Sunday, April 6, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Friends Don't Let Friends Be Heartless"

Jonah 4:1-11

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3 At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” 4 The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” 5 But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a shrub,[a] and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. 7 But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. 8 Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 9 God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!” 10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Common English Bible)

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

Jean Winsor’s story is one of those that you do a double-take upon hearing. Not the first part—that part is sadly increasingly common, the part where she got laid off from her job of 12 years and couldn’t find work for over a year. The next part, though, is:

Her jobless benefits expired at the end of December. She wore extra layers to keep warm in a bid not to run up her electricity bills and contemplated selling her living room furniture to make her monthly mortgage payment of $481.

That’s when…Lee Bissell…read about her plight and offered to pay Winsor’s mortgage for a month. Bissell is not a millionaire with thousands of dollars to spare. In fact, she is a federal worker living in Herndon, Virginia, supporting a sick husband, a 15-year-old daughter, and an 8-year-old son. 

What resonated with Bissell was that Winsor had worked as a home health care aide for 12 years before losing her job. Bissell’s 64-year-old husband is struggling with end-stage dementia, and aides like Winsor have been a godsend. Bissell wanted to express her gratitude by helping one health care aide in need. 

And I love what comes next, what Lee says when asked to quote for this article: “I don’t know that I can do it again. But in that moment, it felt right. I feel really blessed I can do something like that and not worry about paying my own bills.” And that’s what this is all supposed to be about. Feeling strong enough and blessed enough to actually love your neighbor even when your own battle that you’re fighting is all-consuming. In the midst of a sick husband and two children, a wife and mother found the deep empathy necessary.

We are wrapping up this five-week sermon series today, because believe it or not, next Sunday—Palm Sunday—is the last Sunday of Lent!  Traditionally, the forty days prior to Easter Sunday make up the season of 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 has definitely been doable in a five-week series.

We kicked off the series 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 discovered in Jonah 3, in which Jonah obeys God’s command, preaches at Nineveh, and the entire citizenry, upon decree from the king, repents and believes in the Lord.  Which brings us to Jonah 4, in which Jonah…well, to put it charitably, Jonah doesn’t put his best self on display for God.

In fact, Jonah does pretty much the opposite—after prophesying Nineveh’s destruction, he basically builds himself a front-row seat to watch the epic, divinely-wrought destruction of the city.  And, of course, he ends up disappointed, even though he knows full well—from personal, firsthand experience, at that—that God is “merciful and compassionate…slow to anger, full of faithful love, and unwilling to destroy,” as Jonah himself puts it!  Yet still he wants God to do what he—Jonah—wants God to do, as opposed to what God Himself wants to do, which is to give grace to Nineveh.

Jonah may be a prophet of God, but he utterly lacks empathy.  Last week, I quoted Old Testament scholar Johanna Bos, who said, essentially, that from an ethical perspective, Jonah should not want to see Nineveh destroyed.  He should want to see these 120,000 people (and their dressed-up pets) form a relationship and a covenant with God.  But on a spleen level, on Falstaff-esque gut level, Jonah is, and would be, perfectly delighted to watch Nineveh burn to the ground instead.

I know this is the Old rather than New Testament, but still…that’s not very Christ-like, you know?  But it is, I think, sadly, very, very  Christian-like.  Love thy enemy?  Well, unless wishing fire and brimstone upon them constitutes “love” (in which case I think that you and I have dramatically different understandings of the term), we do not, as a general rule, love our enemies.  Even though our Lord and Savior commands us in no uncertain terms to do so.

And I’m not talking about simply, say, our military enemies.  Jonah is not at war with Nineveh here.  He simply wants to see it razed for spite.  And there are couple of things worth remembering here about this sentiment—first, said sentiment does not disqualify Jonah from being called by God to be a prophet.  Jonah is a profoundly flawed person, yet still he is able to be a vessel of God’s, even when (or perhaps especially when) he disagrees with God.  But secondly, just because you are “on God’s side” does not mean that God always gives you what you want.  God is not a holier version of Santa Claus, and asking for Nineveh to be sacked ranks right up there with asking for a pony.

In other words, humility is a necessary component to being any sort of a minister on behalf of God, because only when we put ourselves second are we truly able to reach for empathy—to reach for the practice of putting ourselves in another’s shoes and, one would hope, then putting them first.  It is what happened to Jean Winsor—a woman with not much more to live on than her felt a connection of gratitude and empathy, and did something to change her life for the good.  And it is sadly what does not happen to Jonah at the end of his story—though not for a lack of trying on God’s part.

God tries to get Jonah to experience some empathy by once again doing something for the guy—in this case, causing a shrub to grow miraculously to a height that provided Jonah even more shade than his DIY hut could—which, in the desert (keep in mind that Nineveh was in modern-day Iraq), is no small gift.  But then God just as quickly takes the tree away, and Jonah pities its loss not because he created it or nurtured it or did anything to help it grow—he only benefited from its presence.  But God *did* create the Nineveh people, and God has nurtured them and has sought them to grow, and such a relationship is—as it should be—a source of pity and mercy for God.  God is invested in Nineveh’s well-being in ways that dwarf Jonah’s investment in the well-being of this divinely-made and divinely-taken shrub.  God is, quite simply, invested in all of His children.

Maybe that should not offend Jonah to his core, but it does.  And it probably offends us as well, if we are truly honest with ourselves.  Because Jonah is an Israelite—a person with whom God has a particularly special relationship in the Old Testament.  They are His people, and He, their god.  And we as Christians can get up and talk until we’re blue in the face about everything that I just said—that God is invested in and loves all of His children—but there is still that small part of Jonah in each of us that is pulling for a special, VIP-level relationship with God.  We want that plum parking spot in Heaven.  We want to be recognized for our Christian-ness, even though Jesus again clearly discourages it.  We want God to think we are the special little snowflake that we think we are.

And when Jonah learns that, no, he is special just like everybody else and as such is wonderfully and beautifully unspecial as well, he throws a conniption and tells God that he’d rather be dead, like the child who claims that they would rather starve than eat their vegetables.  And having to admit that you are held on the same level as anybody else in God’s eyes is, in a manner, eating your spiritual vegetables.  It forces us to admit to the worth of other people we’d just as soon see as worthless.

That is why friends don’t let friends be heartless.  It prevents us from reaching for empathy for others and humility for ourselves.  Both of these are necessary, even vital, ingredients to us being able to fulfill the mission of God in this world, and so often we find ourselves, like Jonah, lacking severely in one, the other, or both.  We may be called by God, but it is our own inner brokenness that prevents us from fully understanding and realizing God’s mission for each of us.

Regardless, though, Jonah doesn’t come out of this ending looking very good, and it makes you wonder why exactly the compilers of the Old Testament felt led by God to include such a negative portrayal of a prophet in the Biblical canon.  A great many theories have attempted to answer this question, and Old Testament scholar Barry Bandstra concisely summarizes my favorite one:

It is a criticism of Israelite prophets, exposing their insincerity at preaching repentance, not really wanting to see it, and being disappointed (and taking it as a personal failure) when destructive judgment is not meted out by God.

If we demand repentance from somebody we don’t like, but don’t really want to see said repentance for whatever reason (it deprives us of that emotional club to beat them with, or it would make us question our prior assumptions about them, etc.), then we must seriously question the nature and character of our own professed faith.  We do not get to expect repentance, see it, and then call shenanigans.  We do not get to preach hellfire and brimstone and take any sort of joy in doing so (even if we claim outwardly that we are not).  We do not get to impose our selfish ethics upon God’s unbounded grace.  We get to do precisely zero of those things.

But, like Jonah, we still dare to do all of them at times.  Even after our own journeys of running away from God, running to the ends of the earth to avoid what God wants us to do, we have the audacity to demand from God destruction when God has shown to us only forgiveness.  And of course God would show us forgiveness.  Precisely because, like Jonah, like the king of Nineveh, like the people and animals and shrubs of Nineveh, we all need it.  Whether we can admit that or not.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 6, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment