This is the message I presented on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 26 January 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Jonah 3: 1 -5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7: 29 – 31; and Mark 1: 14 – 20.
I am not a fisherman, at least when it comes to catching fish for dinner. I think in all the time that I have spent outdoors, I have gone fishing once. More to the point, I attempted to drown some worms on one occasion and I don’t think I did very well. So it is that I don’t have any fish stories to tell.
At first glance, it would seem that a fish story is needed because we are talking about Jonah, then Peter, Andrew, James and John. For Jonah, the whale that swallowed Jonah tells the fish story. Surely, this mammoth creature went around telling his buddies in the sea about the one that got away.
But the focus of the three readings for today is about time and I am reminded of a classic line from the first of the great surfing movies, “The Endless Summer.” This movie was made back around 1966 and it was about some guys from California who went looking for the best places in the world to surf. They started by checking the spots in California and Hawaii and other spots in the Northern Hemisphere between May and September, our summer time. Then they went into the Southern Hemisphere between September and May, the summer months “down under”; hence, the name of the film. And each time they came to a new spot to surf, they were meant by the same line, “Man, you should have been here yesterday.” The premise of this line is and was that the surfing was better yesterday.
That is how we see life a lot of times. What happened yesterday or in the past always seems to be better that what is happening today or what will happen tomorrow. It is almost like we do not want to go into the future, presuming that what we might have then can never be better that what we might have now or had yesterday.
This was something of the attitude the Corinthians had at the time that Paul wrote them. Paul’s words say to us even today that we should not be concerned with material things because they change and disappear. Life is fleeting enough as it is and when we concentrate on what we have now, we have little time left to do God’s work. Paul’s concern then was and our concern today should be for the future and the work of the Lord, not a focus on what we have now or in the past.
Against that we can contrast the actions of the people of Nineveh, who heard Jonah’s proclamation and took action to save their lives and their city. But the actions that they took were only superficial, designed for the moment and not for the future. If we look closely at how this passage was written, we see that the writer used a general term for the deity rather than a specific term for God. This may be a reflection of how the message was heard, a statement that the people of Nineveh only had a shallow understanding of God, fearing Him rather than trusting Him. The historical records show that there was never a lasting period of belief in Nineveh and the city was eventually destroyed in 612 BC.
And history tells us that the disciples, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, cared nothing for the present moment and that their beliefs and actions went beyond the immediate future. Each and every one of the disciples, when first called by Jesus left everything behind. The command of Jesus to become “fishers of men” was a call to change their own lives, not just for the now as inhabitants of Nineveh did, but rather permanently.
With the exception of John, we know that all of the disciples died violently and brutally. Of course, Judas Iscariot died by his own hand disillusioned that the message of the Gospel was not a call of action now. Peter went on to be the spiritual leader of the early church, dying in Rome as a martyr, crucified (as legend would have it) upside down. Andrew, Peter’s brother, took the Gospel message into the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia where he also died by crucifixion. James, the twin brother of John, died by decapitation on the order of Herod Agrippa just before Paul became the leading missionary. Only John is said to have escaped the scepter of violent death, instead dying quietly in exile as a prisoner of Rome in Ephesus.
So what does this all mean for us? What does it mean for this church? We have to be careful that we don’t make the issue of the church in the future our future, nor do we make our own future that of the church. But what we do, how we act will most certainly define the future, both for us individually and for this church.
The future for Putnam Valley is certainly promising. Over the next five years Putnam Valley by itself, not Putnam County, should grow by 7% as compared to a nationwide average of 4%. 86.3 % of the local households are likely to express a preference for some particular religious tradition or affiliation, a number above the national average of 85%. But, at the same time 39% of the households in this area have no faith involvement. This is, if you will, frightening because the nationwide average is 35%. The population of Putnam Valley is a boomer type population with incomes far greater than the national average ($101,000 to $61,200). This is an area where the thoughts and concerns are for the future and not protection from the present.
In my mind, this suggests that there are people in this area to whom we should be reaching, though knowing how we should be reaching them is confusing. In response to a question that asked which general church programs or services are most likely to be preferred in this area, 40% of the local population indicated that programs related to recreation were preferred. The other areas are spiritual development (19% of the local population), personal development (9%), and community or social services (20%). This interest in recreation is slightly over the national average of 38% but, to be honest, I haven’t a clue at this time what this means or how to deal with it. I hope that an upcoming workshop sponsored by the conference will enlighten us on what this and all the other data means.
There is clearly a place for this church in the future of this area but the question must be asked, “Will the church be here when people need it?” As you know I sent out over 80 surveys at the beginning of the year, asking people to define where they saw this church in the coming years. The results in terms of responses were disappointing, with less than ten responses. And even the responses that I did get were not exactly thrilling. Half of the people who responded saw this church in the coming years in a positive note (to some extent matching some of the concerns of the general population in the study that I have alluded to). But the other half felt that the recent events of the past would spell the doom of the church. It is possible to balance these definitely conflicting thoughts but that would not remove the attitudes that have been expressed to me over the past few months, attitudes that speak of hatred and prejudice.
Excuse me if I hurt your feelings but it must be said. As long as one person or one group expresses a view that runs counter to the message of the Gospel, then it is going to be very hard to see the future. And it is not just one person who has expressed these thoughts; it has been a number of persons. And even if these expressions happened to cancel, the thoughts and feelings generated go beyond the immediate level. People, be they members or visitors, know when there are feelings of ill will, distrust, and discord among the members of a church. And if those feelings are present, a person seeking peace and comfort will not want to come here for they fear that they will not find what they are looking.
Why were more surveys not returned? Why are there so many members of this church not coming? Can it be that they do not see the future expressed by a few hopeful souls? Can it be that they feel the past is the present and will be the future?
Not only should we reach out to those who are not members, we should be reaching out to the members who are not here.
There is no doubt a need for change but any changes made must be more than superficial. Paul’s word should echo in our minds. Is our concern for the present and what we have now more important that what we can be in the future? Consider the people of Nineveh who heard Jonah’s call and responded. Even though they expressed a belief in a god, it was not God. Though they did change for the moment in order to stave off the immediate threat, the city eventually died and is only a marker on the map of the world because the people did not hold to the change.
Changes must be deep, done in the soul, not on the surface. Jesus called the disciples to service, to leave their present lives and take up a new one. We are called to do the same, though we will never be asked to suffer or die as they did.
We must realize that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Holy Spirit. But when our own personal concerns are sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, there is a hope for the future. It is through hope that we can look beyond the present into the future; it is through hope that we can see beyond the pressing demands of everyday life. Christians are individuals whose strength is based neither on self-confidence nor on specific expectations for the future but on a promise given to them.
It was this promise of the future that allowed Abraham to travel from his homeland and all that he had there to an unknown territory. It was the promise of the future that inspired Moses. For any Christian, it is that promise that speaks of a new life even in the face of corruption and death.
Hope and the promise of the future prevent us from clinging to what we have and it frees us to move away from the safe and secure into unknown and fearful territories.
Hope is not another fish tale, a description of something that we thought we had or something we wished we could have. It is inspired by the same belief that allowed Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and go forward with a new life. The truly hard work has been done. It is our call today to help others find a place where the hope of the future is promise of what is to come and not just another fish tale.