Saturday, January 24, 2015

What's in a Word? (RCL Epiphany 3B 25 January 2015)

RCL Epiphany 3B
25 January 2015

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Mark 1.14-20

Click here to listen to the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. Eucharist on Sunday the 25th.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Denver, my advisor and frequent professor was Dr Friedhelm Rickert.  Dr Rickert was a tall, taciturn and, I must admit, dry wit who had come to the United States on a doctoral fellowship to the University of Minnesota before taking up a teaching position at the University of Denver.

During his studies in Minnesota his mother, who had never travelled outside of Europe, came for a visit.  Her journey was a difficult one for someone who had never crossed the Atlantic and who, due to flight schedules, had to transfer planes twice.  Given that she did not speak English, you will quickly recognize how difficult and intimidating a journey it must have been.

When Dr Rickert picked up his mother, he could tell that she was very upset.  At first he thought it was simply the stress of the journey, but as they drove to his home, he realized that it was more than jet lag.  He finally asked her what was bothering her.  'Friedhelm,' she said, 'I cannot understand how you can live and study in such a dangerous country.'  When he probed a little deeper, afraid that perhaps she had been threatened or something else untoward had happened, she said, 'Everywhere airport had gift shops.  Gift shop here.  Gift shop there.  Everywhere gift shops.  How can you trust any restaurant?'

It took a moment or two for Dr Rickert to realize what had upset his mother about something as innocuous as a gift shop in an airport.  Then it dawned on him.  In German the word 'gift' means 'poison'.  His mother, unable to speak English but recognizing some words because of their similarity to German words, had thought that Americans could buy poison easily.

What Mrs Rickert had experienced is what modern language teachers call 'false cognates', words that look very much like words in another language but have very different meanings.  I remember one of my mother's first embarrassing encounters with the German language during our overseas assignment.  She went to a bathroom thinking it was the women's room only to realize it was, in fact, the men's room.  She saw 'Herren' and thought it meant the room for 'Hers' and that 'Damen' meant the room for 'the men'.  She was fortunate enough to have a very kind German gentleman redirect her.

Words matter and we have to be very careful when we use them.  We need to be sure that we are attending to all the possible meanings they can have for those who hear them and those who read them.  In today's readings from Jonah and from Mark there are words that need careful attention.
Let's take Jonah first.  If you remember the story, Jonah is a reluctant prophet who has been sent to Nineveh to proclaim God's judgement on the city.  The Ninevites are old foes of Israel, so Jonah is not reluctant to preach doom and gloom to them, but he has a sneaking suspicion that God may do something unexpected.  And Jonah is right.

He proclaims to the Ninevites that in forty days the city will be 'overthrown'.  To his consternation, the Ninevites repent and Jonah is confronted with the fact that the message he was sent to proclaim can be understood in a different way:  in forty days Nineveh will turn itself around.  God seems to have a willingness to understand the word Jonah is ordered to preach in more than one way.  If Nineveh doesn't turn itself around, God will overthrow them.  If they do, then the disaster will be averted.  Lo and behold, they turn around, Jonah is miffed and the city is saved.

After John the Baptist is imprisoned, Mark tells us that Jesus bursts onto the Galilean scene.  On the one hand, Jesus is sharing the same message as John:  The time has come to look at the world in a new way.  This is what is meant by 'repent'; not just feel sorry for any past misdoings and failures, but turn around and see the world as God sees it.  One way of understanding the word Jesus uses, metanoia, is to say, 'Look beyond the limits of your present point of view and seek what God has waiting for us just beyond the horizon.'

But Jesus goes one step further than John.  Jesus dares to proclaim that the kingdom of God is 'upon us'; despite our sins, God has drawn near to us.  The possibility of a new way of living in relationship with one another and in relationship with God is within our grasp if we have faith, that is to say, if we have confidence in God's love for us as revealed to us in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is good news, not only to those who first heard it centuries ago, but to those who hear it and act upon it today.  In Jesus God does not seek to overthrow us but to invite us to turn ourselves around.  In Jesus God does not promise us 'pie in the sky' but shows us a way to live with integrity, with compassion and with hope.  In Jesus God chooses to walk with us so that we can discover how we are dependent upon each other and how all our particular gifts and our distinctive experiences weave together to create a rich tapestry that glorifies God and builds up our common humanity.

Sometimes the message of the Christian gospel is heard as a message of condemnation.  It is the hard-nosed message that Jonah thought he was delivering to a people whom he really did not like and whom he hoped would ignore God's call.  To be true there are Christians who do preach just such a message.  But there is another possibility, the possibility that God loves us and offers us in the life and teaching of Jesus a way forward towards wholeness and joy.

I know people who need to hear this word of hope.  I have no doubt that you know such people as well.  They are very familiar with the voices that speak the message of Jonah, but what they need to hear are the voices that speak the message of Jesus.  They need to know that the word they hear actually can be heard differently, heard as an invitation to discover the nearness of God.  May God give us the grace and courage to speak this word so that God's reign of justice and peace finds a home in one more heart.  Amen.

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