What Are We Full Of?, Jonah 3:1-5, 10

This sermon was written for a Sunday emphasis on what it means to live a missional lifestyle, and our case study from Scripture is one of those negative examples of how not to do that. I asked my son once how it was that he is a better golfer, skier and basketball player than I am when I introduced him to all those sports. He smiled and replied, “Oh, I just watched you, Dad, and saw how not to do it.” I think he learned a lot of life lessons that way from me. And we can all benefit in the same way from the story of Jonah.

Before we get to Jonah, I want to tell you about a pastor who decided one day it would be good for his parishioners and his son to take the 5 year-old with him to visit a local retirement community. The little fellow was fascinated by all the new things he saw – walkers and canes and especially the power wheel chair when one of the residents took him for a ride down the hall. But he was most interested when he went into one room with his dad. Pointing in amazement at a set of dentures in a glass on the bedside table he said, “Dad, the tooth fairy is never gonna believe that!” Some things are hard to believe – and the story of Jonah is one such tale.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response. It’s a familiar story kids learn about in Sunday school, but it is much more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se) if we ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish? And please don’t get hung up on the feasibility of a grown man being swallowed by a fish. This is about theology, not biology.

Jonah is a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes more sense if read in its entirety. So here’s the abridged version of the whole story to put it in context:
1. God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard to save themselves.
4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message that they should repent or else bad things are going to happen.
6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them. You’d think any preacher would be thrilled if thousands of people changed their lives based on one short sermon, right? Not Jonah.
7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not save them.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish. It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s mission is very clear. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more straightforward and direct: The 2nd verse of chapter 1 says, “Go at once to Nineveh,” and those orders are repeated verbatim in our lesson for today. There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey. Frederick Buechner says, “Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the harder you fall.” Saying “no” to God is pretty much the same thing; so why would Jonah even try? And why do we?

We all have different reasons and excuses for failing to live missional lives. To consider Jonah’s rationale for disobeying God requires a little history lesson. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people that had overthrown Israel years before and carried many of their people off to Exile. So what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath. It may help us to identify with Jonah to know that Nineveh sat about where the modern city of Baghdad is today.

Put yourself in Jonah’s place. Fill in your own favorite enemies: Democrats, Tea Partiers, Islamic extremists, the religious right or left, your bitter athletic rivals, unethical business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive. That’s exactly who Jonah is being asked to save and why he dares to defy a direct order from God.

I have been blessed by hearing good preaching this month. Pastor Tom Slack started the New Year off right for me with a sermon on the prologue to John’s Gospel. What struck me that day was the verse that says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And just 2 verses later, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I’ve been journaling and praying ever since about what it looks like for us, for me, to be full of grace and truth. Our other fine preacher, Mebane McMahon, added to the dialogue with her sermon the next week on the baptism of Christ and how we are all beloved children of God. She added another piece to the puzzle the next week’s sermon on the story of Eli and Samuel and how being beloved children means listening when God speaks.

In Jonah we have someone who doesn’t just fail to listen to God, he rebels and does the exact opposite of what God tells him to do. Why do we do that? It never turns out well. Reflecting on those January sermons my take on why Jonah and I and many of you fail to live a missional lifestyle is because of what we’re full of – or NOT full of. The Scriptures don’t tell us for sure why Jonah ran away. Chapter 1 says he tried to flee from the presence of the Lord. He needed to read Psalm 139 which asks the very question, “Where can I flee from God’s presence?” The answer is nowhere, because there is nowhere in all creation that God isn’t.

We aren’t told but we can imagine why Jonah does what he does. Maybe fear – he was being asked to go into enemy territory. Are there places or people God is asking us to be in mission that we are uncomfortable with or afraid to go? Maybe Anger – Jonah admits in the end of the story that he’s mad at God for forgiving his enemies. He says, “I knew you were a God of mercy who would repent and forgive these slime balls. They don’t deserve it.” (That’s a loose translation, by the way.) Are there people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and mercy? Do we hoard the good news of the Gospel – thinking if we share it there might not be enough for us?

It seems pretty clear to me that Jonah is full of anger or fear or vengeance or judgment, or some combination of those poisons. And that’s why he can’t obey God’s call. When we are full or even partially full of guilt, jealousy, doubt, insecurity, bitterness, pain, there’s no room for us to be full of grace and truth. Those negative feelings are like an anchor that keeps us stuck where we are and unable to go where God wants to send us.

It’s like this story about a blacksmith with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He just didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a blacksmith. He was strong and very good at his craft, but he was very, very short of stature. As a result, he was very unsuccessful in the dating game and was quite lonely. Until one day a beautiful young woman appeared in his blacksmith shop with a horse who had thrown a shoe. It was love at first sight for the smithy, and he could tell the feelings were mutual. So he took all the time he could and did the finest job he had ever done on shoeing a horse. As it was drawing time for his new love to leave, he desperately wanted to kiss her and could tell she would welcome that. But there was a big problem. She was a full head taller than he.

Just as he was about to give up yet again on romance, the blacksmith had a brilliant idea. He led the young woman by the hand to the corner of his shop and jumped up on the anvil where he had just hammered her horse’s shoe into perfect shape. Standing on the anvil, he was able to look into her beautiful brown eyes and kiss her.

The two of them fell madly in love and were inseparable for weeks and then months. Everyone in the village assumed they would soon announce their engagement to be married, and the young woman was waiting expectantly for her little beau to pop the big question. Instead, without warning, he announced to her one fine spring afternoon that he was going to have to end their courtship. She was devastated and confused. She asked him why? Didn’t he love her? Was it something she had done or said, or not done or not said? To each question he just shook his head until she was begging him to explain his sudden change of heart. Finally he said, “My dear, I do love you very much, but you see, dragging that darn anvil around everywhere we go is killing me!”

Like that anvil worry, fear, guilt, anger – whatever you are full of is an unnecessary burden that no longer needs to drag you down. And we don’t have to break up with God. Just get rid of the burden. We can give those things to God. That’s the truth that sets us free to say yes to God’s mission and purpose for our lives! No matter what our excuses have been none of us are beyond God’s redeeming love. If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into Exile, then God can certainly forgive our reluctance to share our faith with the least and lost. And your Nineveh may not be as far away as you think. The person sitting next to you may need your support. Your mission may to someone in your own family or neighborhood or it may be somewhere further away.

Be open to surprises about where God leads you to discover your mission. In 1997 Bill Gates thought he was on a mission to bring computers to people in developing countries until he visited Africa and saw firsthand the abject poverty and the ravages of malaria and tuberculosis. He realized there were far more critical needs there than internet connectivity. He found a new mission and he and his wife Melinda started their foundation which has for 17 years donated millions of dollars to build hospitals and schools for impoverished people all over the world.

When wrestling with a call to a new mission, remember that it’s natural to feel nervous and fearful whenever we try something new and different. They call it moving out of your comfort zone – because it is! Susan Jeffers has written a very helpful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. That’s easier said than done, but very good advice. I saw some good advice on Facebook recently about working out early in the morning before your brain realizes what you’re doing. In a similar vein, I’ve also found that it helps me when tackling a new challenge to do it quickly before I have time to realize I’m afraid.

So what does Jonah do after his mission in Nineveh is over? We don’t know. At the end of the story he’s pouting, caring more about a dead gourd plant that had been shading him from the sun than 120,000 people in Nineveh. Like many Biblical stories, the ending of the story is left up to us. That’s because more important than an old fish story from long ago is your story and mine, and the next chapter of those stories is waiting to be written.

My wife and I were participants in a very intense personal growth seminar a few years ago, and something there stirred up some anger in me which I directed at one of the workshop leaders. She listened to me rant awhile, and then she said very quietly to me, “You know, Steve, you don’t have to be angry. It’s a choice.” It was one of the best Aha moments of my life – to realize for that I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions. I can choose to respond differently. Is that easy? Of course not. My wife can tell you I still have a long way to go in changing that 60 year-old habit. But old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes us awhile. We can change and allow ourselves to be filled with grace and truth that empowers us to live the mission God has for us – whatever that is.

Let me share something that has worked for me lately. When facing a challenging situation I try to remember to pause and ask, “How would I respond to this situation if I were filled with grace and truth?” It’s a form of “faking it till you make it,” a small way of practicing a missional lifestyle; and if I keep trying, with God’s help, to live AS IF I am full of grace and truth, that lifestyle will eventually become a new habit.

What are you full of? If you don’t like the answer to that question, the good news is you don’t have to spend time in a fish’s belly to turn your life around. All you have to do is say yes every day to the one who is Grace and Truth.

[Originally preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, January 25, 2015]

A Prayer for Living the Dream

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it is a good time to renew our commitment to follow Jesus and all the prophets who call us to lives of peace and justice. Today we pray for all of our sisters and brothers who live in fear of violence and terror in Africa and Europe, or the Middle East and here at home.

O Creator and Sustainer of all, we ask you to speak words of comfort and hope to us today. With depressing news bombarding us about climate change, racial tensions, and violence in all parts of the world, we hunger and thirst for the strength and renewal of our spirits that you alone can provide. When so much of the terror and violence we see is fueled by misdirected religious fervor fed by insecurity and self-justification, it is easy to despair and wonder if Dr. King’s dream is still alive.

Remind us, O God, of how far we’ve come since Selma, even as we struggle with how far we have yet to go. And especially remind us again that the dream Dr. King articulated so beautifully with his words and his life was not just his dream. It was a dream of liberty and justice for all that echoes through the ages: from Deuteronomy’s hospitality for aliens and strangers, to Isaiah’s lions and lambs lying down together and Micah’s swords beaten into plowshares, to Jesus’ command to love one another, even those who persecute and revile us. It is a dream preserved by more recent prophets like Jefferson, Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth, by Gandhi, and Mother Theresa and Pope Francis and millions of unknown saints who witness to their faith by daily random acts of kindness.

Parents and teachers, mentors, coaches, nurses and caregivers, missionaries and friends—all doing a small but vital part to pass on the torch of freedom that violence and fear can never extinguish – because it is not our dream. It is ultimately an eternal dream for all of creation that springs from an infinite source of Hope and Trust in the author of that dream.

It is undying faith in you, eternal God, that enables us even in dark times to know with confidence deep in our hearts that with your help we shall indeed overcome – overcome the forces of hate and violence someday. And in that assurance we dare to pray and live in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls us all to keep his dream alive. Amen.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 18, 2015

Freedom to Speak the Truth in Love

The killings and demonstrations in Copenhagen, cyber attacks and threats in response to Sony’s movie The Interview and the recent massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris have put the issue of freedom of expression on the front burner of media coverage and public discourse. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are so critical to Western and American values that they are number one in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The international outpouring of protest and sympathy captured in the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is further evidence of how close to home this tragedy has struck.

Emotions run high when core values are threatened. As much as I believe in non-violence, even I am tempted to despair that we are on the brink of a horrible and perhaps inevitable violent confrontation between radical Islamists and the West.

In hopes of tempering emotional reaction with reason, I am reminded of two favorite quotes as I try to sort out my thinking on these complicated issues. I was introduced to the first many years ago in a book by Frederick Buechner entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Buechner likens the task of preaching to the final lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear where Edgar says, “The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

As one who grew up in a family with the “unspoken” (of course) motto “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” saying what we feel is a radical notion and essential to freedom of expression. Saying only what one ought to say may be polite and tactful, but it is also a subtle form of censorship.

The question that must be addressed in this debate is where does one cross the line between freedom of expression and disregard for the feelings and values of other human beings. In the global information age where words and images circumnavigate the world in seconds what one says has far wider impact than ever before in human history.

The Sony and Charlie Hebdo cases provide excellent examples of that point. Unrestricted freedom of expression says we can make a movie about the assassination of a foreign leader or publish satirical ridicule of a figure considered to be a holy prophet by millions of people, but does the freedom to express those feelings justify the damage done to human relationships already stretched to the breaking point in our world?

Let me be perfectly clear that I am not saying that taking offense to any form of expression ever justifies violent reprisals. I am merely calling for more reflection on potential consequences of what we say and how we say it. Anger and conflict are natural human realities. (See my blog post “Prince of Peace,” April 1, 2014 for a more detailed discussion.) And because the Information Age makes interaction between different cultural values inevitable, it is imperative that we find non-violent ways to manage conflict while protecting basic human freedoms.

One way to do that is found in Ephesians 4:14-15, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” To “speak the truth in love” means a mature balance that is necessary between freedom of expression and consideration for other peoples’ feelings.

That does not mean failing to speak the truth, but it adds the critical dimension of thinking about how the truth is presented. Fred Craddock, another of my preaching mentors, says the preacher’s job is not to get things said, but to get them heard. That is true for all human communication and requires sensitivity and respect for one’s hearers to guide the choice of words and images we share with the world – and every tweet, whisper, Instagram, post and conversation has the potential for that kind of global sharing.

One of the lies many of us were told as children is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Not true. Words and images have tremendous power to hurt and to heal; so use them wisely. Yes, the weight of these sad times demands that we say what we feel, but the peace and well-being of our world depends on our ability to learn to deliver that truth wrapped in love, even for those who call us enemy.

Unbroken: The Rest of the Story

My wife and I saw the movie “Unbroken” last night. My advice — save your money and read the book. The movie spends too much time on Zamperini’s wartime experiences, as important and inspirational as they are, and does not do justice to the even more remarkable rest of Louie Zamperini’s life story. Spoiler alert – if you plan to read the book stop reading here, but if you don’t know the rest of Louie’s story and don’t have time to read the book; or if you’re just impatient and want the peacefullyharsh synopsis, what follows is a part of a sermon (“Consumed”) I posted here on June 24, 2013 after I read Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent book.

“I recently read a biography of Louie Zamperini. Louie was a very promising runner in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and expected to be the first man to break the 4-minute mile and bring home several gold medals in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Except there were no 1940 Olympics. Louie’s life and dreams were derailed by the demons of fascism and World War II. Much of this biography by Laura Hillenbrand describes in almost unbearable detail the 2 years of inhumane brutality Louie and others suffered as Japanese POW’s. Against all odds Louie survived that ordeal only to encounter much stronger internal demons that haunted his dreams for years after the war. Those demons drove him to self-destructive behavior and alcoholism once he was back in the U.S. No amount of therapy or pleading by his wife could break the chains of the demons that consumed Louie. But, here’s the good news again, and this time not in ancient Galilee or Gentile Gerasa, but in Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.

The title of Zamperini’s biography is Unbroken, and like all good titles it is a multi-faceted description of Louie’s life. He was not broken by the death of most of his crew when his B-24 crashed in the south Pacific; unbroken by 47 days adrift at sea, unbroken by the extreme cruelty of his captors who singled him out for torture because of Louie’s celebrity and strong spirit that were a challenge and an affront to them; and unbroken when his war injuries ended his dream of Olympic gold. But when he was consumed by nightmares and hatred and alcohol that were destroying him and his family after the war, Louie was almost broken by the fear of his own salvation.

When a Billy Graham crusade came to L.A. in 1949 Louie’s wife went and heard the young evangelist preach about Jesus’ power over all demons. She went home and urged Louie to go back with her to hear Rev. Graham. Louie refused her pleading over and over again, but as spouses often do Cynthia Zamperini persisted and Louie finally gave in to shut her up. He listened skeptically to Graham’s message and when the invitation came at the end of the sermon to come forward and receive Christ, Louie didn’t walk, he ran the other way and out the back door. This happened not once, but several times; but Cynthia didn’t give up on Louie and neither did God. In God’s good time Louie did finally surrender his demons to Jesus one night at another Graham crusade. Miraculously the demons and nightmares and anger and alcoholism that had consumed him were gone for good – they never returned. You may be skeptical, as I often am, about such instantaneous miracle healings, but this one was real. Louie went on to live a productive long life of ministry to countless young men at a camp he founded and as a motivational speaker. He was truly unbroken and restored to wholeness by a power greater than all the demons known to humankind.”

Louie Zamperini died in 2014 at the age of 97. Read the book to get the full benefit of his inspirational life story. You’ll be glad you did.