Did you know that today, the third Sunday of Epiphany, is the only day during our three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Jonah? Chances are, most of everything you know about Jonah comes from Sunday school. You would think, since Jesus cited Jonah, that the book would figure a bit more prominently in our lectionary. But maybe some of the themes are a bit difficult for us to struggle with in a simple sermon. Maybe they are better suited to Bible study classes. And before I get started, I have to admit I plagiarized the theme of today’s sermon a bit from Bishop John, Archbishop Justin, and Pope Francis. It made sense as I turned it over in my head, but I sure did not want you all to think I came up with this on my own.
That being said, we jumped into the narrative of Jonah after he has been vomited onto the land by the fish. In case you have forgotten the story, Jonah received a call from God to go and preach His coming wrath on the city of Nineveh. Jonah, naturally, does not want to do as God has instructed. God usually has to fight with those whom He calls. Moses argues three times about his suitability to go to Pharaoh. Jacob has a hip dislocated. Sarah laughs at God and gets a baby as she nears 100 years old for her scoff. Poor Jonah wants to avoid Nineveh because he understands God’s character all too well.
Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. It was huge by ANE standards. And it was the center of power for the superpower of the day. If Assyria wanted something, they took it, usually at great cost of blood and material wealth to those from whom they took. Israel, naturally, had been on the receiving end of a couple bloody and humiliating battles. So Israel hated Assyria. Hated. I am far too new here to know our real rivals. Maybe their attitude is not unlike Vandy’s fans towards Tennessee; maybe their attitude is like Tennessee Titans fans’ toward the Colts; maybe it’s like Brentwood Academy vs. Brentwood High. Chances are some of you will offer me some suggestions later. Maybe a good example would be ISIS now. Bin Laden before his death. A great example for those of us of a certain age would be the country’s attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. My kids laugh when I tell stories of how judges voted according to blocs in Olympic Figure Skating and Gymnastics. They used to think I had lost my mind when I talked about nuclear bomb drills where we had to get under our desks at school to protect ourselves. Nathan used to ask if we understood the physics of nuclear weapons in West Virginia, clearly wondering why in the world we thought a desk would save us. Then he learned that the drills were practiced country-wide. The whole country practiced those drills? I see from the nods of some that you also practiced those drills. I also see some bemusement on the face of those young like my kids. It’s true. We hated the Soviet Union. President Reagan would pretend he was ordering a full strike on the USSR as a sound check before his radio chat sometimes. The Soviets would scramble to see if our birds were in the air, and many of us would think it so cool he could strike fear into the heart of the enemy.
Now, those of you of that age, what if God had commanded you to go to Moscow and preach His judgment and coming wrath? Would you have done it? Or would you have argued with God? And, just to make it seem a bit more realistically, do you think the Muscovites would have listened? Or do you think you would have found yourself at a Gulag for the mentally ill?
Jonah does not want to go because he understands the nature and character of God. In his argument with God, Jonah basically casts Exodus 34:6-7 back into God’s face. Jonah understands that if he goes and if he preaches faithfully and if Nineveh repents, God will not destroy the great city. Jonah wants his enemies destroyed; Jonah does not want his enemies spared, especially when it comes to God’s wrath.
This lesson was driven home to me in my ministry in human trafficking. I would rather use a shared experience as a sermon illustration and not focus on me, but we do not yet have enough shared experiences. As I have shared during the interview process and with the youth, I play a game called World of Warcraft. I am a true veteran. These words will mean nothing to those who remember the Cold War of which I spoke a moment ago, but the youth will understand all too well. Back in the days of Vanilla WoW, there were no dual-specs, there were no cheat specs for the talent tree, heck there were 63 talents that needed to be spent “back in the day.” I had been conned into the game as a holy priest. My friend had begged me to start playing with him. I could talk to people online about Jesus and heal people. That was the real job of a holy priest—we kept everyone else in our groups alive. Good healers were hard to come by in the game. It was very much an incarnational ministry. Holy priests had good power, but it was really only used to heal. Guess who was the first guy to get targeted by the enemies? Guess who died first trying to keep allies alive? The holy priest. I was very good at the game. With another priest named Ellyn, we two-healed Naxxramas and the Lich King 10-man raids. Let those with ears . . .
Although I was primarily a healer, I had two significant offensive spells. Levelling as a holy priest to level 70 was a challenge. My favorite spell was holy fire. Basically, I called down a lightning bolt from the sky that hit my target. It was a rather slow spell because it was rather powerful. The best part of the spell, from my perspective, was that after the initial damage from the bolt, the target would begin to be damaged by a slow burn. I would hit them with the bolt and then attack them or heal myself as they continued to be damaged a bit by the fire the bolt had caused. I know, now you adults are all a little freaked out that your priest thinks the burn after the bolt made for a good spell. You are going to be a bit more disturbed, though, when your priest began to lament that he did not have that power in real life as he got more and more involved in the fight against human trafficking.
When I got involved in that ministry, I spent more time trying to convince people that the evil was real than I did suggesting how they could help. I would sometimes think, in those dark moments of frustration, how cool it would be if God gave me that holy fire in real life. I had begged for God to use tornados to wipe out particular sites, but He had refused, even though I lived in “Tornado Alley.” I thought, how seriously would people, but especially the perpetrators, take their sin and evil if God just let me hit a few with a bolt and burn them a bit. Maybe the idiot “John’s,” who thought they could tell the difference between a sex slave girl who liked sex from those who were doing it for the money, would begin to understand the pain they were causing by the pain they were receiving. Maybe the pimps, who would be all kinds of threatening if I did a horrific things such as buy their girl a lunch or cup of hot chocolate or coffee, would begin to realize where true power was to be found and feared. Maybe the looming threat of muscle would reconsider their life’s work if they were forced to endure a supernatural punishment from God. Maybe the indifferent business owner who closed his or her eyes or the homeowner that cared only about cheap cleaning or gardening would change their attitude as they experienced the shock of the bolt and the pain of the burn. Yes. Like Jonah, I wanted my enemies, God’s enemies, punished.
Jonah, as the reading tells us today, does finally obey God. He goes and preaches a strange sermon. It is five words in Hebrew. “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” It is not exactly the best call to repentance any of us have ever heard, is it? Can those of us older imagine the Soviet Union repenting back in the 70’s and 80’s with that kind of sermon? Yet, all of Nineveh hears the words of the prophet and repents. The king, we are told, is so moved by Jonah’s words that he declares that even the ashes will wear sackcloth and ashes as an outward sign of their inward sorrow. Can you imagine? It must have been a rather amusing scene. I wonder how the animals were fitted with sackcloth? How did they keep the sackcloth on the animals? There was no super glue, no duct tape.
Just as Jonah feared, God relents of His great wrath and decides not to destroy Nineveh. Even though Jonah does not give the best evangelistic sermon recorded in the Scripture, one cannot argue with the results. From here, the book goes on to teach us, as God teaches Jonah, about the love and mercy and power of God. In the end, Jonah and we are reminded that we have no right to demand or to expect of God that He treat our enemies any less merciful that He treated each one of us. All of us were created by Him; all of us are loved by Him. All He demands of us is that we repent of our sins. It is a lesson taught over and over in Scripture. What separated the Gibeonites from the other ites in the Promised Land? What really separates David from Saul? Why is Jesus so mad at the Pharisees and Priests? Why does He emphasize that we need to love our enemies? Even evil people sometimes do good to those who do good to them. God’s character, though, is revealed in our attitudes and actions towards our enemies.
That lesson was driven home to me in an “aha” moment of my own. As I said, I had it all figured out how God would best be glorified. The Holy Fire would strike fear into His enemies. They would all see and repent. Better still, the rest of the world would notice and begin to take God seriously. It was a good plan, an ok thought, right? I see nods of assents. The problem was that I had not internalized the lesson taught to Jonah and us.
I received a call one day about some girls walking the streets downtown. This was actually unusual. So I headed downtown to see what was happening. Sure enough, there were three or four ladies offering themselves from money not too far from our bridge and ballpark. I struck up conversations with a couple ladies, asking if they wanted out. As I was chatting with them, a man came up to drive his girls away from me. If I was not buying them, I was wasting their time and costing him money. Every now and then you will hear I do something really stupid and crazy that really works out. This was one of those.
I explained that I was a priest, in case the green shirt and collar around my neck was not obvious, and proceeding to ask the pimp to let me speak with the girls and talk them out of the life. We had a back and forth and my words about having a bishop for a boss who would bust my butt if I did not do my job resonated with him, but he needed to make money. So I asked if he and I could talk. Yes, when I first related this story to my bishop he had very much the same intake of breath as y’all. He suggested a bar, and we spent a few hours over the next several days getting to know one another. For those that want the longer account, you can check him out on my blog. His name was Bennie.
I learned that Bennie was the product of a broken home. His dad was never around. His mom lost to a drug addiction and lost her kids. Bennie grew up in about a half dozen foster homes. Some foster homes are wonderful, but some only want the check generated by the state to take care of the kids. Bennie claimed all his foster homes were the latter. He learned rather quickly he could run away and they would not chase, not even file a police report, so long as the checks appeared in the mailbox. Benny began to equate his intrinsic value, and the intrinsic value of all human beings with money. The rest, as they say, is history. Bennie grew up idolizing the pimp culture made famous in Chicago. He wanted the money, the fame, and the respect that came from the lifestyle. The idea that God loved him was a joke. The idea that God would forgive him was ludicrous. Don’t hate the playa; hate the game, Preacher. I didn’t make the rules, I just win by them.
I wish I was sharing this story with an ending worthy of Nineveh. Jonah did a far better job than I. There was no conversion moment for Bennie. There was no repentance. When he left town for his next stop, he intended to continue in his business. He predicted he would continue to be hassled by cops. He predicted he would continue to run afoul of gangs and other pimps when he set up shop in new locales. He predicted that he would likely die long before he got old and before he could enjoy all the money he was making. That was his life. That was the deck stacked against. My role in Bennie’s life, it seems, was one of sowing, and I pray even to this day that Bennie meets his Jonah, that Bennie repents and causes all heaven to rejoice. I trust that other members of the Kingdom of God have followed where I sowed and have watered and manured. And, if Bennie still refuses, I know it was not because he did not know.
You see, sitting there on the stool one evening, as I listened to Bennie’s story, I realized how fortunate I had been. Yes, mom and dad had divorced, twice, but both were active in my life. Both took seriously their responsibilities to raise their kids to know right from wrong, to know that God loved us. How many Bennie were not so fortunate? How many places are like Nineveh and still have not heard God’s word? Forgive him, Lord, he does not know what he is doing rang clearly in my ears. Over and over as I listened to his story, I realized so much of Bennie’s foundation was missing. He had simply filled the holes as best he knew how, equating bling and cash with respect and fear with love. It is a wretched existence. What’s worse, he expects a violent end. Yet it was my job to remind this lost child of God that he could choose a different path, a more challenging path, that led to eternal life and love. How I wish for Bennie’s sake I would have reached him. Oh, I know, the idea of a priest and a pimp having a drink talking God and sociology and psychiatry and business is proof enough that God still does amazing things in our lives and in the world today. But how much better would it be to tell you how he repented, freed his girls, and works to reach other pimps today? But neither I nor you nor Bennie nor the people of Nineveh would have any hope had not God reach down into all our lives.
At convention this week, Bishop John and Bishop Dabney reminded us all present that our primary responsibility, by virtue of our oaths taken at baptism, is to introduce people of the world to this person, Jesus. We don’t proclaim a special knowledge like the Gnostics, we don’t have weird formulas, we don’t revere theology like some faiths, God is not some impersonal force moving inexorably through history. We remind people, ourselves included, that we are reconciled to God through the work and person, Jesus Christ. Jonah was right. God is forgiving and merciful and slow to anger. We know that best through His Son our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth. In this season of the Church we call Epiphany, we remind ourselves that God manifested Himself in Christ that the whole world, the entire world, would turn, serve God, and glorify Him! God, through Christ, is inviting everyone we meet into a reconciled relationship with Him. It is an amazing story, a wonderful story—one truthfully not fit for mouths or ears like mine. Yet that is the very responsibility He has placed on each one of us through our baptisms into His death and into His Resurrection. The problem, of course, is that we are too much like Jonah. We like to think we deserve God’s grace and that others do not. And so we hoard our relationship with Him, and, in so doing, allow that others might be condemned. The youth describe it as the “Brentwood bubble,” but we adults know it extends far beyond the city limits of Brentwood.
You see, until we internalize the lesson God gave to and through Jonah, we have missed a large portion of our own relationship with God. Until we grasp that lesson fully, we are but babes in our faith. When our Lord hung on that Cross and breathed His last breaths and said, “Forgive them, Father. They do not know what they are doing,” He was speaking of you and of me. Before we grasped at His saving hand, we were like the Ninevites and Bennies of the world, not aware we were loved and not aware we needed a Savior. And, what’s worse, when we begin that walk with Him, we forget that He calls us to go to the Nineveh’s and Bennie’s of the world, proclaiming His Good News of great joy and hope.
In November at the conference, we got a note from Justin and Francis via their emissary David. Both were pleased with our work and the attention we were paying to survivors and victims of human trafficking. Then came the however. Justin and Francis reminded us that if the Church is only working to serve those in need, if the Church is only working to draw in those on the margins, if the Church is only serving the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the lepers, She is only fulfilling part of Her calling. The Lord calls His Bride, the Church, to call the world to repentance and a reconciled relationship with Him through Christ. If we feed the working poor but do not call owners to pay living wages, we have missed an important part of our calling. If we work hard to free and care for slaves but do not call those who use them and those who own them to repentance, we have missed a large chunk of our calling. If we labor tirelessly to provide those victimized by sin but do not call those who sin and victimize into relationship with the Lord Jesus, we have failed to embrace the full mission given us. Weighty words, are they not? Not nearly so weighty, I believe, as that Cross He bore for all our sakes, even though we were at enmity with Him.
Brothers and sisters, where and who are the Nineveh’s of your lives? Who are the Bennie’s of your life? Who are the people that you would loathe to escape the wrath of God? Chances are, when I was talking about the rivalry between Vandy fans and UT fans, between Colts fans and Titan fans, between the US and USSR so many years ago, people began popping into your head. My guess is that the Holy Spirit has reminded you this day of those foreigners, those others, those black sheep in your family, those co-workers, those bosses, those employees, maybe even that priest that you think does not deserve God’s grace like you. Brothers and sisters, I am here to remind you that God calls you every bit to manifest His love and His glory to those who drive you nuts or who do evil in His sight, that His kingdom might grow yet again. Our Collect today picks up on that calling every bit as much as does our reading from Jonah. Give us grace, O Lord, . . . to proclaim to all people the Good News of His salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of His marvelous works. Chances are, your life will be the best sermon they ever hear. It has been given to you to proclaim tidings of Jesus, redemption, and release! What kind of sermon will you give them? Will it be one of humility and empathy, understanding in all truth that you were not worthy of such grace? Will it be one that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, calls entire cities to repentance and into right relationship with our Lord? Will it simply remind you, day in and day out, that you were once every bit at enmity with God but now, thanks to His mercy and His grace, prepared for that Wedding Feast prepared from the beginning of time for all those who have chosen to follow Him?