Monday, 02 August 2010 17:11

August 1, 2010 Sermon

“Jonah Bushed”
Jonah 4
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 1, 2010
University Baptist Church
First Congregational Church
Minneapolis, MN

We have reached the final of four sermons on the book of Jonah.  Who knew it was this complex?  Isn’t it just a story about a really hungry fish and a really humble servant?  That’s what the children’s stories tell us.  But this is not a story for children.  It is at least R-rated, maybe even worse than that.  It is a story of despair and angst.  It paints a picture of the most despondent person in the Bible.  And it contrasts poor pathetic Jonah with an ever-present and eternally patient God.  More about that in a minute.  Do you find yourself in this story?  I’m not talking about the fish adventure or the repentant cows.  I’m talking about Jonah when his life has become out of control.  When he is so caught in despair that he ceases to make any sense at all?  I venture to say that we have been there, done that.  When that happens, how do you get out?  That’s the question of this book that ends in a question.

As today’s scripture opens, despondent Jonah retreats in disgust up to a high hill above Nineveh.  He has just preached there, the shortest and worst sermon of his life.  His death wish continues.  He can’t stand the tinny music of the Great Ninevite Revival down below.  The happy-happy, joy-joy praise songs get under his skin.  It really bugs him that he had a part in their joy, especially when he was in such a bad mood.  When we’re really in a down place, another’s happiness grates on us.  That’s what Jonah seems like to me.  He’s hunkering down for 40 days.  Waiting for them to mess up.  See, I’ll prove you wrong.  I’ll prove that I’m right.  I’ll prove God wrong.

Jonah sits under his brooding tent.  He makes a lean-to out of twigs, but then God plants a bush that gives Jonah some shade.  Jonah is “exceedingly glad” for the shade.  It’s the only time he’s happy in the entire book.  He’s got some shade and he’s just perched waiting for his enemies to mess up so that he can be vindicated.  The enemies now include the repenting Ninevites and God.  Jonah takes pleasure in his creature comforts, but he’s not at all happy about the dreaded enemy Ninevites doing their repentance dance.  Do you see the irony?

Then the unthinkable happens.  Not the expected fallen repentance of the Ninevites, but the death of the bush.  That’s when he loses it.  All that pent-up anger boils over and he lashes out at whoever will listen, the bush, the make-shift shelter, the rocks, and of course God.

Jonah is blood-boiling mad.  That’s actually the tone of the Hebrew word translated as anger.  It’s actually more like rage.  Rage is scarier than anger.  Anger can be controlled or at least channeled.  Anger can motivate you to do some good things.  Righteous indignation can cause us to be creative.

My friend Randi Reitan got angry at Target’s endorsement of MN Forward, a conservative political action committee.  She was confused because Target has a good gay-rights record, having been a consistent sponsor of the Pride Festival and providing domestic partner benefits for its employees.  How it could give $150,000 to candidates whose statements on gay rights did not mirror Target’s earlier posture? Randi channeled her anger to do something creative in response.  She went to Target with a video camera bought items and then returned them, saying that she could not in good conscience shop at Target until they repented.  She cut up her Target card on camera and as of yesterday, it was viewed by over 151,000 people on Youtube.  Now whether or not you think boycotts are a good thing, you have to admit that her anger and her despair were channeled into a creative and effective response.

Churches are great places to channel righteous indignation into creative action.  I wonder what would have happened if poor Jonah had a circle of support around him.  Would he be so despondent, so out of control, so helpless, such a buzz-kill?  Jonah was a lone ranger and did not see the communities of support right around him, from the sailors to the Ninevites.

You see mere anger is not what Jonah had.  He had rage.  Rage is much more unpredictable.  It’s scarier.  It’s more base.  It’s dangerous.  It’s anger out of control and it too often seeks revenge of the violent kind.  It’s the kind of thing that makes people do crazy things, because it messes with your mind.  It is an altered state of consciousness, and not a good place to remain.  If you have ever tried to reason with a child throwing a temper tantrum, you know it’s not a good time to use logic.

Jonah’s rage is directed at God.  God did this to him.  And he wishes he was dead.  He actually has a death wish throughout the book.  Do you notice how many times he tries to commit suicide?  First he asks to be thrown overboard.  Then he preaches the word to Nineveh that he assumes will get him killed.  Each time God thwarts his plans and saves him.  Still Jonah is enraged: at God for not letting him die; at the Ninevites for having their noisy revival; at himself for being such a sorry sack; even at the bush.  When you get angry at a plant, then you know you’ve reached the tipping point.

Jonah accuses God of being slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—now there’s an ironic accusation.  Since this is the nature of God, Jonah knew God would save the Ninevites with or without Jonah’s help.

But the one to whom God shows the most patience is Jonah himself.

That is good news, friends.  No matter how much we mess up, how unworthy we are, how much we have strayed from God’s desires, God is always slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love.  God is the opposite of Jonah.  And God grants mercy to the whole world, even the despicable Jonahs of the world.

The question comes in this chapter over and over.  Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?”  Like Job despises the advice of his friends, Jonah hates the platitudes of “Don’t worry, be happy.”  “Trust in God and everything will be all right.”  Jonah was in a sad state and the chaos was something that he felt in his very skin.  He was doing something he didn’t want to do and he would not be comforted.  He didn’t want God’s pity.  He didn’t want the Ninevites’ repentance.  He just wanted the shade of a tree so he could relax.  Is that too much to ask?

Jonah says that he is justified in his anger and he is angry enough to die.  Misdirected anger is a death spiral.  Do you do well to be this angry, this enraged Jonah?

When you are this angry, this enraged, the only thing one can think about is getting even.  Making someone hurt as much as we have been hurt.  The problem is that when we hurt the other person, or ourselves, we seldom feel any better.  Do you do well to be this angry?  When you are this angry, have you lost some balance in your life?  What about the part of you that has compassion?  What about the part of you that can see a new future?  What about the part of you that has some semblance of faith?

Jonah’s rage blinded him to the good around him: his salvation from the waters by a whale; the transformation of the Ninevites; God’s protecting him when he’s in danger because he has spoken an inconvenient truth to the Ninevites.

We can get so caught in our rage that we don’t recognize the good people doing positive things around us: the folk who advocate for a just society; who give generously of time, talent and treasure in these two communities of faith; those who help resettle refugees, advocate for immigrant rights, practice restorative justice, buy and sell fair trade coffee, conserve energy and support others when they are down.  If you look only at the bad news, all you see is bad news.  God’s view is bigger and thankfully better than that.

The book ends with a question, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who don’t know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  Maybe that’s because the story is not about Jonah.  Maybe the story is about us.

We have run away from God.  We have done everything in our power to avoid doing the hard thing if it makes us unpopular or causes us danger.  We have run in the opposite direction.  Even when we are faced with the evidence of something better, we look for ways for things to fail.  We cynically think that there is insurmountable evil and that we are powerless to do anything about it.  We have felt alone, washed out to sea.  Even when we have been saved from the brink of despair, it doesn’t last as long as we need it to.  We go back to the familiar place.  Like Jonah, we have been pursued, spewed, pushed and bushed.

And yet, God is not done with us.  God is willing to rescue the most miserable of us: the awful sailors, the hated enemies of Nineveh, even Jonah himself.  Is our brooding and our faithlessness worth it?  Does it get us anywhere?  Isn’t there a better way to spend our best energy?  “I, God, show mercy and compassion on even the most unlikely of people.  Couldn’t I show mercy on even you—you hiding under the bush?”

What do you say, Jonah, shall we continue this despair bush dance, or shall we chart a new course?  The answer, of course is up to you.  It’s always up to you.

Thank you brother Jonah, for showing us a mirror of ourselves, and a window into the soul of God.  May we make the best choices and channel our energy and even our righteous indignation into worship and work that is pleasing to God and a blessing to our community.  God expects nothing less.