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“Mad about Grace”
(based on chapter 24 “Jesus and hell”, We make the road by walking)
Rev. Melanie Homan
February 7, 2106
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 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. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 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.
6 The LORD God appointed a bush,[a] 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. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 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.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
“Jesus and hell”. That’s the title of this week’s chapter of “We make the road by walking”. I was all ready to take on this topic when I realized that it fell on the first Sunday of the month, which meant – communion…..which also meant – children stay with us for all of worship! The thought of this brought back two distinct memories from my childhood.
1. Hell was a swear word that we weren’t allowed to say. And 2. I remember camping at Blue Mound State Park with my grandparents and going to the Sunday morning outdoor worship service at the park. Leadership rotated amongst various local pastors, and we happened to be there on a Sunday when the pastor preached about fire and brimstone in such detail that I was absolutely terrified and wanted nothing to do with God for quite some time…..and I’m not about to pass that along to our children here!
So, we’re walking the path this morning, but sometimes we change course on our path. I’d encourage you to look at the New Testament passages that are part of this chapter, but this morning we’re going to take a look at the Old Testament text that goes along with it, which is the story about Jonah. Now, you might be thinking – what does Jonah and the whale have to do with Jesus?!?! This is what we’ll take a look at this morning because I think they have a lot to do with one another.
You got to hear Janet’s version of the story of Jonah, and then (Anne/Kate) told the last part of the story. Here is another version from Frederick Buechner. I chose Buechner because he has this wonderful way of writing about the stories of our faith that really brings them to life for me.
First, God asks Jonah to go tell the people of Ninevah to knock it off. They aren’t living the way God wants them to live and, if they don’t change their ways, they are going to be in big trouble. But, Jonah doesn’t want to tell them. So, he runs off and God pursues him and eventually Jonah ends up in the belly of a whale….for three days and nights. Jesus and Jonah…they’ve got something in common!
Buechner writes, “Within a few minutes of swallowing the prophet Jonah, the whale suffered a severe attack of acid indigestion, and it’s not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk. (A disposition is how we act – and Jonah was kind of grumpy).
When God ordered Jonah to go to Ninevah and tell the people there to shape up and get saved, the expression on his face was that of a man who had just gotten a whiff of trouble in his septic tank. Ewwwwwww!!! In the first place, the Ninevites were foreigners and, thus, were off his regular beat. In the second place, far from wanting to see them get saved, nothing would have pleased Jonah more than to see them get what he thought they had coming to them.
It was as the result of a desperate attempt to get himself out of the assignment that Jonah got himself swallowed by the whale instead; but, the whale couldn’t stomach him for long. In the end, Jonah went ahead and, with a little more prodding from God, did what he’d been told. He hated every minute of it, though, and when the Ninevites succumbed to his eloquence and promised to shape up, he sat down under a leafy castor oil plant to shade himself from the blistering sun and smoldered inwardly.”
Jonah was mad. He was angry. He had perched under a plant to watch God destroy the people of Ninevah, and God wouldn’t do it. After all of Jonah’s work, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to give up on the punishment. And that makes Jonah angry. He would rather DIE than see God be merciful to this group of people he despises so much.
By the end of the story, God is merciful and gracious to the people of Ninevah and God is merciful and gracious to grumpy old Jonah, who is mad at God. But, we aren’t told what ends up happening we next! We don’t know if Jonah clings to his anger and lets it eat at him for the rest of his life, we don’t know if Jonah decides to let it go and accept that God’s grace might be for everyone,….we don’t know what happens.In this story, the character we are supposed to identify with is Jonah. While we don’t know what Jonah’s response was, we need to think about our own response.
I can’t tell you how many times when I was growing up and some kid would say or do some awful thing that hurt my feelings. My grandma would say, “Don’t worry. They’ll get their just reward later on. They’ll have to answer to God.” That has always stayed with me – this idea that the people who cause us pain are going to have to answer to God for their actions and they’re going to get what’s coming to them. I think that each one of us does have to answer for our choices and actions. But, the grace and mercy that we so readily embrace for ourselves…it’s a hard pill to swallow when we imagine God offering that very same grace and mercy to the people who hurt us.
Yesterday afternoon, the youth came early and decorated the whole church for the Reyounite event we hosted last night. We left a lot of their decorations up, as well as the posters they created to help educate people about LGBTQ issues. We also left up the worship backdrop. The letters spelling Reyounite are filled with images of people who have been oppressed or harmed because they live in a place where simply being who they are is illegal. It is also filled with letters that the youth wrote, that will go to delegates of the United Methodist general conference this spring, asking the delegates to make our global UMC open and welcoming to all people. Come up and take a closer look after worship today.
The church was being the church at its best last night, creating a space for everyone present to experience God’s mercy and grace – no matter what. As our guest preacher reminded the youth last night – the early church grew because they did what Jesus did. They accepted and welcomed in, the people no one else wanted anything to do with. They embodied the grace and mercy of God that we see in the story of Jonah, that we see in the life of Jesus.
The heavenly banquet that we talk about in our communion liturgy is filled with people we don’t like. And we, like Jonah, have to decide if we still want a place at the table… knowing that it includes the people we don’t like, knowing that it means we won’t be able to nurse our anger. God’s steadfast love is going to keep on wearing on us until we are as slow to anger as God is.
The table is set. We might find ourselves breaking bread with the old school bus bully or that kid who always got picked first in gym class. We might have Bernie on one side of us and Trump on the other. The table is big and we aren’t in charge of the invite list. And that, my friends, is Good News! We aren’t in charge of the invite list. It’s Good News, but it’s the type of good news that doesn’t always feel so good.
God pursues each one of us with mercy. We can choose to refuse it and we can be angry at the thought of God offering that mercy to “those people”. We all have those thoughts. There is likely someone or some people that you harbor ill feelings of disdain, resentment, or anger against. For Jonah, it wasn’t just that the Ninevites were outsiders – they were from the capital of Assyria. They were the Israelites’ arch enemy and the country that would eventually conquer God’s people. Yet, there God is, showing them – mercy.
The story of Jonah ends without us knowing what Jonah decided to do about God’s mercy for his enemy. The story of Jonah is our story. So, while we don’t know what Jonah decided for himself, we get to decide for ourselves. What’s your conclusion to the story?