January 24, 2016

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Jonah 1:1-17

Awakening Passion

(second in a series: Waters of Chaos and Creation)

Today we’re continuing our winter worship series called “The Waters of Chaos and Creation.” The choir cantata reminds us of the story of the Great Flood that we heard last week. And the scripture we hear this morning continues to demonstrate the danger of the waters in the Bible. It might not seem entirely fair. I mean I know what it is to sit in a sailboat on a sunny afternoon and a feel a peacefulness from the lake. I have seen rivers shimmering in quiet folds, so I have to believe the people of the ancient world have seen this too. But in the Bible, the waters harbor chaos and creativity. “Ah, look… Isn’t it so nice?” is something nobody said about the sea!

One reason for the danger is the waters represent the worlds just out of bounds. They occupy the wilderness between heaven and earth. Monsters live in the sea, ghosts walk on the waves, and leave it to the angels to come wake you up in the storm. Like being in any kind of danger, being on the water confronts a person with the question that goes, “What is at stake here?” Just exactly what are you willing to die for? Or more importantly, what are you willing to live for?

This question of what is at stake, pulses at the center of this glorious dispute between Jonah and God. The story we hear today reminds me of the story of Jacob in the wilderness. He’s on his way to meet his brother Esau and seek forgiveness, but the night before, an angel confronts Jacob. What happens is they get into a wrestling match that lasts all night long. The angel injures Jacob’s hip and demands that he release him and Jacob says, “Not until you give me your blessing!” so the angel does (Genesis 33:22-29).

In our scripture today, it’s God and Jonah who wrestle. Now it’s not a fair fight, but it’s still a fight because God chooses to get into it with Jonah. God enters the scene, agrees to the terms, and keeps the action going. Right away Jonah gets called by God to go cry out against the Ninevites. He immediately tries to flee to Tarshish to get away from the presence of the LORD. (Because apparently God never goes to Tarshish?) Jonah’s journey begins on the ship leaving Joppa, and God replies by hurling a storm onto the sea that batters the ship.

And all for what? What is really at stake? For Jonah, it is his sense of justice. He can’t go to Ninevah because he knows God is going to forgive the Ninevites and that would be like God forgiving the Nazis at Dachau, or forgiving the KKK at a lynching, or ISIS at a beheading. Jonah wants no part in this plan, thank you. We like to think of Jonah as being flippant and rebellious, unwilling to do what he’s asked and silly for trying to outrun the LORD, but I’m not sure that’s fair…

Now for God, what’s at stake is that the Ninevites need to be called out on their terrorism, and it’s Jonah who needs to do it. Our God is not willing to accept Jonah’s decision to decline this opportunity. And what, Jonah really thinks he can get out of this by going to Tarshish? Shoot if that worked, Tarshish would be teeming with cantankerous prophets. God will not put up with this; she will fight for Jonah if she has to.

When the storm begins, the sailors try everything. They throw the cargo overboard to lighten the load, and they each pray to their own God. Then the ship’s captain finds Jonah asleep in the bottom of the boat. He wakes him up saying, “How can you sleep through this?! Pray to your God.” Which is the last thing Jonah wants to do.

Jonah doesn’t try to pray; instead, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. You might think they’d hurry up and do it already. But they don’t. They try to row against the storm. They plead with Jonah’s God. And when the sea will not be quiet, they pick up Jonah, hurl him into the water, and the storm stops. The LORD provided a large fish to swallow him, and Jonah stayed in the belly of the fish for three days.

Next, God sends Jonah back to the Ninevites to cry out against their evil. This time Jonah goes, and he yells about repenting, and wouldn’t you know the people of Ninevah repent, and wouldn’t you know the LORD our God decides to forgive. Which makes Jonah furious because he knew this would happen! He storms out of the city and sits down.

God makes a tree grow up over him to give him shade. Jonah loves the little tree, then God appoints a worm to kill the little tree, like she’s just messing with him. Jonah becomes furious again. God says to him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the little tree?” And Jonah says, “Yes, angry enough to die!” And well, there you go. Nobody asked for a blessing.

I know this story leaves us shaking our heads at Jonah. Why so much anger at God’s forgiveness? Why so melodramatic? The truth is, there’s something in Jonah I recognize in myself —a bright, clumsy sparkle of anger so unwilling to go unheard.

Of course, anger is not usually our favorite feeling. It can be tempting to deny our outrage as though Christians aren’t allowed to be angry. Now I can believe that anger doesn’t do enough good, but anger does something. It’s what, counselor John Bradshaw calls our “dignity energy.” Anger is how we stand up for ourselves. It’s how we stand up for what’s right. Like the chaos of the sea, anger is made of danger and creative potential.

Anger can expose what is really at stake. It can awaken our passion, the stirring where we’re most alive. “Oh isn’t that so nice…” said nobody ever about anger. But it might be our anger that gives glory to God.

I would take anger any day over stale cynicism that scoffs, “That’ll never work.” I will take anger any day over moral resignation that authorizes our apathy, that doesn’t care enough to notice how we don’t care. We need a faith that won’t just give up and say “Whatever.” We need a robust faith that can hold our ferocious, sparkling anger, that will wake up our passion saying “Don’t you care?!”

In the last few decades, mainline Protestant churches (like ours) have been noticing a trend. We are losing our young people. Children and youth were leaving the church after confirmation and not returning; now we’re seeing the rise of a new generation of young people who have never been exposed to church. We know this is going on.

Well about ten years ago, the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted an exhaustive survey examining the spirituality of American teenagers. I know I have talked about this before, but Kenda Creasy Dean wrote a remarkable book called Almost Christian which gives a jarring and hopeful interpretation of the study’s results.[1]

What it comes down to is this: American youth have done an excellent job of learning what the church has been teaching them. The problem is, the church has been teaching something Dean calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism which is a fancy name for the idea that God wants us to just be nice. I get it. We want to make our faith accessible and not too intimidating; so boil it down, or maybe water it down, and what we’re left with is: Be a nice person.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a problem for churches, but it’s also a problem for young people because it does not value what is at stake for them. Saying, “Don’t worry, being a Christian’s not that hard…” underestimates our teenagers and ignores what they’re passionate about.

Of course, it is also the case that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a fierce lie about God. It says, because God is loving, God is always nice. Really? I don’t think Jonah would agree. There’s nothing nice about God’s decision to forgive the Ninevites.

“Just be nice” is not the truth of our faith, nor the hope of the Gospel, and our teenagers can tell. We follow a savior who seeks out the suffering, and lays down his life, then gets up from the dead, and teaches us to do the same. We wrestle with a God who forgives evil, who teaches us to watch for the light in the dark and proclaim good news to the poor, to bring justice to the oppressed and liberation to those who are locked up. And watch out because your whole life will change! Our whole world will change.

In just a few minutes, we will begin our congregational meeting. I invite us to consider this: what if our church could be a people who seek out the spark of passion in one another… When we catch a glimpse of it, what if celebrate this passion and protect it? Because this is exactly what I can imagine us doing. Even if it means kindling our anger. Even if it means wrestling with God then demanding the blessing. Even if it means waking up our savior who’s asleep on the boat. The waves are pouring in, and we’ve got to go find him saying, “Wake up! Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” Jesus says, “Ah, you have no idea…”

Friends, what is at stake for Church of Peace is not getting a balanced budget. It’s not getting a new roof, or making sure we’re fully staffed. These are good things, but they are not the purpose of our church. What’s at stake for Church of Peace is the Gospel which refuses to leave us dead in the dust. Right now the storm is shaking the boat and our very life is being awakened from death!

Hallelujah! Amen.

[1] Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Oxford UP, 2010.

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