that the church is going. It is time to repent. It is time to repent of our prejudices and our biases. It is time to repent of our stubbornness and our hard heartedness. It is time to repent of the ways that we easily dismiss those with which we disagree. It is time that we repent of making the church about buildings and budgets instead of making it about people.