Jonah Sedaris (sermon 1/25/15)

The boy eats a zephyr

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth… 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.

         – Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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The author David Sedaris once wrote a short essay about his family moving from small-town upstate New York to small-town North Carolina when he was a young boy. In the essay, he talks about a neighbor family who was just a little bit different from his family and the surrounding neighbors, because they didn’t have a television – not because they couldn’t afford one, but just because they didn’t “believe in it,” as the father would say. Sedaris says that he felt sorry for the family’s two children because of all the cultural literacy that they were being deprived of without the benefit of TV. And while he didn’t really do anything concrete to be their friend, he said he got some sense of fulfillment, or a sense of goodness or pleasure just out of thinking nicely about them in a kind of superior way, as though they were benefiting from some unspoken favor he was doing for them.

Apparently, their strangeness went beyond just the TV issue though. One year, Halloween fell on a Saturday and the family was out of town that weekend, but rather than miss trick-or-treating, the kids just dressed in their costumes and went door to door on the following Monday evening. Sedaris said that was just odd, and too much of a stretch for him to accept. Making things all the worse, of course, the family didn’t actually have any Halloween candy to give to them, so his mother made him go to his room and get some of his own Halloween candy just to solve the embarrassing situation. He wrote that he’d gotten a lot of chocolate bars, which he didn’t even really like – in fact, they made him sick – but he still knew that people considered chocolate bars to be the cream of the crop when it came to Halloween candy. So rather than allow them to be given to the neighbor kids, and in a sense, rewarding their weirdness, he started cramming all the chocolate bars into his mouth and eating them, just to spite the neighbors, to keep them from benefiting. He wrote that in that moment, he’d decided that from then on instead of getting pleasure from feeling kindly toward them, he’d get pleasure out of hating them.

At that young age, he’d veered into a great truth. We can get great personal pleasure out of hating someone else. The reality is that hatred is kind of like a narcotic, making us feel good in the moment but ultimately harming us – but that’s easy to disregard when it feels so good to wallow in the hatred at the moment.

The prophet Jonah understood this same truth. That’s why he reacted the way he did when God told him to go to Nineveh and to speak God’s word to the Assyrians living there. The Assyrians were the people who all the Israelites loved to hate. The Assyrians had overrun and wiped out two-thirds of their country; they were the Israelites’ sworn enemies, and Nineveh was their capital city. Everybody hated the Assyrians; you were supposed to hate the Assyrians; it was pretty much your patriotic duty to hate them.

So on the surface, Jonah should have been happy to give them God’s message of “Forty Days, and your city will be no more!” But we learn in the story that Jonah doesn’t want any part of it, which is why he tries to run away from God, to ignore God’s call to him. But like so many people who’d come before him, and so many who came afterward, Jonah learned that there really wasn’t any future in trying to run away from something God is calling you to.

In today’s passage, we heard that when Jonah relays this message to the despised Assyrians, unbelievably, miraculously, they actually repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And as a result, the story says, God changed his mind and didn’t destroy them.

And that was Jonah’s whole problem. In the verses immediately following what we read today, Jonah shakes his bony finger at God and says, “I knew you were going to do this! That’s why I didn’t want to do this in the first place! I knew that you were a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, and that you wouldn’t really wipe them out. You’re a flip-flopper! You’re all love and mercy and not enough justice! You’ll let them off without getting what they deserve, and I’ll end up looking like a fool!” And while he’s mad at God, he tells God to just kill him now, so he wouldn’t have to see these people he hates be shown God’s love and acceptance. Jonah wants to wallow in the mud of his comfortable and familiar hatred, cramming his face with chocolate bars that will make him sick just to keep the goodies from his enemies.

The Book of Jonah was originally written shortly after the Jews had returned home from their time of slavery and captivity in Babylon. As they were trying to rebuild their kingdom and their culture, there was a major push for religious, racial, and ethnic purity in their land. If you ever read the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you’ll read about the kinds of things that were going on then. It even went so far that if a man had married a non-Jewish woman, he would be forced to divorce her and have her deported to her own country.

The story of Jonah was written at this same time, as a rejection of that extremist kind of hatred and exclusion. It was meant to be a strong witness to the message that God loves even those we consider our worst enemies.

Is there a message in there for us? Of course there is, when, whether it’s in the realm of global politics or our own personal lives, so often we’re being taught to fear and hate the “other” – and the funny thing is, we never seem to run out of “others.” Have you ever noticed that? As soon as one “other” disappears, we find another other to hate. And oddly, just like with Jonah and young David Sedaris, we know that what we’re doing is really hurting ourselves – we *know* it! But we still don’t want to accept it, because hating those others makes us feel so good.

So much of the way we think and talk about the gospel deals with our salvation in the sense of getting into heaven; a kind of golden ticket to the ultimate chocolate factory of all eternity. But I think a more immediate part of the gospel is salvation in the sense of the healing of our own souls in the here and now, and in a way that’s every bit as real as if we’d been healed from blindness or some dreadful disease. It’s a healing of the heart, made possible for us when we really grasp Christ’s message of the healing power of love, forgiveness, and acceptance – even for those who have hurt us deeply. There’s an incredible lightening of our souls, the removal of an incredible burden sitting on our shoulders when we just let all those hatreds and hurts go. When we stop eating the chocolate bars, and we allow ourselves to accept that degree of love that God has for all of us that’s all but impossible for us to even comprehend.

Yes, we learn from Jonah that it’s really impossible to run away or hide from God, or to try to ignore a call from God when you hear it, even if you don’t like where you know it’s going to lead. But I think this other message, about learning just how loving and merciful God really is, and how willing to forgive even the worst of people, is even more important. So this week, let’s ask ourselves what judgmentalism, what bias, what hatred we’re holding onto that we could ask God to help us let go of. Let’s ask God to help us learn the lesson of getting pleasure from loving people, rather than from hating them.

Thanks be to God.

Isaiah Lit a Candle (sermon 11/30/14, Advent 1B)

holding candle - vigil

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.  – Isaiah 64:1-9

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Isaiah was a prophet; he understood and spoke deep truths about God and us.

And as he stood in the streets, seeing the terrible injustice being suffered by his people at the hands of others, the pain in his heart bubbled up and spilled out in his prayer to God that we heard this morning. Tear open the heavens, O God; come down here. Make your presence known and set things right. Bring your justice, real justice, to your people, and deal with those who treat us so harshly.

In the depth of his pain and sorrow, Isaiah, like so many others, felt that God was angry at them; that God had abandoned them and left them to their own devices; that even God had turned away from them. Most of Isaiah’s people found peaceful, constructive ways to put voice to their suffering and to express their hopes for a time when they would be treated with justice. But a handful of them, in their pain, in their suffering, in their anger, felt that if God wasn’t going to come down and set things right, they were going to take things into their own hands, and fight back against the power of the empire that was oppressing them. Someone once called violence the language of last resort for those who were unheard. Isaiah knew that was true. But he also knew that the same person had denounced violence as counterproductive, that it never brought peace or justice; it only created even more problems. Isaiah knew that was true, too. With pain in his heart, Isaiah, the prophet, proclaimed that those people who had taken things into their own hands because they couldn’t see God anywhere in their situation, only grieved God all the more. Isaiah recognized that even in their suffering, even in the midst of the injustices they were enduring, that they had only made matters worse.

And as he continued to pour his heart out to God, he realized it wasn’t just those other people; the ones oppressing his own people, and it wasn’t just that handful of his own people, who had displeased God. Isaiah realized that, in different ways, undoubtedly, and certainly in different measure, everyone had lost sight of God. Everyone had lost hope in God; everyone had displeased God by going off in their own different directions.

So as Isaiah spoke from the heart, asking God to come down from the heavens and restore justice, he also asked for God’s mercy. He asked God to remember that we’re all clay in God’s hands, and that God is the potter, and he asked God to shape us and mold us all into creatures that are pleasing. In his wisdom, Isaiah, the prophet, asked God not to be angry, and to forget all the divisions and failures – those of his own oppressed people, and those of their oppressors as well. All of them.

Isaiah was a prophet; he understood and spoke deep truths about God and us.

And as he stood in the street, in the middle of all the shards of broken glass and debris on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, seeing the injustice, and the frustration and anger boiling over and into the streets, Isaiah, the prophet, began to cry – not from the clouds of tear gas wafting through the air, but from the heart. His heart ached, longed, for justice and mercy. So as he stood there in the street, Isaiah lit a candle, a single, solitary candle, and he held it out in front of him, a symbol of calm in the midst of chaos. And somehow its single, small flame cut through the darkness more brightly than all the fires burning around him. It was a candle of hope. Hope that someday soon, God would return and restore all of creation. Hope that soon, God would finally bring goodness, and justice, and mercy to a world and to people who so desperately needed them. Hope for him. Hope for them. Hope for us. Hope for oppressed and oppressor alike. Hope for everyone, because, as Isaiah pointed out as he continued to pour out his heart to God, and as he held his candle high in the darkness of the night, “Remember, God, we are all your people.”

Isaiah was a prophet.

Thanks be to God.

Repent! (Sermon 3/30/14)

https://enarcheblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/4dba6-_mg_2506.jpg

John 9:1-41

 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

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I don’t know for sure, but this might be the longest Lectionary text in the whole three-year cycle. Maybe it isn’t, but it sure seems like it. It’s really tempting to cut it short, and just highlight one snip of it or another. But I usually try not to do that, because really, the whole thing is such a great story. I mean, there’s a little bit of everything in there – a miracle, drama, intrigue, family dysfunction, people covering their own butts, powerful people behaving badly, and there’s even a little humor thrown in as the healed man tweaks the noses of the religious leaders, just as icing on the cake. It really is a great story – but it’s more than a story, too; it’s full of enough theological issues and questions to stir up more than a month’s worth of sermons. Does God really give people ailments or problems to punish them for their sins, or the sins of their parents, as the disciples think? Would God really make someone suffer a lifetime of being blind just to make some point some day when he’s an adult? Couldn’t God figure out a more humane way to make the same point? Why did Jesus need to make mud with his spit to heal the man? Besides the fact that it’s just gross, he seems to have been perfectly able to heal other people without any special props or theatrics. And what about the blind man himself? In other gospel passages, Jesus isn’t able to work any miracles because the people don’t have enough faith, but this poor guy doesn’t exhibit any faith at all. He just seems to be sitting around begging, minding his own business until Jesus comes along and heals him. It isn’t until the very end of the story, after everything else plays out, that Jesus seeks the man out again and he actually expresses any faith in Jesus.

Since repentance is today’s theme on our “Cross-bound” Lenten journey, I tried to consider where repentance might show up in this story. I suppose we could assume that the blind man decides to repent from the sinful aspects of his life, as part of his believing in Jesus and worshiping him. But really, repentance just doesn’t seem to be a big thing in the blind man’s story. Maybe his story is a better reflection of how God comes to us seeks us out, before we ever seek God, or ask God to come to us or help us, before we can even see God. Maybe Jesus’ healing of the blind man is a way for us to understand why we baptize infants and small children, like we’ll do in the 10:00 service today – that baptism is a sign of God’s coming to us, and making a covenant with us, not the other way around – that baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing, but what God has already done.

Still, as I continued to think about this story, I the idea of repentance does come into play, but in a reverse way, a negative way – it shows up in the repentance that doesn’t happen, on the part of the religious leaders in the story.

So what’s going on with them? We’ve heard this story and others like it so many times, we’ve been trained to automatically understand the religious leaders, the Pharisees, the scribes, of Jesus’ time as the bad guys. As soon as you hear them mentioned, you can almost hear ominous music in the background. Picture Jews in black cowboy hats or something. But if we take ourselves out of our normal frame of reference for just a minute – if we take off our “Jesus glasses, if we look at the story without imagining these religious leaders on one side, and the healed man and Jesus on the other side, and knowing that we know we’re always supposed to be on Jesus’ side, what were these religious leaders saying? What were they doing? All they were doing was trying to uphold the standards of the faith that had been handed down to them. All they were doing was trying to maintain the sanctity of the Sabbath, and to honor the clear content of the scriptures. Jesus healing this man on the Sabbath was a violation of the multiple, clear-cut prohibition of working on the Sabbath. This was one of the primary moral rules of the faith, so if Jesus didn’t uphold it, how could he possibly be of God? Surely he had to be opposed, in order to stand up for the holy lifestyle that God calls us to in the scriptures.

These religious leaders weren’t really bad people. They were actually what most of us would consider good people – honorable, religious people who thought that what they were doing was right in the eyes of God, that they were upholding an important moral standard in the name of God. But no matter the fact that they had good intentions, Jesus still ultimately criticized them, and called their actions blind, and sin.

It’s easy for us to read this story and understand with perfect hindsight that Jesus was telling them that they were missing the point; that by paying such rigorous attention to the letter of the Law in the scriptures, that they were blinding themselves to God’s actual purpose behind it all – that of God’s love and mercy, and extending that love and mercy to others. In this miracle, and others as well, Jesus made the point that love and mercy and grace the real goal, even when that meant bending what was so clear-cut in the black and white of the written scriptures. Jesus’ point in this story is that they needed to repent from their rigid and counterproductive ways, in order to see God’s real intent.

It’s easy for us to see that in this story. But the truth is that this same story has played out time and time again throughout the history of our faith. Time and time again, we, both as individuals and as the church, have had to learn the same lesson that these well-intentioned religious leaders in Jesus’ time had to learn. Time and time again, we’ve had to repent for our clinging to form over substance, to Law over Gospel. And the closer it gets to our own time, and our own lives, here and now, the harder it can be to see.

There’s a Christian charitable organization called World Vision, which does wonderful good works for the poorest, neediest of children around the globe. World Vision found themselves in the news this past week when they announced that even though as an organization they were very conservative theologically themselves, they had decided to change their hiring policies to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian employees, even those who might be part of a legally performed same-sex marriage. In their announcement, they said that while they maintained their scriptural interpretation that these potential employees were living in sinful ways, they realized that not all Christians agreed with that traditional interpretation. And that, in fact, in some way or another, we were all living in sinful ways. And they wanted to show the spirit of Christian unity even within the broad diversity of the faith, to show that very different people can come together in this faith to share Christ’s love with others.

Unfortunately, that new policy didn’t sit well with a lot of World Vision’s financial supporters – people who had signed on to help sponsor the care of a needy child somewhere in the world. They accused World Vision of throwing out the Bible with the bathwater, of not upholding the clear moral teachings of the faith. Some of them even went so far as to say that based on this decision, they weren’t even really Christian anymore. And in their moral indignation, in order to take a stand for what they saw as God’s standards, these supporters decided to pull their funding. They chose to stop supporting the children they’d made a commitment to, to stop supporting the good work of a good organization, because in their eyes, the charity was violating the clear teaching of scripture. The blowback was so intense that within just one day of their announcement, World Vision announced that it had changed its mind, and in order to make its critics happy, it would continue in its discriminatory hiring practices.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

As we continue through the Lenten season, this Sunday we think about repentance. Repentance within ourselves as individuals, when we make the same mistake as the religious leaders in this story, paying more attention to Law than to Gospel. And repentance when we do the same thing collectively as the church. This Lenten season, let’s pray that where we’re blind, that Jesus would heal us, and be the light of the world for us, and give us vision just as he did with the blind man in this story. And let’s pray that the vision we would have for the world would be Jesus’ world vision, and not someone else’s.

Thanks be to God.