Sunday, October 23, 2016

Prejudiced Prophets and Grace for All

A sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1,5-11
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

...Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for your gentle lessons, and your willingness to work with us even when we try to run away, like Jonah did, and even when we get angry with your judgment, like Jonah did. Help us to hear your wisdom in this story of grace and repentance. And help us to respond as the Ninevites did, not as your prophet did, so that we may always celebrate your mercy and steadfast love. Amen.

We all know the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish or whale. But do we really realize why Jonah ran away? It was not because Jonah just didn't want to. It was because he was deeply prejudiced.

Nineveh is introduced to us in scripture as wicked. If we go back further in scripture, we find that Nineveh is Israel’s enemy as the capitol of Assyria. In the books of Isaiah and Nahum, Nineveh is continually denounced by the prophets due to its wickedness. That is the whole reason why God wants to send Jonah in the first place: to tell the Ninevites they needed to repent. So maybe it isn't prejudice at first glance, right? He just doesn't want to be around wickedness condemned by God, right?

But listen to verse three of chapter one: when Jonah went the opposite direction of Nineveh, he went away from the presence of the Lord. He wasn't going away from wickedness. He was going away from God by avoiding the people God called him to help. Do we ever do that? A colleague of mine here in Harford County just told me a story about how he went down to pray in Baltimore with other clergy after the uprising, and he shared the experience with his congregation, since he had seen so much of God there. They didn't hear him. Instead they argued with him, telling him it was too dangerous to go, and besides why should they help people who don't want to help themselves? His congregation had their minds made up about Baltimore, like Jonah had his made up about Nineveh. And so they set their faces away from the presence of the Lord, away from the very real possibility of reconciliation and justice.

That's what this story is about. It is not about getting stuck in the belly of a fish and being spat back out when we are ready to do what God has called us to do, though that part of the story makes for good songs and cool imagery. This story is about possibility, about how God can transform the wicked Ninevites--- but even more about how God can transform a prejudiced prophet.

Jonah was not just prejudiced because he ran away from Nineveh. Look to the end of the scripture, the part we don't pay much attention to usually because we always talk about the fish part. The Ninevites hear the pronouncement on their wickedness. They listen to Jonah! And they repent. The whole city, humans and animals, fast and cover themselves in sackcloth and cry out to God. God hears them and has mercy on them. And that mercy made Jonah angry.

Oh Lord!” Jonah whines to try and cover up the cries of the Ninevites. “Is not this what I said when I was still in my own country. That is why I fled to Tarshish from the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:2-3). Then Jonah asks for death because, according to him, it is better to die than witness God's steadfast love and mercy transform those he despises. This is how small prejudice makes us--- how sick and warped and twisted it makes us. Jonah did not just try to go as far away from the people he hated as possible; he got angry when he saw that God loved them too. Jonah got angry that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

And God sighs. We read none of chapter two, but I encourage you to go home to read it. It is a poetic psalm of thanksgiving given by Jonah to God when Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Jonah laments, but he also names God as the one who brings us up from the Pit, who delivers us. Jonah has named God as deliverer, but yet he only wants God to deliver people like him. So God sighs when God listens to Jonah's whine. Rather than whacking Jonah upside the head, as I think Jonah needed, God made a bush. Jonah was out sulking outside the city, hoping God would change God’s mind and destroy the city anyway, and God created a big beautiful bush to shade Jonah while he sulked. But the next day God had the bush whither, leaving Jonah exposed to the heat. Which set Jonah off again. After listening to Jonah's rant, God pointed out Jonah's failing. Jonah had more love for a piece of shrubbery that he only knew for a day than he did for a city full of living creatures, living creatures created by God. We don't know what happened after God corrected Jonah. We do not know if Jonah repented, or if he went on sulking. But the story ends, leaving it open as a question: how would we respond? If God pointed out our prejudice and our failings to us, would we respond with repentance, or would we go on doing what we always have?

Either way, here's the thing: even filled with prejudice, God used Jonah to bring about grace and mercy. Even we, with all of our failings, can be used to bring about God's grace and mercy. If I were God, I would not want to work with a whiney guy like Jonah. But then again, Aaron could probably tell you that I can be a tad whiney myself sometimes. Guess what? God's grace extends even to whiners. The grace in this story is not just for the Ninevites, but also for Jonah. God did not give up on Jonah: insisting Jonah go where God called Jonah to go, and even coming up with a gentle lesson to help Jonah get why the Ninevites were so important. God does the same for us.

We can just make God's job a lot easier by opening our hearts in the first place.

I have been talking the last few weeks about church growth. I haven't really said the words “church growth” often, but that is what we have been talking about. I told you we would be completing a survey, trying to figure out what our next steps are as a congregation. You may be wondering what church growth has to do with Jonah. It is that openness, opening our hearts to everyone God loves, is necessary to growth.

Now, you may feel you are already a very open person. That you aren't prejudiced like Jonah, so crippled by cultural ideas of who is worthy of salvation and who is not that we would go in the opposite direction of where God is calling you. I know you all, and I know you have good hearts and mean well. I would hope you would say the same about me. But. Have you been on Facebook lately? And I know not all of you are on social media--- have you watched the news lately? You might not feel very prejudiced at the moment, but what if I showed you a bunch of pro-Trump memes and you are for Hillary? Or vice versa? How long does it take for you to talk to someone on the other end of the political spectrum from you before you write them off as stupid?

That's just one example. Even if we can escape overt sins of racism or sexism or classism, our culture seems to have lost the ability to have conversation and form relationships over partisan lines. If you are pro-police, you cannot listen to Black Lives Matter activist because they are wrong wrong wrong. If you are pro-choice, you cannot listen to someone who is pro-life because they are wrong wrong wrong. We do not believe that the group we are against can turn from their evil ways. If they actually do turn out to be nice people, this can be very displeasing to us, and we can become angry.

But remember what God tells us. Those people we disagree with are people God has created, just as God created the Ninevites, and God has offered them the gift of grace and redemption. Maybe, rather than getting all frustrated about what our brother-in-law or cousin or neighbor is posting on Facebook, we can talk to them about God's grace, which is something we need just as much as they do. That's how we can grow the church. By reaching out across our differences and sharing in God's grace.

So who do you need to share grace with? Who are your Ninevites? And when are you going to invite them to church?

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