Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fish Bellies Stink. An Advent Sermon.

Fish Counting Station
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Mark 1:1-8 and Jonah 1

Jonah is not a traditional Christmas story. But as I was away on vacation, I was reflecting on my remaining four weeks here at New Covenant, and the story of Jonah came to mind strongly. Advent is a time of waiting, and nobody waits quite like Jonah. We will come back to John the Baptist and waiting for the Christ child, but listen a moment to the beginning of the story of Jonah. We will be following him all the way through Christmas.

[Pause. If you do not know the Jonah story, go read Jonah 1. Chapter 1 begins with The Lord's assignment to Jonah and ends with Jonah rotting in a fish belly.]

Jonah was a prophet, but a half-hearted one at best. Called to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, he preferred to go to Tarshish. God said, “Go east.” And Jonah promptly headed west. He traveled some distance, paid for passage on a boat, settled into his bunk and went to sleep. He snoozed through raging storms, and it wasn’t until the sailors on the boat woke him up that he took notice of the damage he had done to others around him by not following his call from God.

The Lord said, “Go to the capital city of your bitter enemies, and cry out against it. Tell the people who utterly dominated your people that they have done great evil, for I have taken notice of their wickedness.” When reading Jonah, it is easy to shake our heads and say, “tsk, tsk,” as if our own habit is to follow God’s call into uncomfortable places. We say, “Oh that Jonah!” As if we had spent a lot of time this week challenging colonial forces, oppressive authorities, systems of racial and sexual discrimination. When is the last time you ran through town, pausing on street corners to shout out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Jonah is, at least, an understandable figure. Reluctant and recalcitrant in responding to God’s call and claim on his life, Jonah does what most of us with a lick of sense would do: he goes in the opposite direction from danger, discomfort, and dread.

Jonah runs off to Tarshish, a city perhaps known for trade. It’s at the other end of the world from Ninevah. It doesn’t have any Assyrians, or at least they aren’t the dominant culture. It’s far enough away to give Jonah good reasons not to go to Ninevah. There is probably plenty of good work to be done in Tarshish—good ministry work too, I bet! One can proclaim the word of the Lord in Tarshish just as well in Ninevah, right? If God is everywhere, then God can use us wherever we are—surely, this is so!

And yet, the trip to Tarshish went wrong from the moment Jonah stepped on the boat. The winds blew, the seas rose, the boat was tossed about terribly. Jonah, sleeping deeply in his bunk, failed to recognize that he had endangered the crew of the boat with his very presence. It wasn't long before the sailors recognized that it was Jonah who brought the curse of bad weather upon them. When he told them that he was fleeing from a call from God, they were terrified, and attempted to row back to land. But the storm would not allow them to land, and Jonah said, “Oh, just throw me into the sea!” Perhaps the seas might have calmed if Jonah had said, “Okay, God. I will go to Ninevah. I will heed your call.” But Jonah preferred to die rather than do what God asked. And to be fair, God was asking him to enter a lion’s den—to go to the capital city of his people’s hated enemies, and wander the streets telling them that the day of judgment was at hand. (The sermon on how we may well be the Ninevites and what reparations we owe is for another day, but not gone from my mind.) God was sending Jonah on a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that. Jonah preferred not to. Jonah preferred to drown in the sea rather than obey such a command. And so the sailors threw him overboard.

Instead of drowning (which might have been easier), God sent a giant fish to swallow him whole. Instead of losing his life, Jonah was cast into a waiting room of sorts: the belly of a fish. Our children’s stories romanticize this space! But the belly of a giant fish is no joke. I was watching a show with my son called River Monsters the other day on animal planet. It’s something like the Crocodile Hunter, only this guy wanders the world looking for giant freshwater fish. He had heard a legend of a giant Japanese salamander that swallows children whole. Naturally, he rented a boat and went looking for it. As he wandered about looking for this legendary creature, he filmed a larged salamander eating a fish. The salamander sucked the fish whole into its mouth. As the camera panned down the body of the salamander, one could see the fish banging on the sides of the salamander’s belly, trying to punch its way back out. There was no such luck, and the fish was slowly digested, suffocating in the lightless horror of a fish belly.

This is the place Jonah waited. At first he must have thought he was going to die—from drowning, from the stench of a fish belly, from starvation, perhaps from loneliness and despair. Knowing full well he had not fulfilled the Lord’s call on his life, Jonah sat in a disgusting and hopeless space, waiting to die.

I tell you this story because I think this church and my ministry joined together for some of the same reasons. I think God has been calling us east, and we have been walking west. This makes us tremendously companionable traveling partners, and I have loved pastoring here the last three years. I love our mutual stubbornness, and our willingness to care for one another along our journey. But I have suspected for some time now that this church is called in one direction and often goes in another, although I do not exactly know what that call looks like.

I am reminded of this story because I am the 15th pastor at this church in 50 years. That is a lot of pastors and has led to a culture of pastors passing through here rather than making a home. We come with our pretty ideas and newfangled plans. And then we move right on through to whatever is coming next. Folks here know that whatever new projector or computer or answering machine or copier we put in here, that’s not going to change anything. Some of you remember my wild plan to place converted shipping containers on our property to house homeless families. I probably should have waited another year before dropping that on the church council. But not to worry, wait three years and there will be a new pastor here. We wander west for a few years together until the storms rise. And then the pastor or the church jumps ship and ends up sitting in the belly of a fish. Waiting.

Next thing you know we’ll be spit up on dry land again, but not today, not quite yet. In this Advent season of waiting for the advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, the birth of a child, the inbreaking of God to our daily lives, we are waiting to see what’s next. Me too—I don’t have answers for January yet either. I am as uncomfortable with this situation as you are. Worry eats at me about the church and about my own life—it eats at me like the stomach acid of a giant fish. As is so often the case when I struggle with God, I am banging myself on the inside of the belly of the fish, trying to bust out before I die. I imagine anyone looking at my life or the life of this church can see the internal struggle from the outside.

I remember when I was pregnant with my children that as time went on and the due date loomed closer, their internal movements became more obvious to the outside. Oldest took his foot and pressed hard on my lower right rib for days at a time. I used to take my hand and push on my abdomen to try and force him off that rib. Such a tiny little creature, but he left a solid bruise on that rib. Little guy left my ribs alone, but he often had the hiccups. You could put your hand on my abdomen and feel the little pops every time he hiccuped. We are like that right now, this church and I. The internal struggles as we wait in the belly of a fish are evident in how we are perceived from the outside. People can see the outline of a foot trying to push out of the fish, an instinctual effort to survive, all the while we live in a certain fear of getting spit out on dry land. The outward signs of our internal struggle for identity and vision are obvious to those who drive by and see the state of our property, the lack of cars in the parking lot, the neglected landscape. 

And then, once we get spit out, what will we do next? Once January is here, how will I pay my rent? Once January is here, who will preach and care for this congregation? Easier, in so many ways, to stay here in the belly of the fish. There’s a fair amount of digestive enzymes, but we’re not drowning. And as long as we’re in the fish, we don’t have to go to Ninevah.

15 pastors in 50 years. We have been through many cycles of fish bellies. It is a cycle of binging and purging—the hope that a new pastor and their energy, coupled with the congregation’s renewed enthusiasm, might result in growth, stability, something fantastic. These hopes are not always our hopes at New Covenant, sometimes expectations come from others—the community, the Presbytery, other churches, a committee, a discernment group. Nevertheless, we have our own hopes for what might be here. But it’s been a challenge discerning a consistent vision for the ministry of this church. Conflicted and ambivalent we continue on to the next cycle. And now I am leaving, contributing to this cycle, and I have deep regrets about that. It feels right to me, but I think often on how I might have done things differently here. Perhaps you do too.

Advent is a time of waiting, and this Sunday the advent theme is Preparation. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, cries John the Baptist. We hear the beginning of the gospel of Mark—it is a clear call, but it isn’t an easy one. Make the paths straight. Be prepared. The one who baptizes with water AND spirit is coming—is your heart ready? Do you have oil in your lamp? Are your affairs in order? For the new baby do you have what you need to nurture it? Have we prepared ourselves and this church for the Spirit to take residence and transform our life together?

Prepare prepare prepare. It’s hard to think about preparing for new life, when we are threatened with death in the belly of a fish. It’s hard to think about new life when we are living in regret and nostalgia for the old. It’s hard to think about new beginnings when the path ahead is as scary as testifying on street corners to the Ninevites.

All of us here in this room work hard to contribute to the life of this church—our (yours and my) efforts and love and service to this church are not in question. But the one thing that we struggle with is identifying a clear mission and vision for the ministry of this church, and when asked to do that, most of us say, “I prefer not to.” We each of us have the things we are willing to do for the church, and when we are faced with unexpected, new, challenging, or not desirable work, we often say, “I prefer not to.” And I as pastor, often will say, “I prefer not to insist.” I prefer not to have people doing work they’d prefer not to. 

When I hear the phrase, "I prefer not to," I think of Bartleby the Scrivener. It is a short story written by Herman Melville in 1853 about a scrivener (or a law scribe/copier). The storyteller, a lawyer on Wall Street, tells of a strange man named Bartleby whom he hired to be a scrivener in his offices. At first, Bartleby is an industrious fellow, eager to work. But then something happens:
It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined
Prefer not to? Perhaps those were Jonah's words to God: "I prefer not to." Perhaps those are our words as we contemplate yet another attempt at revitalizing this church: "I prefer not to." Perhaps they are my words as I think about paying rent in January, or finding another call, or attending another parent-teacher conference, or washing another ding-dang dish: "I prefer not to." Maybe there is some merit to opting out of the grind, the rat-race, the rigid norms that hold us in place. But you do not know the ending of the story--Bartleby continued to prefer not to do anything, down to the end of the story when he died in prison because he preferred not to eat.

If we are to continue as a worshiping community, if I am to persist as a pastor in any capacity, we will have to take up the thing that scares us most: discerning a vision for ministry, and committing ourselves to do the uncomfortable.

To continue being a Presbyterian church we need to get elders to Presbytery meetings. To continue financially, we must contribute. To continue hosting churches that help support us, we must be in communication with them. To navigate Committee on Ministry and move ourselves toward calling a pastor again, we will need to communicate with them more regularly. To further a partnership that might revitalize us, we will have to initiate further conversations. To have potlucks where we might share table, we will have to commit to coming out in the dark on a weeknight—we might have to pick each other up and/or accept help in getting there. To get new people to come to church, we will have to ask them. We’d prefer not to, but in January we are getting spit out on dry land again with a choice to get back on a boat fleeing God, or to set off toward Ninevah and fulfill God’s call to this church.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord! This is a challenge for us—a tossing down of the gauntlet. Once again we are about to be spit out of the fish belly. Once again we are slapped in the face with a glove. Once again, an angel of the Lord meets us to wrestle long into the night. This advent we struggle more than we have in the past to birth this child. Yet the child comes anyway. The Christ child follows the path all children follow as they enter the world through a mother’s womb. Once labor begins, there is no stopping, no going back, no handing this child over to someone else to be born. In labor there is only a relentless pressure to move forward and birth.

Next week the theme is joy, and I will surely preach on that! But this week we think hard on preparations. And mostly on preparing our souls. Preparing our souls to accept God’s call on our life. There may be joy found in Ninevah, although Jonah is a contradictory model for sure. But for this week our task is preparation. Prayer. Waiting in the fish belly. Our call from Christ is not to this particular church or institution, but since we are here in this time and place, we might well ask how we are called to this time and place. How do we live out that call in our daily lives beyond the walls of this church, and how do we live it out here in this church so that others might be supported in their walk? As you care tenderly for your home preparing for Christmas, think on this church and how we might care tenderly for it in preparing for January. Change is coming and fast. John the Baptist’s call reminds us of that—the status quo ends with the birth of Christ. The fish will spit us out. The question remains: will we simply get back on the boat to drown in a fish belly again, or will we turn toward Ninevah and seek God’s will?

1 comment:

  1. Awesome sermon. I lot of really good things to chew on...no pun intended, seriously.

    How do we know where God wants us to be? How do we live out our call? How do we seek God's will? Three questions I thought I might have better answers to by now.

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