An Ironic Collect

Irony – a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, in which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…

In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been that long since we heard an excerpt from Jonah read on a Sunday morning. Portions of Jonah are only read twice in the three-year lectionary cycle, and the lessons overlap by a verse which reads “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.”

Back in the more Biblically literate times of the 1950s, hearing only a small portion of this story would elicit in the congregation’s mind the fuller context, but that can’t be assumed in 2021. While the preacher might chuckle at the irony of the Collect for Epiphany 3 being matched with a lesson that starts “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” not everyone will be in on the joke. Of course, maybe that gives us our entrance into the sermon. By helping our folks see how the prayer we pray on Epiphany 3 is basically one that says, “Give us grace, O Lord, not to be like Jonah,” we can help our people see two basic truths. First, that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And second, that even one of the Lord’s great prophets struggled to share the good news of God’s grace at times. In an era of virtual evangelism, these might be helpful lessons for members of our congregations who are seeking to discern how God might be calling them to be evangelists.

So, tell the whole story. Let them in on the joke. It’ll be a great way to open the conversation.

Co-Laborers in the Kingdom

       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.

Jonah is all of us

Proper 20, Year A always takes me back to my senior year of high school.  Every Friday morning, about a dozen of us who made up the core group of my Young Life club would gather at the Fletcher home for Bible study and monkey bread.  Occasionally, we would spend the night there Thursday night, though the older I get, the more I can’t imagine how our parents let this happen.  Anyway, on those Thursday evenings, we would hang out with Fletch and Julie’s kids (who are now way too old for my liking) and watch Veggie Tales videos.  Mostly, we’d enjoy the Silly Songs with Larry best-ofs, but every once in a while, we would watch a real episode.  Proper 20, Year A takes me there not because of any of the VHS tapes we watched then, but because of the 2002 release of the Veggie Tales Jonah movie, but you, dear blog reader, are used to reading long, useless intros by now.

My favorite part of both the movie and the Biblical book from which it based is the ending.  Without so much as a spoiler alert, Sunday’s Track 2 lesson takes us right to the very end of the story.  To recap, Jonah tried to escape God’s call to prophecy in Nineveh by jumping a ship to Tarshish on the other side of the known world.  A storm comes up, presumably because of God’s indignation over Jonah’s failure, and eventually Jonah is thrown overboard where a fish (not a whale) swallows him alive and vomits him out three days later.  A contrite and probably disgusting Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where he prophecies against their sins and retreats to a high place to watch God’s destruction.

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Remarkably, the people repent of their evil (fish slapping, in the movie version) ways and in our lesson for Sunday, we hear that God decides to forego his wrath, which ticks Jonah off to no end.  It is there, under the shade of a tree he did not plant, stewing over God’s grace freely offered, that I realize that Jonah is me.  Jonah is all of us.  It may not be so obvious as grumbling about the eleventh hour conversion of another, but each of us has a place where God’s grace catches us short, where God’s unending love seems wildly unfair to us.  How often do we recognize God’s grace in our own lives while being unwilling to comprehend how that same grace might be made manifest in the life of another?  Like Jonah, it can make us angry to witness God’s grace poured out abundantly on those whom we deem unworthy – angry enough to die – and in those moments, though we fail to recognize it, God pours out his grace on us, even in our undeserving.  This week, I’m grateful for the reminder of fun times in high school, for silly videos, and most especially, for God’s never failing grace that is poured out upon me, even in my most undeserving moments.

When God’s Grace Disappoints Us

Jonah is pissed off.  After all, he knew this was going to happen.  He knew God was gracious and full of compassion.  How he knew that the fish slapping people of Nineveh were going to repent and change their ways, I don’t know, but he knew it.  He knew that all of his effort to travel to Nineveh to see these people get smote by a rain of fire was going to be for naught.  He tried to avoid it, but God wouldn’t let him off the hook.  And now, after storms and fish bellies and long a really long walk in the desert, here he sits, overlooking the city of Nineveh, which is very much not being destroyed by the angry hand of God, and Jonah is pissed off.

Of course, Jonah isn’t alone.  He is perhaps the archetype of human interaction with God.  At one time or another in our lives, God’s grace is going to disappoint us.  We’ll be disappointed in other ways, no doubt.  Our favorite sports team won’t win the big game.  Our friends’ marriage will crash and burn.  The child we prayed for will die of cancer.  The parish church of our ancestry will close.  We’ll be disappointed in those ways often, but they tend to not make us quite as angry as when God’s grace overflows upon those who we’ve determined should be on the outside looking in.

This is, of course, the whole premise behind Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Landowner.  “Are you envious because I am generous?” or more literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?” or more to the point of this post “Are you ticked because of my graciousness?”  If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us can name plenty of people who we hope are outside of God’s redeeming grace.  I don’t want to share heaven with Mark Driscoll or Joel Osteen any more than they want to share it with me, but alas, God loves them even in their bad theology as much as he loves me in mine.

Our disappointment in God’s grace assumes that we deserve it while other don’t, which is, of course, not true.  Jonah didn’t deserve God’s grace, he ran and hid instead of following God’s will.  The workers hired at 6am didn’t deserve God’s grace, they moaned and groaned at the landowner’s generosity.  I don’t deserve God’s grace because I name people who I don’t want to share heaven with in blog posts.  And yet, God extends his grace to each of us sinners while also being merciful to the people of Ninveh, the workers hired at 5pm, and any number of people who I cold squabble with theologically.  Our disappointment in God’s grace is a reminder that God loves even us.  Which, when it comes right down to it, is just as shocking as his decision to spare the people of Nineveh.