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.
Jonah 3:1-5 (NRSV)
As Jesus passed along 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.
Mark 1:16-20 (NRSV)
Have you ever spent time thinking about the words that you use? Of course, you can pay attention to see if you are using positive words that build people up or negative words that hurt not only those around you but can also be used to hurt yourself and sometimes words are different depending on where you are and what you are doing.
Here in the church, we use a different vocabulary then you might use somewhere else. We talk a lot about prayer, and grace, hope, and unconditional love. We use big words like “invocation,” which simply means “an opening prayer.” And “benediction” meaning “words that send people off in peace.” We even have names for the different rooms in our building like the sanctuary, which we are in right now or the Narthex, that’s the room between the front door and the sanctuary, or the Vestry, which is the hall downstairs where we have our church suppers. But in today’s society, and even in the church, we tend to try to simplify the language. We use common, everyday words that everyone will understand because we want people to feel welcomed and comfortable. But, I remember back in Seminary, I had to take a semester-long course all on church vocabulary! And though using simpler words may be a more welcoming way to reach out to new families, the way we talk about the church and the things that are important to us means a lot.
Today from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament, we heard from the book of Jonah. And we heard one of the most well-known phrases from the book of Jonah, which is repeated several times, “and the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” Because the entire story of Jonah is about God asking Jonah to relay a message or a word to the people of Nineveh: to repent and to change their ways. But Jonah struggles with it, and he tries to run away from God’s call, ultimately causing him to jump out of a boat in the middle of a storm, and that’s when he gets swallowed by a whale! But in the end, Jonah obeys God’s call and shares the Word of the Lord with the people of Nineveh. And surprisingly, they do, as scripture says, “put on sackcloth,” which means they repented and changed their ways. And everyone, including God, was happy. How important a few simple words were, not only to Jonah but also to the Ninevites!
And then, from the Christian scriptures or the New Testament, we heard from the Gospel of Mark. Instead of a whale, we hear about several fishermen. But again, an important word is given. Does anyone remember what Jesus said to the fishermen? Yes, “Follow me! Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” So even Jesus uses words that the disciples are used to, to invite them and to encourage them to follow him.
As you all know, today is our annual meeting here in Oldtown. After worship, we will be getting together to talk about the work of the church. As a church with congregational polity, like we have, the work of the church is done by the work of each and every person here today. Here in Oldtown, as a Protestant church, we believe in “the priesthood of all believers.” That’s another one of those tricky church words or phrases which simply means that each and every one of us has direct access to God, meaning that we don’t have to pray through a saint or a priest to get to God, We can talk to God directly. What it also means is that we all have the ability to carry out ministry, and as followers of Jesus, that is just what we are called to do.
This year, we are making a change to the way our church works, to reinforce the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Right now, as most of you know, our church is run by a few officers: our moderator, our clerk, a few treasurers, our superintendent of Sunday school, our historian, and our diaconate. And then there are several different kinds of committees. There is a Christian education committee, and a missions committee, a buildings and grounds committee, and a flower committee, a fundraising committee, a historical committee, and a stewardship committee. And our church committee which works to connect all the committees together. And then, in addition to that, there are even ad-hoc committees that are offshoots of the other committees. Wow! That’s quite a few committees, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but when I hear that list, it sounds like lots of “business” and a lot of note-taking and a lot of meetings.
Well, this year, which may be a surprise to some of you, we are doing away with all committees in the church! There will be no more committees at the Oldtown church! Now some of you might be celebrating right now, and others of you might be worried because you don’t know how we are going to keep our doors open without everyone working together! Well, first, my friends, let’s just take a deep breath! Let me explain to you what we are planning.
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the work that we do here at the church, even though it’s all good things, whether it’s taking care of our building, or fundraising for our budget, decorating for the holidays or planning mission projects or Sunday school events. We get so busy, and we work so hard that we forget why we are doing the work that we are doing. We forget that we are a church! And that we’re not just doing what we’ve always done, or checking responsibilities off of a to-do list, but that we are following a call from Jesus to be his disciples.
The change that is happening in Oldtown this year is all about the way that we look at the work that we do. And though it’s really just a simple word change, I believe it has the possibility to truly change the way that we look at and understand what we do. This year, the word “committee” is being taken out of our church vocabulary and it is being replaced by the word “ministry.” Now, to some of you, it’s not going to seem like a big deal. We only changed the word. But, as we talked about earlier, words are important, and they carry with them emotions and depth. So it is important that we pay attention to the words that we use, whether we are sharing them with others or simply with ourselves.
Friends, in our scripture readings today, we heard “the Word of the Lord” through the prophet Jonah, telling people to repent, or change, in order to better follow God’s way. And then we heard Jesus saying, “Follow Me” and I will make you fishers of people. So, friends, let’s give our new vocabulary a try. Let’s change our ways in order to better follow God’s way, that we might focus on truly being followers of Jesus in all that we say and do.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, remember that words are important. Make good choices with the words you share, and work hard. But also remember why you do what you do because it’s easy to lose track of the things that really matter. But the Good News is that it’s never too late to refocus or to change, or to start all over again. Because God is always there, loving you and encouraging you to do your best each and every step of the way!
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!