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Archive for the ‘wilderness’ Category

“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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“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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