The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said that he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Now after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Friends of St. Francis’ Church, I’m very happy to worship with you this morning, and it is a special honor to preside at this service of Confirmation with those physically present here, surrounded by those engaging virtually. I pray that today is a particular blessing for those being confirmed, that you may feel the power of God’s blessing for you, and hear in your own way God’s voice saying that you are His beloved; and with you, he is well pleased.
I’d like to speak to you about an aspect of the life of faith that makes faith real, in the sense that God becomes real. This is when we hear or sense a call inside–someone or something calling us by name, asking us to do something specific, or pursue a particular path. The call comes, in part, as an answer to the question, “Why am I here?” Or it can come in response to a longing inside, or something that makes us feel most alive. Sometimes it sounds like a voice, as clear as that of a person speaking. Sometimes it’s more like an intuition or falling. Other times it’s something that awakens in us the desire to do the same thing. And on occasion, the call comes and it is the exact opposite of what we want to do, but we feel somehow that we must do it anyway.
The title of my sermon is “Getting to Yes.” What does it take for us to say yes when we sense that we’re being called or asked to do something? For the record, I’m talking about deeper things now, not like being asked to set the table or take out the garbage, as important as daily chores are, nor the call to be a good person–to be kind and generous. No, the experience I’m speaking of is more consequential, when we’re at a decisive moment and feel the need to make a choice. These decisive moments don’t come around every day, but when they do, a lot rests on whether we say yes or no.
The passage we just heard read from the Book of Jonah begins with this sentence, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” In that word the Lord told Jonah to go and preach a warning to the people of the city of Nineveh.
The second time God called, Jonah said yes. He got up, went to the city of Nineveh, and warned the people there that they faced God’s judgment if they did not change their sinful ways. To God’s astonishment and Jonah’s disappointment, the people of Nineveh listened, repented, and began the painful process of amending their lives. God, in turn, had mercy on them.
If we continued reading the story, we’d learn that Jonah wasn’t pleased about God’s mercy–it didn’t seem fair to him that the Ninevites would get off so easily, and he sulked about it afterwards. Yet despite his reluctance and lack of charity, Jonah said yes when God called. He did his part, and an entire city was spared.
That was the second time God spoke to Jonah. Does anyone remember what happened the first time God spoke to him?
Jonah said no. He said no and then ran away. He went so far as to board a boat and set off to sea, hoping to get as far away from God and the Ninevites as he could. But then a mighty storm threatened to sink the boat, and Jonah realized that the storm was an expression of God’s disappointment in him. He told his shipmates to throw him overboard, which they did, and the sea calmed. God then sent a large fish out to swallow Jonah, and he lay in the belly of that fish for three days before he finally decided that doing what God asked of him, however unpleasant, was better than remaining where he was. So he cried to God, God heard him, the fish spat him out, and as we picked up his story this morning, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. This time Jonah said yes.
The moral of the story: when God calls, yes is a better answer than no, but getting to yes isn’t always easy. It isn’t easy for all sorts of reasons.
For Jonah, who was a bit of a grump, it wasn’t easy because he knew that God would relent and be gracious to the Ninevites as soon as they said they were sorry, and he didn’t want anything to do with that kind of indulgent compassion. Eventually he would need some of that compassion for himself, which is another lesson from the book of Jonah, and perhaps a sermon for another day.
Today’s sermon is about getting to yes.
According to the story we read from the Gospel of Mark, four men immediately said yes when Jesus called them to follow him. No questions asked–they just got up and went.
Sometimes when God calls, we’re like Jonah and our first answer is no. Sometimes we’re more like the four fisherman and we say yes–immediately, as if we had been waiting all day for the invitation.
It’s not uncommon in childhood and adolescence to respond immediately to a sense of call. An actress whose name is Sandra Bernhard knew, at age 8, when she saw another actress, Carol Channing, perform live that she, too, belonged on stage. I once heard a radio interview with Benny Golson, a world famous saxophone player, who said that he knew he wanted to play the saxophone from the first time he saw a live jazz performance when he was 14 years old.
Maybe it was like that for Simon and Andrew and James and John–that they knew the minute Jesus called them that they wanted to follow. But it could also be true that they had been preparing for that moment, perhaps without knowing it, that something was stirring in them long before Jesus met them on the shore. Benny Golson, after all, had been studying classical piano since he was 4. Music was his soul. What the saxophone moment clarified was how his soul would find its expression.
The Jesuit priest and author James Martin wrote a book a few years ago entitled Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which is a good one to read if you want to get to know Jesus better. In a chapter entitled “Galilee” he considers the call of Jesus’ first four disciples–Andrew and Simon, James and John. He points out how difficult it would have been for them to leave everything behind to follow a man like Jesus. These were settled men with commitments and responsibilities. We know that Simon was married, and that James and John were part of their father’s household and fishing enterprise. So how do we make sense of their decision to drop everything and follow Jesus?
Martin considers several possibilities, but in the end he suggests this: They said yes because they were ready. Jesus came to them at a time when they were ready to make a change. He uses a Greek word to describe their experience–kairos, which refers to a particular kind of time that is full of potential and possibility, the exact right time to make a move. “We know what those moments are like,” Martin writes, “It’s as if we’re waiting for someone to say that it’s okay to say yes. For the fisherman on the shore, this was their kairos moment.”1
So what does it take for us when we hear a call to get to yes? If our first answer is no, is that, as they say, our final answer? If our answer is yes, what is being awakened inside us? How do we know when we’re ready to say yes?
A Quaker author and teacher, whose name is Parker Palmer, believes that our truest callings come from within, as an expression of who we are, rather than what we think our lives ought to be. He came to this belief the hard way. For he had spent much of his young life imitating the lives of his heroes, conjuring up the highest ideals he could imagine and then tried to conform to them. Even as he enjoyed some success, inside he knew that something was wrong. He was trying to live someone else’s life, not his own. Eventually he got really sick, and as he recovered, he realized that before he could tell his life what he wanted to do with it, he had to listen to his life telling him who he was.2
Part of getting to yes involves listening to our lives deeply enough to know who we are, both in strength and weakness, way down deep. For when a call speaks to us at that level, it can set us free. But we’ll only hear it if we have been listening there.
Another way we get to yes is to approach the struggles and challenges of our lives with a spirit of creativity and imagination. This is especially important when we feel kind of stuck, when nothing significant seems to be happening, when there is no drama at all, no big change on the horizon, no matter how much we’d like one.
A photojournalist who has worked much of his career for National Geographic, Dewitt Jones, describes this approach to life as everyday creativity. Using his own work in photography as a metaphor, he says that most problems we struggle with can, in fact, be solved if we’re willing to change our lenses; if we change, in other words, the way we see our struggles and their surrounding context. “There is always a third way,” the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold used to say in response to polarized conflicts, and the same idea is at work here. Dewitt Jones’ mantra is, “There is always more than one right answer.” With a change of lens, a change of perspective and focus, we can see the same problem or struggle from a completely different angle. New vision, or new perspective, frees us to consider any number of ways to deal with our challenges.3 Then we might hear a new call in the midst of seemingly unchanging circumstances.
He also speaks of putting ourselves in the place of most potential, which is one way we can prepare for a new call in the future, so that when it comes, we are ready.
Getting to that place of most potential in itself requires readiness, for to do so we must broaden our horizons, and also improve our skills and capacities. We can’t wish ourselves into great potential, we need to grow and actually get better at the things that we do. Meanwhile, we pay attention and watch for opportunities when they arise. That might involve stepping out of our places of comfort, being willing to make mistakes and learn from them; following whatever light we’re given as far as it will take us, trusting that more will be revealed in time.
So when at last the call comes, by way of a summons, an invitation, a phone call, or the example of another doing exactly what we know what we were made to do, it might feel immediate, like a gift falling from the sky, but we’ve been preparing for it for a long time. As a quote that hung over my desk reminded me every day, “Overnight success generally takes about fifteen years.”
I don’t know what getting to yes would look like for you, what God is asking of you, or preparing you for, and where you are in the arc of the process of preparation for that yes. But I do know that it’s perhaps one of the most important spiritual questions that we can ask, and I am here to cheer you, to encourage you to listen to your life. Remember that not all time simply passes, one minute just like the next; time can also be full of opportunity and meaning. But it won’t be unless we’re ready for it.
What do you need to do to get ready? Is it time to put yourself in a place of great potential? And what might that be? For those of you being confirmed today, I pray that you experience this moment as a time of deep blessing, God saying yes to you, that you are loved, prized, and here for a reason. You have unique gifts to share in this world; you are, in fact, the gift. There will be times in the future, as there must have been already in your past, when God will call you by name, and ask you to rise up and go, or to do something hard, or to follow a distant star. If you don’t say yes right away, chances are good that God will find you, as God found Jonah, and call again. But then again, you might be ready for something you didn’t even know that you were waiting for.
Be of good courage. Trust the voice inside. The world needs you. God is hoping that you will say yes.
1 James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 135-140
2 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000)
3 Dewitt Jones, Seeing the Ordinary as Extraordinary (accessed January 24, 2015)