Posted in calling, God, Judgment, Mercy, Sermons

Shake My Head

You’ve heard the Jonah story so many times, most of you can recite to me.  Let me review where we are in the story because I’m not talking about the storm or the belly of a fish – I’m talking about God’s mercy to Jonah and Nineveh and each of us!

God called Jonah to go to Nineveh but Jonah fled to Tarshish and got on a ship in Joppas.    Lord sent a great wind that created a big storm and the men on their ship were praying to their gods and throwing off anything they could off the ship but Jonah had gone to the bottom of the ship and was fast asleep.  The captain woke him up and said pray to your God, we need all the help we can get.  Well, they cast lots and realized Jonah was the guilty one, the one fleeing from God.  So they threw him overboard and the text says God was merciful.  He calmed the sea and Jonah was swallowed up by a large fish, where he stayed for three days and three nights.  When Jonah was in the belly of the fish, he prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the Lord’s deliverance and then the fish spit him out.

Jonah was given a second chance to answer God’s calling and he went to Nineveh in the beginning of chapter 3.  The text says Nineveh was so giant of a city it would take 3 days to walk the length of the city and after only a day’s walk, he proclaimed, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In verse 5 it says, “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 had the entire country fast, repent and pray to God to have mercy on them.  That brings us to our text this morning.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
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. 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, 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?”

But first, let me say this, Jonah is acting like a dramatic teenager.  3 days to walk in the midst of the city and he walks for only a day, he yells this one sentence.  And lo and behold the whole country fasts, repents, prays.  The text doesn’t tell us any details about Jonah except that he is the son of Amittai, but he immediately wants to run away and the only reason chapter 2 happened, his prayer happened, was the fact that he was in a fish’s belly.  Maybe he’s embarrassed to give this news to Nineveh, maybe he mumbled, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  In any case, the people put on sackcloth and repented.  He was obviously not expecting that.

See why I think Jonah’s a moody, melodramatic teenager?  3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 

I was a very dramatic teenager.  I would roll my eyes like a pro and one day I ran up the stairs saying, “I hate this town and everybody in it,” and slammed the door.  So I know melodrama – exaggerated, overdramatic, and sensational – and I know what Jonah was feeling.

He says it here.  “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.”  Like, I could have stayed home watching Netflix.

He then made a booth – a walled structure with s’chach (plant material, such as overgrowth or palm leaves) and waited to see what would become of the city.  At this point my parents would have shaken their heads at me.  I had dodged their first instruction and peaced out, only to come back after I was in the stomach of big fish, or like the prodigal “coming to himself” in the pig sty eating pig pods, but my parents, God our Loving Parent, and the Father in the prodigal story gives us second, third, and fourth chances.  God lets us be dramatic because we are God’s children.  God doesn’t release us from the consequences but even when we’re stubborn and obstinate, God is still there, sometimes shaking his head with a smile on his face, sometimes shaking his head with concern on his face.

I imagine God shaking his head with an exasperated look on his face when Jonah made his booth to await Nineveh’s destruction.  God gave his own eye roll because Jonah was pouting.  He didn’t want to give in and say God was right, those people deserved the same chances to make mistakes as he did.  You see when we’re disobedient it comes from us being self-focused.  We are all about us.  Blinded to our own failings.  When we get that self-righteous, woe is me, I’m worse off than you are, we can’t SEE others needs, others stories, anything.  We can’t see clearly those around us.   We make them into caricutures.  When we become so me, me, me, we can’t see.  When we become so me, me, me, we can’t be a we.  

Jonah is not thinking of God’s mercy to him.  He ran in the exact opposite direction God had called him to.  God called him to modern day Iraq and he sailed for Spain.  Only when he was in the belly of a big fish did Jonah actually have a reality check.  Only when he was in the belly did he pray.  Only when he was desperate did he bargain with God. He wanted mercy for himself, he wanted the fish to spit him out on dry land.  Mercy is great as long as it’s not extended to an enemy.  And Jonah doesn’t think Nineveh should get the same mercy he did.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own stuff as we demand all the grace in the world, BUT no matter what we say, we don’t want God to extend grace to “those” people.  We get in our heads that God’s grace is a limited quantity, that it’s the last drop of water on a hot day.  We don’t understand God has unlimited mercy for each of us.  Shake my head again at Jonah and for that matter each of us.  South Carolina fans vs. Clemson fans, Republicans vs. Democrats vs. Green vs. Independent vs. Libertarian, Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter…we are all in need of God’s mercy and grace.  We are all sinners in need of God’s mercy.  And we ALL need to repent, fast, pray and put on our sackcloth and ash.  None of us has a leg up on the competition – God’s mercy and grace is the greatest equalizer.

 Jonah needed an object lesson of showing mercy and God gave him one.

“6 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. 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.”” 

God asks Jonah, “Are you sure it is right to be angry about the bush?”  Jonah has dug in his heels and says, “Yes, angry enough to die!!”  Oh the defiant drama, but God is patient and used it to teach Jonah.  It was an object lesson after all.

“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?””

He’s calling Jonah out and to account in these two sentences, ending in this question that shows that our God is a God of mercy and cares about all of God’s children.

As an aside, I’ve always used this last part to say, God cares about the animals.  Just sayin’.

God created the bush and God created the people, who was Jonah to question God when the people of Nineveh repented.  God gives third and sixth chances and never WANTS to punish us, as his children, whom God formed in our mother’s womb, but he does give us consequences.  If Nineveh hadn’t repented from their wicked ways, it would be a different story.  God showed mercy to Jonah AND to the people of Nineveh.  Our God is a God of mercy.

A. W. Tozer reminds us “Mercy is not something God has. Mercy is something God is. Mercy is infinite, boundless, and unlimited.”

I used to think that the God of the Old Testament was about only judgment and wrath and the God of the New Testament was the God of mercy and love.  That is far from the truth.  The word “mercy” appears four times more often in the Old Testament than in the New Testament.   If you view God as a Loving Parent it explains a lot.  Some of you may have not had that example, yours may not have been model parents.  But our God is.  Both just and merciful.  And it’s there for each and every one of us.

Cynthia Bourgeault, in Mystical Hope writes, “When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional — always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Just like that little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.”

Mercy is something God is.  This is the first thing to remember.  The second is God can use us to bring deliverance to God’s people.  Jonah certainly didn’t choose to be a prophet.  He did all that he could not to be.  But God still used him to deliver his message.  Nineveh – 120,000 people who did not know their right from their left – were saved because Jonah delivered God’s message.  God can and will use you to send God’s children a message of God’s love and mercy.  God’s love letter to the world.  Even if we’re kicking and screaming, even when we’re a petulant, dramatic teenager, God will use us.  And that’s the point.

There’s an old story about what happened when Jesus arrived back at the gates of heaven, following his ascension. All the heavenly hosts were gathered to welcome God’s Son, to celebrate his return home. Everybody had questions. They’d heard of his exploits on earth. They wanted to hear it straight from him.

Jesus described his adventures at great length: the preaching, the teaching, the healing. They laughed when he told them how he’d tied the Pharisees’ theological arguments up in knots, and they wept when he described both the agony of the cross and the joy of resurrection.

Someone asked him, “Lord, now that you no longer physically walk the earth, who will share the good news?”

“I’ve got a plan,” said Christ. “I’ve selected 11 followers, my closest friends. To them I’ve given the responsibility of sharing the good news.”

“They must have some incredible talents, those 11,” remarked one angel.

“Well, actually no,” the Lord responded. “These are average people, with ordinary abilities. They’re vain and sometimes foolish. One of them, their leader, denied me three times.”

“But, Lord,” objected another angel, “how can you be sure they’ll get the job done?”

“To be perfectly honest, I can’t be sure.”

“What do you mean, you can’t be sure? What if they fail? What’s your backup plan?”

Quietly Christ answered, “I have no backup plan.”

We, imperfect melodramatic teenagers, are God’s plan to show mercy to God’s children.  We are to be messengers, calling the people to repent and turn from their evil ways.  When they do, we don’t look down our noses at them, we rejoice and welcome them, God’s mercy lived out.  God showed mercy to Jonah, God showed mercy to the people of Nineveh, and God shows mercy to you and me, so that we will show mercy to others and will tell them about God’s mercy, mercy lived out.

Posted in Community, Drama, Family, Friends, Story

Everything I Learned From Soap Operas

My grandmother was a long time devotee to soap operas. Some of my earliest memories of spending time with her had us playing, making cakes, and running errands, but it never failed that in the afternoon, we were going to sit down to watch her “stories.” When I was younger it was the Bold and the Beautiful, Young and the Restless, As the World Turns and Guiding Light. As I grew older she still faithfully watched As the World Turns and as she called it THE Guiding Light. It was something that she and I shared and throughout high school early release or in college or on holidays or breaks or sick days, I tuned in. You definitely don’t have to watch every day to know that Josh and Reva are still together or Carly and Jack were hitting another rough patch.

I know there are plenty of people out there who don’t enjoy soap operas and think it’s cliche to watch them. I would then ask you if you watch Revenge or Gossip Girl or The Good Wife or any other tv drama, because it’s pretty much the same thing with just a little less crazy.

Ganny started listening to As the World Turns and the Guiding Light when it was on the radio and she could tell me all of the characters family histories and back stories back when they read the Bible and prayed on air. Even though I only watched sporadically, I would look at that little soap magazine headlines as I waited in the checkout line and when we would talk on the phone or I would see her for an extended visit, I would always check in on the story lines. 1. because I wanted to know and 2. she really enjoyed and got excited telling the stories. Who doesn’t want to know the latest with the heroes and the villains of the show?

So what did I learn from watching soap operas? The first thing I learned is that you might as well go ahead and tell the truth, because if not, it will be dragged out for close to a year and there will be lots of angst and drama and if you had just told the truth to begin with, oh my golly, you would have saved a lot of time and plotting. The truth always gets found out eventually, whether it’s in the next episode, a couple months down the road, or years later when in crazy soap opera fashion someone comes back to life or the true paternity is revealed. In friendships, in relationships, as I’m working with students and colleagues – I know I’m better off even if I’ve royally messed up to just go ahead and come clean, apologize, and take the repercussions. I know this would wipe out a ton of story lines and what would soaps be without good drama, but wow it would make much more sense and things would work out better for the characters. Well, except the villains.

I learned that you always need some sort of sidekick or someone helping you along the way. When you go all vigilante on someone and you have no back up, you should just hang it up. Everyone needs a confidante or someone on their team. That’s the only way your plans are going to actually happen if you’re the villain, and that’s the only way you’re going to stay strong, safe, and sane if you’re not. I’m an avid watcher of Once Upon A Time (love it and that some of the LOST writers are writing it) and although I know they have to draw out all of these stories or it would be a nicely written movie and not a tv show, I still think Emma, the main character, needs some sort of ally. She has some allies right now, but no one to share her story and passion with that’s not also morally compromised or a kid or someone already distracted by their own stuff. But then again, that’s life. The ones who journey with us, our allies, are usually in the midst of their own story arch and sometimes they, like the people in our shows, have their own motives and agendas. That’s the importance of surrounding yourself with those you trust, who know you, who like the quote says, “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you” when you’ve lost your way. We all need those people. We need that community. It’s a powerful thing watching those kinds of friendships unfold and it’s such a treasured gift.

The third thing I learned from watching soap operas is how important stories are. I can talk up and down the countryside about words and thoughts and catch phrases or whatever, but what often resounds with others is a story. The thing that I most liked about my Dad’s sermons growing up is the stories that he would use. I remember a lot of the points he would make, but much of that memory has to do with the stories that he told that helped me make that connection. There’s a different part of us that awakens with story. Maybe that’s the English major in me creeping out but there’s something that grabs our attention and opens our mind when we start in story mode. I can see it when I preach or when others preach, we know the cadence of the voice and the way the beginning of a story goes and even if we’ve zoned out before, our ears perk up when it’s story time. It can take us to another place. It can teach us things without having to beat them over our heads. It makes us think about things differently from different view points. The stories themselves are not just the important part but it’s also that awesome thing about the community sharing in the story. Part of the fun and sacred part of sharing the story with my grandmother was that we shared it. Part of the gift was asking her to explain it and update me and the interaction of that sharing. Even Josh, my brother, after seeing it on as we watched it over the years, would ask – okay, who’s Reva with now? What’s going on with so and so? It’s not that he necessarily even wanted to watch and he would often be exasperated when he did, but there’s something that drew you in and because Ganny loved them, it was pretty contagious.

What do we learn from our stories? What makes us who we are? How have we shared our stories with others? What does story have to do with our faith? I would argue that much of our scripture is story. It’s chock full of them. And I often think that we understand those better than some of the exposition. Jesus didn’t often preach. A lot of them time, he told stories. There’s just something about it that connects to a deep part of us. And I think that’s because when it all boils down, we are all human. As different the time or context or drama level, there’s always an essence of the human condition that is shared between each of us. As my Dad says, “There’s nothing original about original sin” and there’s nothing original about people lying, stretching the truth, trying to cover something up, or being found out. In big and small ways, we watch these things because it’s our life too. Not with the Grayson’s on the Hamptons, but in that we’re all searching for meaning and joy and hope and what we’re supposed to do with our lives or who we’re supposed to be with.

The thing that makes us as people of faith different, is that we have someone that’s always on our side. Not saying that we can do whatever we want and there’s not consequences, but there’s someone who is seeking to offer us the most beautiful story just for us. Someone who is guiding and leading us in all that we do, not just on the good days, but on the bad days as well. That’s pretty powerful and a little scary at the same time. It means that we can take comfort and confidence and reassurance but it also means that we don’t have some grand giant excuse to go running around like crazy people on soap operas. We make some pretty big mistakes, but we know that coming up with a master plan to cover them up doesn’t change that we know the truth, God knows the truth, and whatever mistake we’ve made will only make us stronger and more open to others as we realize our own weaknesses.

My grandmother passed away in the beginning of September and Guiding Light went off the air a week later and As the World Turns the year after that. I know she would love Revenge and would be very interested in how this new Dallas is going to turn out. I have no doubt that she’s still listening and watching her “stories,” and I’m thankful that she passed on this love of stories to me.

Why do you think stories connect with us so much? What are ways that we can open ourselves to God’s story swirling all around us?

** By the way – tidbit – Guiding Light ran from 1937 to 2009 and is credited by Guinness as the longest running drama in television.