Sunday, March 9, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Friends Don't Let Friends Play the Lottery"

Jonah 1:1-10

The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” 3 So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. 4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. 5 The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter. Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. 6 The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.” 7 Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?” 9 He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.) (Common English Bible)

“Friends Don’t Let Friends…A Lent Alongside Jonah,” Week One

The Reverend Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of the largest United Methodist congregation in the country, coincidentally in my hometown metropolitan area of Kansas City.  In his 2009 book Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, he recounts his experience with that dreaded home equity loan market upon which a chunk of the blame of the Great Recession (and still torpid job economy) was heaped.  He writes, in part:

The last few years have seen a boom in home equity loans,, which allow us to withdraw the money from what is, for most of us, our single largest savings account—removing the equity from our home and spending it.  So instead of paying down the mortgages on our homes, many of us choose to withdraw the equity for home improvements or other purchases.  Recently, I received an offer from my mortgage lender to loan me more than I paid for my house eight years ago—and my house is not close to being paid off.  That’s a lot of extra cash I could spend on anything I wanted.  No new appraisal.  No closing costs.  No need to show bank statements or verify other assets.  No paycheck stubs or proof of income required.  I was told I could take out all the equity in my home—and quite a bit more.  If I actually took out this loan, you would have to visit me in jail because the amount of money they offered was more than I could reasonably pay back.

It’s these kinds of offers that feed our desire to have it now and pay later.

What Pastor Adam is describing here really is another form of legalized gambling, not unlike blackjack or roulette.  You’re pushing all-in on a bet that you may not be able to back up completely…which is why you see so many people with gambling addictions lose everything.  And this almost happens to Jonah because of two great and terrible gambles he makes here now.

This is a new sermon series for a new church season: traditionally, the forty days prior to Easter Sunday make up a worship season called Lent, and those forty days correspond to the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and being tempted in the wilderness.  Lent is a season whose primary themes, then, are largely about denial of selfishness and repentance from our own past selfishness.  And really, there is no better story about selfishness in Scripture than that of the prophet Jonah.  Sure, you have individual stories about selfishness in Biblical heroes like Samson and David, but none of their stories involved getting belched out of a giant future sushi roll.  And really, selfishness is what defines Jonah, even more so than any other Biblical character.  He is the original prodigal, the original heir who renounces his Father hundreds of years before Jesus tells us His parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  So for Lent this year, we will be reading through, verse-by-verse, the entirety of the Jonah narrative.  It’s only four chapters long, so going verse-by-verse is definitely doable in a five-week series, and we’ll come out the other side all set for Palm Sunday and the beginning of the Passion narrative.

We open with Jonah, who, no matter what other kookyboots things happen to him, is a historical figure—2 Kings 14:25 attests to a prophet named Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-Hepher.

But unlike every other prophetic book in the Old Testament—Isaiah, Jeremiah, you name it—Jonah’s book is not primarily a compilation of prophesies and oracles, but rather, it is a story, and a story that really is about much more than his getting swallowed up by a giant fish (NOT a whale—as one of my commentators put it, that was Pinocchio.  Can you imagine Jonah saying, “I want to be a real prophet?”).

No, of course not, because right now, Jonah does not want to be a real prophet.  He wants to be anything but a prophet if it means avoiding having to go to Nineveh in Assyria.  So he sets out in the complete opposite direction—Tarshish was most likely in modern-day Spain, and Nineveh in Assyria would have been in modern-day northern Iraq, on the Tigris River.  And Israel sits in the middle.  To try to put that in our context, it would be as though Jonah lived here, in Longview, got the call from God to go preach in New York City, and instead boarded Delta’s very next nonstop flight from Portland to Tokyo.  That is about the size of Jonah’s disobedience here.

And so that is the first major gamble (of two) that Jonah takes in these opening ten verses.  He gambles, essentially, that he can outrun God.  After all, if YHWH is really only the God of Israel, once you’re far away from Israel, you should be golden, right?

Of course it does not work out that way.  And there was no possible way for it to, since YHWH is, in turn, God not only of the Israelites but of the Gentiles as well.  But these Gentile sailors do not realize it yet, so when a storm hits, they each prayed out to their own God.  And I love what Yale University’s John Collins says about the sailors: “Ecumenical to a fault, they urge Jonah also to pray to his god.”  I would say that “urge” is a bit of an understatement, because somehow Jonah has managed to conk out during this storm, and the sailors have to go and wake him…and as the ship’s captain points out, if Jonah is sleeping through something like this, you know it has to be a pretty deep sleep.  So the task of waking Jonah up was probably a serious team effort.

Once Jonah is awake, though, he takes his second major gamble.  None of the ecumenical sailors can figure out what is causing the storm (after all, meteorology had not yet been studied, and if it was storming, it was because some Ba’al or Asherath up there was ticked off at you…or, as Collins delightfully puts it once more, “this cacophony of prayer fails to produce the desired result!”), so they decide to cast lots to decide whose fault it is.  Essentially, they play the lottery, except instead of winning millions of dollars, you get to become the scapegoat.

Of course, Jonah “wins” the lottery.  And the gambles he made—trying to escape God, doing so by hopping aboard a ship during a time when seafaring was still very much a dangerous occupation—all come back to bite him.  The sailors demand of him, “What have you done?!”

Now, if you ever think of anyone who has lost everything in a gamble—maybe gambling as we think of it today in a casino, but also in a boneheaded business venture or in some sort of a scam, you are liable to react the exact same way to them when they—and you—discover that everything has been lost: What have you done?!  How have you put yourself at risk like this?!

That is why friends don’t—or shouldn’t, at any rate—let friends play the lottery.  It is almost always a losing proposition.  And here, Jonah, only ten verses in, is already taking it on the chin.

But that is not the only takeaway from this initial exposition of Jonah’s story, or, at least, it is only the surface-level takeaway.  Jonah has put himself at risk because of something that should be very familiar to all of us: his selfishness.  He does not want to do what God asks—in fact, he decides to do the exact opposite of what God asks because, as we’ll come to discover, he simply does not want to do it.  At all.

And if you think of God, sitting in His throne in Heaven and looking down on earth, the first words out of His mouth are probably something along the lines of, “Story of my life, mate.”

Adam and Eve do not want to do what God tells them to do—to not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  So they end up doing it anyways.

Cain does not want to do what God tells him to do—to not be envious of his brother Abel.  He murders Abel anyways.

Lot’s wife does not want to do what God tells her to do—to not look back on Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed.  She does, and she gets turned into a giant pile of table seasoning.

And that’s just the first half of the book of Genesis.  The entirety of Scripture is, in many ways, written on a timeline of us selfishly only doing what we want to do, not what God calls us to do.

Part of the whole purpose of Lent’s existence, of marking and celebrating Jesus’ time in the wilderness, is precisely to try to jolt us out of the rut of what we want to do as opposed to what God calls us to do.  Like us, Jonah hasn’t gotten the memo yet.  But he will, if you tune back in for next week, and the week after!  But we still can hold out hope for getting the memo too (If I just could insert Office Space joke about TPS reports here…That would be greaaaaaaat).

Our selfishness is what can cause us to take those gambles, like Jonah’s, that are ultimately and epically self-destructive.  We either hoard our wealth or gamble it away.  We decide that the equity in our homes would be better off as cash in our pockets.  We throw away so much that is still usable and salvageable, and then complain about how we are out of resources.

And then, to top it all off, we—again, just like Jonah— in another gamble, run away from the consequences of actions.  Or, at least, we try to.  But they still have a way of catching up to us.

The thing this…God has a way of always catching up to us as well.  No matter how far down the path of the prodigal we follow—and for Jonah, as perhaps the original prodigal, that is quite a ways—God will still make His presence known.  God will still hurl the winds, God will still throw the waves, God will still move the mountains and seas that He created in order to get our attention, because no matter our messes, no matter our mistakes, to God, we are still salvageable.

Such are the ways of a God who absolutely refuses to fully give up on us.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 9, 2014

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