Sermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, January 24, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Preachers at the Memorial Church follow — more or less — a weekly lectionary that assigns us the scripture readings for each Sunday. Sometimes we depart from it, but we like to follow it if we can because it draws us into community with other churches that follow it. It’s nice to know that churches down the road or across town or on the other side of the country or the world are struggling with the same passages of scripture that we are grappling with on any given Sunday. The lectionary also keeps us preachers from preaching only on our favorite texts and to think harder than we might about how the scripture passages that the lectionary offers us each week speak across time and space into our own moment.
Sometimes, though, the way the lectionary divides up scripture week to week makes me laugh. The passage from the book of Jonah that Rosemarie Smurzynski read for us is a great example. The lectionary makers whittled the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah down to a short, sweet tale in which everyone does exactly what they’re supposed to do and everything happens as it ought. God calls Jonah to be his prophet to the wicked city of Ninevah. And as soon as God calls to him, Jonah starts walking. He walks into the center of the city, where, vulnerable and unprotected, he boldly calls the people to account. You have forty days, he says, before this city is overthrown. The people of Ninevah heed his call, and they repent, take up fasting, and clothe themselves in sackcloth. (The king decrees that even the animals don the garments of repentance, although the creators of the lectionary skip over those verses.) And seeing that the people of Ninevah have changed, God changes as well and decides not to visit them with calamity.
You would never know from this excerpt that the first time God called Jonah to preach to the people of Ninevah that he was so terrified that he ran away, boarding a ship in the hopes of sailing as far from Ninevah as he could. When a storm arose at sea, the sailors looked around to see whose fault this might be. Finding that Jonah was running away from God, the sailors tossed him into the sea where a fish swallowed him. From the belly of that fish Jonah prayed to God for deliverance and after three days, the fish spit him out onto dry land. It’s after all that, that our passage for this morning begins. We meet Jonah at the moment God offers him a second chance to prophesy to Ninevah, a chance he seizes wholeheartedly. Jonah walks into the center of city and proclaims God’s judgment. And as a result, the world changes — at least in Ninevah, and at least, for the moment.
That sense of events happening fast that we get in our reading from Jonah this morning is also present in the reading from the gospel of Mark that Daniel Cushing read for us. But this time, it’s not the lectionary that creates that sense of rapidly unfolding action but rather the gospel writer himself. One of the chief features of Mark’s gospel is that things happen “immediately.” Jesus sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the sea of Galilee and calls out to them. “Immediately,” Mark writes, they drop their nets and follow. A little farther on, Jesus comes across James and John, mending their nets in their father’s boat — "immediately,” Mark says, Jesus calls out to them; and immediately they leave their father behind and follow him.
This past week unfolded as if it had been written by the author of the gospel of Mark. The weeks since the election seemed to me to pass with an excruciating slowness, probably because they were marked by the grinding repetition of the false claim of a stolen election. Things sped up suddenly when that claim led to a violent assault on the capitol, and then slowed again to a crawl as we waited for inauguration day.
But last week, one president boarded Marine One and flew off into the empty air. And another president arrived and got to work, to use Mark’s word, “immediately.” There were 17 executive orders on the first day. Suddenly we’re back in the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization. The ban on travel from predominantly Muslim and African countries has been lifted. DACA has been strengthened to protect the Dreamers, and an executive order of the previous administration that moved aggressively to find and deport immigrants has been overturned. The permit for the Keystone XL pipeline has been revoked, public lands protected, and construction of the border wall stopped. Title VII of the Civil Rights act once more forbids discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity, and government agencies are being required to report on how they plan to increase equity in their ranks. It’s breathtaking, the speed at which these changes happened, changes that will have real effects in people’s lives and in the life of the planet. They happened, as Mark would say, “immediately.”
As amazing, and heartening, as these changes are, it would be like leaving out the hard parts of Jonah’s story — the fear and the fish and the plea for deliverance--to believe that we’ve arrived at a happy ending. We haven’t arrived at an ending at all, but rather a beginning.
The challenges we’ve faced are still there: a deeply divided nation. A violent white supremacist movement. Racism woven into our structures and systems. A pandemic still out of control. Executive orders can only get us so far. There is a lot of work ahead, for all of us.
And the truth is, no matter who is in power, we will always need to press for more justice, a bolder vision. We will always need to hold our leaders accountable.
So what next? What is the work of this moment? If there is one thing the life of faith teaches us, it’s that perfection is not necessary in order to begin. The fishermen who dropped everything to follow Jesus before they knew where that following would take them, knew this. We don’t have to have everything figured out in order to pray as if someone were listening, to bend our lives toward a vision of beloved community, to join others in service as if the world might be transformed. We don’t, thank God, have to be able to see the end of the story in order to practice hope.
In her inspiring inaugural poem, Amanda Gorman, Harvard class of 2020, suggested that, while a perfect union might be out of our reach, a union of purpose is not. She drew her vision of what we could build together, the vision toward which we could move together, from scripture — a world in which everyone can sit under their own vine and fig tree with no one to make them afraid. A world in which everyone’s dignity is cherished.
It’s hard to be so far from that vision. Dorothy Day, whose autobiography, The Long Loneliness, we’ll read this semester in our Practicing Hope reading group, wrote a lot about the heaviness of the sorrow that came with working for a transformed world — the disappointments, the failures, being present to one’s own suffering and to the suffering of others. “It is not easy always to be joyful,” she wrote at the end of The Long Loneliness, “to keep in mind the duty of delight.”
But that is part of our work, too: the duty of delight. To delight in each other and in all the possibilities our humanity holds; to delight in God’s creation in all of its beautiful diversity; to delight in the vision of a world transformed that draws us forward and in the creativity that such a vision generates.
As much as he loves the word “immediately,” not everything in Mark’s gospel happens in an instant. The parables Jesus tells in Mark’s gospel often have to do with things that happen secretly, in hiddenness, over time: the parable of the sower sowing seeds; the parable of the mustard seed which grows into a tree large enough for birds to find a home in its branches. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says in Mark’s gospel: like a seed that grows without our knowing how.
We cannot see the future. But we can seed it with practices of hope that might grow into new ways of living. Dorothy Day once wrote that if you find a place where there is no love, put love there, and you will find love. Or as Amanda Gorman said in her inaugural poem, there is always light, if we are brave enough to see it, and brave enough to be it.