Less is More (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

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A number of years ago, Rabbi Jacob told our clergy lunch group that in the Talmud, the rabbis often consider Jonah to be the most successful preacher in the Hebrew Bible.  This is ironic, considering that Jonah didn’t want to preach at all.

Most of us remember from childhood the story of Jonah and the whale (or really, the fish). God tells Jonah to get up and hike over to northern Iraq (which is where Nineveh is located.)  But Jonah doesn’t want to do it, so he tries to sail away in the opposite direction, whereupon God sends a storm; the sailors cast Jonah overboard and he gets swallowed by the fish where he sits for three days in time-out.

Finally, God has the fish spit Jonah up on the beach and God says, effectively, “OK, Jonah, let’s try this again – go to Nineveh and preach to them the message I tell you.”  So Jonah goes, but he still doesn’t want to.  We know this from two things in today’s story.

First, he arrives in Nineveh, which the story says is a great city so big that it takes three days to walk across it.  So to reach the city center, Jonah would have to walk for a day and half.  But after a day, Jonah’s had enough of this.  He figures this is good enough and stops.  So, it’s not the best place for preaching.

Then, he utters his sermon, which as the rabbis point out, is just 5 words long in Hebrew!  Just 5 words: “40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  Jonah so doesn’t want to do this that he dispenses with the standard beginning which all prophets were supposed to use: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel…”  He just speaks 5 words that God told him and leaves.

And yet, with those 5 words, the “people of Nineveh believed God”, and they repented!   And this is why the rabbis say Jonah was so effective.  Just 5 words.  Those words don’t answer many questions we might have: “What exactly were the ‘sins’ the people of Nineveh were committing?”  “Why were they wrong?”  “What would they have to do to repent?”  Jonah says nothing about any of those things. But those 5 words worked, perhaps because sometimes, less is more.

I feel the same thing when I read Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  As Jesus walks along, he sees Simon and Andrew and says, “follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.”  And they “immediately” leave what they’re doing and follow.  Then he sees James and John and says the same.  And they just get up and leave.

Just a few words: “follow me.”  And I think, “Wait!  It can’t be that simple!”  These guys must have all met or heard about Jesus before.  Jesus must have told them what his program and ministry was all about.  There must have been situations or people in the lives of these four guys that made them receptive to what Jesus was saying.

Maybe.  We don’t know.  Mark doesn’t tell us.  He simply says that in the end, Jesus came to them and said “follow me” and they did.  Maybe if there was more to the story and Mark told us, we’d get all distracted from the central point: when Jesus said, “follow me” they did. 

“Follow me”.  It’s just two words.  But Mark says those two words worked, perhaps because sometimes, less is more.

When I was in college, I was a member of Augustana Lutheran Church down in DC.  In those days, there was no A/C in that big, old stone building.  So in the summer, it could easily be getting into the 80s inside the building, even during the 10 am service. 

On one of those hottest July or August mornings, I was sweltering in church with my friends.  And Pastor Miller (who always wore even more layers of vestments than I do!), got up to preach the sermon in that heat.  He said, “You all know how miserable it’ll be in this building during the summer, but you came to worship anyway.  I can point to no greater sign of the work of the Spirit than that.”  And he stopped and sat down! And all these years later, I remember that sermon.

Now, Pastor Miller preached some pretty good sermons.  And in retirement, he still posts some pretty good reflections on Facebook.  But of all his sermons and posts, I remember that one, because sometimes, less is more.

If you read my report in this year’s annual bulletin of reports, I begin by talking about our last in-person Council meeting, 5 days before the pandemic forced us to close down live worship.  At that meeting, Jon Conary had the devotions.  He shared with us a question that he had considered in business, but that was relevant for church life as well.  The question was this: “If you suddenly had to stop everything you were doing, which things would you start up again and how would you do them differently?”

I don’t think any of us realized at that moment how God would be calling us to live that question, instead of thinking about it merely as an academic exercise. 

But now, here we are.  Everything DID have to stop.  We’ve had to do a lot of things in new ways.  And we’re hopeful that sometime later this year, we can begin to get back to something resembling “normal.”

But the question God put before us through Jon’s devotional exercise remains:  What do we start again?  What do we stop doing?  What will we do differently?

I don’t have all the answers to those questions.  And we’re not going to propose answers at the Annual Meeting next week, either!  But as our readings today remind us, sometimes less is more.  And as bad as this time has been for all of us, maybe this is a good opportunity to focus on fewer things that are really important and really make a difference for our faith and spiritual life, instead of trying to do many things just because “we’ve always done it like that.”

As some of you know, I spent many years on Synod teams that looked at best practices for congregational growth and health.  I learned a lot from the many studies we looked at.  But one of the themes that seemed always to be a part of these studies was that the most difficult challenge congregations face is NOT to be willing to try a new thing.  Instead, the hardest thing for a congregation to do is to STOP doing things that don’t work anymore, or that aren’t really meeting the needs of many people anymore.

That is, congregations were usually willing to add more stuff.  But without stopping things that were no longer working, people didn’t have enough time, energy or “bandwidth” for the newer things.  As a result, neither new nor old flourished.  Because sometimes, less is more.

This time of pandemic has caused a lot of us, in our personal lives, to reflect on what really matters.  And I suspect most of us aren’t going to simply resume doing a number of things just because we can.  Instead, we’ve spent this time really considering which things are worth starting again; which things really can be dropped from our schedule; and which things can and should be done differently.

Those are good questions to ask, not simply from a practical standpoint, but from a faith perspective.  And those are questions we should ask personally, as well as in our common life together in this congregation.

We don’t have to do it all, and we don’t have to do it just like we used to.  And that’s because often, in heeding Jesus’ call to follow him, individually and collectively, sometimes less really is more.