Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Ninevah Moment

Jonah 3:10- 4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

            The main points of today’s lessons can be summed up in about 3 minutes. Context for Jonah: the Hebrew prophets and the Hebrew people are not holding up their end of the covenant with God, in which they are blessed as the people who reveals God’s mercy to the world. Context for Matthew: Jewish Christians and early adopter-Gentile Christians are not happy when it turns out that those who are new to the faith receive the exact same level of blessing as they do. The modern upshot for us: God’s grace is not fair, earned, or distributed as expected. We are both the beneficiaries the expected and mandatory reporters of these facts.

            So, that’s it.

            Except that it’s not. That’s not actually enough. I am guessing that if I poll most of you hear, we would agree that God’s grace is open to all. We would acknowledge that we have some responsibility to spread that news. The truth is, though, that there are some people who are Ninevah to us. Just exactly who may vary from person to person. There are people whose latecomer status to church, to faith, to hope makes us frustrated when they seem to get the same “pay”- that is, they have equal voice, equal vote, and equal presence in the life of the congregation.

            The first wedding I did on my own was for two people who did not attend this church. They had difficulty finding someone to do an outdoor wedding because it was February. They were very young, 18 and 19. He was about to deploy as an MP (military police) with the Army and she was 11 weeks pregnant. I wanted them to wait, but I knew they were not going to listen to that. So, I felt that it was better for them to have a positive experience with church, in hopes that they would return if they ever had difficulties.

            I officiated their service, wearing my parka, in snow above my knees at Otter Lake on Ft. Richardson. I didn’t hear from them again. I did hear of them the next spring, when he had returned from his deployment. They struggled with reunion. In an unfortunate series of events, he shot her while she was holding the baby, killing them both. Then he tried to kill himself, but failed. At the trial, he was sentenced to more than sixty years in prison. He spent the first couple years in Spring Creek in Seward, but now he’s in Goose Creek outside Palmer.

            It’s a horrible story, but if you leave only remembering those details- you will miss the point that I am about to make. While he was awaiting trial, when he was found guilty, when he was sentenced, for the years he was in Spring Creek- I did nothing. I talked to the chaplain on the base. I knew that his unit was being reassigned to another state, so most of the people who knew him were leaving. He was not from Alaska, so he didn’t have family up here. There were only a few people with any kind of connection to him and I was one of them.

            Would he want to hear from the pastor who did his wedding? I tossed and turned over what I should do. I prayed about it. I talked about it. I tried to forget. I didn’t actually flee to Tarshish and I didn’t endanger any fishing charters, but my uncertainty became a whale in whose belly I sloshed around. This is what happens to many of us when we are confronted with a serious situation for which we feel unequipped.

            Of course, we say, God’s grace is for everyone, but I don’t know how to visit someone in prison, I don’t know what to do when someone is dying, I’m not sure what to say when a marriage is breaking up, I am uncomfortable in hospitals. At a certain point, we fail to act as though grace is enough. We talk about manning up, womanning up, putting on big girl or big boy pants, but- in the end- it is the Holy Spirit who equips us to do the serious tasks that are absolutely, one-hundred percent the work of being a follower of Christ.

            So we either believe God has enough grace for every person AND every situation or we don’t. We either believe that the Holy Spirit equips and guides or we don’t. We either believe that we are being Christ to others and that Jesus is meeting us through them, or we don’t.

            Last December, I wrote out Christmas cards to some people who were not receiving our family Christmas cards. These were plain cards, with an Alaskan winter scene on the front. I looked up the I.D. number of a certain prisoner and wrote a brief card, “I want you to know that you are not forgotten. This is who I am. I pray for you often. You are remembered by me, by others, and by God. Merry Christmas.” I got a letter back, thanking me for sending one of the few personal cards he received. Ninevah, for me, looked like writing to a prisoner, a murderer, not because I thought God wouldn’t grant him grace, but because I didn’t trust grace enough to make up the difference in my best efforts.

            We all have Ninevahs. Furthermore, we are all likely someone else’s Ninevah or even a late-coming worker. Our age, our abilities, our gender, our occupation, our education level, our habits, our children’s habits, where we live, our vices, our struggles, our health… all of these things are likely to make someone around us uncomfortable. They are also the barriers that stop us from reaching out, because we are unsure, afraid, or just plain disgusted by the person in this situation.

            The end of Jonah shows God’s mercy- not only to the Ninevites, but also to the prophet. God doesn’t say, “You ungrateful son-of-a-gun, how about you die right here and right now and then I won’t have to listen to your whining anymore.” Instead, the God who sent a prophet to the Ninevites, to encourage them toward repentance and toward a right relationship with God… does the very SAME thing for Jonah.

            We worship that same God. We live in the grace of that same God as it has been revealed through Jesus. We live and move and have our being in that same God through the mysterious and on-going work of the Holy Spirit. All three persons of our one God work on us, through us, and for us repeatedly and on a daily basis, so that we may come to even a basic understanding of grace- not for ourselves, but so that we can carry that grace to the world. For we are both beneficiaries and mandatory reporters of the greatest unfairness in the world.

            God’s grace is not fair, earned, or distributed as expected. It is for all. It can and does help you. It is enough.

Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

rphinvt said...

Just wanted to tell you how much I liked this sermon. Powerful, meaningful, memorable, inspiring. Thank you.