Sermon for Sunday, January 21, 2018 || Epiphany 3B || Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
Each day, a thousand different choices confront us. Most are easy to navigate, and we do so without much thought. We might not even think of these as choices because we’ve made the correct choice so often that the incorrect one fades away. What do you do when you approach a stop sign? You stop, right? But there’s a hidden choice here. You could stop. You could choose to blow through the stop sign without even slowing down. Or you could perform the infamous rolling stop that got me caught twice by traffic cops when I was sixteen.
If you obey the traffic laws, you stop your car every time you approach a red octagonal sign. Each time you do, you’ve made a choice, and every time you make that same choice, it becomes more ingrained in you.
Such habituation can run both positively and negatively. Say you dream of being a world-class musician, and so you commit to practicing your violin every single day. Conversely, say your doctor warns you that diabetes is in your future and yet you can’t stop choosing sweets whenever they are available. The choices we make develop over time into patterns, some good, some bad.
Whether positive or negative, these patterns of choices have power over us because human beings are creatures of habit. It’s why most people sit in the same pew every Sunday at church. Or why Thursday night becomes burrito night, like it is at my house. It’s also why the YMCA, so full the few weeks after New Year’s, empties out again, as resolutions fail to to become habits.
About two years ago, I bought a water bottle like this one because I was intent on drinking a healthy amount of water every day, instead of languishing in the dehydration I was used to back then. Now I drink two of these bottles every day to make sure I’m consuming at least eight cups of water. But do you know what happens? If I forget or misplace this bottle, I won’t drink the water. My habit is so specific that I only accomplish it when this container is in close physical proximity to my person. In this case, I think I have conditioned myself a little too narrowly.
Right now, I am working on a new habit for myself, and I’d like to invite you to join me. It is the habit of “positive presence.” Some of you, no doubt, already practice this habit, but I’m just getting serious about it, so bear with me. The habit of positive presence encourages us to choose gladness, compassion, or generosity when a situation could lead us down the path to meanness, isolation, or greed. I am convinced that working to integrate this habit into my life is the only way I am going to survive our current social and political climate. And not just survive it, but with God’s help, change that climate for the better in my own small way.
A week or two before Christmas, I had my first successful field test of the habit of positive presence. I was in line at the copy center at Staples in New London one cold, wet afternoon, waiting to get our Christmas cards printed. There were a few folks behind me and in front. Predictably, there was only one person working at the copy center, and she was attempting to help three people at once. Ring up that customer. Print a sign for the other. Receive a FedEx package from the third. By the time I reached the front of the line, I had watched her running back and forth for a few minutes, and I admired her harried dedication. She was doing her best with few resources and an out-to-lunch fellow employee.
Apparently, one of the other customers, the one with the FedEx package, disagreed. I didn’t hear their exchange, but I saw the effects. The customer stormed past me with his package in his hands. The copy center clerk walked up to the front counter in a daze. Her eyes were glassy with tears. She looked at me and said in a distant voice, “That man just called me an idiot.”
At that moment, the choice confronted me. I could act like the FedEx package guy and demand that the clerk hop to because I had somewhere to be. Or I could speak a word of kindness to her and work to soothe the impatient customers behind me in line. As this was my first field test of the habit of positive presence, I am glad the choice was so obvious.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, flowed into me as I said, “I am so sorry. No one deserves to be treated like that. I think you’re doing a great job.” And then I spent the next ten minutes chatting with the people behind me, trying to be as affable as possible. It was an oddly wonderful experience that I am still carrying with me more than a month later. Choosing to be a positive presence changed my posture in that moment of typical annoyance. I found blessing in that moment, and I hope I was a blessing in the life of the clerk.
Now, the question is: did the peace of God steal upon me when I chose to be a positive presence? Or was I able to be a positive presence because the peace of God had risen within me?
I think the latter. We are able to inhabit positive presence because God is at work in us, willing us to work for God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. In the reading from the book of Jonah this morning, the people of Ninevah listen to the prophet and change their ways. They make an astounding choice, and en masse old habits give way to new ones. God sent the prophet to the city because God did not want to destroy the Ninevites. God gave them the call to change and the capacity to do it. Likewise, the first disciples left their nets not simply because Jesus called them, but because God gave them the tenacity to do it.
As I – as we – work to integrate the habit of positive presence, remember that the peace of God already animates us. When we choose to be a positive presence, we live the sincere, authentic life of followers of Jesus, who breathed peace onto those same fearful fishermen. Frankly, I am still overwhelmed by the power of that simple moment with the sales clerk at Staples. How could something so ordinary be shot through with holy implication? But that’s just how life is when we really pay attention. The habit of positive presence allows us to live that kind of life that Jesus yearns for all.
Does this mean we can’t ever get angry? No, because some anger is righteous, especially when old injustices still command the day. But our response to such injustice can still emerge from the habit of positive presence. Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow leaders infused the Civil Rights Movement with this habit from the start and triumphed because positive presence led to the unmasking of a hateful society.
We are creatures of habit, and every day a thousand different choices confront us. My prayer for myself and for all of you is that we remember the peace of God dwelling in our hearts. And that day by day we live more fully into gladness, compassion, and generosity so we can help change the world by the power of positive presence.