A Whale of a Tale

“A Whale of a Tale”

Jonah spitout, painting

Jonah 1:12, 2:1 – August 18, 2019

Jonah and the whale is a much beloved bible story often told to children. Many young ones listen with wide eyes and ears to the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. Every bible story book I have ever seen mentions that the great fish was sent by God, so children (and adults) will know God was with Jonah even in the belly of the whale—or, great fish.

That lesson is definitely one everyone can use! Children, young people, adults, seniors alike, how valuable it is to know that God is with all people—even in the metaphorical or actual belly of a whale.

But, with our adult-sized viewpoint, let’s go back to the beginning of this story, to the beginning of Jonah chapter 1. Jonah was an acknowledged prophet of God. Prophets of God were held to particularly high standards. Everything they said in the name of God had to come true: this was stated in Deuteronomy, in the Law Code of Moses. And, Jonah understood he needed to follow God’s commands. Except—he didn’t. He stubbornly decided to turn tail and run, run in the opposite direction.

What about you and me? What if there is a command Jesus plainly sets forth in the Gospels—like give away your money and you will have treasure in heaven, or love your neighbor as yourself, or especially, love your enemies? And, some Christians—maybe even you and me—do not follow those commands? What then?

We follow Jonah as he runs away in the opposite direction. He goes west, taking a ship for Tarshish, across the Mediterranean Sea. The Lord pursues Jonah with a great storm, the ship almost founders at sea, and the sailors ask Jonah why the storm has come upon them. Jonah is finally honest and says it is all his fault. He is the cause of the great storm. Throw him overboard, and the storm will stop. The sailors were unwilling at first, but finally they did throw Jonah overboard. And, lo and behold, the storm did indeed stop.

Have you ever wished that God could talk to you as clearly as God talked to people in the Hebrew Scriptures? I know I certainly have. Except—even if God talked clearly to us as a dear friend and close companion, are we sure we would listen to God’s spoken words? Or would we be disobedient sometimes, just like Jonah?

Finally, Jonah stops running. Finally, in the belly of the great fish, Jonah repents and asks God for forgiveness. What does God do? The Lord is gracious, forgiving and compassionate, of course! That is God, all over. Exactly the Lord’s gracious, compassionate heart.

As we follow Jonah in the fish’s stomach, and as he gets vomited up on land on the third day, we have a sudden glimpse of why Jonah did not want to go preach to Nineveh. For anyone who knows the history of the book of Jonah, the Assyrians controlled large parts of what is now Syria, Iran and Iraq, among other nearby regions. The Assyrian armies were particularly cruel and bloodthirsty to the nations they fought with and conquered—similar to other armies.

Is anyone surprised to learn that Jonah did not want to preach to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire?

Jonah finally goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent, otherwise God will destroy Ninevah! What happens? The Assyrians and the King of Nineveh do repent. In fact, this is what the King says. “Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!” 10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. God did change his mind about them. What God said he would do to them God didn’t do.”

What is more, Jonah was furious with God for not destroying Nineveh! Here’s what he  said to God: “1-2 Jonah lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!”

We can laugh at Jonah for getting furious with God and stalking off, essentially slamming an imaginary door and leaving an imaginary room. But—God forgave Jonah for Jonah’s sins and disobedience. God created the people of Nineveh. Can God not express divine love and compassion and forgiveness for all the people in the world God made?

When you and I allow hatred and fear to take residence in our hearts and blind us to the fact that God created each person on earth. Father Richard Rohr warns, “you will go back to dualistic thinking and judgments: good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.” [1] That is not the way of God, the way of heavenly compassion and mercy, grace and truth.

Sure, God knows very well that we all are sinful. Sure, God knows that we all mess up. Even, stealing from the weak and old, killing with knives or guns or bare hands. What about the other ways of hurting people, like destroying someone’s reputation by spreading false rumors? Or destroying a marriage by sleeping with someone’s spouse? Or, destroying the well-being of a temple or church by embezzling a large sum of money?

Sure, you and I are very glad and grateful when God forgives us, when God has compassion and mercy and grace on us. But, if we slip into the fearful, dualistic thinking and judging of good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or, we are in danger of missing the path of God’s heavenly love and compassion, God’s love and mercy, God’s everlasting arms of forgiveness.

Yes, this is so challenging for all of us. I do not know how, but God was somehow in the midst of horror and violence and desperation, of victims and post-traumatic stress and even the horrendous death and torture that the Assyrian armies were responsible for. And, God forgave the Assyrian people of Nineveh. God has forgiven countless countries, because each country is made up of individuals created by God.

We can move that to the 20th century, and the 21st. God created each person in the American military, the German army, the Russian navy, the Japanese military, the French or Palestinian resistance, and all their families. God created each person in the Nigerian army, the Iraqi military, the British or Chinese navy, and all their families. People are wounded and many died. Yet, God loves all of those people—both the ones who did the awful things as well as those who were wounded or killed. I do not understand how, but God does love them.

Yes, this is a challenge for which we need God’s help. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, no matter what. Jesus did not give us a loophole, a way out. We can look at the original disciples, and Christians of the first few centuries. None of the original disciples died in their beds except John, and he was exiled to a tiny island. God is somehow in the midst of all of the horror and anxiety and despair. I don’t know how, but the Lord is with us, no matter what.

Just like King David said in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” God is faithful, merciful, and forgiving, and will remain at our sides through pain, suffering, fear, anger, desperation—no matter what. What a comforting thought. Each of us can say a heartfelt “Amen!”

Thanks be to God for God’s abundant mercy and grace—towards each one of us.

 

[1] Richard Rohr Meditation: The Perennial Tradition: Weekly Summary Aug. 11-Aug. 16, 2019   Center for Action and Contemplation (WeeklySummary@cac.org)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Hear Creation’s Cry

“Hear Creation’s Cry”

Psalm 24-1 creation picture

Psalm 24:1-2 – July 10, 2016

Have you ever had a family member, or a friend, go out of town? Or how about go on vacation? Your friend, your family member, asks you to take care of something of theirs. It may be a dog or cat, sometimes houseplants indoors or a garden outside. Asking you to be a good steward for them. Taking good care, being responsible for your friend’s property. That includes all the stuff in your friend’s house or apartment, all their valuables and beloved possessions.

Let’s go on a tour of Scripture today. Think about the earth God created. Creation is the handiwork of a loving God who saw all that was made and in Genesis pronounced it “very good.” Scripture tells us that God delights in creation and creation delights in praising the creator.  A great example is Psalm 150:6. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

One of the oldest forms of expression of Christianity today is Celtic Christianity. Coming from the British Isles, it carries within it the deeply Celtic understanding that nature itself is a testament to God. One of the Celtic holy men, Saint Columbanus once said, “If you want to know God, first get to know his creation.” [1]

That is exactly the case with the earth, the world, today. The earth belongs to the Lord. God created it—all of it. The dogs, the cats, the other animals, things that swim in the water and fly in the air. All the plants, and trees, and other growing things. All the valuable things on the earth and underground.

God wants us, expects us human beings to be good stewards of the earth, to take excellent care of it, nurturing it, loving it. Exactly how you’d expect someone to take care of your dog or cat while you were away on an extended vacation.

Let’s look at the UCC Statement of Mission. Which sentence are we on this week?

“Empowered by the Holy Spirit … To hear and give voice to creation’s cry for justice and peace.” We are to listen and respond to this wonderful gift God has given to all of us.

Our next stops on our tour of Scripture are the books of Genesis and Numbers.  We have seen that God has given humankind a special responsibility to care for creation. Genesis 2:15 says the Lord God took humanity and put them in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. A form of the Hebrew verb “shamar,” meaning “to keep,” is also used in Aaron’s blessing from Numbers 6:24. Lacey closes our services playing Lutkin’s arrangement of that blessing each week as Al extinguishes the candles. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”

We are not only to nurture, sustain and care for creation, but we are to follow God’s example. We can see how God nurtures, sustains and cares for us—each one of us. This interconnected aspect of creation helps all of us remain aware of the joys and concerns encountered in the world around us, and of their impact on all of our lives each day.

However, there is a problem. A huge problem.

Our relationship with God, with each other and with creation are all part of the same multi-colored fabric. Pull any one thread and the whole piece begins to unravel. Human selfishness, ignorance, fear and mistrust have ecological consequences. Add some territorial urges, and feelings of animosity and xenophobia. A basic name for all of this is sin.

The Bible is not hesitant to make connections between human sinfulness and the degradation of creation. Two telling examples come to us from the prophets Isaiah and Hosea.  “The Earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24: 5). “There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. . . . Therefore the land mourns . . . even the fish of the sea are perishing” (Hosea 4: 1-3).

What is to be done? People will not stop being selfish, or territorial, or fearful, or displaying hatred. But it’s also much bigger than that. Going clear back to the fall, to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden, we learn that broken relationships are costly.  Lord, who will deliver us from this horrible state of sin?

We could throw up our hands, and say that saving the world is a lost cause. The earth is too far gone. The scales have been tipped, and it’s all downhill from here. But—it is not true!

When all else seems totally dark, God steps in.

I have talked about this before. Remember? God the Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ. He was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Jesus became part of the “stuff” of creation to heal and restore the relationships broken by human sinfulness.

The apostle Paul tells us “God was in Christ reconciling the world” (2 Corinthians 5:19). An early hymn praises Jesus Christ, the firstborn of creation, the firstborn from the dead, through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on Earth or in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20). The resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s great victory over sin and death, is a pledge and sign not only of our resurrection, but also of God’s promised redemption of all creation.

Can I hear an “Amen” for that? Jesus and His resurrection means that we will be redeemed, just like creation. Just like the world will be. We all have had experience with God and how incredibly stunning this creation is, right now.

However, let me remind you. Andy Wade tells us something so important: “God’s creation is not somehow separate from God’s plan of redemption. When we forget that God’s very good creation also gives testimony to God, we can begin to think that it’s ours to trample on, ours to exploit, and ours to use for our own selfish purposes.” [2]

This selfish, self-centered kind of attitude and way of dealing with the wonders of creation and the great gift God has blessed us with? Thank God that God has made a way for creation to be made new, just as much as God has made a way for us to be made new!

The next question is simple: what is the next step? Where do we go after realizing God has plans to make all of creation new?

We as followers of Christ are called to witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our words and actions we are called to reflect the love of the one whose victory over sin and death was a victory for the whole of creation.

It is all very well to simply talk about being a witness. But, how can we do that, right here and right now? I’m glad you asked.

Some years ago, Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, near San Diego, received one of six “2000 Energy Star for Congregations Awards” from the US EPA. Following an energy audit, the congregation invested in energy-saving measures, including new lighting fixtures and energy-efficient light bulbs. The Solana Beach Church witnesses to Christ’s redeeming power every time they turn on the lights!

Just like this church! We can praise God that Kids Academy got all of the light bulbs in St. Luke’s Church building changed to energy efficient light bulbs. This is a wonderful start! Every time anyone here turns on the lights, we, too, can witness to Christ’s redeeming power.

Let’s not stop here. Let’s continue to keep looking for ways to hear creation’s cry, and to respond in loving ways. Ways to witness to the world around us that we are striving to be good stewards. Ways to celebrate God’s goodness, too. Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

My sincere thanks goes to the National Council of Churches’ great resources. I borrowed liberally from the Earth Day 2001 Sermon Notes and Worship Resources.

http://web.archive.org/web/20110706140053/http://www.nccecojustice.org/earthday/PastEarthDayResources.php

 

[1] http://godspace-msa.com/2016/07/07/creations-sacrifice-gives-testimony-to-god/

[2] http://godspace-msa.com/2016/07/07/creations-sacrifice-gives-testimony-to-god/