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John said to him,”Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he is not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown out into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost it’s saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
The word of The Lord. Thanks be to God.
Isn’t your first reaction to what I just read, ‘was this in our Bible?’ I know that was mine. This is an odd lectionary reading, using words, phrases, and descriptions which don’t fit in with our usual theology. So, before we even try to begin to delve into this, we need to first acknowledge that it is an uncomfortable passage where people are damned for all eternity and harsh horrible self mutilation is discussed, and then there are the descriptions of hell with fiery flames for eternity. People are casting out demons and cutting off one’s foot, hand, and it is said that gauging out an eye is preferable to going to hell. And this does not sit well with us as well…. Because….wait, …..Jesus’ stories are not like this! Jesus has a message that is full of love…… in fact full of UNCONDITIONAL love. Jesus’s stories are full of acceptance and grace, and being kind to others and asking us to love others as well. We raise our children to believe that they are God’s beloved and that nothing at all could separate us from that love of God. So, we read passages like this and say, ‘These harsh violent sentences are not what Jesus is suppose to say.’ These harsh words are not a part of my faith and my belief! And they are not.
While still living in Cleveland, I went to hear retired Bishop Gene Robinson from New Hampshire. One of the things that he said was that it is important for those of us from mainline traditions of Christianity who interpret the Bible differently from those who take a literal translation to be able to explain and show how the Bible is more meaningful if you look at it using what we call historical criticism. In other wards, we need to realize that the Bible was written by humans explaining God’s word in a context that was meaningful and understood by them. Science was different then. The world was considered flat. It made sense to them to have a hell below earth and a heaven above as it did not contradict their science. I mean, even though we say the sun sets and the sun rises, we don’t actually believe that it does. Modern science has taught us differently.
So we must understand that the context from which the Bible was written had meaning to the people for which it was written but that meaning gets lost as the contexts change. Bishop Robinson used baseball as an illustration. He said that when we use the phrase that someone is out in left field, we know the baseball context from which the description comes from. Baseball is a part of our society. But imagine that 1000 years from now people no longer play baseball. They would not understand that as a right handed batter gets up to bat, the person playing left field backs up way to the back of the field. So the person in the year 3015 might have an accurate picture of what left is and what a field is, but still would not have the correct meaning for the phrase someone is out in left field, if they did not understand the context of baseball from where the description comes. They would not understand that being out in left field means someone is out of touch. The phrase would have no context. This is why when we preach, we must research and then try and put the Bible into our context to make it reverent and meaningful to us.
Now, back to the text.
The Gospel lesson for today can be broken into three sections. I will briefly touch in the first and last sections and then work through the tough section in the middle.
The passage starts right after the one last week where we struggled with what it means that the first shall be last. John then abruptly changes the subject asking Jesus what to do about the people who are not a part of Jesus’ little community BUT who are doing things in the name of Jesus. Let’s forget for a minute that the people are casting out demons, something that are not a part of our religious experience, and just think about what is at the root of John’s question. John was not questioning whether or not demons could be cast out…. If we get stuck on that, we miss the meaning of the passage. What John is asking is WHO IS IN AND WHO IS OUT? Harry Adams, a professor at Yale divinity school describes this as a question of inclusivity and exclusivity. John wants to know what to do when our membership status is unclear. John say that the man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name was not ‘one of us’. The concern becomes how do we keep the integrity of our own community without isolating ourselves from others. Well, based on this scripture passage, I must say that this was not Jesus ‘ concern. His answer was one of being open to those outside the circle. The proof to Jesus was in the result. If we can make Christianity more meaningful by utilizing from outside our tradition, and we do it as Christians faithful to Jesus, then the church can gain from it. its OK for us to bring Eastern meditations, yoga practices, different Spiritual exercises into our faith if the church gains from it.
The last two verses of this mornings text have to do with saltiness. Jesus says everyone will be salted with fire. In these verses he is talking about the community of believers following him. Salt was an important and precious commodity in the ancient world. Salt not only added taste to food as we use it, but it also was and is used to preserve food. In Biblical times salt was used for medicinal purposes and its great value can be seen in that it was used as salary; the Roman soldiers were paid in salt.
When we understand the importance of salt, the scripture takes on meaning. When Jesus says that they gathered community will have salt and be at peace with one another, he is sealing the covenant with God and with the followers of Jesus.
I wanted to show you how reading the text within its historical context gives it meaning before we turn back to the harsh words in the middle of the text to glean meaning for us today.
This is the words to us, the stumbling Christians, that are harsh and contrary to our modern faith and community. To gain meaning, I suggest we think about our theology of sin and what hell is to us. The post modern Christian senses hell as a separation from God. This is not necessarily contrary to the beliefs of the earlier Christian who saw the world in a linear fashion with earth here, heaven above, and hell below. Hell is where you went when you sinned. It was not a good place. It was a separate place from where God is, which is in heaven. We too believe it is hell to be separated from God. In fact, the definition of sin is that. Sin is what we do that separates us from God.
Martha Moore Keish, assistant professor at Columbia Seminary in Georgia, writes that hell is a strong symbol for the separation from God. It is hard for us to take a literal translation of this text as the literal hell contradicts the basic Christian belief and affirmation that God loves the world and desires all to be saved.
Perhaps Jesus is not describing hell in order to seal anyone’s eternal destiny, but to pay attention to road blocks that prevent people from having a close relationship to God. Lets re-read the passage using our modern interpretation for sin and hell to see if it makes more sense to us. Let me paraphrase it a bit….
If anyone puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones, and prevented them from having a close relationship with God, you will Live separated by God and you are better off dead.
If your hand, your foot, your eye, or any thing else causes you to be a stumbling block in attaining a right relationship with God or keeps others from attaining that relationship, you will live with a feeling of separateness from God and it will feel as though it is better to cut off you hand, your foot, or gauge out your eye, that to live life apart from God’s love or to have others live that way.
Oh, now it makes more sense! We are to pay attention to that what keeps us and that which we do that keeps others from attaining a right relationship with God and get rid of those things. That which does not help people to becoming close to God, should be amputated from our life.
These dire warnings about being thrown into hell, become Jesus’ stern warnings and caution about putting up road blocks to those who would enter Jesus’ community.
The passage is a warning to the disciples against obstructing the path for those who might turn out to be followers of Jesus.
Whether they be the little ones, the exorcist, or a stranger to the community, all are welcome to hear Jesus’ message and to follow him.
This passage that at first seemed bizarre and not at all something that would have any meaning to us other than to give us nightmares, now has relevancy.
What are the road blocks that prevent others from hearing the good news? We need to search within ourselves and within our community called Riviera and see what those could be. And when we find them, we need to exorcize them from us, from our group, as all are invited to be a part of Christ’s community.
To achieve a close relationship with God is to work to enable others to hear the good news of God’s love that we so enjoy and the joy it brings us in our lives.
And we can look at this in so many ways.
Are we preventing others from being a part of us?
We have worked so hard on being a welcoming community that it pains me to think that we might be the hands, feet, or eyes that are PREVENTING someone from being a part of our community called Riviera which we love so dearly and in which we feel Christ and are Christ’s body.
But, we must always look and search for how we can improve. Are there institutional things we can’t even perceive? I am aware that our handicapped parking and wheel chair ramp are a long way away from our sanctuary and wonder if that is a stumbling block preventing someone from being a part our community? Perhaps there are many more things like that that we will discover as we contemplate this message.
And we need to look deep down inside and wonder if we personally are the hand, foot, or eye preventing others from a relationship with Christ.
Do we share all that we have experienced and the joy we have received knowing we are claimed by God and loved unconditionally? Are we witnesses to others? Do we witness God’s love in our actions outside church, in our jobs and with our friends. Do we invite others into our community so that they might experience the same joy that we do? As the old camp hymn goes, ‘do they know we are Christians by our love?’
And perhaps there are even parts of our own personalities which are the impediments to us personally having that close relationship that Christ offers?
Are the grudges we carry, the prejudices we all bear, the schedules we keep that offer us no time for contemplation on our faith or a meaningful prayer life, the eyes, feet, and hands that must be removed.
In the past year, I have personally tried to develop a prayer life where throughout the day I try and be consciousness of God’s good work in my life, and I thank God for the little things. It has helped me recognize God’s presence in all things from a puppies wet nose to the warmth of the water in my shower. When I dive into the pool at my swim team, I pray for the abundance of fresh water that I take for granted and which allows for beautiful swimming pools. Yesterday, while I did my little run/walk (which seemed of marathon length to me) as I prepare for our Riviera Running Team run/walk in November, I thanked God for the mobility I enjoy and I prayed for Nate, our coach and leader as he ran his 100 mile endurance run and for people to whom walking across a room is impossible. Developing a prayer life has made me much more grateful to God for the small miracles in life as well as the big ones.
We are to live in close relationship with God. When we feel a part from God we are not living life in a manner to which we are called. And we are to help others find that close relationship with God as well. Any stumbling block from achieving this is to be cut off. All are to be able to find ways to live faithfully as followers of God. That is our charge. Amen!
As many of you know, my mother is in mid-stage dementia with the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. And it is a very terrible disease as it robs the person of understanding and of life skills that you and I all take for granted. Frustration occurs when my siblings and I are trying to make my mom understand something and her ability to comprehend the concept just is not there anymore. We stubbornly continue to try to make her see what we think is a rational decision or a line of thinking and she just can not wrap her mind around what we are saying. Sometimes it is over little things such as why we know what day of the week it is (I’ve even resorted to saying ‘Its Sunday Mom… The day the newspaper is biggest”) and other times it is painful as I explain to a tearful mom that I am in Florida and cant be with her now even though she misses me. On these occasions I curse the disease and the cruel way it plays out. But, I never am angry with her. It is not her fault her ability to understand complex ideas is not there. She is doing as best as she can.
And I thought of this when I read this morning’s Gospel lesson and the frustration Jesus must have felt as he tried again to explain to his disciples who he was and what was going to happen to him. He took them away from everyone else, isolated them from the crowds, so he could explain. He told them what was in store for him, that he was going to placed in human hands and that human beings were going to kill him. But, Jesus also said that God will pronounce a different verdict on his death because after three days he would rise again. The Gospel says that the disciples did not understand what he was talking about. Even though Jesus is giving them an individual tutorial lesson here, they have no idea what he is saying.
Listen now for the first half of this morning’s Gospel lesson found in Mark 9:30-32…..
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
As I said, the disciples just don’t get it! But, the Gospel story doesn’t say that this made Jesus frustrated. It doesn’t say he regretted calling such unremarkable individuals as his disciples. My guess is that he must have felt some unhappiness that they could not see past their assumption of what the messiah was going to be and do; the assumption that their messiah would be a great military leader and restore power and independence to Israel. And then he says that he was not only going to be killed but that he would rise again made no sense. This is outside their life experience and knowledge base. They could not understand him, they could not get what he was saying. AND Jesus just goes on…. much like we do with my mom who cant understand much of what is around her. Jesus and his disciples just continue on their journey together until he seizes on another moment and another way to try and connect and educate them as to his mission and the message from God.
Listen to the second half of this morning’s lesson found in the 33-37th verses from the ninth chapter of Mark.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
And while on the journey, these childish fellows start arguing about who is the greatest. Much like little boys who go back and forth as to who is strongest, who is the best at sports, the smartest at math, these child like disciples were caught by Jesus arguing who was the greatest among them…. And Jesus seizes on this moment to try and again tell them about God’s realm. The scripture says he sits down with them and says, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant to all’. Again, this is not what they were expecting him to say. The disciples might have been wondering who they had begun to follow at this point. They, who were agruing among themselves as to who was greatest, were learning that the man they gave up everything to follow was now preaching servanthood!!!!! Couldn’t they be rulers under him? It did not make sense in their social order that to be first meant you had to be last… to be servant to all. AND, being servant to all means that you are on the lowest rank of the social order. As servant to all you would be the one allowed only to eat what was left after everyone else had their fill. Being servant to all was not what they ad in mind as the consequences of a disciple’s lifestyle. What happened to warriors, to people who apposed the government and created a new order…. The disciples were not expecting this! They must have been asking what is behind door number two at this point!
And Jesus punctuated his remark by picking up a child and saying that whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me. We all know this scripture lesson. Our first impression is to think that Jesus is saying how he loves and welcomes children. But the message was meant to shock. the message was meant to shake up the social pecking order of the day. This is not the sweet scene we think of from Sunday School where Jesus cuddles sweet little children and welcomes them to Sunday School. (Did anyone else have that painting outside your CE wing as a child? The painting in the entrance to my Sunday school had this portrayed with little lambs grazing peacefully in the background.) BUT this statement by Jesus is not meant to be comforting but to be shocking. It is a powerful depiction of God’s values. God’s value that the last shall be first.
Being like a child means helplessness, dependence, humility, and a lowly social status. Remember that children in Jesus’ day were regarded as non-persons, possessions of the father in the household. For Jesus to hold up the children as the ones in God’s kingdom, not the powerful warrior type men was to challenge the social norms of his day. This text in Mark becomes anything but sentimental. It is a radical shift in the values of our day.
And this statement is for us as well and should define the ministry to which we are called. We are significant when we welcome Jesus in the child and in the powerless. We are significant to God when we give comfort, aid, and security to others. Jesus was an advocate for the vulnerable and we who are disciples of Jesus should live our lives to mirror the one to whom we follow. Servant leadership is the necessary outcome of confessing Jesus as Lord.
And our Servant leadership means that we do not look for glory in what we do but that we are committed to leadership based on service and humility. We are to be the servants to all ministering to the lowest, to the people in our world who are vulnerable and marginalized. Being a servant leader is indeed radical. It makes us cry when we hear the stories of the Syrian refugees and it will call us to action in the weeks ahead as we learn what we do to respond to the crisis at hand.
Being a Servant Leader makes us proud to be a part of the Gate Program which is offering a second chance to youth who have been marginalized by society and the few options they feel they have. It makes us hear the news and think who we can make a difference in God’s world. It calls us to remember to buy new socks for people who live on the street and to donate food so that people can make it through the month on the little they have.
Being a servant leader is our calling and each of us must wrestle daily to how we live as disciples of Jesus who modeled this so perfectly for us. But we are not called to do this all alone. We are called to mission together. And, I fully believe that together, we have, we do, and we will make a difference in the world. Amen!
It was not just the NFL season that officially started up this past Sunday. On September 13th we celebrated Rally Day at Riviera Presbyterian Church when our fall programs began again. The church choir and Christian Education started back up. We celebrated being together after summer travels, family vacations, and reunions.
ffO.K. – Let’s start this sermon right off by saying to the children that are in the congregation this morning, contrary to what you just thought you heard in the Scripture passage and might infer from my sermon title, the adults in your lives are right…. You still must wash your hands before you eat!
Good, now that we have that taken care of, let’s did into this morning’s lectionary text and here what God’s good news is for us.
The Jews were living in an occupied country during the time Jesus was waked this earth and the Jews were a minority religion. The Pharisees were in charge of the Jewish law and they were very concerned that the Hebrews might assimilate into the outside society and pick up life styles that were against the Laws of Moses and God’s Covenant. They became the enforcers of God’s laws! They had a bad rap in Jesus’ day as being conservative sticklers for the rules. They were, in a way, the ‘Religion Police’!
In this morning’s passage what we have is Jesus having a run in with these ‘Religion Police’ over his not following the Law of the Torah. Jesus and his followers are traveling throughout Israel teaching and healing. The Pharisees come to see who this popular rabbi with such a large and strong following is. They listen to his message and observe his lifestyle and fund that he is not following traditional Jewish dietary Law. A conflict emerges. The Pharisees perceived Jesus and his followers eating without first washing or purifying their hands which is a violation of Jewish Law and they accuse Jesus. They ate with defiled hands and were the hypocrites prophesied by Isaiah.
The words of the Pharisees sound harsh and their literal interpretation of God’s Law seem silly. But, their fears are warranted. What will happen to their faith, their special covenant with God if the Jewish people take on pagan traditions and do not follow the Laws of Moses and the Torah? What will happen if they assimilate into the culture that surrounds them with value differences and cultural norms that are contrary to theirs? And actually, after you read some of the dietary laws and realize the time in which they are written, some of them are very good and most likely were there to prevent illness and save lives. They are healthy. It is good to wash you hands before you eat…. particularly when you live in a society where the practice is that you eat with your hands. In one of my less sophisticated moments, I ran into this cultural practice head on. After my freshman year of college (many, many years ago) I traveled with a friend to England. We were truly the naive midwestern girls experiencing life. We had been invited by some Kuwaiti young men to come to their home for a traditional Arab meal. We got there, and knew as Dorothy had, that we were not in Kansas or Ohio anymore. There music was different. The dinner was spread out on a table cloth on the floor and not at a dining room table. AND, they made a VERY BIG THING about everyone washing their hands before dinner. It was a VERY big thing! I mean, when was the last time you were at a dinner party and the host talked to you about washing your hands! maybe when you were in elementary school???? My girlfriend and I giggled in the bathroom as we washed up for dinner. And after dinner started, we realized just how important it was (even though my first thought was that they did not have enough silverware to go around) when we realized that part of a traditional dinner was that we ate with our hands…. It certainly was a reason for the hand washing custom and I would assume for the Jewish Law. And, the same goes for other laws as well. Jewish Laws that tell you to clean your food first before you eat it, to wash the pots and pans in which you cook, and say that that you probably should not eat pork that is filled with bacteria… well, these are all good laws.
The Pharisees had other worries as well. Their end goal was for the Jewish laws to separate their people from others and make them keep their traditions and culture which defined who they were. What if people lost the very things that defined them as people of God? I imagine it is a lot like the Amish people trying to stay outside of our society to keep what they think is of most value to them. The shun the ‘fancy ways’ of society and their laws and customs have them live as islands in but very much outside out culture. They are able to maintain closeness because their strict lifestyle laws separate them and make it hard for outsiders to enter in.
And in Jesus’ time two culture came into such close contact that the Pharisees most likely became more adamant and police-like in their traditions and strict following of rules and God’s Law.
We live in a time period, and have for the past two decades, where there is a sharp rise in fundamentalism and strict following of religious laws. Whether you are talking of Christians, Jews, or Muslims, all three Western Religions have seen an increase of a return to literal translations and conservative adherence to religious laws. Some feel the rise in fundamentalism is a reaction of differing societal norms, religions, cultures, and beliefs all living in a world with multi-media and instant communication which forces intermingling and interfacing of peoples. We no longer can live with just our own. We, in the Christian tradition, no more can prevent our daughters and sons from living in a culture of sex, drugs, and instant gratification than the Muslim, the Jew, and the other religious people of our day. So we try and teach our children our Christian culture, our ethics, and the laws of our God, to help them navigate through the sea of conflicting values. And some feel that this wave of fundamentalism sweeping our world, is one way people are fighting this amoral culture climate in which we find ourselves. Retired President of McCormick Seminary, Dr. Cythia Campbell writes that the fundamental Christian movement springs from just that. She describes how responding to issues of our day, usually around human sexuality, become identity-defining and the stand one takes with respect to them define whether one is a ‘Real Christian’. Maintaining a certain stand on issues has become the measuring stick for whether an individual is a member of a religious community or not. It is a phenomenon that is permeating our world, our society, and certainly our politics today.
We saw this in the first Republican primary debate that was held in Cleveland last month. The way the candidates paraded their Christian faith and a fundamentalist narrow approach to social issues of our day certainly did not swing my vote although it must have appealed to a larger group to which they want approval. They had faith that they were ‘Real Christians’ and that people who thought like them were too. And my guess is their faith based rhetoric must give comfort to people who feel feel that the world has morally gone out of control.
But Jesus answered the Pharisees by stating that what defiles a person is not what comes from the outside (meaning dirt and bacteria that can be removed by washing), but rather what comes from the inside the person. It is our unclean actions, our sins of faith that make us un-pure, not by choosing to go against the many, many insignificant laws that might be there to define us.
And what is interesting here is that the Pharisees are talking about the same thing that Jesus is, but the two are taking different approaches. One is taking a fundamentalist conservative approach to law while the other is taking what we call today a post-modern one. The Pharisees are the fundamentalists and are concerned with following the Law to keep religious purity and Jesus is saying that it is what is inside you, what is inside your heart that is important and keeps us pure. Their concerns are the same BUT their approaches are different. And, Jesus says to look at the end product. If you are just following the Law but are living in an immoral way, what good is the Law? It is what is in your heart that is important. As Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, ‘Letters to Marc About Jesus’, “The Spiritual life has to do with the heart of existence. I find the word ‘heart’ a good word. The heart is the center of our being, the place where we are most ourselves, where we are host human and real. To Jesus, the Law is only as good as what is inside your heart and what is the focus of your spiritual life. Everything else is measured by that.
So, I guess, one of the messages for us today is to be skeptical whenever someone defines being Christian by a narrow set of guidelines. We must measure, just as Jesus did, the laws over God’s commandment to Love. Cynthia Campbell says, “The problem arrises when religious practices and doctrines that are intended to bring life and health to the community become barriers to reaching out to others with the love, justice, and mercy of God. We do not want our human traditions to substitute for God’s greatest Commandment. We want to define our Christian lifestyle, our traditions, moral principals, and values so that we do not lose what is of value in our pluralistic society which often is at odds with what we believe. Jesus offers us a measuring stick which allows us to live in society and not hide from it. He says we are not to be so worried about following all the laws as our integrity and identity can be measured by what is within us and whether we are acting in a loving manner. When asked what is the greatest commandment of all, Jesus boiled it down to loving God and neighbor. The good news is this same measuring stick of morality applies to us as well.
Oh, and this means that the second message is that we really should wash our hands. Spreading germs just isn’t neighborly!
The Riviera Presbyterian Church Running/Walking Team welcomes all who wish to participate in physical fitness. You don’t need to be a runner to participate. All you need are determination, willingness, and a good pair of running shoes!
Our RPC RunWalk Team will be training for the ZooMiami 5K event that will be held on Saturday, November 14. If you have not registered yet, visit the ZooMiami website at www.zoomiami.org/run before October 31.
The team will meet every Thursday at 6:30 PM and every Saturday at 7:00 AM at the Riviera parking lot. We will spend eight (8) weeks training to run or walk the ZooMiami 5K.
This morning we wrap up our summer long sermon series on the Great Stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. We certainly have not covered all of them and there are many more wonderful and very human stories which tell us much about our relationship with God, God’s expectations for us, and the covenant God has made with us. The stories found in our ‘Old Testament’ are indeed worthy of study and reflection.
This morning we finish up with the Book of Jonah, a four chapter book found in the very back of your Hebrew Scriptures. This later prophet, we learned last week was also a very reluctant and human prophet. In the story that is very familiar to most of us. God tells Jonah to prophesize to the people of Nineveh about their sinful behavior and God’s impending punishment on them. Jonah, instead flees in the opposite direction away from Nineveh on a boat and eventually is thrown overboard by the crew in an effort to save themselves and their boat in a raging storm. Thrown over board, the storm stops but Jonah is then swallowed whole by a large fish. He repents and prays to God and is spit out on dry land whole and unharmed.
And if you are like me, that is the end of the story you heard about in Sunday School as a child. But, ending there means that you miss the second half of the book. And, if you found humor in the first half of the story ,I’m here to tell you it just gets better in chapters 3 and 4!
So, after being saved from the belly of the fish, God calls Jonah again to go to Nineveh and proclaim that in 40 days the city will be overthrown. Nineveh was a large city and it took Jonah three days to walk across it while spreading his message of doom and gloom.
But Jonah’s message was heard! The people of Nineveh believed in Jonah’s message and Jonah’s God and the people fasted and put on sack-clothes in efforts to reclaim their faith and salvation. The king proclaimed that this cleansing of their behavior and faith went for the animals as well. The King declared that all living things should turn from their evil and violent ways . He even put sack clothes on the animals! The King says, who knows…..Maybe if we change our ways, God will have a change of heart as well and we will not perish!
And, God did have a change of heart. God saw that the people of Nineveh had changed, had repented, and were living good and moral lives. God spared the city.
Now, you would think that this would make Jonah happy. It turns out that he was a pretty effective prophet as he brought about a change in behavior in an entire city. BUT, Jonah was mad. He whined to God that this is EXACTLY why he did not want to be a prophet when God first called him to go to Nineveh. I mean, if God was going to send him out to preach doom and gloom, at least God could follow up on it and destroy the people. And Jonah was a bit of a drama queen too as he said that it was better for him to die than live now that his prophesies were not coming true.
What is so good here is that Jonah can’t hear himself and how funny he sounds. I mean, earlier in the story Jonah did not follow God’s requests, in fact he did the opposite to what God asked him to do.. and Jonah did not even repent until nearly drowning in the sea and then being swallowed whole by a large fish. Then, Jonah repented, prayed to God, and God gave him a second chance to follow God’s command. Jonah, could not see that the Ninevites were like him. They too had repented after not following God, and were given a second chance as well.
So, in a display of drama and a good pout, Jonah walks out of Nineveh and sits on the outskirts of the city. And so that the hot sun did not bake him, God appointed bush to grow up and shade him so that he would be comfortable. And he was. However, the next day, when Jonah woke up the plant had died and nothing was there to protect him from the sun and wind. Jonah again cried to God that it would be better if he were able to die.
God then asks Jonah if it is right that he should be so concerned about a plant that had a 24 hour life that Jonah did not plant or till, weed, or care for. And Jonah said yes. And God answered, if he felt he should be concerned about that plant, why shouldn’t God be concerned about a city of over 120,000 people and many animals who had lost their way? And, the book ends there. The end!!!
Wow! What a story! It gives us a challenge to live as followers of God and good news to us as well. Jonah is our straight man. Jonah is us, saying the things we want to say but can’t and doing the dumb things into which we fear we could do. Much like the numerous presidential candidates that baffle us as to ‘why they are popular and why people are listening to them’, we realize that they stand for parts of our complaints, parts of our insecurity and discontent with society that we don’t often voice. They are voicing that inner child and inner self absorbed person in all of us. Jonah is the same! In some way, he is the Donald Trump or the Bernie Sanders of his day.
So, the first thing we have to confess, is that we share the same sin with Jonah. We think we should be forgiven for our sins, but don’t think others should for theirs. Jonah knows he sinned when he did not first go to Nineveh. Jonah truly repented to God and asked to be delivered. He prayed in the belly of the great fish for salvation and God had the fish spit him out whole, giving him a second opportunity to follow God and be God’s faithful disciple. We all know that on each Sunday when we reflect on our not quite making the mark in our prayers of confession, when we meditate in the silent time on what we could have done better to be Christ’s body to the world, we know that as we speak our confession, God will forgive us and always loves us. There is a constant opportunity for renewal and a new beginning when we at to start again with God.
However thankful Jonah is to God for giving him a second chance, Jonah does not think this should be done for the Ninevites. Jonah experienced them as evil. They were his enemies and deserved God’s punishments. He went all over town for three days telling them that their evil ways have caused God to smite them. He really put himself out there as a prophet of doom and gloom! But, when they hear his message and repent and turn back to God, Jonah does not feel they should get the same ‘Get Out of Jail’ card he was given. Forgiveness is indeed a godly trait but it certainly is not Jonah’s! Being a person who holds grudges I can see how difficult this is for Jonah. Jonah was raised thinking that the people of Nineveh were not on the same caliber as the Hebrew people. And, now God is giving THEM a second chance. I’m sure Jonah was thinking something along the lines that Jonah deserved it as he had really learned his lesson, but not THOSE people.
And God, who is always forgiving, again forgives Jonah and even makes him comfortable while he pouts. God causes a leafy plant to grow to give Jonah shade and protection while he rested and pouted on the outskirts of town.
And God uses the plant as a lesson for Jonah. The plant withers overnight and Jonah becomes overly emotional that it has died. He cries to God and again is a total drama queen as he says he’s so upset about the plant he could die. And God points out the obvious mistake in judgement Jonah has made. Why should Jonah want God to care about a little plant and not about a huge city full of people and animals? Where are Jonah’s priorities. Perhaps he should look a little past his own nose.
The story is one of forgiveness but a story that is also hard to take. We don’t mind hearing about God’s forgiveness when it pertains to us… but not when it pertains to those we don’t like or even hate. God forgives all. The truth is…. God loves you and and God loves me who are advocates for same sex marriage as much as God loves the Clerk in Kentucky who wont give out marriage licenses to gay couples. And even harder to understand is that God loves the police officers in Baltimore who are charged with killing Freddie Grey as much as God loved Freddie Grey and all people of color.
Just like a parent who gives unconditional love to the child, God loves us whatever we do and whoever we are.
And even more amazing is if we ask for forgiveness, God will forgive us and restore us to a right and good relationship with God. And this gift is for all, not just a select few as well. Last week in the Bible study that meets before worship we were talking about how hard this is for not just Jonah, but all of us to accept. God might forgive us, but god forgives those we deem unforgivable as well. God loved Hitler and every monster in the history of the human race and offers them the same mercy, the same forgiveness that is offered to you and me. That is an incredible offer of grace and love. Its hard to accept, but we must realize how blessed we are.
The hard part, for us, is to model that love and grace to others. Gulp! Its hard and we will have to do it together in our community called Riviera. That’s what Christian love is all about. Amen.
I am so happy that we are finishing our sermon series this summer spending two weeks on another short story in the Bible, the Book of Jonah. As I began preparing for the sermon a few weeks ago, I reread the short book or maybe even read it in its entirety for the first time. To my surprise, I found this four chapter book to be without a doubt one of the funniest stories in the Bible. It is story telling in its finest. The main characters are God and Jonah who is one of the most flawed characters God ever called to be his prophet. I mean, where some of the Old Testament characters we studied this summer were like super heroes… Noah, Esther, David, Daniel, Ruth… they were too good, their faith and desire to be God’s disciples so intense they might be experienced as too perfect for us to relate. Well, there is not one of us here who cannot see ourselves in the imperfect Jonah. Jonah is totally human and terribly flawed…. Jonah is us!
And we all know the story, or if you are like me, you knew the story pretty well but sometimes confuse it with the children’s story of Pinnochio who also is about a flawed character that got swallowed by a whale or a large fish and lived to be transformed by the experience. I was so happy to find out that I was not the only person that confused the two stories and thank Nicole for coming clean with her confession as well. I mean, truth be told… if we replace the good fairy with God, the stories of redemption and transformation in the belly of a great fish are pretty much the same!
So let me tell you the story of Jonah and what happens to him in the first two chapters of this great book. The Book of Jonah starts out with his calling by God to go to Nineveh and cry out against the town that God is aware of their wickedness. He was to say something to the effect of, “Ninnevites, you are sinful and God is going to punish and destroy you because of your wickedness.’ Presumably, God wants the Ninnevites to realize their evil ways and repent. And, immediately Jonah responds to God’s calling, not by going to Nineveh, but by buying a one way ticket to Tardish which is in the opposite direction. Jonah wants no part in being God’s prophet. Who wants to bring bad news of impending doom to others!
But, as we learn, there is no escaping God’s call. The crew of the ship that Jonah boarded was a very international and inter-faith group and none but Jonah was a Jew. A great storm came up in the sea and the crew began to pray to their individual gods for salvation. Even with all that praying, nothing they did calmed the waters or cleared the skies and the storm grew even more violent. They threw the cargo into the water in an attempt to lighten the load and save themselves and the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah was asleep down below when all this was happening and the mariners woke him up and told him that he too had to pray to his God to save them. The crew casted lots to see who was bringing the calamity upon them and the lot fell on Jonah. He explained that it actually was his fault. His God was the God of gods and he had angered his God. Jonah told the crew to throw him overboard and the storm would be over. (As a side bar here… what I find interesting is that up until this point we might have thought Jonah was a weak and frightened man by refusing to be God’s prophet. Here he proves that he is a man of courage and responsibility. He is willing to have the crew throw him overboard to calm the sea and save the rest of the group. This shows how truly reluctant Jonah was to be God’s prophet. It was not that he was a frightened man, he really just did not want to do the task God called him to do.)
The crew did not immediately through Jonah overboard. They continued to try and row the boat to safety but to no avail. Finally they felt they had to throw Jonah overboard and the sea quieted down immediately. Needless to say, all the men aboard were then converted believers of the Hebrew God and immediately prayed and made sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.
And, as Jonah learns, the thing is… you can’t really run away from God. Poor Jonah found this out the hard way. God persists and intervenes in ever new ways to bring Jonah to repent and finally answer his calling.
And, as we know…. this is not the end of the story. Jonah did not drown when he was thrown overboard, but was then swallowed whole by a large fish. (See, this really is becoming a fish story!) God constantly is calling God’s children, and in the belly of the fish, Jonah finally prayed to God and he agreed to be God’s prophet.
READ SCRIPTURE LESSON:
The fish spits him up on dry land and he goes to Nineveh to give them God’s message.
As wild a tale as it is, perhaps this story resembles your own journey as God’s own. The Lord cries out and we flee. We want to escape the demands of discipleship. However, the lesson to Jonah is our lesson as well. We can’t escape the presence of God in our lives. Even if we try, we, like Jonah, will return to God’s original vision and calling for us or we will not feel whole as we wont be what we are meant to be.
At my previous church, a member of the Board of Deacons asked for an appointment to come and visit with me. He told me that when he was in his early 20’s he went to Princeton Theological Seminary and received his Master of Divinity as he felt he was called to the ministry. Then, he received a fellowship to continue studying church history after graduation, and because he was living as a closeted gay man in an era where our church was not ordaining gays, he felt that perhaps he should not go forward with his trials of ordination but go into academics instead. 25 years later, after being ordained as a deacon of the church and taking on a ministry which brought worship services to a community nursing home where many of our members lived, he was feeling the same calling he had a quarter century earlier. He had worked as a teacher for his adult life after finishing his graduate studies but knew there was something missing in his life. he never felt whole. He felt he was not doing what he was meant to do and was not who God meant him to be. We cried together as he shared feeling that his life was not on the track God had set for him. He needed to act on God’s call. Eventually, with the support of the presbytery, Logan quit his job and received an internship at the Cleveland Clinic to fulfill his last trial of ordination. That trial is what is called CPE which Danny Morales finished this summer. Since, at the time, I was moderator of our Presbytery, when he was ready for ordination, I got to ordain him as a Teaching Elder. Logan continues to minister to the patients and staff at the Cleveland Clinic as one of their chaplains. He is happy. He is fulfilled. He knows he is who God called him to be.
Being a beloved child of God, changes our identity. We hear God’s word in church and it changes us. We go to church school and we learn about what faithful responses to our world should be and it changes us. We act out of our discipleship which calls us always to new and exciting ministries. We have no other choice. That is the lesson that Jonah learned in these first two chapters of Jonah. To be fulfilled and content in life, we have to listen to where God calls us and follow that call.
But there is one other lesson to glean from this first part of the story which is good news for us today. This is a story not just of Jonah, but also of God. And this God we follow IS concerned with humanity. God did not create and forget, but truly wants humanity to be good. He is concerned about the people of Nineveh and their wickedness. Instead of letting them to their own devices, he wants Jonah to go and talk to them. God wants to plead to God’s people to change their ways or destruction will occur. GOD CARESS!
And, if God cared for the Ninevites, God cares for us and is worried about us today. God is calling prophets to talk to us about our evil ways…our acts of bigotry, of violent racism and has called people to start the Black Lives Matter campaign and other ways voices of oppressed are heard by all.
God is concerned with our rape of the environment and has sent us prophets in scientists and environmentalists who show us the damage we have done and how to save God’s wonderful creation from destruction.
God cares for all of his children and loves us all equally and has also sent us prophets to fight for equal rights for all, for equal education and job opportunities so that all can live full lives.
And what we need to realize is that we are the people God calls. Just like Jonah, we would rather not be the ones called… Its so much easier to leave the task to others… others who are more qualified, others who are better speakers…. others who have better skills, more time, more knowledge, or more passion. We are too busy, we have other things that must be done. Perhaps at another time…The list of the reasons it should not be us is long and to us sounds compelling. Others should be the prophets, not us.
But, God calls. God is calling us now. And like Jonah, we will eventually need to answer. Amen.