The Call to Love Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2015 Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Approximately eight years ago, I received a call to become the priest-in-charge of The Episcopal Church of the Ascension. The story of that call is known by many of you here this morning. The abridged version goes something like this. I had been asked by several members of the church I served in Aiken, South Carolina, to apply to become their priest-in-charge. I decided to meet with Bishop Charles von Rosenberg to seek his advice. The Bishop advised me wisely, and I decided not to apply. But in the course of our conversation, the topic turned to Ascension, and looking at the Bishop I remarked, “Perhaps at some point I can help you there.” I had no idea where that response came from, and I was aware it was unsolicited and could sound arrogant. “Yes,” he said, and noted that he had recently been praying and had had that same thought while in prayer. He went on to say that he paid close attention to such experiences as well as the “co-incidence” of our exchange that morning. This, I believe, was the genesis of an on-going process that led me here. In hindsight, I can see that God had a plan and that it was unfolding – parenthetically before we knew anything about what that plan would entail. Just as a plan for Ascension’s next spiritual leader is unfolding now.
II. But there is a back-story that I would like to share with you, and it involves Jonah. Several years prior to coming to Ascension, I accepted God’s call to another parish in this diocese. I was excited at the opportunity to serve as the church’s rector and to work with them toward the new programs and growth that they envisioned. This church had many wonderful qualities ~ a beautifully renovated sanctuary, a strong music program, and lay leadership with deep roots in the church and in the community. But over time, as we attempted to introduce modest changes in liturgy and consider programs to meet the needs of new members, it became clear that another of the church’s qualities was a deep reluctance to make the changes necessary to support the growth that had been envisioned. I should note that this is not at all unusual – the Episcopal website is filled with church profiles that emphasize a parish’s hopes and intentions to grow; but when it becomes clear that church growth, and even more importantly, maintaining church growth, involves change, ambivalence typically arises.
As their rector, I begin to become frustrated and downhearted. I must admit my love for the people of the parish began to suffer. One weekend my spiritual director, Sr. Rosina, whom many of you have met, came to lead a retreat and to preach. She stayed in our home, and she and I had many conversations over that weekend. The lectionary readings included today’s passage from Jonah. You remember that the full account of Jonah’s story opens with God commanding Jonah to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Jonah found this order unbearable and did just the opposite of what he was told. He went to the seaport of Joppa and boarded a ship heading directly away from Nineveh. God caused a great storm that threatened to swallow the ship; Jonah understood what was happening and told the crew to throw him overboard. The sailors finally tossed Jonah into the sea, and the waters grew calm. Instead of drowning, however, Jonah was swallowed by a great whale, which God provided. In the belly of the fish, Jonah repented and cried out to God. When the whale threw Jonah up on the land, Jonah obeyed God and went to Nineveh.
I reflected with Sr. Rosina on the theological meaning of this passage, emphasizing Jonah’s disobedience to God. Then, Sr. Rosina asserted her interpretation that Jonah’s shortcoming was that he didn’t love the people of Nineveh. He carried the Jewish antagonism toward the Assyrians who had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel and taken most of its inhabitants into exile. Jonah did not want to see Nineveh, their capital city, preserved. As far as Jonah was concerned, the destruction of the city and all within it would have been well deserved. He had no desire to participate in their redemption. Imagine, then his dismay, when a lackluster, two sentence, poorly crafted sermon resulted in the entire city’s repentance, with even the animals moving about in sack cloth and ashes. Again Jonah questioned God, because Jonah was angry that Israel's enemies had been spared. God was doing two things in the story of Jonah, Sr. Rosina asserted: saving a city of thousands of people and teaching Jonah how to love others in the way that God loved them, even “different others.” God was teaching Jonah “chesed” -- the Hebrew word for God’s deep love, which is used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
As I reflected upon Sr. Rosina’s teaching, I realized that I, too, had a lesson to learn. God had called me to that church to love God’s people there. Everything else was secondary. Without love, I was not equipped to minister to them as they struggled with their different visions of what their parish was to become. I had to learn that the outcome of my ministry in that parish was in God’s hands; my responsibility was to stay focused upon loving God’s people. I can now see that God was not going to call me to any other parish until I had personally struggled with and learned in a new way the lesson of unconditional love for God’s people. It was only after I had spent considerable time learning this lesson that the opportunity to come here, to Ascension, unfolded.
III. God is so good. As I came to know the people of Ascension, I have reflected often on this lesson. God created us with both the need for unconditional love and the capacity to love unconditionally. We, God’s people, experience that God loves us, but to heal and thrive as a community of believers, we need to experience our clergy’s love and our love for one another. God was preparing me to minister with you by teaching me more deeply and fully the meaning of “chesed” – God’s love. I had to learn that disagreement and differences among Christian sisters and brothers should not lead to the lessening of our love for one another. This lesson is one that God invites us to re-learn again and again.
Did you know that The Book of Jonah is always read on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because of its emphasis upon repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and “chesed” – God’s love? So today Jonah comes up again for me and for you. As I prepared this sermon, I asked God what Jonah has to teach all of us this morning. I believe the lessons are multiple. First, that I need to affirm to you that I have a great deal of love for you. It’s not really that I’m such a naturally loving guy – you can check that out with Peg! It is because you are a lovable people who are committed to one another and to your spiritual growth and ministry in deep ways. Thanks a lot – that also makes you a hard community to leave! Secondly, Jonah also has something to teach us today about loving one another. Each one of us here has different gifts and sometimes different opinions. Like a family, we are called upon to love one another in spite of these differences and as we change over time. And just like a family, our tension fault lines begin to show up when we experience transitions and major change. So please bear with each another through our upcoming conversations and changes. Seek to know others who may have perspectives different from your own, be slow to react, and be open to how God uses all of us to reach unity, constancy, and peace.
IV. Conclusion. My prayer for you is that as a community of believers, you will continue to reflect the open, loved-filled parish that I have known this past eight years – that you will continue to see one another through the eyes of Christ and actively love one another as Christ loves us. Amen.