Knock, Knock


Notes from
Preached at St Matthew’s Lutheran, Kitchener
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 21, 2018

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, Mark 1:14-20

Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Canoe! Canoe who?
Canoe come out to play?
Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Lettuce. Lettuce who?
Lettuce in, it’s cold out here.
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Atch.
Atch who? Bless you!

“Knock, knock” jokes went well with the children today, though I was easily thrown off the rhythm if somebody gave an unexpected response. I was, of course, trying to approach Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as an invitation to ‘come out and play’ with our new neighbours and landlords. One of theirpastors, Sebastian, played violin and preached in our chapel service.

We play the same games, but occasionally with minor variations that make us stumble. I suggested that Jesus breaks the patterns, playfully inviting us across boundaries. I claimed that two stories in the church’s bible lessons this week showed that sort of interruption in an expected order. It is as if we stepped into the middle of a joke, between punch lines, and need to find our place.

Similarly, I have stepped into a very long conversation, well over a century old, between St Matthew’s Lutheran and Trinity, or ‘First Berlin Methodist Church’, as we were then. You bought our church building on Queen over a century ago, so we built another on Frederick nearby. You moved to 54 Benton during the Great War, and we moved in as ‘Trinity on Church’ in Advent 2017.

It’s not hard to imagine some of the noise in our conversation, and interruption in our playfulness together, through the world wars and cultural upheavals of the century. It’s encouraging that we resume the discourse so easily, and still recognize Christ in the face of the other, with opportunities to witness, with what Pastor Sebastian summed up as ‘beauty’, or ‘separate space’ amid the city.

We’ve all got context: what and who came before, and since, and next. You wonder ‘where’s he coming from’, and ‘what’s our proud legacy, and regret’?

The word of the Lord came to Jonah
a second time, saying:

2 ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city,
and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’

We are reminded that we are already in the middle of the Jonah tale, the ultimate ‘knock, knock’ joke of sublime and ridiculous call and response. God told Jonah the first time to go to the capital of Babylon, which we know from our newscasts as Mosul in mid-Iraq, and scold that imperial city in God’s name.

The first time, we knew that Jonah ran the opposite direction. Improbably, we hear he was shipwrecked and swallowed by a whale. So I sang an old Sunday School verse from our tradition:

Jonah was an immigrant, so goes the bible tale…
He took a steerage passage on a transatlantic whale
The whale’s interior was crowded at the best
So Jonah pushed the button and the whale did the rest!

Adults return to this story to reflect on the ‘powers that be’ and of the ‘powers of the deep’. We live out Hobbes’ 1650 Leviathan of some social contract restraining our brute instincts. We jump on board Herman Melville’s 1850 Pequod as Ahab pursues the great white whale, Moby Dick. In the 21 st century, Catherine Keller and Slavoj Zizek invite us on wilder rides ‘out of the depths’.

In every time and place, far from the imperial centre, what is the challenge or quest for human beings? What are the threats we face, whether we take up the challenge, or flee to hide? Little guy Jonah felt the itch, and fled, felt it again, and scratched it. Jonah goes to Nineveh and yells at them to repent! He shouted on street corners, in a city that took three days to walk about.

We, like Jonah, know how this story is supposed to go, as comedy or tragedy, to show God’s justice. Nineveh is supposed to ignore Jonah, and God smite it. Despite Jonah’s first failure, just desserts will out. Instead, in our bible, Nineveh repents! Whether it’s correlation or causation, Jonah warns, Nineveh repents, and God relents and spares the city. Jonah feels oddly disappointed: don’t you?

Our Protestant movement is 500 years old, from Luther and Calvin. We protested and warned the powers-that- be of Europe and Rome, with slogans of ‘sola gratia, sola fides, sola scriptura’. Last year, in 2017, our Reformed church joined your Lutheran communion and Rome to agree on our doctrine of justification. We made peace, and agreed, repenting, relenting, reconciling.

Our Methodist movement is 200 years old, from the Wesleys in England, amid industrial revolution reaching beyond parish boundaries. Wesley claimed ‘the world is my parish’, including the ‘white trash’ swept from city streets into the colonial sewers of America and Australia. We rode the wave of demobilized troops from Napoleonic wars to this new world, as settlers with chapels.

We have had a great century, European ‘white trash’ settlers with Irish, Scottish, German, and now new accents, in ‘Waterloo-Wellington’ region. We worked hard, played fair, moderated our consumption (though we Methodists lost on prohibition of alcohol and Sunday shopping) – and prospered. We lobbied government to share education, health, and welfare – and they did.

Like Jonah, we’re not sure of our job now. Prophets for inclusive society, we hitched our wagon to a multicultural social welfare state. What are the limits of assimilation and diversity? We invented the category ‘WASP’, which worked for us here. Are we the conscience of the nation after residential schools? Can we find a place in right relations with racialized groups?

Now after John 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.’

Welcome to the gospel of Mark: abrupt, journalistic, cut to the chase scene. John, the star of the first 13 verses, is dismissed as ‘arrested’. What kind of soap opera is this? Peremptory, Jesus just tells fishers ‘follow me’, and they do. What about the family business? John just demonstrated the risks of ‘gospel’!

These are not guys chosen for aptitude or achievement, or prepared or persuaded into alliances with Jesus. These are fishers, illiterate, necessary for their family’s livelihood, being asked to do things for which they are not fit, and certainly not qualified! They are not competent to start a new religion – but then, that is not their job, but God’s. They have only to cooperate or resist.

We will face choices. That’s my job in 40 years of church work. While our denomination halved in size, I keep showing up to a bunch of fishers faced with challenges and choices. Let God be God. Let Jesus be Jesus. What would a disciple do? I think we would get up and go, come out and play, and find some new friends to share the game!

I am grateful for the company we keep, as St Matthew’s Lutheran church hosts our transitional time as ‘Trinity on Church’. I hope we maintain a spirit of play though our ‘knock, knock’ rhythms surprise each other a bit:

Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Canoe! Canoe who?
Canoe come out to play?
Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Lettuce. Lettuce who?
Lettuce in, it’s cold out here.
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Atch.
Atch who? Bless you!

It may have seemed a non-sequitor for me to close with a quotation from Martin Buber. The great German biblical scholar lost his university chair in 1933 and died in Israel, a mourning survivor of the Holocaust. He knew the power of words, and of the Word in Torah and Gospel, and he wrote:

We cannot avoid.
Using power,

Cannot escape the compulsion.
To afflict the world,
So let us, cautious in diction,
And mighty in contradiction,
Love powerfully.