Homer's wonderful rollicking tale, 'The Odyssey', tells the story of the hero Odysseus' attempts to find his way home after 10 years away at the Trojan wars. Odysseus has to brave many dangers and resist a multitude of magical enchantments and seductions – all the while back home his wife Penelope is having her own problems with a gang of 108 suitors busily eating her out of house and home and sleeping on the living room carpet until they can persuade her to marry one of them. The hero should have been back home in a couple of days flat, having been given a gift of a small leather bag containing all the winds that blow in the direction of home – except that the bag is opened by his drunken sailors while he sleeps, and the resulting storm sends them half way across the Mediterranean.
The point of the story – if indeed such a wonderful tale needs a point at all – is that sometimes we have to take some strange and unexpected detours to find our way home. Odysseus is single-minded in his resolve to get back to his beloved home of Ithaca, and his faithful Penelope, and fantasises of the delights of hearth and home while resisting manfully the advances of sirens and goddesses. A mortal lost and roaming among a pantheon of capricious and self-centred gods, Odysseus is super-human in his resolve, and that, perhaps, is the wonderful irony of it.
Written around about the same time as Homer was penning the Odyssey, the story of Jonah stars not a hero but an anti-hero. Where Odysseus spends every ounce of his strength and courage trying to get home, Jonah spends his trying to run away. Jonah is called by God to be a prophet to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, east across the desert – so he gets on a boat and heads west, aiming for Tarshish, which modern archaeology tells us could have been pretty much anywhere from North Africa to Spain or Cypress - but at any rate in the opposite direction to where he is supposed to be heading. Jonah's adventures are every bit as colourful and improbable as Odysseus's, which for my money makes this a rollicking good read as well.
Jonah has been given a mission impossible. Assyria at the time was the world's no. 1 superpower which over a period of some hundreds of years had been systematically giving Israel a hard time, for the simple reason that – economically and militarily unimpressive as it was – it happened to occupy a strip of desert that the Assyrian army more or less had to march through to get to anywhere that really mattered. You might think of Jonah like an Afghani peasant from Kandahar province who gets the job of going to Washington to tell the American people to get out of their country. Jonah's job is about as easy as you going to Sudan to ask the government there to stop its genocidal attacks on Christians in the south. God says to Jonah to march through the desert and just tell them to stop, to have a good think about everything, or else.
So Jonah does the only reasonable thing, under the circumstances. Maybe Jonah should be one of our patron saints, the patron saint of wannabe Christians. Because the world does sometimes seem designed to make Jonahs out of us. The world tells you, doesn't it – it's all very well to have high ideals but basically you can't make any difference in the big scheme of things. That whatever you do the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, cheats always will prosper, the rule of might is right isn't going to change for anything you might do or say. So just fall in line, go with the flow and you'll see you'll be a lot more comfortable. Look out for no. 1 because nobody else is going to do it for you, buy that nice comfortable car you've had your eye on, get that large-screen TV, just spend your energy doing the best you can for yourself and your family. Heck, it's hard enough just getting by! Let someone else worry about Nineveh. We hear God's call on our lives, telling us to get involved, to sacrifice something, to get out of our comfort zone, that the ones who are called to mission are us – but it's all too hard. And with that contradiction between what God seems to be calling us to – and what the world makes into the easier path and the easier choices – well a lot of the time we just get on the boat with Jonah, and yes, that means that like Jonah we waste some time in the belly of the whale, which is to say, submerged and locked in, out of touch with our calling and our spirituality and our true direction.
As I might have mentioned before, I'm a baby boomer. That used to be code for young – not so much nowadays, I find. It used to be code for idealistic and radical, we were the protest generation – we had seen the world our parents had created and didn't like it, so we were going to change it. We invented sex and civil rights and we built alternative communities and wore Che Guevara T-shirts. Well, not me personally, I was never cool enough for that. But of course now baby boomers run the world and we've become the comfortable generation. Maybe we still listen to rock n roll on our iPods and have a faded Che Guevara poster in the garage. But somewhere along the line we traded in idealism and community for materialism and individualism. We compromise. Real life catches up with us. We realise we can't solve the problems of the world and we get tired of our own self-righteousness, and we listen instead to the voice that tells us we can still have values at the same time as pursuing our own happiness and acquiring a few creature comforts. We can be radical on the inside. Ironically, what happens is we settle for less freedom and less happiness. Selfishness and materialism erode community and make it less possible to be ourselves. It puts us more out of purpose. Jonah's way seems easier at first, but in the end we get thrown overboard and end up in the belly of the whale.
In Mark's Gospel this morning we read how Jesus calls his first disciples to leave everything and follow him. These are small business-men, James and John working for their dad Zebedee. They have homes, families, boats, maybe they owe money. It's hard to imagine yourself in their shoes, what might have motivated them when Jesus says to them – leave all that. Come with me, instead. Things might not have been going well – what with climate change and the big trawlers overfishing the area maybe it's getting harder to earn a living. Maybe Zebedee is a tyrant, maybe they're feeling stuck and trapped.
Except the Gospel doesn't say any of that. Where Jonah takes three chapters arguing with God and running the other way, in Mark's Gospel Jesus says drop that and come – and in four verses they do. Of course for the rest of the Gospel they are going to spend their whole time missing the point, squabbling and competing to be the most important and ultimately run away when things get tough. But here Jesus says come – and they do. I know I would want to think about it for a bit, talk it over with Alison. Do wives and children get to come as well? Let's hope so. James and John even seem to have brought their mum along, so we read later in the Gospel. And of course we don't all get called to such a radical departure from our everyday lives. But like Jonah and like Peter and Andrew and James and John we do all get called. And when we get called the timing of our response is all-important.
What makes the difference? What makes it possible for these ordinary working people to drop everything and change the direction of their lives, where Jonah and the rest of us argue and fuss and make excuses? Of course, it is Jesus on the bank there. Maybe we tell ourselves if we actually had Jesus standing there waving at us that would clarify things a bit. It's the personal touch, isn't it? Knowing that the call is personal and authentic, that the one calling is the One who created you in love and that the call is the invitation to become what you were always intended to be. Hearing yourself addressed personally, at the deepest and most unmistakable level.
We do encounter Jesus, of course. The logic of incarnation is the logic of angels, of the God who slips into the world alongside of you and who does address you personally when you're busy doing whatever else it is that you do. We need each other to help us listen carefully, to discuss and argue and discern where the voice is in our lives and what it might be calling us to. We need each other to trust one another as hearers of the Word, to encourage and believe in one another's ability to faithfully respond. We need one another to challenge our self-serving excuses for doing nothing, and to give us that courage that can only come from being loved. We need one another to help us to be disciples who follow, rather than sympathisers who nod approvingly. The reason we call ourselves the 'body of Christ' is because we understand that in each other we do encounter the one who knows us, who loves us and calls us. Sometimes we don't do a very good job of being Christ to one another, but of course we need to keep working on it.
Sometimes we have to take a few detours, resist a few sirens and overcome a few monsters in order to find our way home. It takes wisdom and attentiveness to hear God calling us, and courage to respond. Sometimes, even when we are trying to follow, we find ourselves going the wrong way. But what we are called to, ultimately, is the journey home – to our true selves, to the one who made us.