The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 20
16th Sunday After Pentecost
24 September 2017
I must admit that I laughed when I read Jonah’s response this week to God’s willingness to spare Nineveh.
Of all the reversals in this week’s scriptures, the first being last and the last being first in Matthew’s gospel, Paul’s assertion that to him life is Christ and death is gain, and Jonah’s anger at God’s grace, it was Jonah who really grabbed my attention.
The prophets are typically zealous in their proclamations of God’s pronouncements for or against people. The people, in contrast, are typically hard hearted, angry at the prophet, whom they frequently want to kill or at least run out of town, and are slow and resistant to heeding God’s pronouncements.
Jonah breaks the mold. From the beginning, he was reluctant. He tried to flee from God’s call by taking ship to Tarshish, only to be cast overboard and be swallowed by a fish for three days before being spat out, and from whence God called him again to go to Nineveh. Finally following God’s call, his pronouncement against Nineveh was one of the shortest prophecies recorded in scripture—literally eight words long: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
And as we find out today, it is all because he does not WANT Nineveh to be spared. He doesn’t want them to repent. He doesn’t want God to forgive them. And yet, despite the brevity and lackluster pronouncement of God’s prophecy to the Ninevites, they did turn back from their ways, put on sack cloth, declared a fast, and prayed for forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness, as we encounter Jonah in today’s part of the story, is like a slap in the face to him. He knew it was going to happen, which was why he ran away in the first place. Now that it had happened, he would rather die than see the Ninevites spared. Indeed, he cared more about a withered shrub than he did about the lives of the 120,000 men, women, and children, not to mention their livestock, in the city that God spared from destruction.
Twice, God’s response is simply to ask “is it right for you to be angry?” First when Jonah is indignant about God’s mercy, and second when Jonah is indignant about the death of the bush that was giving him shade. And the second time, his retort is that it is, indeed, right for him to be angry about the shrub—angry enough to die!
I admit I was somewhat shocked that today’s reading is the whole second half of Jonah’s story. In fact, what I’ve recounted is the book of Jonah in its entirety.
So great is Jonah’s anger and hatred of the Ninevites that he runs away from God to keep them from being saved, when held to his task he makes as brief a plea as possible, and when they repent he is outraged to the point of death—having more compassion and empathy for a withered plant than for 120k feeling, thinking, human persons.
Is it right? Obviously it is not. And yet it is human.
I talked last week about forgiving my father being a passage to healing, wholeness, and reconciliation with him.
What I didn’t mention is that I only finally had the conversation with him that led to our reconciliation after the day I felt it would be easier if he just died. It was after Jane’s dad had passed away, and I had watched her sister deal with the regret of not having taken the opportunity to make her peace with him. Suddenly I realized that it would not, in fact, make anything easier if my dad died with as much unresolved in our relationship as there was at that time. In fact, I would never get the chance to say what I needed to say to him, and I would live the rest of my life without the chance to unburden my heart to him directly.
What I also didn’t get to mention last week is that forgiveness is an ongoing journey for me. It wasn’t a once and for all moment of healing and permanent closure. Rather I still find myself afraid of him sometimes. I still find that I have to forgive his past actions from my childhood again and again.
While the journey to wholeness when we are broken is fraught with triggers, setbacks, and flashbacks, it is also marked by the gift of uncovering memories of happiness and joy that the traumas of the past had kept hidden, and which even thirteen years into the healing process surprise me with forgotten treasures.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t also have moments in which I am more like Jonah than I would like to admit. Moments in which I too would like to run away from what I know I need to do, or when I’d like to dwell on a self-righteous sense of punitive justice instead of compassion and forgiveness.
And then God sends me a shrub, a bush, a sultry wind and some sun—which usually look a lot like my children—reminding me of the person God created me to be, of the person I want to be, and of the ways in which I want to be in relationship.
Is it right to hold onto the hurts of the past, allowing them to poison my relationships here and now? Obviously it is not! But, again, it is human.
The beauty of being human in relationship with God is that we are given the gift of God’s infuriatingly unearned and unwarranted love, grace, forgiveness, and compassion, and with it, we are drawn inexorably toward healing and wholeness, even when it means spending a few days in the belly of a fish now and then in order to get us there.
Our Psalmist exults in the opportunities a life of faith gives in looking back at key moments in which God’s presence has been revealed in our lives and has drawn us back into right relationships, wholeness, healing, and shalom in the fullest sense of balance, peace, well being, and relational unity.
As all of this ties into our gospel for today, the kingdom as landowner analogy stretches out as a broader drama of faith in which we, as the workers in the vineyard, Christ’s disciples, are called into the work of bringing God’s kingdom to life in our own lives and world. We are called as the disciples were called, we are called as the prophets were called, we are called as Christ was called—early in the day, at midday, at the end of the day, we are called. But what we are called into is not simply a day of labor for a day’s wage of a denarius. The twist, as we learn elsewhere in the gospels is that while we are called as laborers, what we are called to become is heirs of the landowner. We are called not into a transactional work that earns us pay according to our share of labor, but into a lifetime of work that brings with it the wages of life in Christ, of living into our inheritance of being God’s children, of serving one another and the world around us in such a way that our lives, our actions, our words, reach out to others to bring them into the field with us, to earn the same wages of life and God’s abundance.
When we seek the pay at the end of the day and find ourselves receiving only the same wage as those called after us, we forget what it is that we are actually called to by walking into the field of God’s love. Like the disciples, we ask to sit at the right and left hand of Christ in power—a reward in economic terms that falls far short of the reward of a life worth living—a life well lived, a life, in Paul’s words, worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
And yes! Just as I am sometimes Jonah, I am also sometimes the complaining field-hand who came in the first hour of the day and looks down into his hand and sees only the same reward as those called just for the last hour of the day.
There are days when I look at my seven year old through the damaged lens of my own seven year old self, and while all I want for him is that he be strong enough to fend off the attacks of those in this world who would exploit his innocence and crush his spirit, the way it manifests is in me being harder on him than he deserves, and expecting more of him than he is capable. And then I hear myself. I hear the fear underneath the sternness. I hear the hurt masquerading as frustration. I feel the anger at those who wounded me keeping me at arms length from my amazing, beautiful, chaotic, anxious, frustrated, joyful, exuberant seven year old. And when I realize that I am reacting to him out of my own woundedness rather than out of the love and joy that he needs and deserves, I look down in my hand and see that the wages of my labors are not simply the denarius at the end of the day, but a living, breathing, loving hand gripping my own—seeking reassurance, love, compassion, guidance, significance, and grace. He melts my heart. He reminds me that I am neither a wounded seven year old anymore, nor do I ever want to be one who wounds him.
Again, the beauty of being human in relationship with God is finding ourselves reminded, in those moments when we are the complaining field hand, that what we have been promised is not simply a daily wage, but kinship with God in accompaniment, love, compassion, forgiveness, grace, and a God who will never stop seeking toward our healing, wholeness, and shalom.
This past Wednesday evening through Friday up to sunset, our Jewish brothers and sisters observed Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and the start of the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Rosh Hashanah marks a time of both celebration and of renewal, of reflection and retrospection—a time of seeking from the past year, new paths that might promise a better outcome for the future.
With them, we are called by our Psalmist to reflect on God’s presence in the past seasons our own lives, to remember with Christ’s followers and disciples what it means to be called into the vineyard of God’s kingdom, to examine with Jonah those times when we have run from God’s call or fought against God’s grace in our lives, and ultimately to listen to God’s reminder that we are called as God’s own children into a life of abundance, mutual care, grace, and love. We are called into wholeness. Again, in Paul’s words, we are called into a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
May we find hope in the promise of God’s unceasing love and grace—and whether we are reluctant prophets, griping field hands, or laborers yet to be called, may we come to hear God’s invitation to healing, wholeness, and the peace of working as heirs to God’s kingdom in the many relationships of our lives and world.