Third Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 25 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jonah 3:1-5,10; Ps 62:6-14; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20

So, I talked last week about the standard form of the call stories in the gospels, and here we see it in its prototype, the first call narrative in the earliest gospel. It is very much part of Mark’s prevailing atmosphere of crisis—the decisive moment is now, is here, and we must respond when the signal comes. I was reminded, thinking about this passage, of the story of the beginning of the nonviolent uprising which overthrew the dictatorship in Portugal, how people throughout the country had passed from house to house the news that when one particular banned song began to play on the radio, it would be the time. And very early one morning, the first chords of that song came onto the airwaves, and the people heard it, and stood up and went out into the streets, and everything changed.

So it can be like that, when a call comes, or it can be, as we talked about last week, something more tentative, something which takes longer to mature. But I’m not going to repeat too much of what I said last week; instead, I’d like to focus on a very interesting word from the Gospel reading, and a partially parallel word from Jonah, and what these two readings have, as it were, to say to each other.

“Repent,” says Jesus—almost the first word from his mouth in Mark’s gospel. But it’s not at all clear the English word does capture the meaning of the Greek (which, of course, Jesus would also not have spoken, he would have spoken Aramaic, but that’s whole other issue). The Greek word is metanoiete, and while the English “repent” has strong overtones of acknowledgement of sin, penitence, sorrow for our wrongdoing, there is none of that in metanoiete. It means, simply, “change your mind,” or perhaps even more literally, “turn your mind around.” Transform. Make it new. Think a new thought, a different thought, think your way into the new reality of the kingdom which is now within our grasp.

It’s hard, thinking a new thought. It’s hard when you have settled into patterns which are reasonably comfortable, reasonably functional, which work out for you well enough. When you’re getting along okay in the fishing boat, making it day by day, and you don’t want to risk that perhaps hard-won safety. And it’s hard too, perhaps even harder, when you’re locked into patterns of pain and abuse and failure, when that’s all you’ve ever known, when there’s hardly anything on which to build a vision of a newer and better life. But this strange compelling figure on the seashore tells you that it is possible, and not only possible but necessary. You can change your mind. You must change your mind. And in changing your mind, you will begin to change the world.

The change does not erase the world. It doesn’t erase the actual fishing nets and boats and fish scales and fish guts and all the physical reality, and although the disciples leave their boats at this moment, the last episode of John’s gospel will show them, once again, fishing. And the risen Jesus is suddenly there again on the shore, and he’s making breakfast for them. He’s scaling and gutting and frying up fish for his friends, in an absolutely transfigured resurrection moment. It is the same world. It is utterly different.

The English word “repent” shows up some translations of Jonah, too, where it’s used to translating the Hebrew word way-yin-na-hem, applied in this text to God. Our translation today, interestingly, gives it as “changed his mind,” as if it were the word metanoiete, but it isn’t. Still, let’s treat them as, at least, somehow connected, and see where we can get with that, in thinking about what God is doing here, what it means that we must do.

Now, before we do this, we need to look further into the story of Jonah. Jonah is one of my favourite books, and far and away the funniest book, in the whole Bible, but today’s selection unfortunately leaves out all the best bits, some of which are really quite important to explain. Jonah has been called—as the disciples are called—and he is specifically called to go and preach to Nineveh, the evil empire of his day. And he just doesn’t want to. He goes to great lengths to try to avoid doing it, and God goes to equally great lengths to get him, including that famous incident involving a very large fish. So Jonah ends up, eventually, in Nineveh, where I imagine him plodding dismally around the city doing the bare minimum of prophesying, to which, astonishingly, all the people of Nineveh actually respond, fasting and putting on sackcloth and renouncing their evil ways. And, says our translation, God “changed his mind” — way-yin-na-hem — and did not destroy Nineveh after all.

It is problematic, to say the least, to imagine a God who had a firm intention to destroy a whole city out of irritation, but changed his plans because the people wailed and apologized and condemned themselves sufficiently. But the Hebrew word is a really interesting one. The root from which it comes is actually a word meaning “comfort” or “console” — it is used to speak of someone recovering from a great personal loss, for instance, finding comfort after the death of a loved one, moving on from mourning. So perhaps, what we see here, refracted through the imagination of a writer, is not so much a God who will smite you if you’re naughty, but may relent if you grovel for long enough, as a God who grieves for the pain which humankind brings upon itself, the harm which we do each other, a God who mourns for us and longs for our restoration, and whose response to our return is a sort of comfort, a recognition of the return to wholeness, the response of the father when the prodigal son comes home. This my child, who was dead, is now returned.

Does the sentence suggest a change in the actual nature or mind of God? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the author of Jonah really thinks so either. Because what happens next, and where the book really becomes quite wonderful, is that Jonah has an absolute tantrum at God. He has come to see some smiting, and now he’s been deprived of his smiting, and he’s seriously pissed off. And he says to God, in almost these exact words, “I knew you were going to do that! You’re always showing mercy! What is with all this freaking mercy?” And after a bit of back and forth involving a gourd, he decides he’ll just lie down and die, because that’ll really show God a thing or two. So finally God comes down and has a word with his crankiest prophet, and the God who speaks is that infinitely faithful God who grieves for all the lost, the God who is always a God of unchanging mercy, even when that’s not what we, in our crooked little hearts, are wanting or expecting. “Should I not care about Nineveh?” asks God. “Should I not care about all these people, confused as they are? I am the God who stretched out the heavens, should I not care about this city too, and all its people—and also many animals?” And that’s the final word, a grace note on God’s part, the animals of Nineveh, those helpless bystanders in the human drama, brought into love’s concern.

The book ends there, and there is no recorded metanoia, no change of mind or heart, on Jonah’s part. Nineveh has changed, but it’s not clear if the prophet himself has been changed by this. We may imagine him learning something, perhaps even some concern for the people and animals, or we may imagine him going on whining and stamping his feet at God. But we can hope, at least, that Jonah too may learn to think a new thought, to turn his mind towards a world transformed. It is hard. It is hard, when you are locked into a world where the Ninevites are the necessary other, the dangerous, the bad ones by whom your own goodness is known, to see them as people, confused and fallible, and part of a greater creation; to see those animals too as a part of the story, cherished by God and not meant to be the collateral damage of human games. It is hard to turn, to return, to the infinitely welcoming love which is always longing to bring us home, to make us breakfast, to invite us to change our minds, our selves, our world.

For the present form of the world is passing away, is always passing away, is fragile and broken and mortal, and we must both love it deeply and hold it lightly—we must be able both to walk away from the fishing boats, and to find God among the fish guts on the shore, to leave our own land and travel to Nineveh and find a way to care about the Ninevites too, without expecting them to be perfect, without expecting them to solve the problems we carry with us. Always able to turn our minds around. Always able to know that we may have been wrong, or that something new may be coming, that another world is possible. Metanoiete. Here, now, always.