One of the unexpected gifts of the new votive prayer stand is that every time I enter the nave and see a candle burning, I begin to wonder what someone has prayed for. As I imagine who might have come through and what they would ask God for, it stirs my heart to prayer as well. I’ve found myself thinking of many of you who are watching; praying for your physical health, mental health, and spiritual health as well as for those whom you love. The prayer stand has also reminded me of one of my favorite church stories about a man named Shane. Shane worked hard, but could never quite make ends meet. As the years went by, his credit card bills grew bigger and bigger, until he was sure that he’d never pay them off. Feeling stressed, he went to a local church, lit a candle, knelt down, and prayed that God would look favorably upon him and help him win the lottery. The next week, he returned, lit a candle, knelt, and prayed that God would look favorably upon him and help him win the lottery. The week after that, once again, he went to the church, lit a candle, knelt down, and prayed that God would look favorably upon him and help him win the lottery. Suddenly, the candle was snuffed out by a gust of wind, the roof shook, and the voice of God spoke, “Shane, I can’t help you win if you won’t buy a ticket.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of being a Shane from time to time in my life. I just want God to wave a magic wand and fix everything that is wrong because God is God, and why wouldn’t God just make everything right? We know, of course, that’s not how God chooses to work in the world. Rather than acting as some cosmic puppeteer, God’s way of working toward the restoration of creation is to invite us to work alongside as co-laborers in the mission of building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
I think Jonah might be the patron saint of Shane’s way of thinking. We only get the tail end of the story this morning, but the entire book of Jonah is a parable on God’s invitation to join as co-workers in mission. The story begins with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah to “Go at once to Nineveh to cry out against it.” God had seen the wickedness of the Ninevites and wanted to invite them to repentance. Jonah, however, had other plans. He was sure that God was capable of calling the Ninevites to repentance without him, and so, he immediately bought a one-way ticket in the opposite direction. Instead of taking the northeast road five-hundred-fifty miles to Nineveh, he hopped on a boat to go twenty-five-hundred miles due west, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Tarshish, and the end of the known world. In response to Jonah’s refusal to act, God hurled a great wind upon the sea, but as the crew threw their supplies overboard, Jonah slept in the hold of the ship, confident in his decision to run way. God could handle the Ninevites, Jonah thought, and God would calm the storm.
The captain of the ship wasn’t quite so sure. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was the problem, and they threw him overboard as well, hoping to appease the Lord and calm the sea. It worked. Rather than allowing Jonah to drown and skip out on his mission in Nineveh, God had him swallowed up by a large fish, and after three days in its belly, Jonah was spewed onto the dry land, and again God spoke to Jonah saying, “Get up and go to Nineveh to proclaim the word I have for them.” This time, Jonah went, but he still didn’t much care for his task. When he got to Nineveh, rather than make some grand show of God’s power before declaring the word of judgment, he meandered into the city and proceeded to preach the worst sermon in the history of preaching. “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” No mention of the Lord his God. No call to repentance. Nothing, but a lazy prophetic word.
Jonah had no joy in his work, no pride in his calling, no desire to be a co-laborer in God’s kingdom. He didn’t want to be bothered by God to go to Nineveh in the first place, and once he was there, he certainly didn’t want to be there long. So, he did the very least that was required of him, and bailed to a nearby hill, hoping to watch the destruction of the great city. Much to his chagrin, the people of Nineveh repented – even the king, who proclaimed a fast – in hopes that God might relent and spare them their destruction. And relent God did, which made Jonah even angrier. Shaking his fist to heaven, Jonah seethed to God, “I knew this would happen, O Lord. I said so before this whole stupid journey started. I know that you are gracious and merciful. I know that you are slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I knew you wouldn’t destroy this city. You didn’t need my help. Why did I have to do all this if you were going to change their hearts anyway?” As the story wraps up, it fades to black with a grumpy Jonah, sitting beneath a dead shade bush, having missed the chance to celebrate his role in God’s ongoing redemption of the world.
We see this kind of thinking all around us these days. Would that God might just wipe COVID-19 from the earth. But no, God has invited us to wear masks and remain physically distant so that we might be co-workers in mission; making sacrifices that show our love of neighbor. Would that God might wave a magic wand and heal our nation of its foundational sin of slavery. But no, God is inviting us to reckon with our past and address the ongoing power of systemic racism and white privilege so that we might co-create a better future for all of God’s children. Would that hurricanes might dissipate, fires might burn themselves out, and the effects of climate change might reverse overnight. But no, God is inviting us to take stock of the ways we have failed to be good stewards of creation and ravaged the gifts entrusted to our care. True liberation won’t come until we are willing to answer the call to be co-laborers with God and with each other in the mission of redemption.
Our new votive stand is, indeed, a way into deeper prayer, but if it ends at just lighting a candle and asking God for help, we’ve missed the true opportunity of prayer. Instead, we should follow the advice of Pope Francis who says, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” As 2020 drags on, and the weight of it all feels unbearably heavy, I invite you to pray for the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the vulnerable, and then to roll up your sleeves and answer the call to be co-laborers in the kingdom; working alongside God in bringing God’s grace, mercy, and steadfast love to all of God’s children. Amen.