Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Our Sermon Series for October 2016
Inspired by the thought-provoking and faithful statement from Bixby Knolls Christian Church and our own stewardship campaign them "Go, and Do the Same," during the month of October, we explored some ways that attitudes in the Bible, guided by the Holy Spirit, shifted towards welcome, inclusion, and affirmation. I pray that we can continue this tradition of setting the table wider and wider, building a more loving and more diverse Beloved Community with God.
Here is our theme for each week:
Our Sermon for October 2nd: Building Anew
Do you remember that song in West Side Story where Anita is trying to warn Maria away from rival gang member Tony? Anita sings, "A boy like that who'd kill your brother/Forget that boy and find another,/One of your own kind,/ Stick to your own kind!" Now, imagine that Anita and Maria are ancient Israelites instead of Puerto Ricans. Anita wouldn't be warning Maria away from Polish boys. She's be warning her about the Moabites. They were understood to be some of the ancient Israelites most contentious neighbors. In the book of Numbers, a Moabite king hires someone to curse the Israelites who had been encamped in Moab on their way to the promised land. Moabite women are also described as luring Israelite men away from proper religious devotion to God. In Deuteronomy, Moabites are forbidden from being a part of Israelite national governing body, in part due to this legacy of inhospitality and idolatry. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, Moabites, when they are mentioned, are almost always bad news.
As we begin to look more closely at our second reading from the book of Ruth, it would be wise to keep this history in mind. Were we among the early listeners of this tale, we might hear the beginning of the story a little differently knowing that Naomi's family has decided to move to Moab. We might expect that they would only find trouble there among the blasphemers and idolators. We would be right, to an extent. Life will become heart-breakingly hard in the land where they live as refugees. But, it won't necessarily be for the reasons that we expect. And, surprisingly, in spite of all the hardships, Naomi will be able to build something new and rich out of her experiences there. Naomi will meet someone who radically changes her understanding of family. Those changes will echo throughout Hebrew Scripture, well into early Christian stories of the life of Jesus. A Moabite will change her life for the better.
The story begins in a crisis. There is a famine in Judah, one serious enough that people consider leaving in order to find a place where there is more food. Naomi's family is among these climate-related refugees. They move to Moab, an eastern neighbor to Judah, from her husband's ancestral home of Bethlehem. At some point after they arrive in Moab, with two sons in tow, Naomi's husband dies. In a world where a woman's livelihood often depended on the whims and fortunes of the men to whom she was attached, Elimilech's death could have been more than emotionally devastating for Naomi. Not only would she mourn her husband, she might have also struggled to physically survive without him. Fortunately, she had two sons, sons old enough to help... sons who would soon take wives. The wives, Orpah and Ruth, were Moabites, a pairing that may have been frowned upon at this point in history. But, Naomi, her sons, and daughters-in-law seem to make a life together in Moab, despite any traditions of animosity that they could have inherited. For ten years, in fact, they build this life together.
Some of you may remember that sometimes in these stories in the Bible, names tell us something important about a person's character. Naomi's sons names clue us in to the fact that they do not have a very happy future in store. We miss the clues if we don't know Hebrew. You see, Mahon means "sickly" and Chilion means "frail." With names like that, these men are bound to have a hard time. And, they do. They, like their father, die in the land of Moab. Not only to Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth mourn the lost of these two men whom they love, they must now figure out how to survive in a world that nearly required women to be attached to a man in order to survive. For Naomi, this means returning to the now famine-free land of Judah, in hopes that some of her relatives will take her in. Had Naomi had more sons, tradition would have stated that Orpah and Ruth could marry one of their dead husband's brothers. However, Naomi had no more sons and was of an age where she did not expect to be able to remarry and have more children. As the head of their beleaguered household, Naomi only saw one real option to secure the future for Orpah and Ruth. She would have to send them back to their families of origin and hope that they could find another husband there.
She sends them away with the most gracious of blessings. She prays that God will tend to them as kindly as they have tended to her and to her sons. She prays that they will find security with new husbands. She kisses them and they weep because yet one more layer of their family is being stripped away. Initially, both say that they will stay with her. They love her that much. However, Naomi, the one who has felt so much heartache and had seen the worst of the world, and maybe, she thought, even seen the worst of God. She could not ask these women to commit to a precarious life with her. Once again, she told them that she had nothing more than her prayers to offer them and insisted that they leave. Heartbroken, Orpah tearfully says good-bye and heads to her mother's home. But, Ruth... Ruth stays.
In English, our translation reads, "Ruth clung to her (Naomi)." In Hebrew, that word "clung" is "davka." This is a fascinating way to describe Ruth's attachment to Naomi. In the rest of Hebrew Scripture, "davka" is primarily used to describe relationships that are hoped to be permanent. Husbands and wives cling to one another. God and the people of Israel cling to one another. This is apparently the only story in the Hebrew Bible where a the relationship between two women is described with the intimacy and permanency of the word "davka." When we learn that the word that describes their commitment to one another is "davka," we are to understand that there is something transformative in their relationship. Their covenant, or at least Ruth's commitment to Naomi, is radical and will change their lives.
Ruth speaks these words to Naomi, words that you might recognize from centuries of wedding liturgies. You may have heard this translation: "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me." Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. How could Naomi not be changed by hearing such a statement of love? How could she not see the possibility that her world just might turn out better than she could imagine if this one young woman, a woman whom she had been taught to mistrust due to old ethnic rivalries, loved her so much that she was willing to risk her very survival in order to follow Naomi back to Judah? If Ruth had this much hope, how could Naomi continue to tell her no?
Our reading for today stopped at verse 18, but there is so much more to this story. Ruth's love becomes the foundation for their mutual redemption. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Ruth's love for Naomi drives her into the fields to glean wheat to feed them. While she is working, quite by accident, Ruth meets Naomi's distant relative Boaz. Impressed by the loving-kindness that Ruth has shown Naomi, he allows her to take wheat from his harvest and share his meal. Ruth is then able to bring food home to Naomi. Boaz' appreciation for Ruth's love for Naomi becomes the foundation for their eventual marriage, a relationship that will ensure both Ruth and Naomi’s survival. Do you know where is the first place that we see Naomi express joy in this whole story? It is after she learns that Ruth made a positive impression on Boaz. Ruth’s actions are literally what allows Naomi to finally imagine a positive future for herself: food to eat, shelter, a restored sense of family, and even a renewed relationship with God.
The final image we have of Naomi is of her cradling Ruth and Boaz's son, Obed. Tradition states that this boy will be her son, too, one who will continue her husband's line. While she has lost so much that she will never get back, in the end, she has been able to build her life anew. None of this could have happened without the love and utter commitment of Ruth. God moved within that relationship, creating fertility where there once had only been famine, creating deep love where there had primarily been a fearful isolation. Radical love would become Ruth’s legacy. One of her descendants, a man named Jesus would proclaim his love, too, and risk his very life for the ones that he loved. He, too, would inspire the ones he loved to see a more hopeful future even in the midst of desolation. But, this hopeful future is only possible if we’re willing to set aside our preconceived notions of who is welcome in God’s community and who we are called to be in relationship with. Only then, on the plains of Moab, can we begin our own journey to build life anew with our God.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Our Sermon For October 9th: Greater and Greater Welcome
Greater and Greater Welcome
There was a person a wilderness road looking for God. I wonder if he knew the other stories where people found God in the wilderness or, at least learned something new about God on the way. Maybe he had heard how Jacob once wrestled with the Divine in the wilderness and came away with a new name and a new hitch in his step. Maybe he knew that Hagar had heard the voice of God in the wilderness, a voice that would save her and her young son Ishmael. Maybe he knew the stories of Moses and the Israelites following the cloud of Yahweh through the wilderness to the promised land. Maybe he knew that even though the wilderness road was full of danger, on the road in this place In Between, there was potential for holiness. There was potential for transformation. So, he tried to be open to what the Spirit would bring to him. As he traveled in between the place of worship and his home, he read scripture and he prayed.
He read aloud to himself as he traveled, leaving a religious festival in which he had been unable to fully participate, though he appeared to be a man of deep faith. He was a eunuch, a man who lived in an the In Between... his body had been physically altered, likely against his will, in order to render him less of a threat to the powerful men who wanted to have him as a guard for their wives or for their money. People like him were used go betweens from the private sphere of women to the public sphere of men in royal courts across the ancient world. Because he could never help to create children, he could never attempt to usurp the power of the people who enslaved him. He could also not build a family of his own. Even as this man had had been opportunities in life taken from him without his consent, people in his position were often deeply indebted to the people who used their labor. They could amass trust and even a certain amount of power within the court, as this man seems to have done. After all, he was a court official for Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, and was in charge over her entire treasury.
And yet, though he was very powerful as an official, his status as a eunuch would always leave him on the outside of most traditional social interactions. He simply couldn't fit into only one of the roles that people were supposed to fit into. And, it would leave him unable to join the assembly of the people of Judah. You see, in the book of Deuteronomy, in the same chapter where Moabites are forbidden from being part of the assembly of the Lord, so are eunuchs. It is not clear why. The priestly order of Levites forbade men with certain kinds of illnesses or with bodies outside of a certain ideal from being priests. Those physical requirements are later transferred, at least to some extent, to all Israelite men in the book of Deuteronomy. Some scholars believe it may be because, in order to know what religious rules to follow, one must be able to fulfill the social obligations of one of two genders. If you did not fit into one of those two roles, or seemed to live as a mix somewhere in between the two roles, you were excluded from full participation in the religious body. Eunuchs were definitely in between, and this put them on the margins of communal life. What this meant was that he could read Scripture, from a scroll he probably owned and could travel to Jerusalem for holy festivals, but he could not enter the temple. His wealth and influence could not buy his way into religious community.
It is fascinating to me that he is reading from the book of Isaiah as he travels home to the Ethiopian court. In the book of Luke, it was in the book of Isaiah that Jesus found his own mission of love and justice. The author of Acts, which is a sequel to Luke, has the Ethiopian reading a portion of Isaiah that is known as the Servant Song, a part of the scripture that many of Jesus' earliest followers understood to describe Jesus' own life and ministry. And, as you heard in our first reading for the day, it is in the book of Isaiah that we first hear that eunuchs will finally be recognized as God's people. The prophet Isaiah believed that God would say to the eunuchs who keep the Sabbath, follow the law, and tended to an ongoing covenantal relationship with God, "I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off." God will create a new kind of family for those whose ability to physically create a family has been destroyed.
Doubly good for this Ethiopian, Isaiah says that God will welcome in any foreigner who works to be part of God's covenantal relationship. That's in the next part of the scripture that we didn't read today. Isaiah said that God was creating a new vision of God's reign, one where ethnic and gender divisions did not prevent one from being a part of God's work. God will say, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," and God will gather the outcasts of Israel enter to center of God's love. Maybe that's why this man was reading Isaiah. He saw in this book a place for himself in a faith he cherished. Isn't it amazing that just as he is in the wilderness, where people often surprisingly meet God, that the Holy Spirit sent in Philip to tell him about God's new revelation in the life of Jesus?
Thankfully Philip heeded the Spirit's call and ran, that right, it says ran, to catch up to the Ethiopian's chariot. They sat together to study God's word. And, Philip... bless his heart... Philip took the eunuch's faith seriously. He told him how Isaiah's vision of a more just and loving community of God was being fulfilled in the work of Jesus. He told him that death did not have the final word. He told him how following Jesus would be difficult, but that the new world that they could birth with the Holy Spirit would be worth the effort.
They traveled together, teacher and student, and suddenly came upon a body of water. The eunuch asked Philip what turns out to be quite the poignant question. "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Had they been continuing to live their lives according to old social rules, there might have been quite a lot to prevent this foreign-born, non-Jewish, powerful yet enslaved, eunuch from entering into the community of believers. Part of me wonders if he hesitated to ask Philip, wondering if, yet again, his in-betweeness would leave him on the margins. Part of the also wonders if he didn't hesitate at all, confident that God had brought Philip, and Jesus, into his life for a reason. Either way, the answer seems obvious. There is nothing to prevent him from entering into Jesus' community. Philip baptized him in the water that ran through the wilderness where they traveled. In a flash, though, Philip was gone, headed on his way to spread the word of Christ's new vision for the world. Even with his new teacher gone, the Ethiopian continued home rejoicing, forever changed by his encounter in the wilderness.
There are people right now living in between lives... In between jobs, in between paychecks, in between tragedy and great joy. There are people right now who have been told that their bodies, their self-understanding, their unchosen role in the social hierarchy renders them unfit for inclusion in the community of God. Too often, they only hear the voice of Deuteronomy, stating that their supposed "abnormality" excludes them from accessing the Divine. It is our call to be open to the words of Isaiah, who showed us a vision of God's house as a house for all people, and, then, to follow the example of Philip, to take their faith seriously, to make sure that they know that they, in fact, are part of this house, too. No societal expectation can make them any less children of God. God is always bigger than we can imagine. Our community, in order to better reflect God, must therefore be more inclusive than we can imagine. May we be like Philip and be ready to run out into the wilderness and find the ones who are searching for God. Surely the Holy Spirit will go with us and help us all find a way to rejoice together once again.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Our Sermon for October 16th, 2016: The Gift of the Righteous
The Gift of the Righteous
The Bible is a pretty amazing collection of writings by authors whose experiences span several cultures and thousands of years of history. The whole of Scripture stands as poetic evidence of generations of people's wrestling with concepts no less cosmic or deeply human than: What are we here for? How are we to relate to the rest of creation? How did we come to this point in history? Our scripture for today addresses on particularly poignant question: why do bad things happen? This is a question central to so many parts of the Bible and to human life. Bad things happen on both individual and communal levels. Wars, droughts, floods, fires, and unexpected deaths come and wreak havoc on people's lives. It seems natural to want, even demand, an explanation for such disruption and destruction. Today's two readings offer two very different explanations for destruction. First, let's take a moment with the reading from Jeremiah.
You see, Jeremiah was trying to figure out why some very bad things happened to the people of Israel and Judah. He had watched the Babylonian Empire march across the land, first laying waste to the northern province and then laying siege to the city of Jerusalem. He had seen rulers exiled, the city, and her temple, destroyed. As the people left in the ruins of the city struggled to find food to eat, and as he, himself, was dragged away to Babylon, Jeremiah sought to explain how God could let the Chosen people struggle so. Drawing on his cultural understanding of a conditional covenantal relationship between God and humanity, Jeremiah came to believe that God would only allow this level of destruction if Israel and Judah had broken their end of the covenant with God. God could not allow the unrighteous to flourish. So, God would strike them down, using Babylon to exact God's punishment.
Our first reading is a list of unrighteous nations that had fallen afoul of God and would be punished. Today, we want to pay attention to one nation within this list, the nation of Uz. Uz matters because a serious critique of Jeremiah's theology of divine retribution will be credited to a man from Uz, a man named Job. Job will lose nearly everything in his life and suffer terrible pain. He also knew that he didn't deserve that pain and was willing to challenge anyone who said he did. In so doing, he provides a powerful example of how to have a brave and honest relationship with God, an example we would do well to remember.
In the book that bears his name, Job is described as blameless and upright. He was a man who feared God and did no evil. At the beginning of the story, he has all of the elements in life that people understood to be divine rewards given to a righteous man. He had seven sons and three daughters who treated each other, and their father, with great generosity. He had rich herds of sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys. He was wealthy enough to have many servants. And, he regularly thanked God for all that he had, blessing his children and offering up sacrifices, even repenting for any sins that he, or his family, may have even unknowingly committed. If anyone was going to be held up as an example of how God rewards the righteous, it would be Job. Things change when his world begins to fall apart around him.
First, his animals and servants are all killed by natural disasters or by attacks from warring neighbors. Then, all of his children are killed when a building falls in on them. Then, he develops terrible, painful sores all over his body. And, yet, Scripture tells us that he continued to avoid sin and never cursed God for all the terrible things that happened to him. Three of his friends showed up try to offer support. For seven days, they do a great thing for Job: They sit quietly with him in his pain and listen to his lament. But, then, after seven days, they try to explain away his pain. They bring up ideas about righteousness and suffering that mirror the ideas of Jeremiah. They say God punishes the unrighteous. They try to defend God, saying that God would not do something like this unless it was necessary. They even say that God has probably taken less from him that he truly deserves. He must have been unrighteous. He should accept his punishment and repent, and maybe everyting could go back to normal.
One of the greatest gifts that Job has given us as descendants of the faith is that he refutes the idea that he must be being punished if he is in this much pain. In a beautiful and heart-breaking disputation, he recounts his pain and sadness while also, perhaps miraculously, reporting a deep and abiding faith in God. He refers to God as his redeemer and shares a hope for a future where, upon his death, he can finally see the God to whom he has been so devoted his whole life. He wanted this expression of faith to be his legacy, going so far as to say that he wished that it could be written in stone as a monument. And, yet, in spite of his deep faith, he knew that the devastation and suffering that surrounded him could not be a punishment from God. He did nothing to deserve what had happened to him. He was sure that this suffering could not be punishment. It must be something else.
We who live outside of this story know that Job is correct. God was not punishing him for something he had done. These tragedies were completely unrelated to Job's actions. They are, however, the actions of someone who has power over him. They were was a test from one called the Accuser. You might recognize the Accuser by a specific name, Satan. Satan is the Hebrew word for the Accuser. At this point in Jewish history, Satan didn't yet refer to one single evil entity who operated in opposition to God. In this story, the Accuser is simply one of the heavenly beings who hangs out with God, a heavenly being who wondered if the only reason that Job was so righteous was because he didn't want to be punished by God. The Accuser wondered if Job would continue to be so righteous if all the things that seemed to be rewards from God were taken away. If Job had no evidence that he was doing the right thing, would he continue to do the right thing? Or, would he fall away and curse God. The Accuser asks God to allow him to test Job's resolve. Frustratingly, God said yes. All the pain that then follows is a result of this wager. It is not a punishment from God. It is a test that God allows the Accuser to impose.
In the story, Job has no idea that he is in the middle of such a high stakes game. He just knows that he has lost too much and sees no reason that he should be punished. And, he will tell anyone, even God, that he does not deserve the pain that he is in. In challenging the idea that he must have deserved his pain, Job ends up helping to crack open the whole notion that humanity's tragedies are somehow orchestrated by God as retribution for unrighteousness. Job goes to God demanding that God recognize his innocence before the law. What Job learns from God is that his pain and suffering is not some terrible punishment from God. God confirms that Job's friends were foolish to believe that Job did something to merit punishment. But, God also challenges Job's idea that he shouldn't suffer because he is righteous. In fact, God has no interest in this conversation about guilt and innocence because the things humans have in life are not a result of some divine game of quid pro quo. Creation is not a game that you can play by just trying to be more righteous than unrighteous. Creation is a mystery, and in the midst of the mystery, terrible things will happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous. Wonderful things will happen to the righteous and the unrighteous. And, God says that there are often no easy answers as to why.
This mystery of creation that avoids simple answer to complex questions is a true challenge of faith. Therefore, it does us no good to try to build our faith around avoiding pain. We have to build a faith that allows us to travel through pain, confident that God is still creating even in the midst of suffering. Job's example helps us set a course for such a tenacious faith. Job helps us tell the truth and keep seeking God, even in our pain. Job's story invites us to trust that if we can tell the truth, we may be able to learn something new about the Divine like he did. Imagine what would have been lost if his story had been disregarded because he was a foreigner from an unrighteous nation? May we all still be willing to hear such a story of grace from an unlikely person.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Our Sermon for October 23rd, 2016: Should I Not Be Concerned?
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. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be 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 labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.
Should I Not Be Concerned?
Imagine being so angry, disgusted, or frightened by a group of people that you don't even want to see them to give them bad news. That's where we find Jonah at the beginning of the book that bears his name. God has told him to go to Ninevah and he has run away in the opposite direction to avoid going. Like, the "left town, jumped on a boat, and went out to sea to try to get away from God" kind of running off. He so objects to the call that God has given him that it takes getting swamped in a storm and swallowed up by a big fish to change his mind. He had to sit in the belly of that fish for three whole days and get vomited up by that very same fish before he finally did what God wanted.
Now, he might have actually had a good reason to dislike Ninevah. Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, an empire known for it's brutality. Assyria had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and subjugated the Southern Kingdom of Judah. It is likely that anyone who had lived in either territory would hear the name of the city of Ninevah, and automatically think that these were bad people to spend time with. They might even empathize with Jonah. They probably wouldn't have wanted to go to Ninevah, either. The thing is, though, when God calls you to do something, it can be very hard to say no, especially if you're a prophet. Jonah tried really hard to say no. In the end though, the big fish made an impression. Jonah saw that some things are bigger than his fear and anger. God was bigger than his fear and anger. He realized that he needed to go to Ninevah and take them God's message.
The story says that Ninevah was a huge city... so big that it would take three days to cross it. Jonah put on his big prophet pants and began his walk into the city. He shouted God's message as he went: "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" I don't know about you, but if I hear a stranger shouting about the place I live getting ready to be overthrown, I tend not to listen very closely. I tend to assume that the shouter doesn't really know what they are talking about. If he came marching through Winthrop, he'd probably be ignored. There was a good chance that he'd have been ignored in Ninevah, too, or, perhaps more likely, he would have risked being killed. The Bible is full of nations that chose to attack God's prophets rather than listen to them. Maybe that's one more reason why Jonah didn't want to go to Ninevah.
Now, the cultural context in which this story was developed was a little more amenable to strange prophets marching through the streets with predictions of doom. The people actually listen to him. The people suddenly proclaim a fast as a sign of repentance. They also begin to wear sackcloth, an itchy, uncomfortable fabric, another sign of repentance. The word of reluctant Jonah's prophecy travels quickly among the people, seeming to reach the king before Jonah does. The king's response both mirrors and intensifies the response of the people. He declares an official fast for the city, saying that not only must the people fast, the animals should fast, too. And, everybody, animals, people... everybody should be covered in sackcloth, and "cry mightly to God." Now, take a minute to truly imagine this. Every donkey trough is empty. The hay remains in every hayloft. Forlorn sheep wrapped in burlap are wondering the city streets. Everyone is lamenting and repenting aloud, even the goats. The king instigates this whole ridiculous scene in hopes that his people (and animals) will give up their evil ways and that they might be spared by God (who, by the way, isn't even their god... yet one more reason it is surprising that they make such drastic changes).
As I have said, in many stories, we would have never seen a threatened nation make such changes (remember, people ignored prophets all the time). But, we do here in Jonah. God sees them changing, too. God sees legitimate attempts to make amends and move away from the brutality that they were known for. God sees them trying and God changes God's mind. God decides not to destroy them. Jonah finds out about God's change of heart and is not happy about one little bit. Jonah throws a proper tantrum, saying to God, "See... this is why I ran off to Tarshish. I knew you couldn't go through with it. I knew that you are merciful and loving and willing to be changed when you see legitimate repentance. I knew that you'd spare them if you had the chance. Ugh. I'd rather die than to see you offer compassion to those people. They are sooo awful." God responds with something like, "Wait, what? You're mad I didn't kill them?" Jonah doesn't even respond. He just huffs and puffs out of the city and builds himself a little shelter from which he will watch and wait, hoping God will come to God's senses and destroy the city.
God, who is merciful, moved a plant to cover of Jonah, to offer him shade while he waited. God, who also needs to teach Jonah a lesson, sends a pest to destroy the bush. In the heat of the day, petulant Jonah grows faint and again wishes for death. Bitter and hot, he says, "It is better for me to die than to live." God, not yet ready to give up on Jonah, asks him a simple question, "Is it right for you to be mad that the plant was destroyed?" Jonah says, "Yes, of course it is. I'm so mad about it that I could die and that's ok." God, ever patient, says, "You're worried about this plant that you have done nothing to create. It just appeared here as far as you're concerned. You have no investment of time or energy in it's life. It's just shade that kept you from being hot. It came to being in one measly night and disappeared in one measly night." Can you tell where God is going with this? "If you're worried about this plant, why shouldn't I not be concerned about Ninevah and all of the creatures within her gates?
There are a hundred and twenty thousand people down there who don't know their right hand from their left. Shouldn't I love them? I made them. I invested time and energy in their thriving. Shouldn't I be concerned?"
Interestingly, this is the moment when the story stops. We have no idea how Jonah responds. We have no idea if Jonah learns something new about God and mercy as he sweats in the heat of the day, waiting for God to be as mad at Ninevah as he is. The ending is so abrubt that it makes me wonder if we're not supposed to understand this an invitation to spend some time figuring out who we are in this story. Might we be the Ninevites, struggling to repent of our brutish ways and surprised by the mercy of a God we really didn't even know? Might we be Jonah, struggling to see the people we hate and fear as beloved children of God? This is a strange and often funny story that has very serious questions at it's heart, questions worth our consideration as we seek to be extensions of God's mercy in the world.
It seems clear that doing God's work sometimes means being willing to engage with people whom we fear... people who have maybe even hurt us. We may be bitter about having to do that. Just because we're bitter doesn’t mean that God can't work through us. It also seems like the oppressors will be offered a way to repent. When, we find ourselves in the place of the Ninevites, the ones who need to do some repenting, we can be relieved that this story reminds us that apology and giving up our evil ways in an option that can bring great mercy. One more thing seems clear: God will pursue all of us, reluctant prophets and remorseful oppressors alike, always offering us greater understanding and love than we had previously imagined possible. Maybe that's why this story is so open-ended. It's not over. We are still sitting in a fish and hearing that strange prophet in the streets. We are still being pursued by God and offered new modes of Grace. The question is, are we really willing to take this opportunity to believe in God's mercy and live anew?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Our Sermon For October 30th, 2016: A Case Study in Mercy
A Case Study in Mercy
Did you all ever hear the story of the two advice columnists who were twin sisters but could not get along? Ann Landers, who wrote a syndicated column based out of Chicago, and Abigail Van Buren, who's own syndicated column was based out of San Francisco, spent their careers advising all manner of people on matters of love, work, health, and finance. And yet, for a significant portion of their early careers, did not speak to one another. The twins, whose real names were Esther Lederer and Pauline Phillips, were fiercely competitive, leading one sister to offer her column to their hometown newspaper but only under the condition that they refuse to run her sister's column. While the worst of the feud was supposedly put to rest in the nineteen sixties, it appears that they occasionally continued to clash until Esther's death in 2002. Their daughters, who also went into the advice column business, have also publicly sniped at one another, carrying on this part of their family legacy, too.
I thought of these two siblings and their heritage of conflict this week as I returned to Jesus' parable of the merciful Samaritan and the wounded man. You see, two parties in this story also have a family heritage of conflict. Judeans and Samaritans, while not twin sisters from Iowa, were, at the very least, distant cousins. Their national communities neighbored one another, Samaria (also called Israel) to the north and Judea to the South. They had faced, and had been conquered by the same oppressive empires (remember in our sermon from last week how horrible Assyria was? Assyria took over both territories. Rome did, too, hundreds of years later). Both communities understood themselves to be descendants of Hebrew patriarch Jacob. Both communities understood themselves to be worshiping in the traditions of their ancestors. And, each community understood the other to somehow be doing the faith wrong. They disagreed about religious laws and disagreed about where and whether to gather for corporate worship. Like the twin advice columnists, they might look very similar to someone looking at them from outside their relationship. However, within the relationship, the differences were clear and striking.
The people of Judea were regularly called upon to show mercy to neighbors and strangers alike as a core tenet of their faith. However, when it came to their actual neighbors, ones with whom they shared a contentious religious and cultural history, it was particularly difficult to build healthy relationship. There was too much bad history and too many sour grapes. It would have been hard to build trust with so many centuries of misunderstanding weighing in on every interaction. And, yet, here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told a parable where a Samaritan was the hero. What could he have gained by valorizing the actions of character who would have existed at the margins of his own marginalized religious community?
Jesus shared this story while in conversation with another thoughtful Jew, a man deeply familiar witha their shared religious law. The man asked Jesus a thoughtful question about following God's commandments. He said, knowing that we are called to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, who is our neighbor? This is an interesting quesiton. Remember, there is a core tension in their shared tradition. They know that they are called to love their neighbors and to love strangers, but, they also know that there is a long history of certain neighbors, like the Samaritans... and Canaanites and Jebusites and many others being called wicked. Both Jesus and this lawyer would have been taught to avoid these kinds of neighbors at all costs. So, how does the faithful person possibly love their neighbor when they're pretty sure that their neighbor is awful?
Peter Gomes, graduate of Bates College and professor and preacher at Harvard Divinity School, once suggested that we can have a better sense of what Jesus was teaching in this parable if we pay attention to the words he and lawyer used to describe the Samaritan's actions in the story. One word is particularly important: the word "mercy." Gomes reminds us that mercy is often understood to mean a kindness that may not be deserved. He said that mercy "is kindness in the face of the opportunity to do otherwise." In a given situation, when one examines the all the history and all the facts and all the feelings, one might be justified to be unkind or angry or bitter against one's neighbor. However, according to Gomes, Jesus says the core of our call from God isn't only justice. It is also mercy... a type of kindness that can bloom in spite of old conflicts and old wounds. It is a kindness that goes beyond the requirements of justice into something more Divine. It is the kindness shown by the Samaritan.
Let's look for a moment at this story as though it were a case study in how to show mercy. A man is beaten and nearly killed as he traveled down a dangerous road. Two people, people who shared his religious and ethnic background, people whom one might expect to help him, don't. Maybe they were afraid that he was setting a trap for them. Maybe they had other responsibilities and demands shaping their behavior, thus preventing them from helping. Maybe they were just jerks who thought he deserved what he had gotten. Whatever the reason, they don't help. However, a Samaritan shows up and helps. He was under no obligation to help the injured man. In fact, given the tension between their communities and the history of hostility, he might have even been able to justify leaving the man there to die. But, he chose mercy instead, acting in kindness in spite of old wounds. He put himself in danger to take time to clean and bandage the stranger's wounds. He used his own resources to carry him somewhere safe and to pay for further care and lodging. He even promises to return to see the man in order to finish paying his tab and make sure he is ok.
This story is so interesting because it shows us that Jesus was a good teacher. He didn't just define "neighbor" for the man. He told him a story where a variety of people's neighborliness could be analyzed and then asked the man which of the characters acted as a neighbor. He asked the man to put himself in the place of the one who had been beaten, and identify the one who had treated him like a neighbor. Neighbors don't walk by you when you struggle, even if they have a good reason to do so. Neighbors see you bleeding and decide to stop and help. Neighbors decide that mercy might be more important than justice, at least this one time, and come over to bandage your wounds. Jesus asked, you want to know who is your neighbor? Who is the one who can look across a vast body of difference and a long history of conflict between the two people and still see reason to offer mercy... That person is a neighbor. Go be like that person.
Why is this new definition of neighbor so important? For one, it offers a compassionate example of an outcast doing what it right, as opposed to doing what is expected. The more times Jesus could tell stories of an unexpectedly righteous person, the more often his followers were given the chance to imagine a Beloved Community of God that included all kinds of different people (even people they had been taught to hate). This meant that when they encountered a Samaritan in real life, rather than ignore them as they had been taught to do their whole lives, they might begin to engage across the differences that had once separated them. Secondly, it helped his followers imagine themselves in the position of receiving mercy from someone whom they did not expect. God is always showing up in unexpected places, like in poor refugee babies and homeless itinerant preachers. The divine might show up in the face of a Samaritan, too. Jesus wanted his followers to be prepared to meet God however God shows up.
Perhaps one final reason the Samaritan story is important is that it shows us a model for relationship that is greater than our bonds of nationality and religion. If Jesus had told a story of a Jew helping another Jew, it could have been easy to dismiss the helper as simply offering aid out of religious and cultural obligation. Jesus invites us into relationship that is greater than simple obligation. It's based on radical, world-redefining examples of mercy, hospitality, and yes, even justice. Gomes states that in order to see the possibilities of God's new revelation and presence in our world, we can't just keep hanging out with the same kinds of people and doing the same kinds of things we have always done. We must be prepared to build relationships in new, gracious and merciful ways. We've got to be willing to be helped by Samaritans and we've got to be willing to go on offer our mercy to someone else. That's what Jesus meant when he said "Go, and do the same." Go. Surprise yourself and someone else with God's great love. Go, and sit with someone you've been taught to fear. Go, and try something new and beautiful with God. That's how we build the merciful and just kin-dom with God. Now, go. And, do the same.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.