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“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 many animals?” God says to Jonah in one of best last lines of any book in the Bible.

Now, the question sounds like Cain’s question to God, “Well am I my brother’s keeper? Am I really supposed to be my brother’s powerful ally in living this life?” Which if one is faithful to God’s agenda can only be answered, “Of course.”

But, Jonah really wants to say, “No you’re not supposed to be concerned about them. They are the enemy! Not only do they not know their right hand from their left, but they don’t know right from wrong and they destroyed your own people in the Northern Kingdom Israel. So, you should just destroy them like you said you were going to do when you told me to go and tell them “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

However, if Jonah did get to say that, we’d miss the most humorous book in the entire Bible. Jonah is, I think, an ancient near east satire where the hero says all the right things, but his actions contradict his words.

Remember, God calls Jonah to be a prophet and tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. So what does Jonah do ? He runs away in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish. Then, he tries to hide from the creator of the universe down in the bottom of the boat, reminding me of people who deny something they’ve said even when it’s been recorded and played back for them. Pretty foolish, right? Then, a great catastrophic storm hits the ship and Jonah begs the crew to throw him overboard into the sea, so crew can save themselves, which they do. Of course, God sends a taxi to pick him up in the form of a great fish, who swallows Jonah. While in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, Jonah prays thanksgiving for God hearing his cry of distress and bringing him safely out of the pit of Sheol and saving his life, of course he never did cry out for help from God, nor was his life ebbing away to death. This prayer uses all the right words, but lacks the conviction of faith. Eventually the great fish vomits Jonah onto the sandy shore just outside of Nineveh.

Now, Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrians, who don’t believe in God and who were enemies of Israel because they were responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They enslaved and scattered the people of the northern kingdom of Israel into the world where they were lost for centuries. Yet, despite Jonah’s unwillingness and disobedience, God still wants Jonah to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh that sounds like the certainty of judgment without the possibility of mercy.

So, Jonah proclaims, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and he expects God will destroy Nineveh because Jonah can’t imagine the Ninevites repenting of their ways. Also, he doesn’t think the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of Nineveh and doesn’t think God’s blessing of love, compassion and mercy extends to outsiders, particularly not historic enemies.

Except, the hard truth for God’s co-workers is as my granddaughter Aubrey asserts when she is asked why she has done something, “I do what I do.” Well, God does what God does and we have absolutely no control over what God will do. This is as hard a lesson to learn as that referees and umpires aren’t going to change their calls no matter how much dirt we kick on their shoes, yell in their faces, yell from the sidelines, or scream at the television set. God does what God will do and doesn’t really care if we like it or not.

Jonah learns this the hard way when he proclaims his eight-word sermon and becomes the most successful prophet in the history of Israel when the Ninevites from King to peasant, including animals, go full on medieval repentance wearing sack cloth and ashes without any guarantee it will change anything, but just on the off chance that “God may relent and change his mind, so that we do not perish.” They rest their hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness.  What else could God do, except forgive them.

Jonah goes ballistic preferring death to watching this spectacle of grace. After all, no prophet speaking to the people Israel has ever had this much success calling the people of Israel to repent and turn back to God and God’s ways. Usually, they get stuff thrown at them or the king puts them down a well to drown  or they just ignored by the people. Israel never, ever repents this fully and immediately. It takes war and exile to get Israel to return to God. Jonah has never seen this spectacle of grace in Israel, so is angry at how responsive the people of Ninevah are to his eight-word sermon.

Naturally, God does play with Jonah a bit when he goes ballistic, according to Barbara Brown Taylor, when God creates a castor oil bush to grow up over Jonah’s head and provide shade for him as he sits hunkered down in his sulking pettiness, Naturally, Jonah likes the shade bush very much as much as he hated what happened in Nineveh, but it is short lived. God creates a worm to attack the bush and Jonah again threatens to die, as if this will ruin God’s day.”

And, because this a teachable moment, God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” This, of course, a trick question because if Jonah says no, it isn’t right, then he has no right to be angry about the mercy God shows the Ninevites. If he says yes, it is right for him to be angry, then God gets to compare what happened to the bush to what happens to a whole city full of people and maybe Jonah might get a glimmer of his petty self-righteous bookkeeping.

True to form Jonah does answer, “Yes, I get to be angry about the bush!” You see, Jonah like all of us bookkeepers loves the blessings of grace we receive, even if they come to us from way out of far-left field, like a package delivered to the wrong address. We love grace and forgiveness, we just don’t want those other people whom we know do not deserve grace and forgiveness to be blessed at all. We want to tally up the goodness points according to our calculations of who should get grace and who shouldn’t because. we want to be the distributors of grace according to our standards. But God’s grace doesn’t work that way. We don’t get to decide who gets grace and who doesn’t. It is all up to God. Period!

When God calls us to be co-workers of grace, calling people to change the direction of their lives, we are speaking God’s words, not ours. We are witnessing to God’s intentions that God loves all people and desires all people everywhere to have a life filled to the brim and overflowing with abundant peace. Not our petty bookkeeping way.

And, according to Mark, when Jesus says, “the time it is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news” he is saying God loves everyone and wants everyone to have an abundant life of peace and well being. It is also what Jesus will teach Simon, Andrew, James and John and all the other disciples to proclaim and teach, not just the first twelve, but all of us who claim to be followers of Christ.

Who knows maybe if we proclaim that good news, then teach why it is such good news, maybe we’ll be the most successful prophets and apostles of our day. Then, we too can join the party in Ninevah, whooping it up with all the other folks who don’t know their right hands from their left, but whose hope is in God’s mercy and love.

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“You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequences of the choice,” writes an Anonymous author.

“ There will come a time when we will have to sit down to a banquet of our consequences,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson.

“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh.

All three of these quotes affirm the same truth; we all make choices or decisions and the consequences of those choices or decisions are ours. We own them whether we like it or not. I imagine Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bowe Bergdahl are discovering that very truth along with many other folks.

Now, sometimes we see those consequences clearly, but more often than not we fail to see all the consequences of our choices, those we intend and those we discover later as unintended consequences.

Certainly, the Hebrews in the wilderness failed to see all the consequences of their choice to abandon God in favor of worshiping a golden calf made out of their ornaments and jewelry. Yet, Moses knows that without God’s presence this “stiff-necked people” will have a hard time being the distinctive people God intends them to be. They will not be able to live into God’s way of living as the community of God’s people because they have not, yet, learned how their trust in God is connected to how they are to live in the world as the message of God’s grace and as a community where everyone belongs and is valued with dignity and respect.

This message of God’s grace invites everyone to come and join the community of God’s people, so they may see how life nurturing and life sustaining is this way of living in relationship with God and with each other. This is the reason God choose Abraham and Sarah in the first place and continued to choose this family as the instrument God will use to bless the world with wholeness and peace because God intends for everyone in the world to live together in this way of wholeness and peace.

Yet, the consequences of the Hebrews’ choices puts this relationship and way of living at risk because they failed to comprehend that faith in God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death, particularly, as they live surrounded by cultures whose political, social and religious values are opposed to God’s way of being fully human.

Indeed, the Hebrews do not realize, at this point in their journey, that their identity as God’s people is part of an interwoven conversation about who God is and who they are because of their relationship with the God who creates life, saves life, and sustains life.

They do not realize that knowledge of God leads them to knowledge about themselves, individually and communally. Nor, do they realize that our ultimate obligation to God sets the boundaries and limits to all other obligations of our life, even recognizing we are defined by our relationship and connectedness to God, not by anything else.

The Hebrews’ problem was that they were like the group of alumni of a university who were all highly established in their careers and who got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups — porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite — telling them to help themselves to the coffee.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice-looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.

Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups. And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of the life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.” God brews the coffee, not the cups. So, enjoy your coffee!

Enjoying the coffee-enjoying life as “God’s people” and recognizing how the choice to trust God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life is the difference between where the Israelites in wilderness were and where the Thessalonians were.

The Thessalonians had done something quite remarkable in the middle of living in the vibrant seaport trading and cultural center of a major Roman city; they made the choice to turn to God away from the idols everyone else worshipped and served. They turned to serve the true and living God. Paul’s letter celebrates this choice, which was so complete that they became the examples for other Christian congregations in Macedonia and Achaia to emulate. Their spirit- derived joy empowered them to maintain their faith, their love and their hope and become the living messages of the gospel-the embodiment of God’s good news in Christ, even as they struggled against persecution from their families and their neighbors.

The church at Thessalonica, of course, was not merely a model where faith, hope and love were held onto like a display in a museum just waiting for people to walk past and admire, rather the church was the place from which the message of faith, the testimony of hope and the power of love went forth into in the world every day. Yet, at the same time, it was also a safe place-a sanctuary- where people lacking faith, feeling hopeless, feeling unlovable could find the great blessings of grace and belonging.

In many ways, every church, including ours, should be such a sanctuary where people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ and the great blessings of the grace and belonging can find them. The first-century Christians got that point, by the way. They saw the church as a safe place to go to survive life’s storms and calamities. One of the first symbols that the early Christians used to represent the church was Noah’s ark, the vessel on which representatives of all living creatures found refuge during the catastrophe of the great flood. The ark was the place from which those surviving people and animals went forth to participate in God’s re-creation of life as a community of mutuality and interdependence.

In similar fashion, the early Christians considered the church as the place from which God’s living messages of grace went forth into the world bringing the story of God’s saving grace to a world in need of faith, love, and most importantly, hope. That’s the reason churches have stained-glass windows of Noah’s ark or the dove with an olive branch in its beak as well as why many sanctuaries were constructed in the shape of a boat and why the pulpit was set up high above like a crow’s nest from which the leaders could see the horizon, see the coming storms, the rocky shoals, or the land where the ship might anchor and be resupplied before continuing its journey.

And, while you’re pondering all of that, think about the importance of faith, love, and hope as blessings of God’s grace and the way we, who are the church bring those blessings to others.

        First, the church is the place where faith is offered without embarrassment. There is an old saying that Christianity is always only one generation away from extinction. Without the passing of the knowledge about Christ and the testimony of faith from parents to children, from elders to youth, from those convinced of the faith to those who have not yet heard it, Christianity might eventually either die out altogether or be reduced to a curious historical phenomenon. Now we could make that one-generation-away-from-extinction statement about many things in life — about technology, skills, scientific discoveries and so on — but with Christianity, what is passed on is not only knowledge, but also the assertion that the meaning of daily life and the path of life is found in Jesus Christ.

Some youth workers, Christian educators and pastors today are wondering, “Will our children have faith?” They observe that young people today are actually quite interested in God, Christ and Christianity, but they aren’t particularly turned on by institutional expressions of it. There is a phenomenon afoot among some in the younger generations who individually express their love for Jesus but not for the church of Jesus. Individual spirituality is a good thing, but it seldom is enough single-handedly to pass the faith to the next generation. It takes communities of Christ’s followers to do that in an intentional way realizing that faith is caught in an environment where people are living their trust in God, expressing their trust in God in worship, and maturing their trust in God through the intentional discipleship of life-long learning; especially the discipline of consistent Bible study and theological reflection all done within a community of faith.

Second, the church is a place where love is exercised without limits. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and as we in the church understand that, he wasn’t talking about emotions but about behavior. He was talking about acting in ways that support the well being of others as opposed to exploiting other people. And when we really grasp that Jesus is calling us to love others as God loves us, calling us to compare the way we are treating our families, our neighbors, the guy who is annoying at work or the woman who is hard to get along with at the gym to the way God treats us and all other people, then we realize we come up short, but that doesn’t let us off the hook because it ought to cause us to dig deeper by realizing that love has no stopping point where we can say, “There, I’ve done my duty, and now I can forget about that person.”

        Third, the church is the place where hope is nourished without delusion. Certainly there are ample reasons to lose hope in life. In fact, it’s fairly easy to experience despair, because in the day-to-day flow of life it often seems so much more credible than hope. There’s generally plenty of evidence around us to encourage and engender despair, especially listening or reading to the news, tweets, or what happens to our neighbors and friends. But we in the church understand that hope is not rooted in what happens in the present moment. The hope the church shelters believes the kingdom of God is here, now and will come in fullness, without denying life’s sometimes tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as “God’s will.”

Hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that those of us with strong enough gumption can somehow muster up from some mythological place, like fantasyland. Rather, hope is the steadfast trust that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands. The writer of Deuteronomy spoke of this hope when she said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV). The image Deuteronomy suggests is of God’s arms creating a “floor” under us so that no matter how far down the weight and even the tragedy of life pushes us, we have a solid foundation on which to find our footing. Our task as the community of faith is to nourish this hope by being the strong advocate for hope in a community and a world too easily and too quickly grasping for the comfort of hopelessness.

Finally, faith, love and hope are the foundations and the fruit of a community of faith’s life as Paul certainly made clear in writing to the Corinthians, when he wrote at the end of the wonderful chapter about love, “And now faith, hope, and love abide.” They dwell together in a community of God’s people. That is, why he once again points to those three at the very beginning of his letter to the Thessalonians, “We continually remember before God, our Father, your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we look for the blessings rising from the community of faith’s life together, these three rise to the surface: faith, love, and hope. They are God’s blessings for life given to us, so we might be living messages of grace blessing the lives of other folks.

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I have been thinking about Roy Moore, the onetime Alabama Supreme Court Justice forced to leave that office after refusing to uphold the law, because he is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. As a judge Roy Moore tried to have a huge block monument of the Ten Commandments placed in front of a courthouse where he presided, but few people remember the story of his monument and how big it was.

It weighs 5,280 pounds or about 500 pounds per commandment, so when he brings this monument to public appearances it needs to be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”

“I know,” as Professor Tom Long writes, “that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”

But, I think it makes the perfect point about the way the Ten Commandments have become a heavy burden in our contemporary culture. Every conversation I hear about them has some commentator wagging a finger at another person saying, “thou shalt not!” as if the commandments were created by God to be a check upon the destructive personal behavior of that particular person, rather than being the structure forming and shaping a community of health and well-being. Of course for other folks, the commandments are a legalistic framework to place heavy yokes publicly on the necks of a rebellious children or a society seemingly out of control. I mean listen to the Luther’s Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish everyone who breaks these commandments. We should be afraid of His anger because of this and not violate such commandments.”

I guess all of these understandings of the Decalogue makes a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck a perfect symbol for what the Ten Commandments might be. Especially, since we seem to have forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around, “These things you carry,” Isaiah chided the Israelites, “are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

The problem is that all of the ways we use the Ten Commandments or the ten words as they are referred to in Hebrew scripture fails to recognize they are about liberation and are God’s rule of love. They are given as an expression of God’s liberating the people from slavery out of the love God has for people. Indeed, the reading begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” God liberates the Hebrew from slavery, then freely provides them all they need for life, including how to be free as a community of health, well-being, mutuality, loving kindness and wholeness.

God does not intend to re-enslave people with these commands, but to set them free as if to say, “you are free not to need any other gods or even to make 5,280 pound images of God to truck around. You are free to rest on the seventh day because you, your animals, your servants, your land all need rest from productivity, so you can all be healthy and enjoy a long life. You are no longer at the mercy of an oppressor working you to death and you are not something to be used up or consumed until there is nothing left of you. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols made of stones or wood; free from solving every problem with violence and you can instead look for ways to solve problems with other people and tribes, so everyone wins and gets what they need for life because there is abundance for all. You are free to find ways to sustain life for yourselves, for neighbors and for all creation. You are free from having to covet what your neighbor has because you both have everything you need for life and, by the way, you are free from having to compare yourself with your neighbor or find your self-worth based upon what your neighbor owns or is able to do because you are loved just as you are and you are free to celebrate other people’s gifts because you have valuable gifts as well.

Or has another theologian has written “You want to make an idol of this God, an image of bird or snake or tree or pole or money or fame or pleasure? This God will have none of that, because this is the God who brought you out of slavery. You want to trivialize the name of this God by slapping the name on to any fool thing you already want to do, thereby baptizing your idiocy with a divine seal of approval, thereby enslaving oneself in the bondage of self-satisfied power. God will have none of that, for that is also a kind of slavery from which you need to be free.”

“God says, I want you free, because I am in the freedom business. All the ways you can imagine to fall back into slavery and death, God is there to call you out to freedom and life, because that is who God is. God is life and freedom. Only the certainty that it is God who has brought us out of the house of slavery and can surely do so again, if we get our relationship to God strong and continuous, can bring us the lasting freedom that we crave.

Not only that, but God’s good news of life should be like music with the Ten Commandments the dance steps that set us moving together, as Tom Long has suggested. They are supposed to be our wings, so we might soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit. This is one of reasons Luther, also, suggested to change the language of the commandments from “thou shalt not” to more positive language that evokes the freedom God and love intends for us to enjoy, so instead of “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” perhaps ‘find joy in telling the truth, being honest and upholding the goodness and good name of your neighbor as if pronouncing a blessing upon your neighbor.”

Also, if we want to pass this good news of freedom and life to our children, then I think we are going to have to be creative; more creative than hanging the Ten Commandments on a wall, memorizing them in order or hauling them around on a flatbed truck. I suggest we create stories because as Robert Wuthnow writes, “”Stories do more than keep memories alive. Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”

Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack.”You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up1” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.

This how the commandments are supposed to work, as Tom Long says it, “We have the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in a story. Then, comes the life shaped ethically around that story. A nurse saying “I’ll be right here beside you” becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.”

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery” prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God,” asserts Tom Long.

I gotta believe living in God’s joyous freedom and love of the Ten Commandments is much better than carrying around tons of dreary duty and wondering when the wheels are going to come off the flatbed truck of our lives.

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