Transference and Forgiveness

Transcribed from the sermon preached September 24, 2012

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Matthew 20:1-16, Jonah 3:10-4:11

I decided to preach on this passage from Jonah because Sarah Williams said it is funny. Jonah is funny, a bit like a cartoon. Jonah is like the Murphy’s Law of the bible: “If there is a way to do it wrong, he’ll find it. If anything can go wrong it will go wrong.” Now there are other laws similar to Murphy’s Law, which may apply. You be the judge:

Nichols’ Fourth Law that says, “Avoid any action with an unacceptable outcome.”

There is Baldy’s Law: “When you are over the hill you pick up speed.”

There is Bruce Brigg’s Law of Traffic: “At any level of traffic, any delay is intolerable.”

There is the cartoon law: Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation.

When things seem to be going well, something will go wrong. When you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Now the other message is that God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love for everyone. Are we?

Judith Viorst has written a children’s book entitled, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I’m guessing most of us can relate to this and to Jonah’s story, so I am going to blend them.

Noah’s story goes something like this: Jonah might consider it an honor to be a prophet of God, but then God sends him to warn people he doesn’t like. These are the enemies of his people, his culture. Jonah’s foreign policy is Israel first. He doesn’t want to help them fix their health care plan; he wants them to die. He doesn’t want to bake them a cake. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. Israel is God’s chosen people and the rest are not. No coming in at the last hour of work and getting paid the same, the same civil and human rights as those of us who have been under God’s care and laboring for him all along; no way, that is not fair. Besides, Assyria is very dangerous. This is hostile territory God is asking him to go into. This is the empire, the colonizers, the oppressors. These are like the stubborn, ignorant, God twisting, science denying, racist, Confederate idol defending, gay bashing, gun toting, militaristic, arrogant nature destroying, big business-can-do-no-wrong, bad hombres. Enemies now, enemies later. Jonah does not like them. He does not like them here, he does not like them there, he does not like them anywhere.

Now this might be a good moment for a side trip on the enemy subject. Lott and Werner Pelz, in their book, God Is No More (p.136) write, “I fear my enemy, because he wants what I have. I hate him because he has what I want. My enemy is mean, since he will not trust me, presumptuous, since he expects me to trust him. He refuses profusely to see life as I see it, and I suspect he waits for the opportunity to compel me to see it his way. My enemy is my safety valve: in him I can freely condemn what I uneasily feel I should condemn in myself. He is, so it seems, necessary for my life. I need him more than a friend, for if he did not exist I would have to face up to the disorder within me, I should have to destroy myself.” I would have to face the abyss within.

Lord Averill, in the Christian Ministry Sept-Oct 96 writes:

“Jesus doesn’t ask us to lack enemies. The good person is not the one who lacks enemies, as though goodness always had the power to purge the opposition. The person who lacks enemies is only non-descript – so lacking in character that he goes his way unnoticed. Goodness does not go unnoticed. Jesus was put on the cross by others.

But Averill asks, “Does the enmity, the unfriendliness I provoke in others, result from qualities in my own life that would link me to the man on the cross or to the men who hanged him there? In responding to enmity, do I seek to say words like those Christ spoke from the cross, “Father forgive them,” or do I insist on some kind of crucifixion?” Jonah doesn’t want God to forgive the Ninevites.

Jonah doesn’t want anything to do with the Ninevites. If by chance there were any Ninevites who had become friends on his Facebook page, he would defriend them. But of course there aren’t. No use talking to them, and besides, he doesn’t care about them. But God says go. Jonah is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Jonah doesn’t want the job, and rather than giving his precious time and energy among people he doesn’t like, he decides he should focus his spiritual life on his own wellness, some good quality self-care, a little me time. So he gets on a ship intending to cruise to Tarshish. Just as he thinks he has ditched God, gets comfortable in his hammock, drinks a Corona, dozes off and catches a bit of shut eye, the ship runs into a hurricane that threatens to sink it. He’s having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

He knows he has received an order from God and gone in the opposite direction. But he doesn’t pray nor does he repent yet. The pagan sailors do. But Jonah decides the heck with all of it and agrees it is probably best if they chuck him off the boat. They do. He is in the dark, chaotic waters, in the abyss, and you might think he can’t get any deeper, any darker, and then he gets eaten by a fish. It is generally best, if you are going to die, to die quickly, but not Jonah, he is stuck in the belly of the fish. He’s having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad three days. Down there in the belly of the fish, in that slimy darkness, Jonah finally prays to the God he ran from. Apparently, a repentant Jonah doesn’t sit well in the stomach of God’s fish, so he is vomited out onto the land.

Now God tells Noah once again to go to Nineveh and preach. Now Jonah is still stubborn and not about to put his full effort into this work he doesn’t want to do. He only goes part way into the city. How many traffic lights and cross walks and bridge jams can he take anyway? His Google maps has gone haywire and the darned donkey is killing his lower back. So he stops a third of the way into the city, and he gives what might be the shortest sermon ever. There is no introduction, no funny stories, no well-prepared transitions, no well researched historical context. All he says is: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He doesn’t want his work to succeed, but it does. The Ninevites don’t even know God, but they repent on the odd chance it might work. God changes his mind and doesn’t destroy them. Jonah is angry, very angry. Life and God are not working in a consistent, predictable, logical way. He is not happy God is not going to destroy his enemy, even if they have repented. In this case he doesn’t like that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah can’t stand the fact that he has helped save his enemies. If God won’t take their lives, he wants God to take his life. He is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

God asks him a strange question: Do you do well to be angry? Is your temper tantrum solving your issues? How does this question go over when you ask it of someone you love who has blown there top? Is your anger making the traffic go faster?

Jonah doesn’t even give God an answer. He just storms off in a huff until he gets outside the city. Now he is in the desert and it is hot. He finds a bush, which God puts there for him, and there he sits, finally content to be alone in the shade. Then overnight a God appointed worm kills the bush and along with it, Jonah’s shade. To make matters worse God kicks up a hot dry east wind and Jonah grows faint. He is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. He has had it. That does it. He is going to transfer all of his frustration and anger into the death of this little bush. It is the last straw. The bush that breaks Jonah’s back. He wants to die.

Again God asks, do you do well to be angry for the plant? Jonah says yes! I do do well to be angry, angry enough to die! God says, you pity the little plant, which is not yours but just one you found. Should I not pity Nineveh, a great city with more than a hundred and twenty thousand people and a bunch of cattle too?

And that is it. That is where the story and the book end.