Sunday, May 27, 2012

To Be Remembered

To Be Remembered
Psalm 98

Pentecost Day, Memorial Day weekend: May 27, 2012

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness

T.S. Eliot once wrote,
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.[1]
Well, I’ve had nights like that, who hasn’t? On Memorial Day each year I am reminded  that memory is an odd thing. It is one of those words which can be taken in positive or negative ways. Bitter memories stack up right alongside sweet ones.
Cyril Connolly, British editor, book reviewer and author, wrote in 1944, “Our memories are card-indexes consulted, and then put back in disorder by authorities whom we do not control.”[2]
We may carry lifetime recollections of bitter arguments lost, deep disappointments suffered, betrayals endured. Robert Burns once wrote of an unhappy spouse who waited at home,
Gathering her brows like a gathering storm
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.[3]
When I was in graduate school, taking courses in counseling, I remember hearing the term “injustice collecting,” a phrase which serves to remind us that sometimes we enjoy our bitter memories perhaps a little more than we should, saving them up to use like weapons when the time is right – or wrong. The lighthearted side of this was made into a song by Alan Jay Lerner:
We met at nine
We met at eight
I was on time
No, you were late
Ah yes! I remember it well.[4]
On the positive capacity of remembrance, J.M. Barrie made the lovely observation that “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”[5]
Of course, memory can inform the present, for good or ill, yet it can also freeze us in the past. We all probably know someone not living in the present because they are trapped by powerful memories, locked in a never-ending past, which no one around them shares. This kind of attachment to memory can cripple and stunt our ability to live today and hope for tomorrow.
I have a friend whose family tradition with his children included rehearsals of the importance of remembering. When one prepared to go out for the day or for the evening, they would recite their little admonition to them, “Remember who you are.” The remembrance was to be of the sort of family they were, the sort of values they cherished, a way for young people to face the compromising values of the world from a solid perspective provided in their home. Of course, the admonition was often met with dismissal when the youngsters were adolescents. But then, when one had returned from college and his father was preparing to leave for the day for meetings in Portland, his son came to him as he got in his car and counseled him to “remember who you are.” The father was delighted. After all these years, this son was now taking part, laying claim to these common family values and even encouraging his father with them. But wait, not so fast. It turned out his son was referring to another kind of remembering. “No, Dad, I mean it literally: remember who you are. You’re getting older, your memory isn’t what it used to be, and in a strange town, you might forget who you are!”
Typically, a day set aside for memorials, for remembering, the way Memorial Day is set aside tomorrow, such a day is a time we may recall family and friends who have died. And rightly so. It is good to remember, good to reflect on ways that the lives of others, now spent, have affected our lives and still impact the world we know.
The Memorial Day we know started in 1869 as a day to honor the Civil War dead, and has been associated with such honors for war dead ever since. Beyond that, however, most of us also find ourselves remembering all the folks who have preceded us in death, friends and family members, whether they died in war or not. For centuries, the church had its own memorial day, a day called “All Saints Day.” It still rates a mention on many calendars, but it has been all but obliterated in our culture by the rather silly and originally beside-the-point night before All Saints, All Hallows Eve, now known by its shorthand moniker, Halloween.
Still, remembering, making memorials to those who have gone before, is something the church has done since the beginning, from the celebration of the “great cloud of witnesses” in the letter to the Hebrews, to the host of white-robed saints of Revelation who sing their eternal praises before the throne of God (Revelation 7:11-12).
Remembering is an honorable thing. The Bible calls us to be a people of remembrance. Words for remembering are used over 320 times in scripture. For example:
·  Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)
·  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:20 — there are many repetitions of this particular reminder!)
·  Remember the wonderful works [God] has done... (Psalm 105:5)
·  Remember [God’s] covenant forever...(I Chronicles 16:15)
·  Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead (2 Timothy 2:8)
·  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord (Luke 22:61)
These selections bring to mind our calling to be a remembering people. But there are as many, if not more occasions in scripture, when God is asked to remember who he is or who we are:
·  Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago (Psalm 74:2)
·  Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted (Psalm 89:50)
Memory functions in scripture in the variety of ways that it functions in our own lives.
Still, see if you don’t agree that the remembrance to which the psalmist refers in our passage today is almost startling when we think more intentionally about it: “[God] has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness.” God has remembered? Would God have forgotten? Does God remember who he is? Probably one of the most celebrated qualities of God in scripture is the love of God, and not just God’s love, but God’s steadfast love. It is a love that not only lasts, but outlasts. Is our own love of God a fickle thing, a sometime thing? Never mind, remember that God’s love is a steadfast love, a love that stays with its loving task no matter what.
Psalm 98 counsels Israel to “sing to the Lord a new song,” because “he has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” It ends by declaring that the floods should clap their hands and the hills should sing together for joy because God “is coming to judge the earth.” It is a stewardship song for the whole earth, returning to God the praise which is his due.
Does that sound jarring to you, that God remembers who he is, and that the whole creation should rejoice because God’s judgment is coming? God’s steadfast love stays with its loving task, no matter what, that is why we may rejoice even in the midst of his judgment. God judges not with an eye to vengeance and recrimination but to his promise. God’s steadfast reliability isn’t based in a naiveté about the people, whether the people are ancient Israelites or the people seated in this sanctuary. God can look unblinkingly at all our past failures and shortcomings, and God’s steadfast faithfulness simply overpowers them, assuring us that hope of a return to relationship with him is not a vain hope. That is why we, along with all creation, may sing a new song of joy when we declare that God remembers who he is.
What a gift God's remembering is. Can you think of a time when you’ve been forgotten, and how much that can hurt? As a child, were you ever left, forgotten at school, perhaps each parent thinking the other was coming for you? Since God doesn’t ever forget who he is, he cannot forget who we are either. God has had us in mind all along, and here we are. In God’s remembering of his steadfast love and faithfulness, there stands the object of his love, undeserving, soiled, lapsed in both steadfast love and faithfulness, yet loved nonetheless by the One who remembers.
The remembering God.
God remembers it all, doesn’t miss a thing, washes it in the cleansing power of his judgment, and renders it fit for a future in his presence.
While there is to be judgment, the fact that God remembers who he is, is among the best news we could have hoped for. No wonder the psalmist instructs us to sing a new song, to make a joyful noise, to break into joy-filled song and sing praises. No wonder. Because of the wonder that is a God of love. And memory.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

[1] “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” T.S. Eliot, 1917.
[2] The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly, 1944.
[3] “Tam o’ Shanter,”The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, Waverly Books Ltd.
[4] “I Remember It Well,” Alan Jay Lerner, Gigi, 1958.
[5] Rectorial Address at St. Andrew’s, J.M. Barrie, May 3, 1922.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Power to Love

The Power to Love
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 20, 2012
Acts 10:44-48
Have you ever traveled to another country and discovered what it is like to be an outsider, one who does not understand local customs, etiquette, expressions, let alone the language? Sometimes the experience isn’t a result of a language barrier, at least not an official one.
I vividly remember a lengthy visit to Australia back in the 1970s with a team of six (then) young business and professional people, sponsored by Rotary International and led by a Rotarian from Medford, Oregon. As a matter of fact, our own Dick Kunkle was instrumental in my selection to be on the team. On one of our first days there, our group leader spoke to a large audience that had gathered to welcome us and host us at dinner. Our leader used an expression, common in the U.S.A., just tossed it off without thinking, the way any of us would with any of dozens of customary expressions like “check you later,” or “gotta run.” After he said it, there was a sort of gasp, then an eerie silence fell across the room. We looked around, wondering what was the matter. Most people realized the mistake was due to some idiomatic language differences between us, but some of our host folks appeared to be at least mildly offended.
Of course, the essence of this story is that the expression our leader used, while completely unremarkable in the US, has a rather crude and offensive meaning in Australia and some other English-speaking countries. And, no, I’m not going to tell you what the expression is unless you will soon be making informal speeches in Australia or New Zealand some time soon. I only tell the story to highlight the fact that the experience of being an outsider is not always a result of formal barriers of language.
When we are outsiders, our thoughts are often hampered by suspicion. That person on the street corner who is looking at me, is he hostile? Is she making fun of us? Does he think I am dressed in an odd or conspicuous way? I recall a time when the unofficial rules for wearing white athletic socks changed – suddenly they were to be worn rumpled above the ankle, not stretched out to their full length, and they were on some occasions OK to be worn with dark pants – strictly taboo in my youth, and I have yet to get this portion of the rule change completely mastered. I’m always last to get the memo on these things. In fact, for all I know, it has changed again! By the time I was informed of the new white socks standards by my daughters, I had had many opportunities to embarrass them. But of course, that’s what parents are for.
I also remember walking through Rome with a tour group a few years ago, realizing that everyone on the streets – everyone – was wearing dark colors, browns, grays, blacks – while I was wearing the one coat I brought: a neon green windbreaker quite at home in the Pacific Northwest, but as out of place in Italy as courteous driving.
To be an obvious outsider – it is a common human experience.
By all accounts, the early church began its life as a pretty exclusive group. All the first disciples were Jews, they followed the dietary laws first given to Moses, they were keeping a pretty low profile in Jerusalem after the execution of Stephen by stoning. Who wouldn’t? Then one day, scripture says, Philip found himself preaching to Samaritans, who were filled with the same Spirit that had come to the Jewish believers. Hardly a day had passed before Philip found himself baptizing a complete foreigner, an Ethiopian. Then, almost before you could say, “Give me a minute to think this over,” Peter found himself in the house of a Gentile, an officer of the Roman occupational forces, a sworn enemy of the Jewish people by ethnic origin, career choice, and religious practice. So, when this person was received into the church by baptism, there can be small wonder that some of the Jerusalem folks demanded an explanation.
Peter’s explanation was simplicity itself: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He later asked his critics in Jerusalem, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”
And, of course, that is the point of almost the entire of the book of Acts. The Spirit came upon the church, and from that point on, it was like holding a tiger by the tail; no one knew what unexpected place the Spirit would take them next. But always it moved them toward people who had previously been excluded, outside the faith.
Thinking on this story, I recall the history of one church in a presbytery where I have served which has an interesting history. For the last couple of decades now, we have had resolution after resolution from presbyteries and General Assemblies, making various pronouncements on the need for church growth. Most are in favor, of course. “Presbyteries vote to grow by a margin of 3 to 1” might go the headline following one of these decisions. Problem is, Presbyterians for the most part, have not grown. All kinds resolutions passed by councils and presbyteries and hours of organizational planning don’t seem to be able to make it happen.
So along came a group of people in a small town who found each other over coffee or whatever, one thing led to another, and a few said, “Why don’t we get together for Bible study?” So they did. They discovered that many of them had been Presbyterians at one time or another, so they thought, “Why don’t we ask the Presbytery in our area to see if we can become an official church?” So they did.
Silly people. Didn’t they know that their town was too small to support a Presbyterian church? They had not done a feasibility study, they had not purchased ground for their church, they did not live in a town which would have an adequate population of potential Presbyterians who are, in late history anyway, generally around 1% of the population. In this and many other ways, the answer was, “No, your gathering cannot be a Presbyterian church.” They would have to remain outsiders.
 “OK,” thought these folks, “but let’s keep meeting for Bible study and fellowship anyway.” So they did. And so did quite a few others who wanted to join their happy company. Soon, no one could accommodate the whole group in their home. So they rented space. Finally they realized they needed to build space of their own. A retired Presbyterian minister was willing to organize worship services for them. So they did. Soon they were over a hundred people. They called the Presbytery officials again, who, to their credit, remembered the old adage that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, chances are it is a duck. They saw what was happening in that town, and uttered their own organizational version of Peter’s words to his questioners in Jerusalem: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Like it or not, we might have counted them out, but the Spirit counted them in!
J.B. Phillips is reported to have once said that the work of the Holy Spirit is frustrating to the tidy-minded.[1] This is never more in evidence than in the book of Acts, where the Spirit has disciples, willing or not, tearing around baptizing the most unlikely new believers anyone could imagine – in fact no one did imagine them as believers. No one, that is, except the Holy Spirit, who alone brings into being the power to love which makes disciples and builds churches.
A few years ago, I remember some conversation about starting a Spanish language Bible study in a church I was serving. The Hispanic community in town was growing rapidly. In a relatively short time, about 10 people were attending the study, led by one of our bilingual elders. Some people began to ask each other, “Where is this headed? Will we have Spanish-language services in the church some day? What will we do if the needs of some folks reach beyond the need for Bible study?” Well, of course, no one knew an answer to that question or others like it. But it was clear that fear was driving some of the questions. The church leaders hadn’t gotten all that far in their thinking. But they recognized early on that the plan and purpose for this was not really ours, after all. Sometimes in the church we begin not with strategies and organizational charts, but with simple surprise at who it is that shows up on our doorstep. Sometimes, we begin with the Spirit. Later we call in the constitutional experts to tell us what God has done and write a theology about it. But if we are led by the Spirit, it is important to keep things in their proper order.[2]
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the activities of the Holy Spirit among us don't scare us to pieces. Think how terrified Peter must have been when he set foot in the house of a Gentile army officer who possessed the power of life and death over him. Fear is not all bad. It means we recognize that we are risking something precious to us, whether it is our lives or our possessions. But do pray that the Spirit will be active within you and among us all here at 4300 Main Street. I urge you to pray for the Spirit’s presence and activity here. If you do, God will not fail to keep faith with you in the promises he gives you to make.

Copyright © Robert J. Elder, 2012

[1]Yet to the neat and tidy mind of the human planner few things could be more untidy historically than the entry of God into the world nearly two thousand years ago.” New Testament Christianity: 5 Ground for Hope. J.B. Phillips. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
[2] Here I am indebted  to William Willimon’s, article “Led by the Spirit,” from Christian Century.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jesus’ Prayer

Jesus’ Prayer

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2012
Mother's Day
John 17:6-19        

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

A friend of mine sent me a poem by Wendell Berry the other day, and since I can barely resist poems, and inasmuch as it is a poem entitled To My Mother[1], today, Mother’s Day, seemed like a good day to read it out loud for you.

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.

Not too long ago another friend of mine – a good poet in his own right, and a fellow pastor – recommended to me a recording of a poetry reading by Billy Collins. Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. I wondered how interesting a recorded poetry reading could be, but I was ashamed to have asked even myself that question after I listened to it the first time. I have listened to it many times since.

Anyway, Collins read one poem which I decided seemed almost custom-made for this passage about the protecting, mothering care of God through the gift of the name of Christ in the prayer that Jesus uttered in John 17. The title of the poem is The Lanyard.[2] In it, Collins remembers a craft project at summer camp years ago:

The other day ...
... I found myself in the “L” section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie, nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past —
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one if that’s what you did with them.
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

“And now we are even.” How often has that phrase passed human lips over time? Is being “made even” even a possibility in the world of human relationships? There is blessing in recognizing the reality that the deepest truth of our lives is not about being made even. It is about lives given to loving others with self-yielding and sacrificial love. It is about receiving the love of God that is high as the stars and deep as the oceans, a love that is as impossible to repay as it is to repay our great-grandparents for having had the wisdom to have given birth to folks who would one day be the parents who gave birth to our parents. It is a deep truth about loving others and not waiting for a payback. It’s not “Deal or No Deal,” a love like this. It is simply given. That is all. It’s not tit-for-tat, even steven, compromise, or even mutual indulgence. No, it is a love that gives, and finds all the blessing it needs hidden in the giving.

In his prayer in the 17th chapter of John, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them [meaning the disciples, or all those who call on Jesus’ name, or, by extension, us!] into the world.” As disciples, we are not saddled with a need to manufacture our own calling. This is an assuring word. The very nature of our faith is to carry it to others, and that faith is a gift given whether we actually perform as good disciples, ambassadors for Christ, or sit in our rooms and do nothing. The gift to us from Christ cannot be returned to him by anything we have to give. Our only options are to pass the gift along, or to do nothing. In either case, there is no payback, the gift is ours anyway, no strings attached.

Some of you – I suspect not very many of you – may know that the church I served for 20 years in Salem was chosen by the media people at the General Assembly offices in Louisville to host the videotaping of our Christmas Eve service, which was broadcast nationally by CBS television at 11:30 PM on Christmas Eve back in 2003 to an audience of a few million people. It was quite an experience for me and for the congregation, but that’s not the point of sharing this story. The next summer, in 2004, I was at a meeting of our denomination’s General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. That meeting was the last week of my service on the Council of the General Assembly, and I more or less lurked about during the week, bumping into a few old friends, looking in vain for ways to make my lame-duck self useful. Late in the week, I was standing in the rear of the assembly hall as the delegates worked their way through their business.

A young man walked by me and glanced at my name tag. He stopped, looked more intently at the tag, then at me, as though he disbelieved what the tag said. I even worried for an instant whether I had inadvertently picked up someone else’s tag by mistake. Then he looked me in the eye and asked, “You are Rob Elder, the Rob Elder?” as if I were someone of some significance, and not just another in a long line of lame duck council members, waiting another 24 hours before I could catch a flight home. He grabbed me by the hand and said, “Yours is the church that hosted the Christmas Eve service for CBS television last year, isn’t it?” I nodded, said that yes, that was me, er… us, whatever.

He proceeded to thank me profusely for the gift that service was to his church and to him personally. And he appreciated the theme of gifts that characterized the service. Then he said, “I especially appreciated the story about your father and the golf clubs he left behind when he died, the unexpected blessing they turned out to be for you.” I recall thinking, “Always remember to be careful what you say, you never know what people will hear!” He went on, “You know, my father died not too long ago, and I’ll never forget the last time we played golf together. He taught me how to play and I vividly remember carrying his clubs from the clubhouse for the very last time...”

And we went out of the hall to sit, and we shared a brief conversation about our fathers and what really is the meaning of gifts.

Michael Lindvall, a pastor friend and delightful novelist, once wrote, “Life together stretches us, pulls us, strains us, but in it we are nourished by the struggle itself. It is the best chance Providence gives most of us to grow out of ourselves and into something more like what we were meant to be. Life together is the welcome tether that kindly but relentlessly binds our ravenous egos. … The only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them…”[3]

God gave us Jesus Christ to save us. Jesus gave himself. We can’t thrust the gift back; as with my father’s golf clubs, there is no “back” where we can send such a gift. It is just there for us to deal with. We can look at it, use it, study it, maybe even try to make a lanyard or two to hang somewhere, but nothing we do will make us even, nothing will fully repay Jesus for his gift of himself to us, to the world. Our only option, if we are moved by a need to give back, to be even steven, is, as a friend of mine told me once, to avoid trying to “give back,” and instead “give forward.” It’s what stewardship, support of mission, support of ministries for children and young people in the church are about. It’s what we’re always yammering about in the church, drumming up enthusiasm for things we are often reluctant to do, especially if they involve giving away our money or our time or both.

Well, it’s no news to any of you that today is Mothers’ Day. This is always a difficult day for preachers, not because we don’t or didn’t have mothers or because we have something against them. It’s just that it’s a Hallmark holiday, not a liturgical one. Standing up to praise mothers on a given day is not difficult, we all know how important mothers are in the shaping of children. But we have, parading through the back of our minds on a day like this, words of the gospels such as these words from Matthew:

 “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, 'Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.' But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'”[4]

We recognize from this, not a sudden desire on the part of Jesus to disdain his mother, rather, we see a new idea of what it means to be family emerging in the very beginnings of the Christian church. It is because of this and other sayings of Jesus that early Christians referred to others who were not blood relations as “brother,” and “sister.” The familial nature of the church was meant to be understood as a sort of bond as strong, even, as any bonds we may have known in our own families. Jesus’ prayer in our reading from John speaks to this very thought:

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

This suggests what it means to be part of a family of faith. It means, both figuratively and literally, to be part of the family of God, and it is a big family, not confined to one household, to one church, to one congregation, one denomination, but part of the whole household of the family of faith wherever it gathers, and under whatever denominational name. To be one with this family is to be part of a big house, an immense family tree, an enterprise that is so much larger than we are, yet which so intimately values each one of us. That is the point of Jesus prayer for unity. It is the point of our gathering together any time, on any given day.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “To My Mother” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, Copyright © 1998.
[2] From Billy Collins Live, Random House Audio,
[3] Quoted by Lindvall from his own book in a sermon, “Can’t Live With ‘Em; Can’t Live Without ‘Em,” preached at the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, May 8, 2005..
[4] Matthew 12:46-50

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jonah, Whom God Loves

Jonah, Whom God Loves

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012

Jonah 3:10, 4:1-11

God’s mind changed about the calamity
that God had said would be brought upon [Nineveh];
and God did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

If we were challenged to do so, it would be difficult to conjure up a people that Israel hated any more than they hated the people of Nineveh. Theirs was the empire that in 721 B.C. had conquered ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and driven them into exile, from which they were never to return, referred to ever after as the “ten lost tribes.” The remaining two tribes in the south, in Judah, knew the Ninevites – we might recognize them more readily as Assyrians, Nineveh was their capitol city – to be despicable, murderous, rapacious conquerors.

After Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, was destroyed by Babylon, which was the next empire to come on the scene in the Middle East, in 609 B.C., Nahum, one of those seldom-read prophets of the Old Testament, devoted the entirety of his brief prophecy to bitter denunciations of the hundred year dominance of that cruel empire over Israel:

Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria;
your nobles slumber.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal.
All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?[1]

Saying all this still doesn’t make it seem very real, though, does it? Unless you happen to have a singular fascination with ancient history, it is all a sort of long ago, far away set of distant historical facts, not very much connected to our own times and lives. So it is difficult to see, much less to feel, the sort of rage that the character of Jonah represented on behalf of Israel in the story we have looked at on the four Sundays we have devoted to this quirky little book. But then imagine the way we might feel today if Germany had won World War II and we had just recently been freed from some 60 years of Nazi domination of our country. Think of words the supressed and oppressed populations in Somalia or Syria would have for those who this very day seek their extinction.

Who are the Ninevites today, both on the global and personal scale, in our international news and in our own neighborhoods? I know you are kind people, but if you can imagine the rage you might feel at people who had captured your neighbors, killed your family, and sought for years to do the same to you, what would you like to do to them? What sort of judgment from God do you believe they would deserve for their crimes against you?

Then, if you can, imagine that God called you to go to these very people and utter a word of God’s judgment, when you knew all the while that – since the Bible teaches that God’s character is merciful, always ready to forgive those who repent, and abounding in steadfast love – your bitterest enemies might experience the same forgiving love that God offers to you and me. Does the character of Jonah seem all that far away from the very sort of attitude we would be likely to have in the face of the possibility of forgiveness for our enemies? In hindsight, the Marshall recovery plan for Europe following World War II was a godsend to millions of people living amid the social and physical wreckage of war, yet historical accounts of that time record how difficult it was to convince a wounded nation that rebuilding our former enemies was in our own best interest. There was strong opposition in Congress at the time, some of whose members favored a return to isolationism and the sorts of policies to punish and impoverish former enemies that had followed World War I, the very policies which sowed the seeds of hopelessness that led to Germany’s turn to fascism and the second world war. Revenge can be a strong motivator, even if a suicidal one. If called on to announce a word which might lead to forgiveness and blessing, might we not have hopped the first freighter in the opposite direction had God asked us to go and prophesy to Charles Taylor in Liberia, or Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, or Adolf Hitler?

Many of you probably know that the recitation of the story of Jonah is an essential part of the annual Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, of course, is the Jewish day of atonement, a day when all Israel attempts to follow the stipulations of Leviticus 16, seeking to be cleansed before God. Reading or chanting the book of Jonah has been a part of the observation of Yom Kippur since the 2nd century. “On [that] sacred day, Israel lifts up as the model of repentance not itself, who is like the Hebrew Jonah resisting God, but the outsider: pagan sailors and especially penitent Ninevites. From the transformative deeds of these outsiders Israel learns accountability and responsibility. From the divine compassion that spares them, Israel finds reassurance about itself in relationship to God and learns compassion in relationship to others.”[2]

As Eugene Peterson once declared, “Jonah thought he had come to Nineveh to do a religious job, to administer a religious program. God had brought Jonah to Nineveh to give him an experience of amazing grace. The tables are turned: it is no longer Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, but the people of Nineveh preaching to Jonah – inviting him into a vocation far beyond anything he had supposed.”[3]

So in this last chapter of the little story of Jonah, we have the prophet sulking outside the forgiven city. He had announced the punishment which he and every other Jew knew to be Nineveh’s deserved fate, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But God had a desire to exercise the very nature of God’s character in Nineveh, the forgiving character of God that Israel had come to depend on: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city?” God’s purpose and plan, as always, far exceeded not only the prophet’s words, but his imagination. Just when our enemies have done something that so completely places them beyond our capacity to forgive, that is when God takes the extra step, walks the extra mile, offers the cloak as well as the coat, offers his body, broken for us, his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sin, hands over the last dime when there are no other dimes left.

Some preachers and other moralists among us stand in our pulpits, or before the cameras of our nationally syndicated religious talk shows, and wag an index finger at our listeners as we tell them to tidy up their morals, or pray more piously, or read more of the Bible in order to become more worthy of a God who is demanding and severe with those who fail to attend to God’s commands. Meanwhile, the God we meet in the book of Jonah is beckoning to us with both hands, welcoming the lost, the least of these, the one we knew to be our enemy, the dissolute and the drunken, beckoning them all to grace and mercy and salvation.

Why does God act this way? Why is the mercy of God at the same time the very welcome characteristic that saves us when we had presumed ourselves lost, and yet the unwelcome characteristic when we find our enemies included under the umbrella of that same mercy?

Jonah is a maddening little story, really, for those of us who keep little calculators inside our heads, toting up the goods that others receive, always comparing them to our own supply, which never seems to be enough. For after all the chuckles and tut-tutting we have had at Jonah’s expense these four Sundays, all our consideration of his willful disobedience as well as his unrelenting hatred of the enemies of Israel whom God sought to save, when we turn around to the mirror, we see that Jonah is us, smelling like the fish that swallowed us, still with that bit of seaweed dried onto our foreheads. We are the ones who struggle to find an umbrella large enough to keep God’s rain from falling equally on the just and the unjust.

“Even when we know that the blessings that come to us have been delivered to the wrong address, there are not many of us who will send them back. We thank God quickly and carry them inside. But when we look out the window and see the delivery man carrying an identical package next door, to those really unpleasant people who sit on their porch drinking beer after beer,”[4] playing their music too loudly until the wee hours, and whose children stray into our yard only to deposit debris which we have to clean up, that is something we tend to resent. We believe undeserved blessings are only supposed to go to the deserving, apparently.

In Jonah, we learn God does not give us what we deserve. And thank goodness for that. God gives not what we deserve but what we need. Grace is not fair, doesn’t know the word “fair,” that’s a human word, not a divine one.

How does the Jonah story end? We really don’t know. It has that enigmatic finish that you heard earlier:

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

Well, Jonah? Should I or should I not? Lots of people. Animals too. What do you say, is my concern, my mercy appropriate? Well, is it?

But we don’t know how Jonah responds. We can guess, but we don’t know. The story doesn’t supply his response. Why do you suppose that is?

I think we don’t know because, for a religious people, Jonah’s story is our story, and our own stories are not yet finished. Did Jonah turn back toward the loving mercy of God which had birthed and sustained Jonah and his people and which God now sought to extend to the world? Or did Jonah remain a prophet of petulance and pouting? Jonah cannot answer now, but we can. So how will it be?

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Nahum 3:18-19.

[2] Phyllis Trible, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII, Abingdon, 1996, p. 528.
[3] From the 1990 commencement message at Princeton Theological Seminary, “A Pastor’s Quarrel with God.” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, New Series, 1990, pp. 27-275.
[4] From “Ninevites and Ne’er-Do-Wells,” Gospel Medicine, by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley, 1995, pp. 91-95.