March 8, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Jonah 3-4:5, Luke 15:11-32
When Grace Goes Out
You know they’re stuck outside. Both of them. Two different regions. Two different stories, centuries apart. But in some way, they’re in exactly the same spot, on the wrong side of the door. Jonah leaves the city; he goes and sits down in a booth he made for himself. There he can watch and see what happens to the city, but he won’t go back in. Then there’s the older brother. He goes and stands outside of his father’s house. He will not go in to the party. That’ll teach them.
We can see what this is. These two men have been trying to do the right thing, and what happened is not fair. Now it seems their grace has gone out. Snuffed out like a finished up candle. Here on the outside, we can shake our heads with wise exasperation. Oh Jonah. Oh Unnamed Older Brother. In these stories, you are so chillingly alone in your suffering. And I’m pretty sure, all of us have been there too. Stuck on the wrong side of the door.
To begin with, today we hear the story of Jonah. After Jonah tried to run from God. After the raging storm at sea. After getting swallowed by a fish then getting thrown up on the beach. Finally, he is ready to do the thing that God asked him to do. And wouldn’t you know, it works.
God sends him to proclaim the word of the LORD in Ninevah. Now when you hear Ninevah, think Trail of Tears. Think Abu Ghraib or genocide in Darfur. This great city had become the capital of torture. These are the people Jonah gets sent to! He tells them, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” And they believe him. The king issues a decree and the whole city repents. They begin a fast and put on sackcloth and ashes, even the animals. And wouldn’t you know, God changes his mind. And if you’d like this story to have a happy ending, you’ll want to stop reading here.
What happens next is that Jonah storms out. He prays to the LORD: “[I knew this was going to happen!] This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love… And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it’s better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3). Just kill me, God. Now Jonah is alone, even though I am sure, he is not the only one who has prayed this prayer. God does not comply with his demand. So Jonah goes out of the city and sits down by himself. Here he’s alone on the wrong side of the door, and who is going to come and sit by him.
Now today we get to hear another favorite Sunday School story. It is also an exquisite story of repentance, and conversion, and compassion —and scorn, and injury, and righteous indignation. This one comes from the Gospel of Luke as a parable that Jesus tells. See, a man had two sons. And his younger son does the unthinkable. He asks for his portion of the inheritance, and this father gives it to him! Of course he leaves home and squanders his money in dissolute living. That’s when a famine strikes the land, and this younger son gets hungry. He managed to get a job feeding pigs, but no one gave him anything to eat.
So you could guess what he does next. He goes back to his father ready to repent and ask for a job. But if we didn’t know, chances are we could not guess what this father does. He runs out to meet his son and kisses him. Before this son gets to say his apology, the father decides to throw a party! Get the best robe, a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet! There is no stopping the compassion of this father, no quieting down this glad reunion. And if you’d like this story to have a happy ending, you’ll want to stop reading here.
This man had two sons. The older son was out in the field when he heard music coming from the house. When he asked what was going on, it seems like everyone knows but him. “Why, your brother is back, so your father killed the fatted calf.” Now I don’t know what the older brother prayed right then, but I can believe he might have said to our God: “O LORD, take my life from me, for it’s better for me to die than to live.” We don’t know what he prayed. We know that he would not go in that house. Here he’s alone on the wrong side of the door, and who is going to come and stand with him.
Both Jonah and this older brother are experiencing the same injury. It’s not like they have been targeted and wounded themselves. Their problem is that these others are getting away with murder! It’s not fair. But it’s worse than that. Their sense of what is supposed to be has just been violated. And nobody cares. We might say, these men want justice. We might say, these men want revenge. Wouldn’t you?
Revenge is the work of trying to solve a problem. On the surface, it seems like revenge is about restoring balance: I hurt you, you hurt me. It settles the score and makes us even. But what if there’s something deeper? What if our impulse for revenge comes not just from suffering but from the horrifying possibility that you are the only one who knows this pain?
Nobody knows the trouble I see. Nobody knows…
I think this makes revenge a kind of aggressive empathy. You need to know what I’m feeling, because I can’t live in this world being the only one who knows this deep sorrow. Please you have to feel this too!
Of course revenge is easy to reach for, but the thing is, we might not be as alone as we feel. Outside, not ready to go in, all tangled in outrage and indignation. This is exactly the place Jesus knows so well. This is exactly the place where Christ can come and find us with the promise that goes, “Yes I know. I have been there too.”
Friends, I really believe. If we can find no other hope in the violence of the cross may it be that Jesus’ suffering means we’re not alone in ours.
Nobody knows the trouble I see. Nobody knows but Jesus.
Now there is fasting in the city and feasting in the house, and Jonah and this older brother will not go in. We know grace is going on over there. God’s grace is in the repenting in the city, in the rejoicing in the house. Then what happens is the reckless, resplendent grace of God gets out. Grace goes right to the people who are wounded and angry and clears a spot on the ground to sit down next to them.
If you want to see what this looks like, there is an exquisite scene in the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine. The whole family goes on a road trip through the desert so that seven-year-old Olive can participate in California’s Little Miss Sunshine pageant. But along the way in the van, her teenage brother, Dwayne, discovers that he’s colorblind. This cancels his dream of becoming a jet pilot in the Air Force. In this moment, his whole life is ruined. He can’t see the green letter A on the page, and you see the terror and rage well up inside of him. They manage to pull the van over on the side of the road; Dwayne bursts out the side door. He charges down a rocky cliff cursing and sobbing, issuing the plea to “Just leave me here!”
First his mom makes her way down the cliff. She tries to comfort him, but he won’t have any of it. He will not go back inside the van. She slowly climbs back up the hill, and nobody knows what to do. Then little Olive, in her red cowgirl boots, struggles and stumbles down the hill. When she gets to the place where he is sitting, she does the best work of our faith. Olive sits down next to Dwayne. She leans her head on his hunched up back, and she doesn’t say a single word. She doesn’t have to.
This is the grace that hears the protest and calls it holy, the grace that sits down next to suffering so raw, then does not flinch or leave to soon. The grace of Jesus Christ is not property reserved for the repenting or the rejoicing. Grace goes out into the world to meet those who are alone and hurt.
And so do we. May it be so. Amen.