Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Following God’s Call (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Jonah stood at a crossroads: Nineveh or – what? He had tried running from God once already- and everyone in the world knows how that turned out. Chased by storms; thrown off the boat by his fellow travelers; and swallowed alive, Jonah had experienced three long and nauseating days inside a big fish until he agreed to do as God had asked: risk his life by going to tell a large number of angry, violent, and unhappy people that they needed to change their ways. Some choices.
Our theology tells us that God gave human beings free will – that we always have the power to choose. This is an astonishing thing when you think of it. If you created an entire species, wouldn’t you make sure it always did what you wanted it to? But our God invested us with the ability to make our own choices, for good or for ill- and so it is that in today’s Hebrew scripture reading we find Jonah at a crossroads facing what are arguably two unappetizing choices: to do as God has asks and face down a nation of people who have lost their moral compass or continue to try to run from the will of an omniscient and angry God. It is choices like these that help us to understand why some people allow others to do their thinking for them.
The Episcopal Church is not a denomination where that comfort will be provided. As Robin Williams so succinctly put it, in The Episcopal Church you are not encouraged to leave your brain at the door. It is possible to be an Episcopalian and sleep through the sermons and dodge the Bible study classes, but if you expect your church leadership to provide you with easy to parrot “party lines” of belief – you have come to the wrong place. We are not here to take your money and tell you what to believe. We are here to do the hard work of discernment together – to figure out how to follow Jesus and to do what God asks of each of us as individuals – and as a community. This requires time, mutual support, and effort – and so we do this in the same way that the ancient prophets did: we listen for God’s voice. We do it in the same way that the early Christians did; we listen for God’s Holy Word. In addition, we follow the traditions of our own denomination to walk together in common life; worshipping, reading scripture, using common sense to apply it to our own lives, and then choosing how to live according to our discoveries. We make these choices as a community, as a people of God.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there are any good choices. Sometimes it feels like simply running away may be the best option. Certainly, many Christians are taking this option. Surveys suggest that numbers of people in the United States who call themselves “Christian” are down 12 percent over the last decade. Meanwhile, people identifying as “nothing in particular” or “none” has gone up about six percent in the same time frame. The Episcopal Church is in precipitous decline. In particular, young folks are leaving. “The Episcopal Church had the highest average age among the 20 faiths charted in the 2017 to 2019 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.” In 2019, the entire diocese of Northern Michigan reported an average Sunday attendance of 385. The Episcopal Church has seen a membership drop of almost 25 percent in ten years. Do the math: if this exodus rate continues, there will be no Episcopal Church in the year 2050. That means for many of us there is no running away; we will have to watch it die.
Perhaps some or many of you were not raised in The Episcopal Church as I was, so your heart is not breaking, as mine is. It should be though -because if you are here today then this is your community of Christ. This is your people, your tribe, your village. These are those upon whom your salvation depends – and so you are part of the decisions that we as a church must make – decisions about how we are to survive and how we are to thrive. We must do as Christians have always done. We must choose together – and then we must stand together.
Perhaps some of you got up this morning thinking that you were going to attend Grace’s Annual Meeting so that you could help make choices about things like whether there should be a labyrinth between our buildings, or if we should continue to allow people to decide which Lord’s Prayer to recite. You might be interested in whether there will be a new prayer book soon or if acolytes should be allowed to wear sneakers. These are certainly part of the business of the church, but I believe that the time is coming and perhaps now is when will no longer have the luxury to spend time talking about such things. I am saying brothers and sisters, that the appointed time has grown short… that the present world is passing away. We are returning to a time when, like the original Christians, we must be more concerned with existence than embellishment.
This may sound depressing or alarmist, and you may be starting to regret tuning in today. You may want your feel-good church vibe and be wondering where the Good News is to be found in all this. Fortunately for all of us, the answer to that question never changes: The Good News is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given to us by the Grace of God. God alone is our rock and salvation, our safety and honor, and we may put our trust in God always – and in all things. By this and this alone we know that we can do anything – and we will – if only we choose to put our trust in God.
It is easy to trust God when things are going well- and it’s just as easy to lament being children of God when we are embroiled in cascading catastrophes. Yet it is during such difficulties that God most frequently and obviously shows herself, providing us with endless reminders of his power and grace. This past year has been a hard one for many people and it has been a painful one for the people of Grace – individually and collectively. Last year at the Annual Meeting I touted our growth. This year I can’t even tell you how we are supposed to measure it. Last year I reveled in our strength of community. This year I stand chiefly alone, surrounded only by a few stalwart helpers. 2020 was Grace’s year to be swallowed by a “big fish,” and during our “three days” of God’s time we learned that our choices have narrowed- and one has been eliminated. If we do not change, then Grace will die. Still, our time in the belly of the beast has taught us that we are not self but God-directed, and that we cannot fail when we seek to do God’s will. We have not only survived this pandemic, but in many ways we have thrived, worshipping more often and more creatively and welcoming new and diverse people to our midst. God has reminded us that we can go to Nineveh and Nineveh will, as it did for Jonah, bow before our God.
We opened today’s service with Cecil Alexander’s old southern hymn, “Restoration.” In this new year, I am asking that we seek not to restore Grace to what it was, but instead pursue its proper place in the restoration of God’s beloved community on earth. It is time for us to leave behind old habits of worship and make our lives a constant act of worship. This is no longer a question of how to get back to who we were; our survival is now inextricably linked to our willingness to devote ourselves to who we are meant to become. We must do as Jonah, Simon, Andrew, James, and John did. We must believe, turn, and follow God’s call into the unknown. We must go as a people to fish for the people who need us. Do not fear, sisters and brothers. We have all we need: Jesus has called us through the tumult – let us choose to follow the road he lays out before us. AMEN.
Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, (October 2019), “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
Terry Mattingly, (December 12, 2020), “Episcopal Church wary of aging congregations,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette (Online), https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/dec/12/episcopal-church-wary-of-aging-congregations/