Mark 16: 1-8
There are some of us here, I am sure, whose English teachers were real sticklers about how we began and ended our essays. Well, some might think that Mark could have used such a teacher, because his beginning and ending are---quite frankly--- a bit disappointing. There’s no birth narrative in Mark, no dramatic scene of an angel making a scandalous announcement to a virgin, no angels filling the skies with glorious words of peace and good will, no wise men making a long journey to Jerusalem to worship the new born baby. Mark has none of this; he just begins at the beginning with “the good news of Jesus Christ.” And then there is the ending, which is our concern for this Easter Sunday. All Mark tells us is that after the two Marys had been told by a young man dressed in a white robe that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead to Galilee, the women fled, ”because terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And this (verse 8) is where the original gospel ended.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark never shows us the resurrected Christ. After his resurrection we never hear him utter one word or see him do one deed, and so in comparison with the other three gospels, Mark’s ending does seem disappointing, which is probably why someone later tacked on verses 9 to 19. New Testament scholars believe that this additional ending is a much later addition, perhaps centuries later, because the older versions of Mark simply do not have it. Someone thought the original ending needed work.
And we can understand why. Not only is the risen Christ absent, but also the two women at the tomb completely fail in their understanding. Though they were given some pretty clear instructions about what they were to tell the disciples, they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Afraid, because when the world does not work as expected, when the usual rules and procedures are overturned, we human beings often do respond in fear, which is why Jesus spent so much of his ministry telling people, “Do not be afraid; do not be anxious.” And, of course, when it comes to death and dying fear is rampant.
Now the people of Jesus’ day knew death far more intimately than we do, because while we are successful at pushing it away—into hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, or even in execution chambers, closed to the public, the people of Jesus’ day were intimate witnesses. They had seen Jesus suffer and die. They knew he was dead, and the women, who were the caretakers of the dead, knew the sight and smell of death. But they did not know what to make of the news that he was resurrected. They did not understand; they were clueless, and when we feel completely clueless, fear is neither uncommon nor inappropriate.
Don’t most of us feel pretty clueless when it comes to the resurrection? We are people, after all, who believe in and respect science. When someone dies, and we ready ourselves to attend a memorial service, we don’t expect to arrive and be told, “He or she is alive, risen from the dead.” Since the resurrection is so outside the realm of normal human experience, none of the four gospels attempt to describe it, so we do not know what or how it happened. What we do know is that after the initial shock and fear of Jesus’ arrest and execution, the same disciples, who had abandoned Jesus, came together and proclaimed that God had done something new in Jesus Christ. “He is risen,” they said, and from that proclamation, the church grew.
Though none of us can explain or describe the resurrection, we still struggle to interpret it, that is, say something about how it impacts human life in the here and the now as well as in the future. And to me the resurrection is all about the persistence of God. God persists, no matter what we human beings do or say. No matter how many times we reject God and the new creation, God does not reject or give up on us. In the crucifixion, we human beings said and say NO to God, but in the resurrection God says NO to our NO. God persists in love, and that is what the resurrection is all about.
About five years ago, my husband and I went to Poland for two weeks. Kaz, who is Polish, had been a student intern at my church in New Haven for three years, and we became very close. After graduation, he was called to a church in Massachusetts, and every summer he would return to Poland, where his parents and brother still lived. One summer he invited my husband and me to come, so we spent a week with Kaz and his parents, and then went on a guided hiking tour in southern Poland with an English hiking company. In mid week we had a day off, and since we had rented a car, we decided we would visit Auschwitz and Bikenau, notorious concentration camps. It felt to us like a kind of pilgrimage, something we owed to the victims of history. The night before our pilgrimage, we mentioned to our hiking group that we planned to go, and this one man, a retired teacher from England, asked us if we would take something he had written, and place it in one of the women’s bunkers. I have been to Auschwitz once, he said, and once is enough. I was hoping someone from our hiking group would be going. And then he told us the story.
“My 35 year old daughter had recently died of breast cancer,” he said, “and I was in the depths of despair. I simply could not get out of my depression, and one afternoon I was outside in my garden, looking at the blooming flowers, trying to embrace new life, when my neighbor, an elderly gentleman, came out of his home and joined me in the garden. We spoke for a while about the lovely weather, and because it was such a warm day, he had no jacket on, and for the first time, though I had lived next door to him for over 40 years, I noticed his arm with a number on it. I knew he was Jewish, and so I blurted out, “You were in a concentration camp? I asked in astonishment. You never told me; you never talk about it.
Why would I want to remember such pain and sorrow, he said. I lost my wife and my eight year old daughter at Auschwitz, and after they died, I had no will, no reason to live. One morning I refused to rise for my work detail. The guard was screaming at me, telling me to get up or I would be shot. But I didn’t care; death would have been a welcome release, but suddenly I felt this heavy push against my shoulder and then against my back and a voice in my brain, saying, “Get up and live. I will be with you.” And I did get up and live, and whenever I was tempted to give up, I felt this push and pull. I had no doubt it was God. God just doesn’t give up, my neighbor said to me, even when so many people around us, do, even in the midst of great evil or great pain. And so I survived; I have lived all these many decades; I married again and have three children, 7 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. That is my revenge against all that evil.
That man helped me as no one else could, the teacher said to me, and then he handed me the words he had written, a free verse poem, dedicated to the 8 year old daughter of his neighbor. And the name of the poem: “God Persists.”
God persists in love, even when we are tempted to hate.
God persists in mercy, even when we might rightly choose vengeance.
God persists to call us to new life, even when,
especially when our lives have been pulverized by an evil and sorrow so bitterly deep we cannot begin to understand or name it.
Yes, God persists in love, a deep heart wrenching love for the victim
And most appallingly of all, a deep heart wrenching love for the victimizer.
We cannot understand this.
We do not want to understand this: why God persists in this kind of tormented love.
And yet it is this love and mercy of God that move the universe and make all life new.
And so I placed the poem on one of the wooden bunkers in the women’s barracks and walked away, thinking, God persists. Indeed, this is what the resurrection of Christ is: the persistence of God’s love and mercy, even when, especially when we reject what God so graciously gives. God will not take our No for an answer.
Luke 22: 39-46
In recent decades there has been a great deal of theological reflection, even arguments about Jesus’ death. Why did it happen? Who or what needed it? We know the religious language that says, Jesus died for our sins, but what does that really mean? The Church has never offered a definitive answer to that question, and though throughout the ages, it has pondered multiple theories of the atonement, no one understanding or interpretation has ever been declared the official one. But in the western church with Rome as its capital the satisfaction theory became (for both Catholics and Protestants) the dominant one, which says that because human sin is so serious an affront to the majesty and justice of God, the whole human race deserves the punishment of eternal death, and satisfaction can only be made to God by the perfect human sacrifice. And so Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, the pure offering to God.
But what kind of God would need or demand the suffering and blood of an innocent human being to satisfy a notion of besmirched justice? Is it really God who requires the death, or is it human beings? Who cried out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Certainly not God, but human beings, who have a long history of hating the good and embracing evil. In the cross of Jesus, we see the revelation of human nature, saying NO to the love and mercy of God. Now thankfully and mercifully this not the whole story of our human nature, which is made in the image and likeness of God, but we do see in our own individual stories as well as in the stories of others how it is that human nature is often divided against itself and how the larger society participates in that division, sometimes making it worse, at other times working to heal what is broken and divided.
Some decades ago, when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I had this patient, Linda, a drug addict, who had five children, all born addicted, yet given up to the state, because there was no way she could care for them. And here she was pregnant again, neurologically impaired and bodily damaged from years of abuse. The doctors gave her but a few months to live. She was a month away from delivery, and obstetrics wanted to take the baby, because they did not think the baby could continue to survive in utero. Now Linda was a lot of things, but stupid was not one of them. She knew she would not survive any kind of surgery, and so she said, NO. One of the doctors was so angry he told he had to restrain himself from slapping her to the floor. I knew the feeling. I would not even take an aspirin when I was pregnant, and here this woman did not care what it was she put into her body.
It was Maundy Thursday, 1990, and I walked into Linda’s room with no expectations at all. I was not about to try to convince her of anything. I knew that was futile, and quite frankly it was simply my job to be present to her in all her agony and pain. So, when I pulled up a chair beside her bed, she suddenly looked up at me and asked, “Do you believe that part about the angel?” What part do you mean? I asked.
You know, she continued, when Jesus was in the Garden, facing death, wanting to throw that cup away, and it says that an angel gave him strength. Here, she said, handing me the bible, read it to me. And so I read, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will, but yours be done. Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” Linda suddenly interrupted, “That part about the angel isn’t in Mark or Matthew. I read them both, looking for the angel, but it wasn’t there. Why?”
I looked at Linda and did not know what to say. After all, I knew from seminary study that the line about the angel was a later addition in Luke, because in the earlier Lucan manuscripts, the angel is not there. And Linda was right; there was no mention of angels in Mark or Matthew’s account of Jesus in Gethsemane. But Linda was not interested in biblical criticism, and so I just looked at her and said, “I don’t know.”
But do you believe that part about the angel giving him strength? There was such a look of desperation on your face and the sound of desperation in her voice, and I, who court knowledge and rationality and harbor my own deep doubts about angels, simply looked at her and said, “Yes, I do believe.” I believe it too, she said. And then she closed her eyes and never said another word to me.
Later that afternoon Linda gave her consent to a surgery from which she would never awake. She died peacefully a few hours after her healthy, non-addicted baby girl was delivered, her doctor told me, with tears running down his cheeks in spite of his wanting to slap her a few days before. Her peaceful death was probably the most peace she ever had in her life, he said to me, and now let us both hope she has God’s peace, a peace the world could not give her and she could not give herself. After a moment of silence, he looked at me and said, “I hate it when a patient gets to me this way.” And then he walked away.
The gospel is a kind of lens, and when we put it on and look at life through that lens, we can see life more deeply, more truthfully and more compassionately than before. Jesus’ struggle in the Garden and his death on a cross are unique historical events with deep theological meaning, but the human themes of struggle and sacrifice are replayed again and again in human life, which is why the story still has so much power for us. God did not need or demand the death of Jesus, but we demand it and we need it, because in our blindness and stubbornness, we fail to see what is before our eyes: the love and mercy of God, which shows up especially in places we least expect to see it---in a Garden called Gethsemane, in a cross on Golgotha and in a hospital room in Stony Brook, New York.
Even after all these decades I still remember Linda, and so does God.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
John 12: 20-33
“We want to see Jesus.” That is the request made to Philip by some Greeks, who had come to the festival. They were Greeks, not Jews, and John’s gospel is very specific about that identity. The Greeks, of course, were known for their tradition of seeking wisdom, a tradition that had not only produced the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but also the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes. The Greeks had produced giants, and there is no doubt that western civilization stands on their shoulders. And yet with all that wisdom at their disposal, the Greeks came to see Jesus. They were looking for something more.
Now seeing Jesus in John means more than mere eyesight. To see Jesus means to know the truth deeply, to follow the one who promises full and abundant life. Alas, many came to see Jesus, but failed to see him. And let’s face it, that is our struggle as well. We see Jesus through the stories we know so well, and we catch glimpses of him as we live out our faith in small and even large ways. And because we realize that seeing Jesus is not always so easy, we come to church to hear and ponder his lessons in the hope and faith that we really will see Jesus---although there may be times in our lives when Jesus seems hidden or obscured. At times we may not be so sure exactly what or whom we are seeing.
There was such a time in my life when Jesus was overshadowed by a whole lot of questions that I could not answer. Oh, I had been raised in the church from the time I was a little girl, and I always loved the stories of Jesus, and even when I went off to college and read the great atheists like Fuerbach, Marx and Freud, I was remained impressed by Jesus. To me he was a great moral teacher, a spiritual genius, but, though I admired him, I no longer saw him as savior and redeemer. Yet I was curious about Jesus, very curious, and there are times in our lives when curiosity can lead us to places we never thought we would go. And so I enrolled in a course at Harvard University, taught by Harvey Cox, who then was probably at the height of his reputation, known by many outside the theological circle for his book, The Secular City. Today I cannot tell you what the name of the course was, or what books we read. What I do remember is one particular lecture and a story about the Lutheran theologian, pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I did not know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, and perhaps some of you do not know, but he is certainly one of the 20th century’s heroes of the Christian faith. Having grown up in an aristocratic and highly educated family, he shocked his parents when he told them he was interested in studying theology. The family, after all, was not at all religious. His father was a psychiatrist and professor; his brothers studied law and science, but his parents believed strongly that their children should follow their interests, and although they had strong misgivings about the church, they encouraged their son. And so Bonhoeffer studied theology, wrote two doctoral dissertations, and undoubtedly would have had a brilliant academic career---had the war not come.
Germany had a state church, and when Hitler came to power, all Lutheran clergy, whose paychecks were signed by the state, were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Many, of course, did so willingly, while others signed with great misgivings, and still there were those who would not sign at all. Bonhoeffer not only refused to sign, he also helped to establish a resistance seminary at which he taught until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937. Considering the taking of the oath to be an act of heresy, Bonhoefer insisted there is only one head of the church and that is Jesus Christ. There can be no pledge of absolute loyalty to anyone or anything except Christ. As a committed pacifist, he argued that the duty of the church is to stand with the victims, to work and pray for peace, and to love the neighbor as well as the enemy.
By 1941 Bonhoeffer had joined the anti-Nazi movement through the German military intelligence, which was seeking to overthrow Hitler. At first he did no more than bring messages back and forth between Germany and England. But finally, all participants---even those like Bonhoeffer, whose role was not directly violent---were asked to agree that if the opportunity should come, they would be willing to end Hitler’s life. Now this constituted a terrible religious crisis for Bonhoeffer, who did not believe God ever commanded murder or assassination, not even the murder of a murderer. He despised what Hitler represented, but he also believed that Hitler was loved by God. He did not know what he should do, and all his prayers brought him no resolution.
On one cold afternoon in 1943 the conspirators met in a tiny room. All stood in a circle, while a gun was passed around, and if you could accept the gun, you were in the plot. If not, you were out. “There is no shame here,” one of the men said. “There are deeply religious men among us whose consciences may not permit their participation in assassination.” Bonhoeffer stood in the circle and watched as the gun made its way toward him. One man took it; then the next and the next; someone stepped out, and the gun traveled to the next man. Soon it will come to me, Bonhoeffer thought, and still I do not know what I will do, what I must do, what it is God would have me do. When the gun came to him, he put out his hand and took it. “God,” he prayed, “if this is your will I need your mercy. If this is not your will, I need your mercy. Every moment of my life, I need your mercy.”
To this day I can still remember Harvey Cox, standing there, his voice quivering with emotion. When he had finished the sentence, “Every moment of my life, I need your mercy,” he was silent for what seemed like an eternity. And the class was silent too. What can be said after that, and I have no idea what was said. I cannot remember a thing, except my own feeling of deep gratitude that there had been someone who had lived on this earth during such a terrible time, a time, when millions were being slaughtered, a time one could legitimately ask, Where is God? What is God doing amidst this horror? And here was one who answered not by seeking certitude, but by asking for mercy. I was barely 25 years old, and I was struck to the very core of my soul. Bonhoeffer showed me a new way of seeing Jesus.
We live in an age, where certitude is often embraced as strength and ambiguity and uncertainty are dismissed as the tools of the weak and confused. The common wisdom is that uncertainty and ambiguity lead to inaction and confusion, and so many people, all across our globe, are drawn to religions and politics, which offer certainty, the knowing assurance of God’s will. But consider again Bonhoeffer’s words: “If this is your will, I need your mercy; if this is not your will, I need your mercy. Every moment of my life, I need your mercy.”
It was not the certainty of God’s will, which led Bonhoeffer to act, for he realized that neither he nor any other human being could claim that certainty. Rather, it was the conviction of the universal need for mercy, which finally gave him the courage to act, to take upon himself the responsibility for his decision. He picked up the gun, not seeking God’s approval, but acknowledging his need for mercy.
Bonhoeffer never claimed his decision to take the gun was the right one. On the one hand his conscience remained committed to pacifism, and yet he acted against conscience, although as a Lutheran Martin Luther’s words must have rung in his ears: It is neither right nor prudent to act against conscience. But living with a clean conscience may not be the ultimate religious goal. Bonhoeffer’s life and death remind us that God calls us to act not with certainty but with faith—not faith in the rightness of our actions and the purity of our conscience, but faith in the love and mercy of God.
In today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah, we see an Israel, who has forsaken the covenant and broken the law time and time again. Nonetheless, through the prophet Jeremiah the people are told that God will make a new covenant, written upon the heart. We Christians see the new covenant in Jesus Christ, whose lifting up on the cross neither saves us from the responsibility of our decisions and actions, nor gives us the definitive answers about what we must do or what we must believe. The Greeks told Philip, “We want to see Jesus”, and we too want to see Jesus. But when we see him, really see him, we are not then given a list of absolute beliefs to which we must consent, but rather we come face to face with the cross, with the agony and challenge of decision and responsibility. We see, desite the horror, what the mercy and love of God really look like---nothing like our meager attempts at self-justification. Remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: Every moment of my life I need your mercy. And so we do.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
John 2: 1-11
I know what time is, said St. Augustine, but if someone asks me to explain it, I cannot. Well, how many of us could explain time? Though we have the benefit of 1600 years of scientific advancement, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, which says that as we approach the speed of light, time actually slows down and if we could exceed the speed of light, we could reverse the flow of time—go back to the future, nonetheless, the concept of time boggles our minds and imaginations. We don’t so much understand time as experience it. We know time not in theory, but in practice. We mark time by recalling the faces no longer among us. We look into the mirror, and notice the inevitable signs of ageing. We watch our children grow up and leave home, go to college, perhaps later marry and have children. And then our grandchildren arrive and grow up. Where does the time go? That was a question one of my kids asked me, when he was 3. Where does time go? He went through this phase, when he insisted on taking a loud ticking clock to bed every night. Mommy, he said with great excitement, now I can see time and hear it!
Time: there is something about it, which fascinates human beings, including a three year old. I remember as a college sophomore, taking a class in social psychology, where one of the psychologists we read was Abraham Maslow. Maslow was the psychologist of self-actualization, who said that the primary project of human beings is to discover their gifts and talents and then use them, actualize them for the benefit of the world as well as the self. But what I best remember was the comment he made about time. Time, he said, is what makes human love possible. Time is what makes our choices and decisions count for something. And then he gave the example of the Greek myths, the gods and goddesses whose love affairs among themselves were boring--- until one of them fell in love with a human being and time entered the picture. Since time means limits---not everything can be done--- the decision to do this and not that, to love this one and not that one means something. And so the immortal gods would learn from human beings that time has a meaning which cannot be found in eternity. Yes, time matters, and because it does, it should not surprise us that the theme of time finds its way into the Bible. The Bible is filled with human concerns and questions, and one of the big questions is how to tell time, how to tell the right time.
When I was a seminary student in Boston, I did some clinical training at Deaconess Hospital, where I met this crusty old Irish Catholic priest, who would come to visit patients. The first question he asked me was if I knew how to tell time. That is the most important lesson in life, he insisted, to learn how to tell what time it is in your life, because if your timing is off, you will be off. I learned a great deal from that man. One of my patients was a 32 year old woman, who had been battling cancer for 4 years, but was nearing the end. I’m done, she told her husband. No more treatment. I can’t do it anymore. The battle is over. You’re a coward, he screamed. A damned coward and a quitter. Charging out of his wife’s room, he ran straight into the priest, who was coming to visit his wife. Very calmly he placed his hands on Mark’s shoulders, and looking him squarely in the eyes, he asked him one question: Do you know how to tell time? There was a painful, protracted silence, followed by some sobs, and then Mark walked back into his wife’s room and gave her the permission she wanted and needed: the permission to die. The time had come.
Our scripture lessons for today present us with two different understandings of time. From the book of Ecclesiastes, we have the familiar words: To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born, a time to die. These words from the Preacher, who most likely was not a Jew, came from a world, where time was understood to be circular, a repetitious cycle of birth, death, decay, and rebirth. The seasons come and go; the earth brings forth its fruit, the plants wither and die, and new ones appear. The generations come, the generations go, and the earth endures. Admittedly, there is comfort in such a view; what has been will be again. But there is also a kind of ennui, a boredom and despair that sees nothing new under the sun. And indeed, the reading this morning from Ecclesiastes should not be read without remembering the refrain, which is repeated over and over again throughout the entire book: Vanity of vanity, all is vanity, a mere striving after the wind!
In a part of the world that understood time as an ever repeating cycle, how extraordinary that the Jews would develop another view of time! Time, they insisted, is not a repeating cycle, a mere striving after the wind. No, time moves toward a goal, and the goal is God's kingdom. Time is not simply chronos, ordinary time, clock time, but time is also kairos, divine time, when God breaks into ordinary time, breaks into human history, and transforms it into something new.
And this is what our text from John is about: the new thing God is doing in time and history. As I said, we human beings always want to know what time it is. Is it the right time----the right time to marry, to have a baby, to move or change jobs or retire, and Jesus, being fully human, was also concerned with this question. Is it the right time for him, the right time to begin his ministry, the time when God would transform the ordinary moment into an extraordinary one? Indeed, is it the right time? Notice that his mother seemed to think it was, but then mothers often do. They often push and prod their children to move. But when Jesus’ mother attempted to push him, he turned to her and said, “My hour has not yet come.” The time, in other words, is not yet right. What is going on here?
Well, a wedding is going on, and in ancient Israel a wedding lasted at least a week. It was a time of celebration and heavy drinking! And then the wine gave out. To be out of wine would be a deep embarrassment for the host. The rules of hospitality were such that the provision of food, drink and shelter was at the center of what it meant to be a good Jew. To fail in the rules of hospitality was to fail in one's religious obligation---no small matter.
Secondly, wine was at the center of Jewish religious life. Rituals in the home and the temple were conducted using wine, and so to be without wine was to lack an essential religious tool. It would be of grave concern not only to the host, but also to everyone present. And yet, when Jesus’ mother told him that the wine was gone, his response was, "What concern is that to you and me? My hour (my time) has not yet come." Now such a statement would be heard as not only uncivil, but also religiously insulting, tantamount to saying, "I don't care if we can be Jews." And what does his mother do? She doesn't scold him for his lack of civility, which is what we might expect. Turning to the disciples, she simply says: Do whatever he tells you. And the result was: the man who had just claimed that his hour had not yet come initiates his ministry by performing the very first miracle the Gospel of John records. Click. The time had come.
What happened? Why did Jesus change his mind? Why had his hour suddenly come? We don’t know. The writer doesn’t explain. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is always presented as one who is certain of his destiny---no doubts or hesitations. He even went to the cross with no fear or trembling, unlike the other Gospels in which he begs for the cup to pass from him. And indeed some people believe that this is how Jesus was---always confident of his path and his identity, a man so empowered by God he had no real struggles. But I don’t think that is how it always was for Jesus. Remember that the Gospel is written looking backward, from the perspective of the resurrection, but that is not how Jesus lived his life. He had to live it like you and me, moving forward into the unknown. He had to risk a decision, like you and me, without knowing for sure what the future would bring. He acted in faith, made a decision in faith that God would make of his time the right time.
And so we too are called to act in faith. We too wait and hope for the right time, the right moment. We want a sign, the assurance that things will work out. But such assurances are rarely given. Consider some of the important decisions you’ve had to make---marriage, career, children, moving, consenting to an operation that might save you or perhaps kill you. Did you ever know what the outcome would be? We ponder, think, consider and pray, and then we move ahead. We risk the hope that this is the right time. And sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not. We cannot know beforehand, and sometimes we cannot even know after the fact. As Jesus was dying did he really know how it all would turn out? Did he really know what God would make and continue to make of his magnificent defeat? I doubt it; all he could do was trust. Into your hands, I commend my spirit, he said.
And we can do no better than that. Trust---trust that something new may happen, trust that something good is in store for us, trust that the time is right. Our trust is not perfect, but even imperfect trust is trust. And so let us trust, trust one another, certainly, but even more importantly, let us trust God, the God who says that our time is not wasted; our time is not lost, because our time is in God’s time. God participates in time, and sometimes God pours down God’s blessings and makes our time the right time.
Psalm 22: 1-5; 25-31
Mark 8: 31-38
A clergy friend of mine once commented that life is made up a long string of moments, but some of those moments stand out, taking on great significance, as when an Olympic skier, readying herself to compete for the Gold, said, “This is my moment, my time.” Jesus also had his moment, his time---a relatively short one at that, only one year of ministry according to the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and three years according to John’s Gospel. Here we are in the 8th chapter of Mark, where we hear Jesus pointing to the deep significance of his approaching death, a death, which has proven to be history changing far beyond anything Peter could have imagined at the time. None of Jesus’ disciples could have possibly understood the full significance of his life and death, and even after 2000 years his impact is still being pondered. We are never finished wrestling with the questions Jesus puts to us and the ways Jesus might change us---change us not only in our personal lives, but also change us in history.
Now February is Black History Month, when we not only remember and celebrate Black Americans who contributed to our American story, but we also wrestle with a painful past that in so many ways is still with us. Imagine Peter looking back at some of his behavior, sometimes shameful behavior, but shame is not where he remained. He grew, he changed and his understanding would widen the compass of his faith so much that he would finally be martyred for his faith. Yes, Peter changed. His faith changed, and indeed, that is one of the great lessons of life: change happens. And sometimes the change is painful as it was in Little Rock, Arkansas.
When Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas opened its doors in September, 1927 the New York Times reported that it was the most expensive public school ever built in the nation, costing at the time 1.5 million dollars. Housing over 100 classrooms with a capacity for 3000 students, Central was named by The American Institute of Architects as the most beautiful high school in America with its four gorgeous classical statues, representing Ambition, Opportunity, Preparation and Personality, gracing the front portals. At its opening, 1800 students crossed its threshold, and as the decades followed more than more students would come---some from outside the district, because Central High was one of the nation’s top high schools.
Fast forward 30 years from 1927 to 1957. Central would be in the news again, but this time as a symbol of racial bigotry and hate as well as courage and faith. That was the year the Little Rock Nine attempted to integrate Central High. Those kids were brave, no doubt about that, but sometimes youth is brave because their idealism shields them from the knowledge of the depths of danger. If these nine youngsters were brave, consider for a moment their parents---brave, yes, but also extraordinarily faithful. Now we are a little over a week away from a terrible shooting in a Florida high school, and over and over again we hear the insistence that schools must be safe places---a no brainer---except if you were the parents of one of those nine kids, who integrated Central High.
Make no mistake about it: those parents knew the danger; they understood how ugly and murderous racism could be, but their faith recognized and believed that God acts and acted in all aspects of life, including politics, and so they sent their children into a situation that I daresay most of us sitting here today would not do. And they did it not because they embraced a naïve faith that believed God would protect their children. No, they did it, because this is what they believed God was calling them to do. And if one of those kids had died; if all of them had been killed in the battle to integrate, they would have seen the deaths not as God’s will, but as a thwarting of God’s will and the price one sometimes pays for picking up the cross and following Jesus. They were not expecting a faith with no suffering, but they knew in the smithy of their souls that God was on a march in and through their history, leading them on a great and righteous struggle for freedom, justice and equality. And when God acts and God calls, these parents believed they had a responsibility to answer, even if the costs were high.
On the morning of September 4, 1957 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford was both excited and nervous on her first day at Central High. She wanted to be a lawyer, and she, like the other eight students, who tried to integrate the school that morning, was chosen by Little Rock’s School Board, because of academic promise as well as strength of character. On that morning Elizabeth’s father was nervously pacing in front of the television set as he watched the convergence of National Guard troops and angry citizens at Central High. “Turn the television off,” his wife commanded. “We need no fear in this house. We need prayer.” And pray the family did, gathering around Elizabeth and asking for God’s protection, mercy and love. Elizabeth’s family was poor and did not own a telephone, so she never received the change in instructions. Rather than meet at the school, the students were told to meet at the home of Daisy Bates, head of the Arkansas NAACP. There the students would be met by a group of white and black clergy, who would accompany them to school. But Elizabeth knew none of this.
As she approached the school’s front door, she saw and heard angry crowds, screaming that she would not be allowed to enter. Nervous she certainly was, but seeing the National Guard troops by the doors, she thought they were there to help her. And so moving forward, she was shocked to hear, “You will not enter this school by order of Governor Orval Faubus.” She tried another entrance with the same result, and so she had no alternative but to walk away. Calmly walking down the street, she was followed by an angry mob, some screaming the N word at her, while others taunted they would be getting a rope, since there were many accommodating trees along the path.
As Elizabeth walked, click, click, click went the camera of Wilmer Counts, Jr., who had been a student at Central High some years before, where he had been inspired by one of his teachers to pursue photojournalist as a career. While other reporters that day had their fancy cameras grabbed and smashed, Wilmer’s small camera escaped notice, so he recorded for all the world to see the story of Elizabeth’s courageous walk. One of those images—a white female student, face contorted with hatred as she screamed the N word at Elizabeth, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in photography. Another picture he took that day of a black reporter by the name of Alex Wilson being beaten by a white mob prodded the President of the United States to send troops to Arkansas. When President Eisenhower saw the photo and heard how Wilson refused to run, even when the crowd screamed at him, “Run, Nigger, run,” Eisenhower said. “I must do something.” Two days later the 101 Airborne Division arrived in Little Rock to help integrate the school.
Elizabeth’s walk that morning ended at a bus stop, where she sat on a bench, waiting for a bus to take her away. She did not wait alone. A local woman by the name of Grace Lorch shamed the crowd for torturing a child, who wanted nothing more than an education, and a reporter for the New York Times, Benjamin Fine, sat next to Elizabeth on the bench and advised, “Don’t let them see you cry.” And Elizabeth did not cry until she arrived at the school for the blind, where her mother taught. Throwing herself into her mother’s arms, both mother and daughter wept---wept for themselves, wept for their city, state and country, wept for all the Christians, who were confident that segregation was God’s will, and finally, they wept for God, who was suffering with, for and from God’s people. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who would march many times for Civil Rights, once said, “Faith begins when we feel sorry for God.” Elizabeth and her mother felt that sorrow.
And so did many others. Will Campbell was one of the white clergy who accompanied the other eight students to school that day. Like Elizabeth, they too were denied entrance. Standing directly beneath the classical statues, Campbell shook his head and said, “Weep, Christians, weep.” By the fall of 1958 the segregationists managed to close all the high schools in the city in order to circumvent integration.
Shameful yes, but shame did not have the final word not only for the city schools, which were, finally integrated, but also for Hazel Bryan, whose contorted face Wilmer Counts had recorded on film, making her the poster child of hatred. Some years ago, Hazel called Elizabeth and apologized for her hateful deed. “My life,” she said, “has been more than that one moment.” Once again Wilmer Counts was there to click his camera, showing the two women, standing together in front of Central High, gazing pensively away from the school, the one perhaps thinking to herself, Where did I get the courage that day, and the other possibly wondering, From where did that hateful demon come, and how was it that I was finally delivered?
Life is indeed more than one moment. In one moment a 19 year old in Parkland, Florida, shot an assault weapon and slaughtered 17 people; in another moment students would stand tall and vow, Never again. In one moment Peter would reject the sufferings of Jesus and Jesus would call him Satan, and yet other moments would come, including one in which Peter denied Jesus and another in which he would be executed as Jesus’ disciple. More than one moment makes a life, and when one or some of those moments proves to be redemptive, we grab on to it, giving thanks that the redemption has come in whatever form it finally takes. And yet we never know how or when it will come, but faith would have us wait for it, hope for it and yes, even work for it.
Genesis 3: 1-7
Mark 1: 9-15
I have known Loren for over 26 years, and he has been one of my teachers. I first met him in 1992, when he came to the church in Middletown to get a Thanksgiving basket. I became acquainted with his mother, an addict, who taught Loren how to steal to help support her habit, and his brother and sister, also addicts and also in and out of prison. Over the years I visited him in a lot of different prisons, and then he would call me (collect) from prison. I was, after all, the only person he knew with enough money to accept his collect calls. Well, there was this one conversation, when he became very frustrated with me, accusing me of not understanding. “You don’t know,” he said, “what it is like to be tempted---to be tempted to steal food, because you are hungry, tempted to do drugs to block out all your painful thoughts and feelings, tempted to steal a wallet, so you can pay your rent. If you have any temptations at all, he sneered, there are probably no serious consequences to them. And if there are no real consequences, then there is no real temptation. Now Loren is no theologian, but he actually knew what the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, knew, who said that the worst temptation of all is to have no temptations. Loren forced me to stop, think and consider the question: what really tempts me? What really tempts you?
Now I have to admit that although there are things in Mark I love, Mark is not my favorite gospel, because it is too compact for my taste. I like more words, certainly more details, and this is not something we get in Mark, like in today’s reading, where we have a very shortened version of Jesus’ temptation, when compared with Matthew and Luke. Mark gives us no dialogue between Satan and Jesus; we never hear from Mark what the nature of Jesus’ temptations were. But even in a few sentences Mark gives us a depth of meaning---though we have to do a lot of digging to get at it.
The first thing we should note is that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan. Think about that for a moment. Jesus has just come out of Jordan’s muddy waters and declared to be God’s beloved Son. But there was no basking in that identity, no time for Jesus to reflect, because immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Jesus was not pushed or pulled there by bad people, not even by Satan. He did not go there because he decided on his own to do so. No, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, and it was there that he would face Satan and be tempted for 40 days and nights.
So what do we make of the Spirit, who drives Jesus to the place, where he will be tempted? It does not seem like a very spiritually supportive thing for the Spirit to do, does it? Aren’t we rightly suspicious of people who drive their friends or others to places of temptation? What if someone has a problem with alcohol, and his or her friends drive her to a bar. Is that really what a friend should do? And do we not each week pray the Lord’s Prayer Lead us not into temptation. But in this reading it is the Spirit, who drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he will meet temptation. Why?
Martin Luther once said that Christians make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is the most admirable man. Well, Luther said, you can admire him, but not without pitying him, because he was the most tempted of all human beings, tempted not only in his humanity, but also in his divinity, tempted to grasp at his God-identity in such a way that his humanity would be overcome by his divinity. And that was a terrible struggle, a struggle none of us would ever want to face. Furthermore, we should never make the assumption that temptation is ALWAYS a sign of weakness. On the contrary, we are not tempted to do what we cannot do, but rather what we can do. The testing is often one of strength, and the stronger one is, the greater the temptation. As someone once said, “You do not have a sea storm in a puddle.” So Jesus’ temptations were certainly real and certainly great, but like all temptations, they were also deceptive.
Consider how Satan is in the habit of making his appearance. How does temptation usually come? It isn’t that an actual demonic figure appears and says, “Here I am to tempt you.” Rather evil often appears as a friend, which is why later in the gospel, when Simon Peter rejects the idea that Jesus would suffer and die, Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” While Peter thought of himself as Jesus’ friend, one who would, of course, not want to see him suffer and die, Jesus saw Peter’s resistance to the hard truth of suffering and death as a sign of Peter’s alliance with Satan. When the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden, he did not say, “Do you wish to become like me, the serpent,” but rather, “If you eat the fruit, you will be as God, knowing good and evil.”
The most serious temptations are NOT invitations to debauchery, but rather invitations to great heights. Debauchery is obvious, lacking in subtlety; we know what it looks like and where it leads. It is a fall, and it does ruin lives. But it is not as spiritually dangerous as the fall that comes from grasping at greatness. Consider the myth of Satan’s fall. He was not tempted by debauchery, but by godliness. He wanted to be like God. He was the best and brightest of the angels---the star Lucifer was his name, but he wanted more, and so he fell---fell, according to the genius of Dante’s Divine Comedy, into a block of ice, upside down, unable to move, unable to change and grow. And if that is not hell, I do not know what is.
Consider now the place of Jesus’ temptation, the wilderness. We imagine wilderness as a harsh, uncharted land, a place of danger and vulnerability that challenges our physical and mental strength. But the wilderness is also the place where great things happen. God did not appear to Moses in the familiar territory of Midian, where he lived with his wife and kept flocks for his father in law. No, God appeared to Moses in the wilderness. unfamiliar territory. The wilderness is also the place where the Israelites wandered for forty years, tested and tried that they might become God’s covenantal people. The wilderness was the place where the Jewish identity was formed. They were not finished products even after coming through the wilderness, but they had a far better sense of who they were and who they were called to become---though time and time again, they would forget. So while the wilderness is a tough and frightening place, the ground of testing, it is also a holy place, a place of meeting and making.
And so too was it that for Jesus, the place his identity was being formed. Though not yet a finished product when he emerged from his battle with Satan, he knew more about himself and his God after than he did before. And he would continue to learn, even as he would continue to be tested. Jesus would be finally stripped of everything, and even his God, according to Mark, would abandon him, and then in abandonment he would find and be found by God. This is the paradox of the cross: the love of God is most profoundly present in what appears to be love’s absence.
But this is not something Jesus knew when he was first driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He would first have to learn and experience other things, including wild beasts and angels.
We should not be surprised by the presence of wild beasts in the wilderness. Isn’t that what we are afraid we will find there? And since Mark pairs the wild animals with the angels, it would make sense to interpret the wild beasts as the opposite of angels, forces against which Jesus had to do battle. But Mark may have something else in mind here. Rather than fearful beasts, Mark may be alluding to the idea of a peaceable kingdom, where as Isaiah puts it: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. This is the healed creation, where discord and disharmony are overcome. Mark’s intention here may be to point toward the new creation that is now breaking in through Jesus as the Christ.
And the angels, who cared for Jesus, symbolize Jesus’ intimacy with God. Angels in the bible are often the point of contact with God, as in the dream that Jacob had of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Those angels were Jacob’s contact with the divine, and here Mark is hinting that Jesus is our contact with God.
We Christians call Christ the new Adam, the obedient One, who repairs what Adam and Eve have broken with their disobedience. When the couple was expelled from Eden, an angel was placed at the east of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword guarding the way to the tree of life. In Jesus as the Christ the guarding angels are gone; instead they serve him who is the way to full and abundant life.
Together the angels and wild beasts tell us that a new beginning is dawning. When his time of testing was over, Jesus left the wilderness and his ministry began. Satan, however, is not finished---not finished with Jesus, not finished with us. Though Mark does not tell us Satan will return, Luke’s gospel does. Luke writes, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” That opportune time would come later, and what a time, what a struggle it would be.
Mark 1: 21-28
A few years ago I heard about a study at the Yale Center for Child Development, which showed babies animated pictures of a doll hitting and throwing another doll. The babies, I think, were one year or a few months under, and when you look at the video, you can actually see the signs of distress on the babies’ faces, when they were watching the bad doll hurting another doll. When an exact replica of the doll that had been abused was handed to a baby, he or she tenderly held the doll, showing a noticeable level of empathy. But, when a replica of the bad doll---that is, the doll, doing the hitting, was handed to the babies, most of them reacted by hitting the bad doll or throwing it away. The expression of the babies’ faces was certainly one of disapproval. One of the conclusions drawn by the researchers is that there could be an internal moral sense that is there from the very beginning, and though it requires education and discipline, there is something in human beings that recognizes bad or evil behavior even in infancy.
Recognizing what is good and evil is essential for our survival, and yet the human condition is such that we so often miss or misinterpret what is before our eyes. How is it, for example, that whole societies have missed signs of evil? Why was Hitler not recognized as the evil force he was, when early on, his speeches were laced with hatred? How could our own nation, founded on the principle all men are created equal, not only have tolerated but also embraced slavery and still struggles with racism? Furthermore, is not that word men in the Declaration of Independence problematic, since women needed more than the 13th and 14th amendments to get the right to vote, and even today, there are many who do not recognize sexism as evil. So while babies might recognize evil in a doll that hits, we all realize that human beings do not have an undifferentiated view of evil, which is why such issues as war, abortion and torture continue to elicit controversy even among Christians, who are all called to see reality through the lens that is Jesus Christ. Yet, when we look at the reality, we do not all see the same thing or understand it in the same way.
Now today’s reading from Mark’s gospel gives us some ironic perspectives on the recognition of good and evil. Jesus had just begun his public ministry in Capernaum after calling his first disciples. Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, the text tells us that he taught them “with authority and not as the scribes.” We are not told how Jesus’ teaching differed from the scribes; we are not even told what his teaching was. Though Mark tells us all throughout his gospel that Jesus did a great deal of teaching, he tells us much less about the actual content of the teaching than do Matthew and Luke.
While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit entered. We do not know what this unclean spirit was, perhaps some form of mental illness or maybe even epilepsy---but whatever it was, it was something that people back then understood as evil, in the sense that it was seen as contrary to God’s will and intention. Notice who immediately recognized Jesus’ identity as the “the Holy One of God.” It was the unclean spirit, who understood that Jesus had come to destroy what is evil. And what was the first step in this destruction? It was the silencing of the demon. “Be silent,” Jesus commanded, “and come out of him.”
We are only in the first chapter of Mark, and this is already the second recognition of Jesus’ true identity. The first was at Jesus’ baptism, when a voice from heaven recognized him as the beloved Son, and the second recognition is this one by an unclean spirit. There is irony here, which appears throughout Mark’s gospel, and it concerns who is able to recognize Jesus. It is often an unclean spirit or a demon, or an outsider---like a Roman soldier, who at the death of Jesus, recognizes who he is. In today’s lesson the astounded people in the synagogue were clearly impressed by Jesus’ teaching, but being impressed is not the same thing as recognizing who he is.
The recognition of Jesus calls for a radical response--- for or against. And the unclean spirit realized that it must be against Jesus, because Jesus had indeed come to destroy it. Jesus had come to take away its terrible power to do harm to this unfortunate, suffering man. “Be silent, and come out of him,” Jesus commanded, and the spirit obeyed, but not without a terrible struggle, crying out in a loud voice and causing convulsions to the man. It is all high drama, making the point that Jesus has authority even over the unclean spirits. And ironically that authority was first recognized not by the people who were impressed by Jesus, but by the evil spirit who was against Jesus.
What does it mean that the good, the Holy One of God, is immediately recognized by that which is contrary to the goodness and holiness. In Mark’s gospel Jesus’ disciples don’t have a clue about whom Jesus really is; they appear at times almost stupid in their lack of understanding. And yet the demons know what the disciples do not. Why? Well, first of all, evil is often defined as a corruption of the good, and so evil has within itself a knowledge of what has been lost and corrupted. If we consider the mythology of the fall, the story of Satan, we learn that Satan was once the shining star, Lucifer, the light of the angels, and yet he fell. There really is no explanation for this, for his jealously of God, but what we also see in Satan’s story is that he desired more corruption, and so in the book of Genesis, we have the serpent masterminding the fall of Adam and Eve.
Now the story of Adam and Eve is not actual history; it is myth, giving us deep insight into human life, but in history, in actual human life, we do see what can happen when evil confronts the good. If it cannot corrupt the good, it will work to destroy it. We see this most profoundly in the death of Jesus, but we also see it manifested in other places in history.
Now I have told some of my friends that if I could turn into someone else for 24 hours, I would not choose someone extraordinarily good or noble, but on the contrary I would choose someone evil, because when it comes to truly dastardly evil, my imagination simply fails me. I can imagine great goodness, even if I cannot do it, but I cannot understand or imagine what the world must look like to one who would order the slaughter of innocents—such as the Jewish Holocaust or the murder of Muslims by Milosovich in the former nation of Yugoslavia. The love of evil, the desire to destroy other human beings simply escape me.
Roland Freisler was President of the People’s Court in Nazi Germany. He was so corrupted that he had this evil drive, a kind of instinct, to go after innocence and youth. When the hard core resistance fighters would come before Freisler, of course, he gave them the death sentence, but he did not play with them. Oh he hated them, as evil always hates the opposition, but their lack of naivete did not bring out the same level of malevolence whenever he confronted youthful idealism or innocence. He loved to watch their reactions as they slowly began to realize that their lives actually did hang in the balance. Initially it did not occur to these accused that what they considered trivial actions would be punished by death.
There was this young woman, barely 21, Marianne Elise Kurchner, who landed in Freisler’s court for telling a joke at the munitions factory where she worked. The joke went that Hitler and Goring (head of the SS and second in command after Hitler) were standing atop the Berlin Radio Tower and Hitler told Goring he wanted to put a smile on the faces of Berliners. And so Goring said, Why don’t you jump? Apparently a co-worker reported her, and she ended up in court, having no idea that her life was under threat. Freisler took this perverse pleasure in playing with her, asking her questions about her life. And she told him that her husband had recently been killed in the Eastern Front, and she was so distraught that she had been unable to laugh or smile. And so this horrid joke about the death of the Fuhrer put a smile on your face, Freisler asked. I just want the war to be over, Sir, she said. I don’t want other women to suffer like me. And you would want the war to be over at the expense of the Fuhrer’s life? All Marianne could say was that she had no desire to see anyone dead. It was just a joke, Your Honor, she kept repeating over and over again. To her that was all it was---a joke. And for that joke Marianne was guillotined the next day.
Such cruelty and hatred are simply beyond us. We fail in our effort to understand. But understanding involves rationality, and perhaps, what is so profoundly disturbing about radical evil is that it is not rational; it is a defiance of the deepest order of our humanity. Evil is disordered thought, disordered feeling and disordered spirit, and if there is no deep order to evil, perhaps that is why the very first thing Jesus said to the unclean spirit is: “Be silent.” Be silent, because there is no explanation that can make evil truly understandable, let alone acceptable. Be silent, Jesus said, and after the silence came another command---Come out of him---and then with a great convulsive fight came the healing. Sometimes that is how healing comes---with a great convulsive fight.
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Mark 1: 14-20
When it comes to the book of Jonah, some people scratch their heads, and wonder how something so silly could have gained entrance into the sacred canon. A man being swallowed by a big fish and living in its belly for three days before being vomited out on land? Come on, now; it sounds more like a tall tale or a fable for children than a biblical story with a lesson for adults. And yes, to some degree that is true. The Book of Jonah is filled with hyperbole, but exaggeration is hardly unknown in the bible, and sometimes exaggeration is the most effective way to make a point. So what is the point of Jonah’s story, and why is it paired in the lectionary with Mark’s telling of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples?
While Mark shows us people, who are immediately willing to follow Jesus, and Mark, by the way, uses this term immediately 33 times in his gospel, the Book of Jonah shows us a person who was the exact opposite of willing. Jonah had no interest at all in obeying God’s command to go to the people of Ninevah and preach repentance. He hated the Ninevites, and the last thing he wanted to see was their repentance and God’s mercy to them. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, probably the largest city in the ancient world with a population of over 120,000. Assyria was the hated enemy of the Jews, especially when it conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and then extracted huge tribute payments from the southern kingdom of Judah. Its pagan sinfulness was legendary as was its cruelty. It was said that the Assyrians scorched their enemies alive to use the skin as a decoration for the walls of their pyramids. And so, to put it very bluntly, Jonah wanted them to burn as well. He wanted the magnificent city along with its population completely destroyed, and he thought he could achieve his objective by running away from God. And so he boarded a ship for Tarshish, traveling around 750 miles west, when he should have been going east to Ninevah. When a storm arose on the sea as a signal of God’s disapproval of Jonah’s disobedience, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, which landed him in the belly of a big fish for three days, (Note: three days was the length of time Jesus was in the tomb). Then God spoke to the fish, which spewed Jonah out on dry land.
And this is where our text picks up today. For the second time Jonah is commanded by God to go to Ninevah, and this time he went. I guess he figured he had no other choice. Notice that the number three comes up again. The city of Ninevah took three days to walk across, but after only one day of walking, Jonah spoke God’s Word: Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown. (Note: forty is another important number---Jews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness; Jesus was tempted for forty days, also in the wilderness.) The amazing thing is that everyone believed Jonah’s words, and they repented, wearing sackcloth and ashes---everyone from the king to the animals. In Hebrew Jonah’s words amounted to five. It took only five words to get the people to repent. No other biblical character, including Jesus, was ever this successful. But again, we have exaggeration. Everyone repented, and so God showed mercy.
The totality of this repentance is in contrast to another story, found in Genesis, where Abraham bargained with God in an effort to save the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not fair, Abraham pleaded, that the innocent should perish with the guilty, and so what if I can find 100 just people, what about 50, 40, 30, or how about 10. Only ten just people were needed to save those cities, but with the hated city of Ninevah, it took everyone’s repentance to change God’s mind. Now this probably says more about the hearers of the story than it does about God. Apparently, the status of Ninevah as a despised enemy was so strong in the mind of the Jews that nothing less than total repentance would satisfy them. But even then Jonah was not happy. He was miserable precisely because God had shown mercy to his hated enemy. And he had suspected all along that this is exactly what God would do, which was why he did not want to go to Ninevah in the first place. Going to Ninevah was not Jonah’s idea; it was God’s. And it was also God’s command. And so Jonah went because he was forced to go.
Though this story is certainly not literally true in all its details, it is existentially true in the sense that it does show us what life, what human existence is sometimes like. And sometimes we are pushed, pulled and yes, even shoved hard to go where we do not want to go. While God compelled Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach God’s message of repentance, God could not or would not force Jonah to be happy that his enemy repented. God could not or would not compel love of the enemy, and indeed, the story ends with Jonah’s anger and hatred still burning. And that reality, so profoundly human, is what also makes the story existentially believable, because it shows us who God is, the merciful one, and who we are, the angry, resentful ones. The story, in other words, is revelatory, not because it is literally true, but because it is symbolic of real life, showing us what human life often looks like.
I know this woman from the Y, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center on 9/11. And she is still very angry---angry with the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center, and angry with all other terrorists as well, because it reminds her of her loss. She and I had a little exchange once about torture. She believes in it, and when I told her that I did not, she said, “You might feel differently if you had lost your husband to terrorists”. “I might, indeed,” I admitted. “But how I might feel is not the point. Being wounded does not automatically give any of us a deep insight into moral questions. In fact, sometimes our wounds predispose us to make the wrong choices.” For all we know Jonah could have carried deep wounds within his soul. Perhaps someone he loved might have suffered at the hands of the Assyrians. But Jonah’s feelings and his sufferings are not the point. Of course they matter, but God’s commands and God’s mercy matter more.
Another woman I know is a member of this very upscale, wealthy Presbyterian Church, where the average parishioner is either extremely wealthy or can boast a PhD. She told me about one of the members, this very wealthy businessman, who told her he had a hard time understanding some of the sermons. I don’t have a PhD, he said, but I come anyway, because I always learn something here. Well, this woman decided she would volunteer at a local soup kitchen, and whom does she see there: this wealthy businessman from her church. I have to admit I was shocked to see him there, she told me. He just looks so uncomfortable, like it’s the last place he wants to be.
Well, finally, she got up her nerve, and she said to him one evening while they were both cleaning up after the dinner, “I think it is wonderful how you come here every Monday evening, but I must admit, I was very surprised to see you here, and even now, you look as if you are not at ease. “You got that right,” he said. “I don’t like a lot of these people,” he admitted. “They drink or use drugs or refuse to take their medication for mental illness. And some just seem lazy to me. There’s a reason many of them are homeless, and almost impossible to help. They won’t take any good advice.” Well, if that is the way you feel, then why are you here came the shocked question. Because, he said, this is where God sent me. It is not about what I feel or what I want; it is what God wants. God must think I have something to learn here. And so here I am. I am trying to learn, though I do not find it easy. But I guess it is not supposed to be.”
Jonah, or Jesus’ disciples could not have put it any better. Sometimes we get pushed or pulled or shoved into going someplace we would rather not go, or doing something we would rather not do. And that push, or pull or hard shove may actually be God’s grace, though at the time we may not realize it.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!