It is set in motion. The seeds for a new vision. A new hope. There is a lot of change swirling about. And there is urgency. Urgency to proclaim the good news. Whatever THAT is. The “word of God came to Jonah a second time” (Jonah 3:1, NRSV). “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). In a third reading assigned for today, Paul notes that “the present form of this world is passing away…” (1 Cor. 7:31).
The thought that “the present form of this world is passing away” might unsettle us. But then we read the news. As we read headlines packed with governmental shutdowns, temporary protected statuses for people in the United States from Haiti and El Salvador rescinded, Women’s Marches held across the country and around the world… one has to wonder, just WHAT IS this “good news” of God? What is being set in motion by the Spirit here—in our Dane County communities and beyond—today?
If we were to sit down in small groups and talk about our responses to that question, “what is the good news of God today” how would you answer? Yesterday, a group of 14 people from Memorial UCC gathered here and began delving into caring conversations, participating in a study group entitled, “White Privilege: Let’s Talk” based in part on curriculum offered by the United Church of Christ and the Wisconsin Council of Churches. Others are participating in the book group, reading “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation” by Dr. Jennifer Harvey, and yet others have signed up for a 9 week class entitled “Black History for a New Day—Allies for a Stronger Madison.” Then this past week, the Wisconsin Council of Churches announced that they are coordinating buses from around the state to take people to Washington D.C. for Act Now – United to End Racism rally. The rally is being held in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In all of these dialogues and actions, there is urgency. Urgency as followers of Jesus to drop our nets. Hear God’s call.
(and, if you are interested in learning more about any of the opportunities I just mentioned, there is information in the bulletin – and sign-up sheets in the narthex!)
But… how do we, as a faith community, define/describe the good news of God in 2018? Continuing our engagement with the United Church of Christ’s call to purposefully engage in dialogues around the “3 Great Loves: Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, Love of Creation,” we have an opportunity. An opportunity to develop a vision. A vision for the future. The future of this church. Our presence in the community. Our relationships with one another. Following the Spirit, we continue into our time of transition—the shift into our co-ministries together—and a moment to prayerfully reflect on our “why” as a church. What is God’s good news? And what is ours? The call is set in motion…
The good news of God… according to Jonah… is so, sooooo good… that it frustrated Jonah to no end. This good news, the Good News of God was sooooo NOT what Jonah expected. The Old Testament passage from Jonah was written in Hebrew. Now, I am going to ask you to make a note to yourself about that fact. Ready? Remember that the book of Jonah was written in Hebrew, as I am going to flip a word for you in just a moment. So hold on…
We hear today that the people of Nineveh “turned from their evil ways” in response to Jonah’s prophecy. Nineveh was, according to Old Testament professor Rolf Jacobson, “The most oppressive capital in ancient near east, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, (and) the whole place repents.” Every person, every cow, sheep, chickens, geese, all put on sackcloth. You have to admit that the book of Jonah has some hilarious scenes!
Yet no matter what, Jonah expected a God of destruction. Jonah wanted an unwavering, unchanging, revengeful God. THAT is the God that Jonah wanted, but that is NOT the God that Jonah got. Instead, he got a God that was full of “grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready…to turn (God’s) plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness.” A God that changed in response a city of people who were remorseful. And (in chapter 4) we learn that “Jonah… was… FURIOUS! that God was not what Jonah expected.
The good news of God, according to the author of Mark, is that this God thing… God here, God now, God already is. Now, remember the book of Jonah was written in… what language? Remember? Hebrew. Flipping ahead in the Bible to the Christian testaments, into the original Greek in which the gospel of Mark was written, Jesus calls on those around him to “repent.” But this is no ordinary turning around. Jacobson notes that “the word (repent) in Greek really means something like ‘change your way of thinking… wrap your minds around this new reality’… (versus) the Hebrew word for repent, which is (if you remember) ‘turn around’.”
Wrap your minds around this new reality. As “the present form of this world (passes) away…” can we “change our way of thinking?” Can we wrap our minds around this new reality? This God thing? God here? God now? “Jesus came… proclaiming the good news of God. The time is fulfilled…” This is our story. It is set in motion. The seeds for a new vision. A new hope. There is also urgency. An urgency for us to proclaim the good news.
Nearly 70 years ago, Howard Thurman, a Baptist preacher and black theologian, wrote a book entitled “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Thurman grew up in a segregated community in Florida in the early 1900s. In his early days as a preacher, he studied with Rufus Jones, a Quaker pacifist. Thurman later traveled to India to meet Gandhi. These experiences led Thurman to embrace “nonviolent social activism.” In “Jesus and the Disinherited,” Thurman “argues that Jesus taught the oppressed a faith-based, unconditional love that would enable (people of color) to endure their oppression.”
The good news according to Thurman is that “Jesus makes the love-ethic central” writing it seems clear that Jesus started out with the simple teaching concerning love”:
‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-31, NSRV).
Thurman goes on to say, “Once the neighbor is defined, then one’ moral obligation is clear… With sure artistry and great power he depicted what happens when a man responds directly to the human need across the barriers of class, race, and condition. Every (one) is potentially every (other person’s) neighbor…”
This is good news. A new vision. A new hope.
Here I am going to take a short pause and give you a break. So, take a moment and shift in your seats a little. Get comfortable, for I have a short quiz for you. My apologizes if you have been snoozing up until now. The word “quiz” might have jolted you awake! Don’t worry, there will not be any grades given. However, I am going to ask you a question. You do not need to raise your hand, or recite the words out loud. Here’s the question: What is the good news of God, here… for us as a faith community today… according to mission statement of Memorial UCC? What is our mission statement? What is our “why”? What is our vision? What is our hope? If called upon, could you state our mission?
This is our mission statement:
We are a community of faith called by God, to gather for worship and reach out in ever-widening circles as a witness to God’s all-inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and to act out God’s grace and mercy in deeds of teaching, healing, reconciling, nurturing, and feeding those who are hungry in body or in spirit.
Set in motion. Ever-widening circles. What does that mean for our visioning as a faith community moving forward? How are we going to act out God’s grace and mercy? These are verbs. Actions in response to Jesus’ call: Teaching. Healing. Reconciling. Nurturing. Feeding.
We are called out. The word of God has come. To cities. Along the shores of seas. In desert places: hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, prisons, schools, our places of work, the public sphere, social media. In the “wild places” all about. These are the ever-widening circles that have been set into motion around us. So repent. Especially through the lens of the meaning of that word in Greek: Let us wrap our minds around this new reality that has been proclaimed by Jesus. God already is. Full of “grace and mercy… rich in love.” God here. God now. We are—people of God—set in motion. Drop your nets.
– a reflection on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Mark 1:14-20
 Rolf Jacobson, “Sermon Brainwave,” SB582 – Third Sunday after Epiphany (audio blog), accessed January 13, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx.
 Rich Barlow, “Who Was Howard Thurman? BU Today, Boston University, accessed January 13, 2018, https://www.bu.edu/today/2011/who-was-howard-thurman/
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996).