Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jonah: Concise Prophet

Jonah: Concise Prophet

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Jonah 3:1-10, 4:1
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2012

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk.
And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

This is certainly not the portion of Jonah that we think about most often. Where is the boat trip that Jonah took to get away from the call of God? Where is the big fish that swallowed him up when the sailors tossed him overboard? Is something fishy going on here? Well, no, those parts of the story occured in the first two chapters of Jonah. If you missed them, well, there are printed sermons available in the office! Today’s lesson gives us a start on the rest of the story.

This portion of the story gives us the entire prophecy that Jonah delivered to the Ninevites in just eight words. Eight words – This has to be the shortest prophecy in all of scripture. He didn’t even bother to start with “Thus saith the Lord...” His prophecy probably marks him as the most concise prophet in the history of prophecy. And they were words totally lacking any hint of hope or help:

Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

The reason there is no hint of help or hope is that Jonah did not want to offer them either one, help or hope. So he gave them only the bad news side of God’s declaration of judgment. It’s likely that he hoped and prayed for all he was worth that God’s judgment would simply come to pass, that Nineveh would be destroyed, along with everyone in it. That’s just how the p[eople of Israel felt about Nineveh.

But then came the shocking response! Based on no more than eight words from a reluctant, angry prophet, the entire city – described several times as great and big – everyone from the king down to the livestock is pictured as filled with sincere repentance for all their evil. It was the very possibility that Jonah dreaded, knowing, as he did, that God is merciful. It was this result he knew to be possible but hoped would never come to pass:

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.

God changed his mind? What does it mean for the creator of all the worlds there are to “change his mind”? This can be a disquieting thought for us. What does it mean to confess belief in a God who would do that? There are two things about this divine change of mind that intrigue me. One is that God’s mind changed at all. How is it that this happens? The other is Jonah’s response to the change that comes over God.


First, to the issue of God’s changing mind. Does God’s mind change? Do you believe this to be true? Does the very idea sound comforting or threatening? Apart from the question whether the idea that God has a mind which is any way similar to our minds might be just too anthropomorphic, what would it mean to us that God’s mind could change? One thing we know, this idea of the changing mind of God is not unique to the story of Jonah. In Exodus, God peered down from the mountain where he and Moses were huddled around the tablets of the law, and noticed the newly freed Israelites dancing around the golden idol they had made. His anger burned against them, and he declared that they would be destroyed on the spot. But Moses pleaded with God, saying,

“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people...” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.[1]

Jeremiah, that Old Testament prophet who was so close to the spirit of the New Testament, was the authority who spoke most frequently to a disbelieving people about the hope that still resided even in their damaged relationship with God:

“But if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it ... but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.”[2]

The Psalms also are laden with laments that suggest petitions may be addressed to God without regard to the way things appear. The Psalms are filled with examples of prayers for relief from a God who the psalmist obviously hopes will change his mind.

How do we account for the fact that so many Bible passages suggest that yes, God’s mind does change? Is this idea a comfort to us or not? The only way I know to account for it – and this does suggest that the changeability of God could be a comforting thought – is by reflecting on God’s constant desire to be in relationship with people. If we know anything about relationships, we know that healthy ones are those in which both parties to the relationship take each other’s participation in the relationship seriously. It appears that Jonah and the psalmist and Jeremiah all believe that is what God does. God takes us seriously, even when we don’t appear to deserve it. If we refuse God, God is refused, if we acquiesce, God is obeyed, and God apparently allows for that. But apparently God is willing to make some adjustments for our reluctance.

God changed his mind? This might be a frightening thought if we take it out of context. So, as one preacher said,[3]  “Don’t take it out of context. Here it simply means that God can be moved.” As the Ninevites turned to God, God turned to them. God desires relationship, and will move toward it, taking our part in it seriously.


This makes Jonah’s part in the whole little drama all the more amazing. While we may always have thought that God never changes, that God wasand is  immutable, immovable, and – like preachers on our off days – incomprehensible, we probably also thought that people are likely to change with every alteration in wind direction. Not so Jonah. In this story, the human protagonist demands the right to keep his opinion intact no matter what. Clearly, knowing God’s steadfast love as he obviously did, Jonah knew God was likely to be merciful with the Ninevites, and he wanted no part in it. Never mind that God desired their rescue, their transformation, the very idea that God could love these people judged Jonah’s firm opinion that they were not worth saving. So he demanded the right not to change his mind, no matter what the desires of God might have been in the matter.

And it strikes me that oftentimes we are Jonah. Most of us carry around inside our heads whole lists of people whom we believe in our secret moments to be quite beyond the rescuing love of God. It frustrates us to learn that God loves these others as unequivocally, as fully as God loves us. And that is because if we really believe in this all-encompassing love of God, we might find it necessary to change our own minds about others we may have judged unfit for fellowship in the kingdom. Better to go off to sea, better to be swallowed by a big fish and die than to have to be in community with those whom God cherishes but whom we despise.

The unchanging mind in this story, as we’ll reflect on it more next week, is not God’s as we might have thought, but Jonah’s. And, if we are often honest with ourselves, the unchanging mind can also be ours. In the end, God will have spent more time working to redeem Jonah from the prison of his own rigid hatred than he did rescuing the Ninevites. How ironic, that the prophet of the very people chosen to be a light to the nations should spend so much time trying to extinguish that light!

Jonah wanted nothing to do with relationship, not with those people!


Now might be the point in this sermon when the preacher is expected to bash the congregation with a list of folks that we often overlook, that we judge, and do not welcome. But why do this? We all know who they are. And chances are good that they are a bit different for each of us. One of the underlying currents in many church quarrels has to do with differing ideas about who is and is not an appropriate candidate for membership in the kingdom. Years ago, I remember phoning a person about another church member whom he had once seemed to like but later abandoned as a friend. The former friend was crushed. I called the man to encourage him to go to his old acquaintance and rekindle friendship. The response was, “Forget it! He is such a pain. Who needs him?”

That sounds to me a lot like Jonah’s angry response to God’s mercy for the Ninevites. The fear that lay at the base of his reluctance wasn’t in announcing the words God had given him, but in the knowledge that those words would inevitably be just the prelude to relationship. And Jonah wasn’t about to engage in relationship with those people. I recall that someone once declared that when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it made all the sense in the world. What sense would it make to say, “Love your friends”? It would be like saying, “Breathe the air” – How could you not do it?

God changes toward us because he so desperately desires to work a transformation in us. It can happen. We ought to be glad that it can happen. That way, some day when we find we must don sackcloth and ashes, perhaps we will be able to say with the king of Ninevah, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” It is hope worth nurturing anyway.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Exodus 32:12-14, italics mine, of course.
[2] Jeremiah 18: 8-10, (see also 26:3, 26:13, 26:19), again, italics mine.
[3] Craig Barnes, in his sermon, “Changing God’s Mind,” preached at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2-6-05.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jonah: Fish Food

Jonah: Fish Food
Second in a Series of Four Sermons on Jonah

Jonah 1:7, 17; 2:1-10

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Third Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2012

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”

Do any of you remember those old movie serials from an age gone by, when for a quarter or fifty cents, you could go spend a hot summer day in a cool movie theater and watch an hour of the Lone Ranger or Zorro or some other show? For my part, I saw most of these on TV in the 1950s. Each episode would end with the hero in a precarious situation – surrounded by hostile natives, or perched atop a cliff with no apparent escape – that all but guaranteed that everyone in the audience would be back next week to see how it turned out.

That’s what we did with Jonah last week, leaving him there in the fish’s belly. I am glad you all came to hear what happened next!

If you were to approach most people on the street or in the hallways of most churches and ask what comes to mind when they hear the name “Jonah,” chances are good they will mention something about a whale. Even the oldest translation still on bookstore shelves, the 17th century King James Version, says “fish,” not “whale” in the translation of Jonah, but, along with others, the King James translators slipped when the story was mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, turning the Greek for “sea monster” into “whale.” And whale it has been in most people’s minds ever since. Even with the mistranslation, there are only three verses referring to this actual incident in the whole book, it is hardly the main theme.

It will come as no surprise to those of you with whom I have spoken about this little sermon series that to me, Jonah is one of the most ingeniously crafted stories in the Hebrew Testament. Whoever was its true author was a creative genius at storytelling. The fact is that Jonah was a missionary tract; it was never intended to be read with a straight face as history any more than stories like Hansel and Gretel, or Pinnochio, or The Wizard of Oz. Probably the creator of the story of Jonah would turn over in the grave at the thought of a literalism that strained to make this fanciful tale into a so-called “true” – as in “historic” – story. Which is not to say there is no truth there. Once we let go of the idea that Jonah has to chronicle a factual account of some historic event, there is truth aplenty available here about the nature of God, the nature of God’s human servants, and especially about the grace of God; yes, especially about grace.

For example, the first hearers of this story might not have noticed the inconsistency of a Jonah who was willing to give his life to save pagan, foreign sailors, yet not able to bear the thought that the Lord would want to save the pagans of Nineveh. Even the most vengefully minded person would have been impressed by Jonah in his self-sacrifice in last week’s reading, as he willingly offered himself to save the foreign sailors on the storm-tossed ship; his faith had taught him to be considerate of others. But the thought that the Lord might have mercy on foreign Nineveh, no, for them God should only express his wrath.

In his own behavior the character of Jonah demonstrated the complete absurdity of a prevailing attitude among so many of his fellow countrymen. And probably, truth be told, it is not an attitude that is absent among us. 

So, we have left Jonah in the fish’s belly not for three days, but for all seven since last Sunday. And today we heard the lovely psalm that Jonah recited. What a beautiful psalm. Except that most of it wasn’t original with Jonah. Remember, when Jesus was on the cross he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me...?” Well, here in his desperate hour, Jonah did what many of us have done in a tight spot, called to mind some hopeful or helpful verses of scripture, like the 23rd psalm or John 3:16. When Jonah says, “all your waves and your billows passed over me,” he is lifting the words right out of Psalm 42:7. So also when he says, “you brought my life up from the Pit” that’s an idea taken straight from Psalm 30.

Isn’t it true that desperate times call forth our memories of words providing the greatest consolation? And our hero Jonah clearly had hit a desperate time.

Think of all the ways his life had gone literally downhill as he pursued a path leading to the depths of disobedience: Since he first said “no” to the Lord and had run down to the seaport of Joppa, he descended down into a ship for his storm-tossed voyage, down into the hold of the ship for his tempestuous nap, and he finally had found himself thrown overboard, down into the depths of the fish’s belly, down to the bottom of the sea! You can’t get much further down than that! Once there, it took three days – though how he marked the passage of the days in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea we can’t imagine – it took three days for him to come to his senses and begin to sing the prayers of his people, a psalm of deliverance, which, when we look at it, is pretty much in the past tense, as though not only his downward spiral, but also his deliverance were already accomplished.

I am trying to think what Disney would do with this picture of the belly-bound prophet, wrapped in a blanket of seaweed, a sea snail stuck to his forehead, a tiny squid hanging out of the corner of his mouth, coral scratches all over his exposed limbs.[1]

Jonah really wrestles with himself now that he is caught in his own little corner, in his own tight spot, and the Lord will not let him go. It’s like the experience Francis Thompson described in Hound of Heaven, a poem once on the memorization lists for generations of school children:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways[2]
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

Even after we have turned our backs on God, even after we buy tickets for Anywhere-but-where God has in mind, we are not alone.

There is an old story of a man who didn’t agree with giving to mission efforts overseas. When a special offering was taken, the plate was passed, an usher put it in front of him but he passed it back, saying, “I don’t believe in foreign mission.” The usher set the plate back in front of him and said, “Then take some out, it’s intended for the heathen.”

Even if in a fit of pique we turn our backs on the church, the church does not go away, God does not cease to call to us, ministry does not come to an end. It is an enterprise that is so much bigger than our small part of it. And yet our part is desired, even demanded by God who will call and call until we respond. It helps to remember, when it is not this season, that this is a reminder we receive particularly in every annual stewardship season in the church. It’s never just a call for financial support, it is much bigger than that. Similarly, requests we receive to participate in this or that mission effort, financially or personally, at home or abroad, these are God’s ever-present calls to Jonah – to all of us – to turn towoard God in faithfulness.

 Jonah’s second chance comes with words not all that different than the ones that announced his first chance, from the same God, announcing the same purpose as Chapter 3 begins for our reading next week:

“The word of the Lord was addressed a second time to Jonah: ‘Up!’ he said, ‘Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to them as I told you to.’”

And Jonah turned to go God’s way. Perhaps this time the people of Nineveh will get their second chance too. Perhaps the people of First Presbyterian will as well. Be sure to tune in next week. With God, you never know what’s going to happen.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] I am thankful to my friend Carlos Wilton for sharing images of Jonah’s travails in his sermon, “Jonah: the Journey Home.”
[2] Cf. Augustine, Confessions IV.iv.7: “And lo, Thou wert close on the heels of those fleeing from Thee, God of vengeance and fountain of mercies, both at the same time, who turnest us to Thyself by most wonderful means.”

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jonah: Dove of God

Jonah: Dove of God

First in a Series of Four Sermons on Jonah

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington

Second Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2012

Jonah 1

Now the word of God came to Jonah ...

But Jonah set out to flee ... from the presence of the Lord.

This is the first part of a series of four sermons on one of the most charming stories in the Hebrew Testament, at least in my view. Probably it’s not as familiar as a lot of Bible stories except for the King James mistranslation of “fish” as “whale,” and children’s musicals with titles such as “A Whale of a Tale.” Parenthetically, I think it’s an odd story to choose for a children’s musical in many ways, because if we read it with even a small degree of understanding, it’s a pretty terrifying tale!

Sometimes, when I preach from a story or passage in the Hebrew Testament, people will ask me why I am not using the New Testament, especially in these next Sundays that the church refers to as the “Sundays of Easter.” Well here is a little New Testament connection and quiz for those who enjoy Bible games. Can you recall the man in the New Testament whom Jesus called “Simon bar-Jonah”? I’ll give you more of a hint than that. Simon bar-Jonah means “Simon, son of Jonah.” I suspect this helps some cranial lights to switch on. He is the Jewish man who, according to the book of Acts, was in the coastal town of Joppa – incidentally, the village where Jonah’s ocean voyage began – and who had been praying peacefully up on the roof when he came down for lunch and fell into a trance. In that trance he was instructed to be receptive to folks who, before, as a faithful Jew, he would have thought were unclean. He baerely emerged from his dream-like state, when representatives of a Gentile Roman centurion named Cornelius knocked at his gate. Who was this rooftop pray-er, named for the reluctant Old Testament prophet Jonah, sent to the Gentiles in Nineveh by way of Joppa? It was none other than Peter, foremost of the disciples, the rocky apostle on whom the church was to be built.

So, Jonah is a story well-fit for fans of the New Testament as well as the Old.

About today’s sermon title: in Hebrew the word Jonah means “dove.” And what is a dove but an albino cousin of the common pigeon, something, colloquially speaking,[1] that Jonah apparently was attempting not to be: a sucker, a dupe who travels on a one-man mission to Israel’s bitterest enemy to deliver a prophecy. To hear the name Nineveh the way the first readers of Jonah would have heard it, think “Berlin” for a mid 20th century Jewish person. Why wouldn’t he try to flee the task that God presented, to prophesy to the bitterest enemy Israel ever had? We shouldn’t forget, though, that it was a dove that Noah sent from the ark looking for land after all the wicked people of the earth were destroyed in the biblical tale of the great flood. There’s more to this dove business than we might think. A dove is a sign of hope on tiny wings, which is the way hope often appears: tiny, vulnerable, and seemingly powerless, yet possessed of a power most often misunderstood by the world.

One of the very first examinations that I had to take in my very first semester of seminary was in an Hebrew Testament class. The question was “What is the point of the story of Jonah?” It’s a really good question. What do you suppose this story of Jonah is really about, anyway?

I have discovered over the years that there is no single answer to that question, which is one of the reasons this little story is so much fun. To determine what a Bible passage says, difficult as that is, is not impossible; there are ample highly trained translators who spend hours deciphering such things for us. But what is the point of the story of Jonah, what does it mean? Today and over the next three Sundays I’m going to talk about what I think the story means, but remember that it is supposed to mean something special, something unique to each of us as well as to all of us. Here are some starters:

· Some would say that this is a story about God’s judgment. “Indiana Jonah and the Temper of Doom.” That’s really what it was, you know: a message of doom. Straightforward and dangling out there like an exposed nerve. No “Telling them what they want to hear,” so that the Ninevites might be more inclined to listen to a pasteurized word of judgment and accept it. Lord knows, in the end Jonah had very little interest even in their hearing his message, let alone their being moved to repentance by it. Still, it obviously worked on the Ninevites. In fact, the message of doom, which comes on week 4 for us, worked better on the foreigners in Nineveh than it ever had back home in Israel. But since the narrative spends so much time on board ships, and in a fish’s tummy, and elsewhere, it is easy to lose track of the central message that Jonah was called to proclaim, which was – there is no getting around it, even on a Sunday after Easter – that God was upset with these people, and they were going to suffer for it.

· Others might agree, up to a point. But they would add that judgment tells only half the story. Since the outcome ultimately – warning: spoiler alert here if you don’t know the whole story – the outcome was a happy one for Nineveh; they say the story is about disobedience and repentance. Disobedience, of course, brings on the judgment of God in the first place, but then the repentance brings about God’s broad mercy. Never mind such nagging little details as how the Ninevites were supposed to know what they were disobeying since they hadn’t been privy to the Hebrew covenant with God in the first place. They were apparently just so bad that anyone should have known it.

· Some might say the story is for sailors. Notice the subtle irony in the story that one outcome of the sailors’ encounter with their trouble-making guest, Jonah, was that, though they were pagans in the minds of Israelites, they were moved to offer a sacrifice to the Lord of Israel, even using Israel’s most sacred name for God, and promised to serve the Lord. The chosen prophet of God couldn’t be counted on to head East instead of West, but so able was he at his unchosen profession that he converted even those who threw him overboard. Which brings us to another related interpretation.

· Some folks might want to say that the story is about one of the greatest missionaries of all time. Without meaning to, he converted a whole shipload of pagans.

· There are other interpretations. Some say it is nothing more than a fairy tale about a man named Jonah. Others say it is strictly a moral lesson about God’s mercy. I say it combines something of all these interpretations, but that it receives its most apt interpretation from the preaching of Jesus.

Mark records that when Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God, his preaching could be summed up in one short verse: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; turn away from sin, and believe in the good news.”

Jonah preached a one point sermon which we could sum up, if we want to bother to sum up seven words, by saying “You’re going to get it.” Jesus said essentially the same thing, but added, “Repent and believe.” The fact is, the Ninevites did repent, and they were spared. God’s mercy is not simply a New Testament idea any more than judgment is solely a feature of the Old Testament. Any time the word of God is faithfully preached, there is an element of decision involved. The time is up, decision time is here, whether it is a decision to follow Jesus, made for the first time, or a decision to reaffirm, or a decision to hear the word of God to us today, as we have heard it in the past, and be renewed by God’s Spirit.

In Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, dreaded by high school juniors everywhere during my high school years, Father Mapple, the preacher at Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, specifies “willful disobedience” as Jonah’s sin. He declares that God more often commands than seeks to persuade because what God wants of us is too hard for us – if we must obey God then we must disobey our own desires, and it is in this disobeying ourselves that the difficulty of obeying God is found. The sailors, agnostic as far as Jonah’s God was concerned, still managed to behave so much better than the lone-ranger prophet did. Together they have a conscience, while, on his solo flight West when God commanded him to go East, Jonah finds his sense of right and wrong too easily influenced by his own willfulness. It is a continuing theme that will play itself out over the next three Sundays.

So who is Jonah to us? In our world he is likely to be the one who does not bother to list the number of enemy casualties in the Middle East, while making daily newspaper tallies of our own. He is apt to be the person who exits church services scratching his head and wondering why “there wasn’t a personal message for me today.” He is the one who sees in the sacrifice of Jesus only a personal salvation with little regard for all the others in the world who have not responded, or even those who may have responded haltingly.

What is Nineveh to us? It is whatever person, nation, or force that threatens all the things we hold most dear, a terrorist with bombs strapped to her waist, a character assassin who belittles us at every opportunity, anyone who scorns and laughs at our most deeply-cherished beliefs. And no sooner do we start thinking about what that might mean than we realize this is precisely the sort of place to which God will direct the prophet, this person who perhaps had the absence of mind to have said once, “Here I am, send me.”

Yes, Jonah is a masterpiece of writing, and it is both captivating and terrifying in what it suggests about the nature of God, the nature of human life, and the nature of our call to serve God’s purposes no matter what. No wonder he headed West when God said East. Who among us, left to our own devices, would have been likely to have done any differently?

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


[1] slang. Pigeon: One who is easily swindled; a dupe.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

We Have Waited for Him

We Have Waited for Him

copyright © 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Easter day, April 8, 2012

Isaiah 25:6-9

Mark 16:1-8

It will be said on that day,

Lo, this is our God;

we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

It seems that every year when Christians gather following Good Friday to celebrate the death of death on Easter, we have to admit that death has not taken all that much of a vacation. It’s not something we like to think about really, but it remains true, death stalks the world as it always has, whether from roadside bombs in the Middle East, collapsing coal mines, traffic accidents and disease, or the simple slipping away at the end of life. Since we last thought about the “death of death” on Easter a year ago, death has not ceased to take away the living, has not even taken a short vacation.

When Isaiah declared, “we have waited for [God], so that he might save us,” exactly what did he mean? If we are waiting, how will we know when the saving of God has arrived? What will that arrival look like? Are we saved from something, or for something? Or both? If death continues to move through the world unchecked, what does it mean to be saved? What are we waiting for? The women who arrived at the tomb on Easter day didn’t wait around all that long to find out, not according to today’s gospel reading anyway.

I have always been attracted to Mark’s account of the resurrection. Its ending is so completely different from the other gospels, it simply leaves you hanging, almost in mid-sentence. “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. That is “all she wrote.”[1] It’s even more abrupt than the tidied-up version of the Greek that translators give us. In the original Greek it simply says, “afraid they were, for.”[2] Is that anyway to end a paragraph, much less a gospel? My high school English teacher, Mrs. Lanier, would not have been pleased!

Still, I think I am drawn to Mark’s gospel because it reflects how natural it is for us to react to shocking circumstances the way these women did. They dropped everything and ran from the tomb the same way it appears Mark dropped his pen and ran from his writing desk. Whereas the other gospels report positive reactions on the women’s part (they ran to tell the other apostles what happened, what they had seen and heard) here in Mark they are overtaken by fear and they can say or do nothing other than just run from the empty tomb in a kind of panic. And honestly, now, who among us can say we would have behaved any differently?

Is this any way to end a gospel? It is hardly the best setup for a triumphant singing of Easter music. One New Testament professor shared a story of a student who memorized the whole of Mark’s Gospel in order to present a sort of one man show before live audiences using nothing but the actual words of the gospel. After thorough study, he determined to stay with the original, abrupt ending we heard today, as the most authentic. At the first performance, after he spoke that dangling, final verse, he stayed onstage, standing awkwardly for what seemed like an eternity of silence. He was through, but, like most of us, the audience knew other, more satisfying endings of the Easter story and simply were not aware that he was finished. Anxious seconds ticked by until he spontaneously added, “Amen!” and made his exit. The relieved audience applauded appreciatively. Still, as he thought about it further, he recognized that his addition of “Amen!” had actually betrayed the dramatic intention of the text. So at the next performance, after delivering the final words: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” he simply paused for a brief moment and then left the silent audience to contemplate for themselves what that meant. “The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious,” his former professor reflected later, “and as people exited ... the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the nonending.”[3]

The women at the tomb that first Easter morning weren’t weak or cowardly. They alone had watched the crucifixion on Friday, Mark makes no mention of male disciples at the cross. They were long gone. So here were these women alone again on Sunday morning. Do you suppose they were looking forward to handling a corpse, dead for some 36 hours? These were not giddy women, easily frightened. They were brave, courageous even, in their commitment to do the right thing. In the end, though, the last word was that they were afraid. Even though later manuscripts contained additions to Mark’s original, trying to tidy up that abrupt ending, all the earliest copies have the ending just the way we heard it today. They fled from the tomb in fear.

Now, all these centuries later, as with the women at the tomb, isn’t it true for us that our experience, particularly our fear, gets in the way of our understanding more often then we’d like to admit?

I read of two people who sat next to each other on an airplane. In the few minutes before takeoff, they introduced themselves to each other. One was a pastor who was taking his first airplane trip. He was as nervous as could be. He kept opening and closing a small copy of the Bible he had with him, wiping his brow with a handkerchief; he was unable to sit still.

Seated next to him was a businesswoman who traveled a lot and wasn’t afraid at all. Reading the Harvard Business Review, she was totally relaxed, but could not help but observe the pastor’s anxiety. Finally, she asked him if he was going to be OK, and he admitted to her his fear of flying.

“Why is that?” she asked. “You’re a person of faith. Doesn’t the Bible report that Jesus said something like, ‘I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth?’ If that’s true, what have you to fear?”

The minister thought deeply about what she had said, reflecting on the woman’s point and knowledge of scripture, and then he replied, “That is very helpful, but, you didn’t get the quote exactly right. Jesus says, ‘Lo, I am with you always ... Low!’”

Fear can do that to us, make us unreasonable, impervious to a word of hope or help. We often choose familiar ways, even though they are painful, disappointing, self-limiting, because we know what to expect, and for many of us, the pain, the disappointment, the failures we know are less fearful than the uneasiness of a future that is open but filled with uncertainty.

The women at the tomb that day were thinking just the way we do, contemplating the physical realities of our living and dying. They went to the tomb the same way we would go to the cemetery, not with notebooks and pencils, hoping a crucified Jesus would awaken and continue to teach them. They brought no one to the cemetery for healing. What they brought, the gospel reports, were spices, traditionally used to anoint the bodies of the dead. They expected the tomb still to be sealed the way we expect to arrive at the cemetery and still find the graves of our loved ones covered in earth or stone. They anticipated no encounter, no voices, and certainly no instructions to greet them there.

Of course, as we heard, upon arriving at the tomb they found all of these unanticipated things:

· a rolled-away stone, some living presence sitting in a tomb where no one would expect to encounter anything alive,

· the absence of the body for which they had gone to the trouble to gather and carry all their anointing spices,

· A firm instruction about where they were to go, who they were to tell, who they were going to see.

It turns out that the unlikeliness of everything they encountered, along with the very emptiness of the tomb, will frustrate our every attempt to possess the man from Nazareth rather than be possessed by him. In order to see Jesus, we must do what the women, the disciples had to do. Go to Galilee. Galilee, the most distant, least cosmopolitan district of ancient Israel, represents to us the challenge of the whole world lying beyond the tiny circumference of Jerusalem, the tiny circle of our own experience. It represents leaving behind old thoughts of what is holy, and realizing that Jesus’ death has sanctified every place: not just sanctuaries and cemeteries but streets and sidewalks, offices and restaurants, farms and factories, buses, and bridges.

Mark leaves his story with us. No neatly packaged ending here, we are challenged to help determine how the story will come out. We are invited to become part of the continuing narrative of the Gospel, the good news about Jesus. No written conclusion could contain him, any more than any tomb could. He always goes before us, always beckons us to a new appearance in Galilee of the nations, Galilee of daily life, where there is work to be done, truth to be told, compassion to be manifested, healing to do, justice to be established, Galilee of the other 364 days of the year beyond Easter.

Easter is not a call to believe something. It is a call to do something. And, as if to provide an example we can’t refuse, Jesus has already left town to do something himself. Go today to whatever passes for mission to the world represented in scripture by Galilee, go, if you’d like to sign on.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Factoid: The standard theory about the phrase “That's all she wrote” is that it arose during World War II referring to "Dear John letters" received by many servicemen from sweethearts back home bluntly announcing the end of their relationships.

[2] φοβοντο γάρ

[3] Professor, Donald Juel. I am thankful for Tom Long’s sermon, “Dangling Gospel,” in Christian Century, April 4, 2006, for the reminder of this story from Dr. Juel.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

For and Against

For and Against

Exodus 12:1-14 Maundy Thursday

Romans 8:31-39 April 5, 2012

Reading over the Exodus account of the institution of the Passover, we discover important resources for preparing our hearts and minds for the holy meal we are about to celebrate. In the old days, some denominations required the use of little wooden or metal buttons called “communion tokens” which were handed out the week before the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated. These were supposed to serve as certification for admission to the Lord’s Table on the following week. The leaders of some churches made it their business to keep very close track of those who failed to participate, and also to see to it that “unfit” people were not permitted to commune.

The majority of churches have discontinued this practice, for the most part. One of the reasons is that we are aware of different needs in modern circumstances. Members of congregations are on the move continually, and so we couldn’t count on the fact that a token handed out one week would be used in the same sanctuary the next. But there is a more important reason. Just as we can’t count on the presence of the same folks from week to week, we wouldn’t want to limit access to the table only to those who are active members of our own congregation. In the Invitation at the table we hear words such as: “Our Savior invites those who trust in him to come and share in the feast which he has prepared.” Now, Jesus does not invite just this church or that denomination, but all those who trust in him. That means that the table is pretty open to anyone and everyone whose life is in the process of responding to the call of Christ.

What does the Passover have to do with all this? A good deal. Frequently, the temptation in the church has been to overly spiritualize the sacrament. The insistence of 1,000,000 sermons since New Testament times – that the deliverance of God is a spiritual matter – must run up against the Old Testament feast of the Passover, which serves as the foundation for our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our insistence that God’s liberation is spiritual does not cancel the Old Testament witness that the physical freedom of people is involved as well. This does not narrow the importance of the realm of the spirit, but rather enhances it. Perhaps it enhances our understanding of the “spirit” in unexpected ways.

Dr. Roy Fairchild of San Francisco Theological Seminary once asked a large convocation audience to call out words that came to their minds when they heard the word “spiritual.” “Piety,” “meditation,” “holy,” were the sort of words that came in response. Then he said, “What words come to mind when you hear the word “spirited“? Now folks thought of words such as “lively,” “animated,” “energetic.”

What was the difference? In actual fact, the word spirited is a more faithful biblical concept than our current understanding of spiritual. Our faith must not be conceived as a spiritual matter, so much as it is a spirited one. That throws the entire idea of such things as the Lord’s Supper into a whole new light. When we forget our Passover roots in the Lord’s Supper, we can become excessively spiritual about it, forget that God really intends to free real people. We can sit as isolated, even mournful-looking individuals in our pews, partaking of a sacrament that seems almost ludicrous when we think of the actual meaning of a word like communion: that it is community with God and each other which we celebrate at the table.

I hope we can begin to think of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a spirited experience, enlivened by the spirit of God. Now, don’t fret, there will be no introduction of parlor games into worship in order to make the sacrament more lively. Still, I would like for each worshiper to consider not only their relationship to God which we declare in taking the sacrament, but their new relationship with each other which Jesus’ sacred meal makes possible. The Passover, as we will remember, was a distinctly social occassion, even though fraught with anxiety the first night it was celebrated. The Passover was not a time for each child of Israel to retire to his or her room and contemplate spiritual matters. Rather, it was a spirited occasion celebrated in households while people ate and drank together — as it is to this day in Jewish homes — in anticipation of God’s saving act of liberation.

When Jesus established the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it was not alone in his room, but at this very Passover meal, with his family of disciples. Ever since it has been a means whereby the people of the church have declared the continuing presence of Christ in our midst. The Passover serves as a warning against overlooking the community in which we are gathered when we call ourselves a church. Both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper look to the past to find hope for the future.

Having recognized all this, like the people of Israel who first heard Moses’ instructions concerning the Passover, we may wonder at its power. Can we really believe that God has the power to overcome the evils that seem so much more present to us than the promise of our deliverance? We hear the words of the prophet Moses, but we see the power of Pharaoh and all his army standing between us and our freedom. Even if God in Christ is a powerful ally to us, is Christ strong enough to fortify us when the evils of the world seem so much more apparent? Paul asked the same questions when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul came up with a pretty convincing list. Still, No matter the obstacles the world might raise, regardless of tribulation, persecution, powers, even our own self-destructive behavior, Paul declared that God is still for us more than anything else can possibly be against us.

That is what blood on the doorposts comes down to. That is what crucifixion comes down to. That is what symbolic meals shared around tables such as this one and real meals shared around other tables of love in our homes and gatherings come down to. That is what helpless armies of Pharaoh and other superpowers come down to. That is what the smallest act of kindness and the largest sacrifice we can make for others come down to. They all lead to the selfsame conclusion as the one reached with such dynamic intensity by Paul: The One who is for us is so very much more the wave of the future than all the evils that may line up against us that we may rejoice even if we must rejoice in adversity.

Friends, believe the good news of the gospel: nothing in the whole wide world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Day the Lord Made

A Day the Lord Made

First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington

Passion/Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Mark 14:1-11

This is the day that the Lord has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I remember the day Gene Pitney died a few years back. Some will recall that he was a teen idol pop singer of the early 1960s, a sort of cross between Bobby Darin and Frankie Avalon. These were teen idols who were in a kind of leftover generation from the music, style, and fashions of the late 1950s, and their world rolled to an abrupt stop when the Beatles brought their music across the Atlantic from Liverpool and a revolution in popular music and culture was fully underway.

The day I heard that Pitney had died, I felt a little twinge of sadness, I had liked some of his music, especially his ballads. My two college roommates and I exchanged e-mails about his passing, one of them remembered a record I bought in our freshman year of Pitney’s greatest hits. I know I still have that record somewhere, though I no longer have anything that I can play it on.

Our little e-mail exchange got me to thinking about the portability of our lives, or the lack thereof, and the useless junk we cart along with us. My story is common in mobile America, having lived in six different cities since I left home for college. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve done what we all have done at one time or another, sorted through all that stuff we drag along with us through life, deciding what to keep and what to let go. The only certainty is that whoever is following us won’t want it left behind, and certainly won’t bother to keep any of it, they will be bringing their own mounds of junk. I can’t think that anyone living any place where I’ve lived before would want my old Gene Pitney 331/3 rpm record.

There is something cleansing about moving though, deciding what goes and what goes away. It is a cleansing feeling really. You never really liked that old painting over the hutch anyway. Thank goodness for a reason to let go of that horrible tie, or that summer suit that hasn’t fit you since 1981. Too bad we can’t have that same choice with other things that burden our lives: the bad memories that won’t ever change, no matter how often we remember them; the injuries we have suffered over time, both physical and emotional; the losses we have known.

Well, “this is the day that the Lord has made,” said the psalmist, and today it’s time to pack for a one-week trip to and through a land called Holy Week. One thing we should carry is the story from Mark.

There is a story in John’s gospel[1] about Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet in the home of Lazarus, spreading the ointment with her hair. Today we heard what may be Mark’s account of the same event, or perhaps a different event altogether. Some details differ. Mark, characteristically, pays scant attention to the names of other people present, most remaining nameless: those who complained about the apparent waste of the expensive ointment, the woman doing the anointing, though Judas is named in both accounts.

Because a good understanding of first century Jewish meal customs is not one of the things most of us have packed around with us since Jesus walked the earth, the scene set by Mark does not shock us, though it certainly would have shocked its first readers, for several reasons.

First, a woman appeared in the room where men were eating. There is no way I could get you to look as shocked as those early listeners to the story would have looked. Remember, in those days, men and women had very little contact with one another socially. Women basically stayed home, men ate with other men. To shock you as much as those first listeners, I’d have to say something like, “a woman entered the room with snakes for hair and smoke coming out of her ears.” Men were eating and a woman came in. That in itself was a shocking thing for those folks. It was something which, as my little grandmother used to say, “simply isn’t done.”

But that wasn’t the half of it. If they were shocked to see her appear, imagine their shock as she:

1. Cracked open an alabaster jar of extremely costly ointment; This would have been a very expensive jar, which together with its very expensive contents was likely to have been worth more than the house in which they were dining, about year’s wages;

2. Poured the contents on his head. Anointing on the head was something reserved for royal anointing, as when the prophet Samuel anointed David to be king over Israel.

In one stunning succession of events, this woman broke the taboo of women being in the presence of men who are gathering socially, and declared by her action that when they sat with Jesus, they were sitting with royalty. When the Bible says she “broke open” the jar, the Greek word is much stronger, it mean she literally smashed it to bits, it is the same word used in the Greek version of the Exodus story of Moses smashing the tablets of the law when he came down from Sinai and saw the golden calf.

Mark reports that some of the reactions to the woman were filled with anger, anger about the waste, the lack of concern for the poor, the sheer inappropriateness of the entire sequence of events. The one who seems not to have been troubled at all was Jesus. As they fumed and fulminated, Jesus said not a word until after their scolding, when he said enough is enough, this woman has done something good for me.

This is a funny week for the life of faith, isn’t it? We have this day that most of us associate with the laying of palms before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, though only John reports the actual use of palms, and we know that palms didn’t grow naturally in Jerusalem, it was too dry. But that triumphant ride down the hill from the Mount of Olives rests right alongside these stories of Jesus at table, Jesus anointed as a king would be anointed, Jesus being betrayed by one of his own chosen disciples into the hands of those who wanted to do him harm. The triumph of Easter, which is yet to come, is set right up alongside the hard reality of suffering and death. We’re all in favor of the former, not so sure about the necessity for the latter, if attendance at most mid-week services in most churches during Holy Week is any indication.

The psalm for today places together the same sort of thoughts that we might normally think would be at odds with each other: the triumphant “This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice,” set alongside “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” That psalm, which the pilgrims repeated as Jesus made his way into the city astride his colt, carries alongside the note of triumph an equally loud note of foreboding.

Verse 22 in particular gnaws at the sense of triumph and disables it. The stone is not to be used until first it has been rejected. Everything around that note concerning the stone has an air of celebration, but this line suggests that before there is triumph there must be denial. The context of rejoicing carries within it the seeds of a prior sorrow to be endured before rejoicing can predominate.

On this day which the Lord has made, we probably all carry our own jars in need of smashing to let the anointing of the Lord happen in our hearts. There are folks who need to smash the jar of addiction.[2] There are many of us who have probably arrived yet again at a time in our lives when we need to decide what we will carry forward with us in our lives, and what we will leave behind. Go ahead and keep storing away your GI Joe action figures or your 78 rpm records, or the dress you wore to the prom if you want to. But you and I both know, there are things in our lives that we can lay aside, leave behind. We will box our things up, and they may look so precious as they go in, but sometimes, at the end of months or even years, when we get around to opening those cartons, all we find in them is trash, things no longer filled with life, things that need to be smashed open, and used to anoint the one who comes to bless who we are, not what we’ve been or what we have, but who we are and who we can be, now that the day which the Lord has made has arrived.

Let us rejoice.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] John 12:1-11

[2] Thanks to Anna Carter Florence and her sermon, “Smashing Beauty” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2004, pp. 18-22, for this and some other images in the sermon.