Via Creativa: What Now?
Mystery

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached January 22, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Jonah 3:1-5,10: "Arise, go to Ninevah ..."
Mark 1:14-30: "follow me"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song this morning comes from a Jubilee! favorite - the Indigo Girls. The Wood Song comes from their 1994 album Swamp Ophelia. Let's try it:

The thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
My friends and I have had a tough time
Bruising our brains hard up against change
All the old dogs and the magician
Now I see we're in the boat in two by twos
Only the heart that we have for a tool
we could use
And the very close quarters are hard to get used to
Love weighs the hull down with its weight

[Chorus] But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And we'll make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we'll have missed the point
That's where I need to go

Jonah is one of my favorite books of the Bible because I really indentify with the main character. Our reading this morning picks up in the middle of this story, and if you've never read the parts that come before what we heard this morning, you might miss a very subtle part of it.

"Then the world of the Lord came to Jonah the second time ..."

Coming in to the middle of the story, we may miss that tiny plot twist. This is the second time that God has called Jonah to do a mission. The first time God said to Jonah, "Arise, go to Ninevah," Jonah arose all right - but he fled to Tarshish, in the opposite direction of where God had asked him to go.

This is why I love Jonah, because I have done that exact same thing - and I'm sure I'm not alone. God calls and says, "Arise, go here, or there ..." and I arise all right - and get busy heading in the other direction. This is the danger when we ask our Via Creativa question, "What now?" Often, the answer we get is one that we don't really want - or care to pursue. Often, that answer is scary because it contains so many elements of the unknown. That answer is scary because it calls us to enter the mystery - to open ourselves to experience new things that may take us right out of our comfort zone and into the thick of living into what the Holy has called us to be.

Given that, who can blame Jonah? Who can blame us, when we turn tail and run the other way? "Arise, go to Ninevah ..." that's often the answer we get when we ask "What now?" And, it's often an answer we'd rather ignore.

Going to Ninevah for Jonah wasn't going to be a vacation. It wasn't going to be a pleasurable trip. Instead, God was calling Jonah to do what Jonah did best - prophesy. He was sending Jonah to the people of Ninevah to call them to repent, to get right with God - or else God was going to do some smiting. Jonah checked out the requirements of this new gig and said, "No thanks, God. I'll pass on this one. Find somebody else."

You know the story - Jonah got on a boat bound for Tarshish - and God made a storm rise up and toss the boat around a bit. The crew decides Jonah is the cause of their trouble and tosses him over the side ... the storm calms, but then Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, where after three days and three nights, he finally gets the point - and gives in.

Sometimes, it is the storms of life, tossing our tired wooden boats around, that finally convince us to move on to something new - to finally give in and live into our call - not happily, mind you, but grudgingly - just like Jonah. But, if the weather of our lives had held, we would miss the point. And that's where we need to go.

No way construction of this tricky plan
Was built by other than a greater hand
With a love that passes all our understanding
Watching closely over the journey
Yeah but what it takes to cross the great divide
Seems more than all the courage
I can muster up inside
But we get to have some answers
when we reach the other side
The prize is always worth the rocky ride

[Chorus] But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And we'll make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we'll have missed the point
That's where I need to go

I grew up a good Southern Baptist girl, which is to say, I fully believed that God had a plan for my life - a plan that was so specific God had everything mapped out from where I would live and what I would do every single hour of the day for the rest of my life.

While some people may take comfort in that kind of a God, I found it frustrating. God may have everything mapped out, but the problem with that theology is that God isn't actually sharing the details of that plan with you. No, you have to "discern" that plan. You have to pray for it to be revealed and spend your life guessing and looking for that perfect plan. This is where "mystery" comes into play in this kind of belief - but it's not a mystery that awes you - it's a mystery that can cause frustration and misery.

It feels kind of like a cosmic Easter Egg hunt where you're shaking the bushes trying to find the prize while God is going, "You're getting warmer, warmer ... now, colder, oh, you're freezing cold!" You desperately want to do God's will in your life, but you're not hearing that specific call like Jonah to "Arise, and go to Ninevah," or some other place.

So, when I hear songs that sing, "No way construction of this tricky plan, was built by other than a greater hand," I tend to recoil - because I go right back to that Southern Baptist upbringing about God's plan for my life. But, I don't think that's what Emily Saliers means in this song.

Instead, when I hear it now, I realize she's singing about the grand plan of God - not about something specific for my life or your life. This cosmic plan - the whirl of the stars and the planets, the whirl of each molecule, the growth of each plant, animal and human into its genetic perfection - that's the plan she sings about.

We are part of this plan - we have a role to play - a Ninevah to go to, whether we go with a song in our heart or a grudge against the Holy.

And what happens when we get to Ninevah? What happens when we live in the mystery God calls us to explore? Things change. Jonah, after hearing that second call, finally went and prophesied - "Forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" The people repented - they changed their ways when they encountered Jonah. And not only did their lives change - God changed.

"When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he said he would do to them, and he did not do it."

God's plan changed! Do you know what this means, Jubilants? I don't know for sure what it really means - but what it says to me is that this greater hand in charge of this tricky plan - is also willing to live into the mystery. What this says to me is that God doesn't even have a specific plan for God's existence, much less mine.

This is the mystery that we are invited to live in to - not the one where God has a blueprint of our lives or even Hers - but the mystery where even God is sometimes surprised - and always willing to go another way when She needs to. This is the mystery, Jubilants, where we are invited us to find a place where our deepest joy meets the world's deepest hunger.

"Arise, go to Ninevah ..."

It is a call not just to Jonah, but to each of us. Arise, for God is calling you to live in to the mystery of this life - to take your place joyously feeding the world. Take courage, Jubilants, you'll get some answers on the other side of this life - but that prize is always worth the rocky ride.

Breathe deeply.

[Chorus] But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And we'll make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we'll have missed the point
That's where I need to go

[Bridge] Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And then maybe steer us clear
from some of the pain it took
To get us where we are this far this far
But the question drowns in its futility
And even I have got to laugh at me
No one gets to miss the storm of what will be
Just holding on for the ride

[Chorus] But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And we'll make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds
we'll have missed the point
That's where I need to go

In the New York Times recently there was a story about British mathematician Roger Penrose who has co-authored a paper with a physicist describing physical evidence that may pre-date the big bang.

The paper describes a pattern of concentric circles that may be gravitational waves generated by collisions of super big black holes long before the big bang. Our universe, they claim, may simply be one link in a chain of universes, beginning and ending in a way that sends gravitational waves into the next universe. There might, according to this theory, be an infinite number of co-existing, but undetectable, universes. The article concludes with this question: "So, what do we do with these possibilities?" Our answer, writes the author, is to marvel at them and to be reminded once again, that we live in a universe, however we define it, that contains more wonders than we can begin to imagine.

Mystery is spread in, through, and around us, Jubilants, reminding us that there is more going on here than just our plans. It's been said that the best way to make God laugh it to tell her our plans. It's okay to plan - but when we ask "What now?" we've got to be prepared for the mystery - for the gravitational pull of all the universes around us - and remember our connection - not just to each other, but to this entire cosmos.

"Arise, go to Ninevah ..." and be prepared to hook up with the mystery of the cosmos.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from singer, songwriter Iris DeMent. Born in Arkansas, and raised in California, DeMent grew up in a Pentecostal household singing country and gospel music. She continues that tradition as a singer, but now calls herself an "agnostic Christian." I think she would fit well in Jubilee. This song is called "Let the Mystery Be" and appeared on her first album Infamous Angel, released in 1992.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you're gone you're gone forever,
and some say you're gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour
if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they're comin' back in a garden,
bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

In our Jesus story, we find our guy just starting out in his ministry. As he strikes out, he sounds a lot like our friend Jonah preaching to Ninevah: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

As he passes along the Sea of Galilee, preaching this message - he finds some fishermen out on their boats. He calls to them: "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of people." Unlike Jonah, these new would-be disciples respond like puppies being called for dinner. They drop their nets and head right for Jesus.

The difference here couldn't be clearer: Jonah ran from mystery while the disciples ran headlong, as fast as they could, right to it. All for this mysterious promise: "I will make you fishers of people!" What does that even mean? Whatever it was, it sure must have beat fishing for fish for a living.

Each of those future disciples could have been sitting on those boats asking, "What now?" when Jesus showed up with his mysterious offer. It's not like we should chase every mystery that's offered, but these fishermen knew there was something different about what Jesus was offering. Their spirits must have quaked within them when they saw him on the shore. They knew they had no choice but to go - that if they did not arise, and follow, they would be sorry - like that Jonah guy before them. They would miss out on the mystery.

That didn't mean that the disciples got it - or that they even understood a fraction of what Jesus tried to teach them. As we read about their journey with Jesus we find fragile men who were mystified by Jesus. There were times that they exasperated Jesus and even tried to protect him from the masses he came to minister to.

But, I think the disciples got the most important part of the mystery - it's the part we need to get so we can live confidently - even when we're not sure where we're going.

They understood that to be "fisher's of people" meant to be connected - to be part of that tricky cosmic plan - to be willing to be moved by the gravitational force that is the Holy.

When we open ourselves to the mystery, Jubilants, we open ourselves to the possibility of making a connection - not just with other people, but with the entire string of universes that spin around us. We make that connection when we live in to this mystery with love - with our hearts open to the universe around us. Instead of obsessing about the plan - about where we came from and where we're going when it's all done - living into the mystery requires us to let the mystery be.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

In the end of Jonah's story, we find him sulking, wishing he were dead. He's pissed with God, and do you know why? Jonah is angry because God changed her mind - because God changed the plan. Jonah says: "I ran away from you because I knew you were a gracious and merciful God." Jonah knew that God would save the people of Ninevah if he went to them. He didn't want to do that - because Jonah didn't like those Ninevites and he wanted to see God exercise a little karma on their sinning butts.

Where both we, and Jonah, go wrong - and the disciples get it right - is in realizing this: God does not have a specific plan for your life that includes the right job and great parking spaces. Instead, God gives us each a gift, a talent - something that we must share in this world - a deep joy that will feed not just the deep hunger of the world - but our own deep hunger.

Jonah was called to be a prophet - and as this story shows, he's a darn good one. With just a simple message, an entire population changed its ways - and God decided to show mercy. But, Jonah had no interest in his gift. He had no interest in using that gift to connect with the Ninevites. He wanted to see their bloody destruction. Jonah would probably do well as a modern-day politician.

The disciples, though, they were willing to live into their gifts - to fully enter into the mystery - to ask "what now?" and dive in with both feet when mystery beckoned. The difference here is that the disciples, on some gut level, saw that cosmic connection in Jesus. They felt the gravitational pull of this human being and in they realized they were all connected by one thing - love - that divine, Holy love that Jesus embodied.

What they realized, that Jonah missed, is that they played an integral role in this tricky cosmic plan - one that called them to live into their gifts and be amazed at how the Holy worked in, through and around them.

That's not to say they didn't have a rough time of it. They used their gifts imperfectly. They failed more times than they succeeded. Their egos got in the way when they wanted to keep the Holy all to themselves. But, even when it was painful or hard - they made those connections.

They were, indeed, fishers of people, hooking them with love and inviting everyone they met to connect and enter into the mystery of the Holy with them. No matter what your vocation is in this life - whether you're a singer, a writer, a builder, a counselor, a gym owner, or a food server - there is one gift we all share - the ability to love one another.

This is the mysterious gift we are meant to live into with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This is the gift we are called to give in every moment of our lives, even when all we can do is give it imperfectly.

How would it change the way you live, Jubilants, if you understood that you're an integral part in this tricky cosmic plan, and your role is to live into the gifts you've been given so both you and the world get fed? How would it change the way you live, Jubilants, if you stopped living like Jonah and instead lived like the disciples - open to the mystery wherever it finds you.

Would you be willing to drop your nets in the blink of an eye to follow the Holy mystery - to connect with this universe in love - or will you run the other way when the Holy calls you to "Arise, and go to Ninevah"? Are you willing, Jubilants, to let the mystery be?

Breathe deeply.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
when the whole thing's done. But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Some say they're goin' to a place called Glory
and I ain't saying it ain't a fact.
But I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory
and I don't like the sound of that.
I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.
But I choose to let the mystery be.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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