Sunday, March 30, 2014

"This Week's Sermon: Friends Don't Let Friends Dress Up Their Pets"

Jonah 3:1-10

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” 3 And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.) 4 Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. 6 When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” 9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.[a] 10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. (Common English Bible)

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

Our new knitting circle at FCC has been amazing—it has been attracting knitters of all ages to be able to just hang out at the church and practice their craft, and upon hearing the news that we had created a knitting circle here at church, my dear Carrie posted a news story from ABC Australia to my Facebook wall about what exactly we could devote ourselves to knitting: penguin sweaters.  No, not sweaters with penguins knitted on them.  Sweaters for actual penguins.  Here, I’ll let the folks at ABC tell you all about it:

The Penguin Foundation has a global callout for knitters to make pullovers for penguins in rehab.  Penguins caught in oil spills need the little jumpers to keep warm and to stop them from trying to clean the toxic oil off with their beaks.  The Penguin Foundation is based at Phillip Island, which is known for having a large penguin colony.

Knitter Lyn Blom is the receptionist at Phillip Island Nature Parks in Victoria and has knitted many penguin jumpers over the years.  (She) says it’s not just major oil spills that cause problems for local penguins.  “Fishermen might clean out a container or something while they’re at sea,” says Lyn.  “It’s a continuing problem,” she says.  “We probably get about 20 birds a year.”

One advantage of knitting a penguin sweater is that they are small.  “They’re very quick,” says Lyn.  The Penguin Foundation also distributes the jumpers to other wildlife rescue centers where needed.  While the Penguin Foundation’s website says it currently has a ‘good supply’ of the little jumpers, the organization also uses them in educational programs as well as selling them as a fundraising measure.

I suppose that if you are, in fact, going to dress up your pets after all, those pets should be penguins who have been affected by oil spills, and you should dress them humbly.  These are the animals with built-in tuxedos, after all—tuxedos ruined by our doing.  But that is more than can be said for the animals of Nineveh, who are given not pullovers, but sackcloth and ashes to wear!

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 on Palm Sunday and the beginning of the Passion narrative.

We kicked off the series two weeks ago with Jonah having declined God’s generous offer to go preach on His behalf to the Assyrians in Nineveh by fleeing in the exact opposite direction, to modern-day Spain.  In doing so, he boards a ship in the Mediterranean Sea bound for Tarshish, and when the ship gets caught in a storm, Jonah is chosen by lot to be the one responsible for the storm and he is unceremoniously chucked overboard, at which point God intervenes and brings forth a giant fish to keep Jonah from drowning.  In those three days and three nights he spends as sushi food, Jonah finally stops running and utters the prayer in Jonah 2, but that is far from the end of the story, as we discover today in Jonah 3!

Even though the most attention tends to be given to the first half of the Jonah narrative—the part about Jonah running from God and being swallowed by a fish—that part is literally only half of the story, as those two chapters give way to the episode depicted in the other two chapters of the story: of Jonah getting a mulligan from God, being called once more to preach in Nineveh, and actually going through with it!  And the results of his preaching are nothing short of incredible.

Jonah preaches the destruction of all of Nineveh (itself a huge city, requiring three days just to walk across) in 40 days—does that sound familiar at all to any of us who went to go see the film Noah over the weekend?  And like Noah, the nameless king of Nineveh takes the Word of God seriously and demands repentance not just from himself (by sitting in ashes—which, yes, probably looked as bizarre as it sounds) but from his subjects and their pets and herd animals.

To this end, not only does the king dress in sackcloth, but so too do the subjects and animals.  And, again, this should sound bizarre to us.  It should sound comical, because it is.  Imagine if it were, say, Ash Wednesday, and in addition to getting yourself ashed with the sign of the cross on your forehead, you brought in your cat to get ashed as well, so that they could show repentance for that time s/he shredded your favorite throw pillows.  This, of course, is a lie—we all know that cats are incapable of remorse.  And animals in general are incapable of theological angst the way the king of Nineveh is here.  That’s why friends don’t let friends dress up their pets—your pets don’t get why you’re having an existential crisis, so don’t foist it off on them in the form of a new doggie sweater.  Even if they shredded your favorite pillows, they don’t deserve that!

But if ever there were a moment to dress up your pets, the extreme gravity of saving lives would be it.  The little sweaters knitted for penguins literally save their lives by keeping them from succumbing to hypothermia, or from poisoning themselves with oil.  And the sackcloth and ashes imposed upon the animals of Nineveh literally saves them and their humans from divinely-wrought destruction (we aren’t told how said destruction would take place, but rest assured, our God is a creative God).  In the dressing of themselves and their pets, God sees the authenticity of Nineveh’s remorse, and true to form, He extends to them a second chance, just like He did for Jonah previously.  In this way, dressing up your pets would be both life-giving and life-saving.

That doesn’t mean it still wouldn’t be dorky and comical.  It was.  Audiences listening to the story of Jonah probably would have had a good chuckle right around this point in the story (laughing at the Word of God?!  Oh dear…maybe their pets should be ashed as well…).  But there is a definite method behind the apparent madness of the Nineveh king.  He may be a dope, but he knows the inning and he knows the score, and he is invested in saving his own people.

And just as it is true with this earthly king, so too do we discover that it is true with a divine king.  In spite of the urgency of Jonah’s sermon, God proves, in the end, to not want to destroy Nineveh.  That is perhaps the great takeaway from this chapter: God does not push the big red button if He can help it, even if we might think that it is time for Him to do exactly that.  As Old Testament scholar Johanna Bos writes about this passage, “Jonah may have entertained some small hope that when he cried his cry of overturning it would actually happen…Psychologically, it cannot be an easy burden to bear to predict doom which never happens, even though from an ethical point of view one should be glad.  It is a thankless job to preach the word and never see it come out the way one tells it.”

So what are we left with?  Between keeping God’s word as proclaimed by Jonah and extending grace to Nineveh and its inhabitants, God chooses grace.  Without a second thought.  Verse 10 is incredibly succinct and to-the-point on this: God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior.  So God stopped planning to destroy them, and He didn’t do it.  That’s it.  No agonizing over the decision, no writing out a pros-and-cons list, no consulting a magic-8 ball, no plucking petals off a flower (“I annihilate them…I annihilate them not…I annihilate them…”).  God sees our faith, and grace is immediately offered without hesitation or reservation.

Just don’t dress up your pets as a testimony to that faith, please.  Unless your pet is a penguin.  Who has been in an oil spill and needs a little penguin-sweater.  Then it’s okay.

But all of my asides here about the silliness of dressing up your pets—I have to admit, there is a larger point to all of them.  Sometimes, your faith will ask you to do things that other people might—and will—ridicule, even if you know that it is the right thing to do.  It’s remarkable, really: we as a species have never entirely graduated from Mean Girls in high school where you get mocked for not sitting at the cool kids’ table, when a faith that is centered around loving your neighbor as yourself would tell you to sit at the table with the kid whose Magic: The Gathering collection rivals your pastor’s own (there are two giant plastic tubs full of M:TG cards in my childhood bedroom.  Ask my mom, she’ll tell you).  We still prefer not standing up for people.

But faith in God doesn’t always call you to do what is convenient.  In fact, it seldom ever does.  It calls you to do what is right.  And so when that choice comes to you, as it does to us all, remember that Jonah never actually does what is convenient.  In this entire book, he never actually takes the easiest route out.  Yes, he runs from God, but he does so by crossing the sea—an incredibly dangerous enterprise back then.  He tries for an out, but it’s not the convenient way out.  While avoiding what is convenient, he does, at last, do what is right: he goes to Nineveh.

There, the king of Nineveh hears him.  And likewise avoids doing what is convenient.  He does what he believes to be right.  And a God who thrives on righteousness and authenticity sees this, and reacts immediately and accordingly in favor of grace.

By that grace, may it be so for you as well.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 30, 2014

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