Tag: Jonah

Fish Tales

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_Project
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman

Mark 1:14-20

 

I like fish tales. Great big stories with excitement and adventure, great big stories with humor and a bit of uncertainty. Great big stories with questionable details but big truths.

 

I fell for them as a kid all the time. Even after I learned to watch for the hand that shows the little minnow with finger and thumb, versus the giant fish the two hands show together, I still fell for them because I wanted the story.

 

And often, they weren’t about fish at all.

 

My dad is a master of fish tales. One day my brother and I asked him how he came to have a scar and he replied, “Didn’t you know? I was abducted by aliens as a kid.” He proceeded to tell us about how the aliens took him into their special ship, to their mother ship. How they all had a third eye right up here on their foreheads. They all wore uniforms that matched and made it hard to tell one from the other. They spoke in a strange language, and poked and prodded my dad. They made him do weird experiments and asked him hard questions. In the end, they shot him with a strange syrup and dropped him off back at his home.

 

My brother and I were so shocked and impressed, we told all our friends. Soon all the kids were talking about how my dad had been abducted by aliens.

 

It took a few years before I realized he’d gotten hurt as a kid, been taken in an ambulance to the hospital, got a tetanus shot, and was sent home by the doctors and nurses. That’s how he got the scar.

 

… The alien story is way cooler, isn’t it?

 

It’s the same story. Just we picture different things in our heads when we hear ‘alien’ versus ‘doctor.’ Or ‘third eye’ versus head mirror. Special ship instead of ambulance.

 

But for a little kid? This totally felt like an alien abduction! My dad told us a fish tale, but it had roots of truth. And it communicated what this experience felt like to him when he was a child.

 

The Bible has stories that seem like fish tales too. Consider the book of Jonah. No Biblical scholar really knows what to do with this story. Is it true? But whales don’t eat people. They can’t swallow anything that big and eat plankton. Was it a large fish? What fish could swallow a person whole and alive? Not a shark.

 

No Biblical scholar really knows what to do with this story. No one really knows if we’re supposed to read it as a parable, or a historic truth, or a retelling of a classic tale with a Jewish spin, or a parody. Since no one knows, let’s consider it as a fish tale today.

 

Let’s look at the story: God calls to Jonah – a no body – and tells him to get to Nineveh and convert the people there. The story humorously explains all the ways Jonah tries to escape, but God keeps bringing Jonah back to the path God wants. Each run away is more drastic and over the top than the last. Each pull and yank on the fishing rod in this fish tale is told to keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat.

 

And in the end, Jonah is THE most successful prophet in the Bible and converts an entire city with just a few words. The city converts so strongly that they order even the animals to wear sack cloth and ashes and pray. The gigantic fish is pulled in!

 

And instead of rejoicing, Jonah complains, “God, I knew you were going to forgive them in the first place. You’re too kind!”

 

I hear here the cue for the drum snare for the punch line joke! God… is too kind.

 

We want God to love the people we love and hate the people we hate.

 

If the book of Jonah started out this way, telling us the punch line first, it likely wouldn’t strike home. It wouldn’t make us feel. Wouldn’t make us think. Just as if my dad had answered my brother and I ‘Oh, I fell on a nail,’ neither of us would have considered what it felt like, how scary it was, to be injured as a little kid.

 

The story – the wind up, the way it invites us in to view the world through Jonah’s eyes – the way things are exaggerated and blow up large – gives us just enough humor to deal with the not funny part of this story. Just enough humor to look at ourselves… and laugh.

 

We’re Jonah.

 

You and I are Jonah.

 

And when God calls, we try running away.

 

When God tells us to be loving to enemies, we’d rather see them crash and burn.

 

And when God forgives and loves people we hate… we get angry with God.

 

We want God to love those we love, and hate those we hate… we want to tell God what to do. We want to be God.

 

But… God is uncontrollable. And God chooses to offer love and forgiveness to all.

 

I think the fish tale of the book of Jonah brings that message home.

 

The story is not about whether or not you believe in giant fish, bushes that grow up over night, or donkeys and goats wearing sack cloth. The story is about how wide is God’s mercy… and facing our own mercy shortcomings.

 

No one likes critiqued. No one likes being told they’re in the wrong. So Jonah holds the mirror up to us gently, with humor, to let us see the flaws and laugh. Let us see how ridiculous Jonah and we are being. Lets us be glad God is that loving and forgiving. That loving forgiveness that we rely on, so too does the whole world.

 

A big message… delivered in a way to make us think.

 

Mark plays with words to make us think, too. Mark’s word is IMMEDIATELY. If you ever want to read a gospel out loud, try reading Mark. It is breathless. It is fast. It sprints a marathon and when you read it or hear it in one setting, you end up at the end befuddled and breathless and left with all the messy pieces and unanswered questions that the first disciples had tossed on their laps.

 

When you come to the end, and the final bit is — the women ran away from the empty tomb and told no one because they were frightened — you have to wonder, what then? What then?!

 

Others have wondered this too. And various manuscripts of Mark have a note at the end that adds Jesus appearing to Mary, and giving the great commission, and rising to heaven…

 

But in the oldest copies we have of Mark?

 

The story ends as frightfully and short and as immediately as it began.

 

The urgent telling of Mark conveys the urgency of his message. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t even name Joseph as Jesus’ dad — just the barest minimum of details are told because Mark wants us to know the time is NOW.

 

Urgently NOW.

 

The Gospel of Mark begins like whistle at the beginning of a race and runs from scene to scene in sentence to sentence. What Matthew spends fourteen verses on – Mark spends 2. (Jesus’ temptation.) And while the other Gospels talk about the predictions of Jesus and how he was born… a whole birth narrative… Mark just starts off saying, ‘Jesus came to John.’

 

Mark is rushing. Running.

 

And Jesus in Mark isn’t saying, ‘The time is soon,’ but the time is NOW. NOW is the kindom of God. NOW is the time to repent. NOW is the time to believe in the Good News.

 

Not the future. Not yet to be. NOW.

 

People need God NOW.

 

People need forgiveness now.

 

People need love, now.

 

 

Like a fish tale, Mark has us focus on the experience of Jesus’ story, not the details. We don’t know if the first disciples had heard about Jesus before they were called, and that is why they are ready to leave their nets. We don’t know if they had heard sermons before hand. Or had visions and dreams. Or asked Jesus questions when they were called. We know nothing about what leads up to their calling — only that Jesus calls, and they come ‘immediately’.

 

They respond as quickly as Jesus arrives.

 

The experience of Christian discipleship, for Mark, is the experience of immediacy. Whenever you hear or feel that call, immediately things are changing.

 

Immediately you’re swept up into the story of God.

 

Immediately, not in the future, not after you die, you are in the reign of God.

 

Mark isn’t concerned with details.  He doesn’t want us concerned with details. He wants us concerned with the message and the feeling.

 

The Good News — as he calls it — and the feeling of the Spirit. The Good News that our waiting is over and Christ is among us. The feeling of a way to God for all peoples, all nations, all ages, all genders, and all sinners and saints. The experience of living as God’s children NOW.

 

This focus on message rather than details is how we as the United Church of Christ function. You and I can wholly disagree about how many angels were in Jesus’ tomb. We know — Christianity is not founded on how many angels. Christianity is founded on the love of God as known through Christ and is maintained with the Holy Spirit.

 

You and I can have different ideas on what is, or isn’t, the right way to pray or worship, or baptize. We know these things are important, but even still, are details.

 

And we’re not caught up in the details. We’re caught up in the story of God.

 

In the experience of God.

 

And the experiential story of God is urgently happening now, urgently calling us to unity with one another and with God, and gifting us the good humor to laugh at ourselves, admit our faults, ask forgiveness, and begin again.

 

And again and again and again.

 

No one is keeping a detailed record of how often we are Jonahs. Instead, God is remember we’re God’s beloved children, and God wants to share the experience of being that beloved child urgently right now.

 

So get thee to Ninevah! Or Lancaster. Or wherever God is calling you to go make amends and preach the good news of love and forgiveness. Get thee from the details and thoughts about God — to the experience of God’s love, mercy, and acceptance. Get to the reality of God felt and lived urgently now!

 

Amen.

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To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.