Note: inspired by "Unbinding the Gospel" I've been preaching a new way: no manuscript. What you have here is the sermon as written, but not as presented. When I gave the sermon on Sunday I removed all references to Pres. Obama and George Washington. The result was a funnier, more personal, intimate message of hope. Still, enjoy what is here. Pastor George
January 25, 2009
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10
Sermon Title: "Who Knows?"
Rev. George N. Miller
Tuesday we inaugurated our 44th President and though it was a time of celebration, President Obama grounded us in reality. Admitting we are in the midst of crisis he called us to reaffirm our enduring spirit, reminding us that our country was born when things were most in doubt.
Obama stated that we are in the winter of our hardship. The same can be said for our church. Though we are celebrating our 85th Anniversary, we’re facing the reality that this could be our last year.
We heard it from trustees last week: if things continue as is, there is only enough money to carry us for 38 more weeks. That’s 266 days.
Which means on October 18, 2009 we will either close our doors or go to part time ministry.
Indeed, we have a task before us, indeed there are gathering clouds. What are we to do?
First, let me tell you what we should not do, and I’ll do that by sharing a story. 5 years ago I joined a volleyball league and was placed on a team.
There was Brian who felt he wasn’t good enough, Scott who got the giggles, Court who sporadically showed up, and our captain Rhonda, who’s one goal was to kick the ball over the net.
We played together but never acted like a team. There was barely any volleying, no set ups, no one two three spike!, and anytime we were behind they acted as if we had already lost, which upset me because in volleyball comebacks do happen.
This came to a head during one game. We were playing to 15. We had 1 point, they had 14. The ball is served: it goes over the net, it goes to the back row, I go to bump it, Rhonda runs over, she swings her foot. She kicks it. It goes off court. We lose 15-1.
Rhonda blew it off: "We were going to lose anyway." Obviously, she didn’t believe in come-backs. Obviously, she had no faith in the team. Obviously, after that season, we dissolved and never played again.
"We were going to lose anyway" were the words of our team captain. Those words still volley in my head even today.
Our captain had zero faith in what we could do, and decided we were going to lose the game.
Good thing she wasn’t George Washington, good thing she wasn’t the King of Nineveh or today’s story would have ended completely different.
Today’s Scripture is from book of Jonah, a fun, quick read about a man called by God to "Go to the great city of Nineveh and cry out against it."
Jonah refuses to do as God commands. After all, he is Jew, and Nineveh, nicknamed "The City of Blood" was their enemy. There is no way Jonah will go there, so he flees in the opposite direction.
But as Psalm 139 reminds us, one can’t hide from God. After a series of incidents involving a storm, some scared sailors and a large fish, God gives Jonah a second chance and tells him "Go to Nineveh and give them the message I tell you."
Jonah obeys and enters the city crying out "40 days and the city will be destroyed."
And what do the people do? Do they kick the volleyball with their feet and lose the game? No. They face the challenge and volley the ball into the air, doing whatever they can to change the situation: they fast, they grieve, they put on sackcloth.
And their team captain, the King, follows their lead, removing his robes, putting on sackcloth, and sitting in ashes.
Knowing they are facing a legitimate crises, he makes a proclamation: "All people, all animals shall not eat or drink; they shall put on sackcloth, cry to God and turn from their evil ways."
"And who knows?," he says, "God may change his mind and we may not lose this game."
"Who knows?" The King says. How is that for leadership. How is that for faith?
Faced with certain doom the King acts on the chance that perhaps, just perhaps if they did signs of obedience, God would change God’s mind.
Instead of letting Jonah’s message sap their confidence, they faced the challenge with courage. And guess what- God changes his mind.
Why? Because God is full of grace, abundant in love, and concerned for the inhabitants of the city.
"Who knows?" the King says, a statement about the possibility and uncertainty that comes in life.
"Who knows" the King says, and it makes all the difference.
"Who knows," the King proclaims and the people and their animals live to see another day.
Who knows indeed.
What a funny story this is. Look at what we’re told: that upon the words of one man, a whole city cries out to God. Not just the people, but also the animals.
Could you just imagine it? Old people and babies, dogs and cats, chickens clucking, roosters cock-a-doodle-doodling, and cows mooing all while wearing potato sacks.
With only 40 days before certain doom, they found a way to turn it all around.
Makes you wonder: if they could do that in 40 days, imagine what we can do in 40 weeks?
I stated before that we have 266 days before we will have to close our doors or change the direction of our ministry. That is the reality of the winter we are in.
How do you respond when you hear this information?
Perhaps like Rhonda, some will say "We’re going to lose anyway. Lets just kick the ball over the net and call it game over."
Perhaps there are those, like the King who’ll hear the news differently.
Instead of hearing 38 weeks as a threat, they’ll hear it as an opportunity to put their trust in God, in one another and to volley that ball over the net, knowing that with every serve, every bump, every spike, it’s still anyone’s game.
There are those who will hear 38 weeks and say it’s not enough time to bring new life into our church.
And there’ll be others who’ll realize 38 weeks is the equivalent of 9 months: how long it takes to have a baby and usher in new life.
Friends and family of Burlingame Congregational UCC, what we have here is an opportunity. This is one of those moments people read about, that people talk about, the moment in the movie where the music swells and people get on their feet.
This is our Valley Forge, this is our Red Sea, this is our moment in Nineveh. This is our chance to step up in faith and say "Who Knows".
After all, if the wicked Ninevites understood the power of God’s Word and responded faithfully, how much more can we, as believers of God, do?
If God can forgive and save the most unlikely of people, what can and will God do for us?
This is the chance for us to find out just who we really are, to reach and cry out to God, to seek Jesus in ways we never have before.
What can we do? I suggest three things. The first is to work together as a team. To do so means people need to show up. Pull out your Buzzings, look at your Bulletin. You’ll see that every week we have events going on and they’ll only succeed with your help and your presence.
Our weekday Bible Study is the biggest it’s ever been, but we can still use more people. Christian Ed’s field trip was a large success, but it would have been even more successful if you were there.
Priscilla Circle, Women’s Fellowship will only grow with your presence. And now that Men’s Breakfast has changed days there’s no reason more men can’t attend.
We don’t need any more programming, we just need people to show up for what we do have. And who knows: perhaps God will respond and speak to us in ways not yet imagined.
What can we do? We can return to the source of our knowledge about God and Christ: the Bible. This is our tool, our source of inspiration and hope for over 2,00 years. The more we know about it, the more we will know about God, our selves and what God is calling us to do.
And finally, we need to embrace the basics of Christian life: prayer. We can start by each and every one of us taking time out to simply pull up that empty chair, imagine Jesus is sitting right next to us, and to talk. Talk about our church, talk about our lives, talk about you need to talk about.
If you don’t know what to say, you can say "Help." If God has been good, say "Thank you." And when words don’t come, laugh, or cry.
"Who knows?" the King of Nineveh states, and we need to embrace his way of thinking.
For too long we have been a church that has rested in our own stability. Now is the time for us to make the radical jump into God’s arms.
We need to be like the disciples who are willing to follow when Jesus walks past and says "come with me.".
We need to be like Philip: willing to go and get our friends sitting under their fig trees.
We need to be like the thief on the cross: admitting our own sin and claiming Jesus as Lord.
And by fellowshipping together, by embracing the Word, by living a life of prayer, we can reclaim the message we have been called by God to give: that we are family and friends in Christ, sharing God’s abundant grace and love.
And who knows? Perhaps the volleyball will stay up in the air. Perhaps we can create a new movement that motivates others and brings about change.
Because its not about us, it is about the grace of God that God has to offers to everyone.
We are not doing this alone: we are doing it with, for and by Christ, guided by the Spirit, listening to God. And it will be through God that we will succeed and stay open or we will close down.
But let us not forget who our God is. Our God is the one who parted the Red Sea waters when the Israelites were facing certain death.
Our God brought new life into Elizabeth and Sarah when they were too old to bear children.
Our Lord fed 5,000 with some bread and fish.
And our God saved the Ninevites from certain doom all because they were willing to say "who knows?"
Who knows indeed.
We have the tools, we have the gifts, the worst we can do is try.
Let us embrace the reality of the next 38 weeks as an opportunity to cry out to God, to reclaim just who we have been called to be, and trust that God will do what God will do.
Let us embrace the next 38 weeks as a chance to grow and to better know the God who calls us, the Christ who abundantly loves us so and the Spirit that empowers us to keep the volleyballs of life up and in the air.