We’re allowed

Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2021 – Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Ordinarily, our Collect of the Day appears up front in the weekly Eucharistic liturgy. These days, since we’re worshipping with a service of Morning Prayer via Zoom, it comes later, after the Lord’s Prayer and suffrages. In this case preaching on it is a preview rather than a review.

When you hear it, it will go like this, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ…”

Readily. That’s the tough part! Willingly, without hesitation or delay. It’s one thing to be tasked with answering God’s call to proclaim the Gospel. It’s another thing to do it readily.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I can go for days, weeks, or even months without doing anything readily. I hardly ever even get out of bed readily. Being a millennial and prolific texter, I don’t often make phone calls readily. And I’m not too keen on vacuuming or cooking dinner readily.

Turning on the TV, on the other hand? At the drop of a hat! “Doom scrolling” through Twitter? Anytime, anywhere. Using four-letter words also comes all too naturally for me, especially if you switch on any cable news channel. (I may be a priest, but I’m only human!)

But as our Collect makes clear, if there is anything that we should do readily, it is to proclaim the Gospel. But that takes effort, and in late January of our “long, dark winter,” effort doesn’t exactly seem to be coming naturally.

All too often, when it comes to something I have to do, or am supposed to do . . . well, I’m not always eager. But I try not to beat myself up about it too much. It happens to the best of us, right?

*****

I know from my childhood a sainted old United Methodist pastor. Salt of the earth. Humble. Always there. Always willing. For decades after he left the congregation you could hear people say, “Well, do you think we should call Hubert and ask him to do the funeral?”

And ninety percent of the time, the answer was yes. Still is, in fact. How on earth could one person readily answer so many calls? How could he have time to do all those funerals? I’m not talking spare time. I’m talking time. Period.

Oh, and when he preached! I suppose over the course of his career Hubert could have been one of those preachers that other preachers got jealous of. My grandmother used to laugh and say that every time Hubert left a congregation, a quarter of them went with him.

Yes, I suppose he could have been one of those preachers, except that he is Hubert. I know my grandmother was exaggerating and that Hubert would never want that at all.

The truth is, it’s hard to utter a bad word against Hubert because Hubert is the very definition of one who readily answers “the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim[s] to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

But, this morning I am rather pleased to tell you that I have his number. You see, I know his secret. 

One Sunday morning—I must have been about eleven or twelve—we were lining up for the processional. The choir crowded around the sanctuary door to sing their introit. I, a lowly acolyte, stood behind them, shoved halfway in the coat closet but ready, if necessary, to wield my candle-snuffer in order to pass through. 

Standing next to me was my mother—she was at that time the acolyte coordinator—poised to light my taper before I began to walk in. Next to her was Hubert.

Now, if you ever happen to be standing silently nearby my mother, beware. Don’t be afraid, but beware. Beware because her calm and unpretentious nature makes her a very appealing confessor for whatever happens to be at the top of your mind.

So it was with Hubert. He turned slightly toward her and in a low voice admitted, “You know, I’m really just not in the mood for this today.”  

Mom returned a look of genuine sympathy. “I suppose that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’d say you’re allowed.”

I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we’re just not up to readily answering any call, let alone God’s. Even those who are for us conduits of God’s grace have a little difficulty doing so 100% of the time. I bet you do, too. Maybe it’s a lack of motivation, or maybe sometimes we’re just plain tired.

Whatever the reason, I’d say we’re allowed.

*****

Our readings this morning further assure us that, if we do not answer all calls readily, we are in good company.

Look at Jonah. This morning’s reading mentions that the word of the Lord came to him “a second time.” That’s because when it came the first time, Jonah ran from it.

“Go at once to Nineveh,” God says in chapter one, but Jonah instead catches a boat going in the opposite direction. As a result, he ends up spending three days in the belly of a giant fish before it finally regurgitates him onto the shore.

It’s no surprise then that Jonah is far more willing to answer God’s call the second time around. Not only does he go to Nineveh to deliver God’s message of repentance, but he’s a success! The people listen to him, turn from their evil ways, and enter into a period of fasting by command of their King.

God’s anger toward them abates.

Even still, Jonah is not willing to accept God’s response of mercy toward the Ninevites. Even though he admits that he knows God to be “gracious . . . and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” he is furious when God forgives them.

He’s dramatic, too! “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In other words, “This just makes me want to die!”

Is it because the Ninevites are his enemies, symbols of his imperial oppressors? Or maybe he is ashamed to have been a part of their redemption? Or embarrassed that he didn’t anticipate God’s mercy? We’ll never know.

But we do know that even though Jonah runs away, questions God’s mercy, and appeals to God with a death wish, God does not respond with punishment or wrathful vengeance. Instead, when Jonah goes to pout in the desert, God sends agents of persuasion: a bush to grant him shade and a worm to take it away, so that he feels the sweltering heat.

“Is it right for you to be angry just because I took a little bush away from you?” asks God.

“Of course!” replies Jonah.  

Well, I’d say he’s allowed . . . as long as he considers how God must feel about those poor souls of Nineveh.

*****

Like Jonah, there will be times when we run from God’s call. And when we finally do answer it, we may grow frustrated or angry with the result. It is a bitter taste, isn’t it, the knowledge that those whom we would condemn God sees fit to save?

And, like Hubert, there will be times when we are a little unmotivated or just plain tired. Some of us might be distracted. Others of us might well be afraid.

If you’re ever tempted to beat yourself up about it, don’t. The truth is, you’re allowed. We all are.

But even though we’re allowed, we’re not off the hook. Our lack of motivation, our weariness, our anger, our ignorance—they are not excuses. They are merely realities. It’s helpful to be honest about them, and that’s exactly what we do in today’s Collect.

We pray for the help of God’s grace in assisting us in answering God’s call because we know good and darn well that we need it. We can’t do it alone. And we know that no matter how unmotivated or tired or frustrated or angry or confused we are, God will be good to us. God is always good to us. One might even say God is, “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

One of the ways that we know God is all of those things is because God continually, freely, and abundantly gives us grace—no matter what.

And do you know why? Because in God’s eyes, we’re allowed. 

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