Sunday, January 25, 2015

God's Holy Joke

Jonah 3:1-5, 10


        I suspect there is no one here that has not heard the story of Jonah.  Folks who can’t name five books of the Old Testament know the tale of the whale. Or was it a big fish? Even the best of stories can be ruined with distractions over details. That is why jokes are such a beautiful vehicle for storytelling.  Once the hearer realizes humor is at the heart of the message, facts are dismissed as nonessential. Unfortunately, carefully crafted jokes are becoming unfashionable. A few years ago The New York Times wrote, “In case you missed its obituary, the joke died after a long illness. Its passing was barely noticed, drowned out by the one-liners that pass for humor these days.”

        I am sure this is debatable but in my mind no one writes better jokes than those descendants of the house of David.  Allow me to name a few of my favorite Jewish comedians: Grouch Marx, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Gilda Gadner, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, and I am just getting started. My descendents are from Scotland. For the life of me I can only come up with one Scottish-American comedian, Stephen Wright, but I am not even sure he counts. His mother was Italian and Stephen was raised Roman Catholic. I am also from the South. You tell me, is there any comparison between Sid Caesar and Larry the Cable Guy?

Jewish comedians have that wonderful talent of making self-deprecation an art form. Those of us who read the Bible know our Hebrew friends didn’t discover this talent in vaudeville or Comedy Clubs. It is in their blood.

Humor has always been a big part of the biblical story. Adam has to eat an apple to discover he is naked. The Tower of Babel would have never passed an OSHA inspection. And how many jokes have we made about Noah?

 Well here is another. If you switch the first two letters in the Hebrew spelling of Noah, what does it spell? The answer is Jonah. Is this coincidence or the humor of a Jewish story teller? One man hears God, runs toward God, and floats. The other hears God, runs from God, and sinks. But that is only the beginning of Jonah’s problem. Like any good satire, it is a complicated story.

The joke is a response to the question, “Who does God love?” That is a strange question. Doesn’t God love everyone? What about the terrorists that killed the satirical cartoonists in Paris? Does God love them? What about Franklin Graham who successfully blocked Moslem students from praying for peace in the Duke Chapel by having major donors threaten to withhold financial contributions? Does God love Billy Graham’s son? Does God hate murder and extortion unless it happens to be performed for a holy cause?  How on earth can we have this conversation without getting angry?  …….           Easy, we can tell stories!

“Jonah, go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.”

“God, why do you care about the Ninevites?   They are the worst bunch of parasites to ever walk the face of the earth. They are a bunch of no good terrorist who would rather kill than talk of peace. Besides, if they repent, they might want to move into my neighborhood. Do you have any idea what that would do to the real estate values?”

“No more excuses Jonah. You think I love only you?”

Jonah started to answer but then realized it was a rhetorical question. So Jonah runs away, not to save his life, but to save his reputation. He had no desire to be known as the guy who invited a Ninevite home for dinner.

When I was in seminary I had the honor of studying with Mark Achtemeier. Taking after his parents, Mark has become a noted conservative Biblical scholar. For fifteen years he was as the professor of practical theology at Dubuque Seminary. Mark was the darling of conservative Presbyterians. Then Mark began to address the issue of sexual orientation and how particular scriptures in Genesis and Romans should not be considered seriously considering the overriding theme of the Bible. Recently Mark reversed his earlier beliefs and has even become a proponent for gay marriages. Publications like the Presbyterian Laymen have tried to throw Mark under the bus by condemning both his scholarship and his faith. He no longer teaches at Dubuque.

When one breaks ranks with the status quo things can get ugly. Jonah was well aware of this. Nobody had anything good to say about Nineveh. To become their advocate was more trouble than Jonah desired. So the joke begins. To avoid trouble Jonah ran straight into chaos, first in the force of nature and second in the belly of the whale. Jonah moans and groans so loudly he gave the whale indigestion. The creature of the deep promptly threw up and Jonah landed on dry land. But nothing had been settled. Like a Jewish mother who pulls her head out of the oven only when her son agrees to go back to medical school, God says, “Now that we agree, why aren’t your bags packed.”

Whipped, and with no alternative but to follow God’s plan, Jonah heads for the big city.  Once there he marched straight to the Palace. Jonah will deliver the message, but he is just going to say it once and he will only speak to the one guy who under no circumstance is going to care what some Jew from Jerusalem has to say. Jonah timidly approached the King and in a voice so squirrelly it would make Woody Allen proud said, “I know you have plans for Friday night. You and the guys are probably going to execute some spies from Syria but I promised my God I would tell you if you don’t repent by sunset your whole town is toast.”

Jonah stepped back and expected to be the warm-up act for the Syrian spies. Of course that is not what happened. The King of Nineveh had a dramatic conversion proving once again it is God who saves and not sermons.

Well you would have thought Jonah’s favorite dog had died. He tore off his clothes and ran out into the desert in disgust. He looks up in the sky and in a speech directly aimed at the Almighty Jonah screams, “I knew you would do this. It doesn’t matter how bad someone is, you are ready to forgive. You don’t give a second thought to who is rich or poor, where they grew up, what color they are, or even what they believe. If you had your way you would let everyone into your kingdom no matter who they are.”

God responded, “ I am gracious, and merciful, I am slow to anger and my love is steadfast. Plus the last time I checked it is my house and I get to make the rules.”

A disgusted Jonah went further into the desert. He wasn’t going to hang out with the Ninevites. He couldn’t go home and tell his neighbors what he had done. So he found a small shade tree to protect him from the sun. Jonah sat down and sulked at what a miserable experience this whole odyssey had been. And God added the punch line. God killed the tree.   (stop)

I like to think I am a pretty good Biblical Scholar. I might be a better historian.

Fact - The Assyrian empire, whose capital was Nineveh actually existed. The Empire rose to prominence around 800 B.C.  Nineveh was conquered and sacked by the Persians around 620 BC. It was a warrior state known for both its might and cruelty. 

Fact - Jonah was an obscure character that lived during this time but nowhere in the history of this empire is there mention of a King bowing down to Yahweh, the God of Israel at the request of a lone Israeli prophet.

Fact - The book of Jonah was written four hundred years later. This fictional tale was written to remind the Hebrews of the wideness of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The questions of we should be asking about the Book of Jonah are not was it a historical event or was Jonah swallowed by a whale or a big fish. The question the book prompts us to consider is how large is God’s mercy and forgiveness. In simple terms, “Who does God love?”

The problem is no story and no question is all that simple. Today the ruins of ancient Nineveh have been replaced by the city of Mosul. It is the second largest city in Iraq and six months ago was captured by ISIS. This group has decided this modern day Nineveh will become the centerpiece of their plans to hold northern Iraq. So what is the word of the Lord to us from this ancient book of Jonah? For the original readers, Jonah was a satire on the rigidity of human nature when it comes to humanity’s inability to understand the complexities of other cultures. The message of Jonah was if God really intends salvation for all people, then we must at least talk to our enemies.

Perhaps the book of Jonah is not just a tall tale about ancient feuds. Perhaps it is a black comedy that speaks a word of truth to our present day dilemmas both in the world and in our conflicted communities. But even so, Jonah was satire. It remains over the top. In the year 815 B.C. no one went gone to Nineveh and in the year 2015 no one in their right mind is going to Mosul to speak of peace. Better to follow the tried and true path that eventually leads to the bloody exchange of cultures that have only been taught to hate those who are different. 

So we make Jonah a children’s story. We argue over the species that swallowed Jonah rather than explore the wideness of God’s mercy. We choose to laugh over the death of a plant rather than weep at our inability to put a human face on our enemies. And why shouldn’t we? We know everything we need to know about those folks who have sworn to kill us. Besides, talk is cheap.     (stop)

Friday, at Duke University, a day after the call for peace from the bell tower of the chapel was cancelled due to pressure from prominent religious groups, students gathered on the steps of the chapel. Many were Moslem, many were not. Prayers were uttered, peace was maintained, and after the service, words of reconciliation were exchanged. The gathering promised to be the beginning of a longer conversation between Christian and Moslem young people who claim the same God. But it was more than that. It was a gathering of folks who had heard a joke about a man named Jonah, and together they laughed.

May the God of all people be praised.     Amen.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Searching for Truth

I Samuel 3:1-20


        A few years ago there were a series of billboards decorating our roadsides that celebrated messages from God. Some of them were clever; many of them probably became titles for sermons; most of them I had already seen displayed elsewhere. Each sign made a point but none were specific enough to create heartburn. The one I remember most was, “I said it and I meant it, signed God.”

That leaves a lot of wiggle room for inspiration. I translated the words to mean I am supposed to forgive those folks I don’t really like. But it may have meant something altogether different to you. Like I said, the brilliance of the signs was each was open to interpretation. They also reminded me while a whole lot of folks speak for God, to the best of my knowledge it has been a long time since we have had an official declaration from the woman upstairs.

I Samuel 3 is about one of those happenings. This hardly seems a big deal because God made it a habit of speaking quite a bit in Biblical times. But our scripture opens with these words, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread.”

This kind of reminds me of today. Some of you may be blessed with daily encounters with God but most of us aren’t connected to God’s private line. I regularly seek silence, hoping to be open to the voice of God but usually what I have discovered is that silence adds clarity to my own thoughts. I have discovered there is a vast difference between silence and the silence of God. The Hebrew slaves encountered the silence of God through many generations. The voice of God was replaced by the voice of Pharaoh. It was a voice of power based on lies and enslavement. When God spoke, something new happened.

God was silent during the days of Elijah. The voice of God was replaced by the voice of Jezebel. It was a voice of deceit and fear. Elijah fled to the mountains to look for God. When God spoke, something new happened.

Between Moses and Elijah we find this transitional figure named Samuel. He would anoint Kings. Samuel would lead twelve tribes toward the goal of one kingdom. He would guide a people in disarray to a dynasty believing something new was about to happen. But before the dynasty of David took place, the mighty took a massive tumble.

As often happens in the Biblical text, transitional figures are introduced with extraordinary stories. Samuel was no exception. His mother was a pious woman burdened with a huge communal blemish; she had no children. In the eyes of her neighbors this misfortune was seen as a sign placed on her by God. While she appeared virtuous, the local gossip declared it was obvious Hannah had done something which severely displeased God.

Hannah went to town to have a conversation with the priest and then with God. Her prayers were so loud the priest tried to dismiss her. But Hannah persisted and eventually offered a deal to the Almighty. If she could have a child, Hannah would give the child to God.

A child was born and Hannah gives him the name Samuel which means, God has heard.  She then sang a song of praise that we later hear Mary sing at the birth of Jesus. True to her word, Hannah delivered the child to the Chief Priest whose name is Eli. The name Eli means I am God, a meaning that has great significance in the today’s text.

Eli was a pretty good guy who tried hard….. but not hard enough. His sons were scoundrels who perfectly personified the tragic state of Israel’s tribal system. Everyone listen to their own voice while the voice of God remained silent. The Chief Priest had great authority over political decisions and the sons of Eli made sure the pronouncements of their father benefited their needs and desires. Eli was aware of this but felt powerless to confront his off-spring.

Samuel was placed in the care of Eli and raised as if he was Eli’s own. The boy and the priest developed a close relationship to the point that the one named God has heard trusted above all the voice of the one called I am God. And so begins our story.

Samuel, a twelve year old, was sleeping close to the Ark of the Covenant. A voice pierced the darkness, “Samuel, Samuel”. The boy jumped up and ran to the one called I am God. Eli was not pleased to be wakened at 5 in the morning. Figuring the boy was having a bad dream, the priest sent him back to the bed. A second and third time Samuel heard the voice of God and ran to the one he knew as I am God. Eli, began to understand what was happening. The God that had been asleep had been awakened and spoke, not to the corrupt but to this young boy defined by the faithfulness of his mother.  Eli knew right then and there he was not part of God’s future. His time had come and gone. To his credit Eli told the boy, “Next time you hear the voice, say, Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

That is a great story whose introduction is perfectly crafted for the children’s hour. But it was never designed to be just a tale for the young. The story continues, exposing the corruption of Eli’s house and opening the door for the eventual coronation of David.

God spoke, and the words heard by Samuel were more than any twelve year old should endure. But then the words were not spoken to Samuel, but rather to a people in darkness that had little desire to search for the light of God.

I said earlier I was not privy to God’s private line; few of us are. But that does not mean I haven’t had my ear bent by Eli. How many times have you placed your trust in something or someone you believed to be infallible? How far was your fall when their imperfections were revealed? Eli was a good man but he was not God. The imperfections of this imperfect father would eventually have led to the imperfect formation of another imperfect priest. And Eli’s son would have continued to walk the imperfect path worn out by Israel’s imperfect people.

Maybe we can’t hear the voice of God because we have found another deity that speaks our language. The American way of life can become a deity. Dare I say the Wintergreen lifestyle can be a deity? The love of fame or fortune can be intoxicating. The world is full of folks willing to tell us they are god. And I guess in their minds they are.  Their words are so intoxicating that we get sucked in only to discover what happens when we place our trust in “lower case” gods.  This displacement of trust is the quickest way to ensure the silence of the “Capital G” God.

Tomorrow many of us will celebrate a day commemorating a man who in the eyes of many was a “lower case” god. When Dr. King listened to what his colleagues said about him, I am sure those words sounded like godly nectar. When he marched beside friends on the road to Birmingham or Washington he must have felt as empowered as a god. History correctly teaches us Dr. King’s ego was legendary and I am certain there were moments he secretly believed there was no movement without his presence.  But on Saturday night, as he restlessly slept wondering what he might say from the pulpit the next day, God broke the silence and a humble servant listened.

At Ebenezer Baptist Church, in February of 1967, Dr. King spoke of greatness. This is a long quote but it is well worth hearing. He said,

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be great—fantastic. But recognize he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. This was his new definition of greatness allowing anyone to be great because everyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Aristotle or Plato to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

I know a man who went about serving. He was born in an ordinary town to a poor peasant woman. He grew up in an obscure village and for three years was an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never went to college. He had no credentials but himself. Public opinion turned against him. He was called a troublemaker, an agitator who practiced civil disobedience. Even his friends deserted him. After a mockery of a trial he was lynched and buried in a borrowed tomb.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All the armies that marched, all the navies that sailed all the kings and parliaments that reigned together never affected the progress of humanity as much as this one solitary life. Some call him King of King’s. Some call him Lord of Lord’s. What made him great? He served and did what was good everywhere he went.

If any of you are around when I meet my Lord I don’t want a long funeral. If there is a eulogy tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention I have a Nobel Peace prize; it’s not important. Nor the hundreds of awards I have been given. Don’t tell them where I went to school or the degrees I earned. Just tell folks I gave my life serving others. I tried to be right on the war question. I did try to feed the hungry. I did try to clothe those who were naked. I tried to visit those in the hospitals and in prison. I did try to love and serve humanity. I did try to walk with Jesus in making this old world a new world. I did try to walk in justice and in truth and in commitment to others. I did try to serve somebody as I passed along this way.


A year later Dr. King was dead, but his living was not in vain. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

In the Wilderness, a Second Chance

Mark 1:4-11


        Last Sunday many of us had taken our designated seats in the Temple of the NFL. It was the fourth quarter, third and one, and America’s Team had their backs to the wall. The Lions, a team I only root for when they are playing the Cowboys, called a pass play, which isolated a linebacker on a tight end. The pass was thrown and the defender appeared to grab the receiver. A flag flew in the air and then without explanation was picked up. No one remembers the shanked punt on the next play. Few have spoken a word about the ensuing Dallas touchdown. Hardly anyone has raised issues with Detroit’s inability to score with two minutes left. But everyone knows an erroneous mistake was made, forever blemishing the reputation of head linesman Jerry Bergman. I imagine Mr. Bergman would love a second chance on that pivotal call. But then don’t we all crave second chances?

        When I am playing golf with The Bunch, too often a wayward tee shot finds its final resting place on the wrong side of the out of bounds stake. I start all over again. When this second effort finds the middle of the fairway, one of my playing partners will sarcastically utter, “Homer always hits it perfect.” In golf, second chances, no matter how perfect, come with a two-stroke penalty. In life, second chances are the genesis of our salvation.

Anne Tyler, in her book Saint Maybe, writes about Ian, a man torn with guilt over the death of his brother. She writes, “It was after seven on a dismal January evening, and most places had closed. One window glowed yellow, framing the block letters CHURCH OF THE SECOND CHANCE. Ian could not see inside because the paper shade was lowered. As he walked by he could hear the people singing. Ian could not make out the words but the voices were strong and joyful. He paused at the intersection, halted by the light that blinked, DON’T WALK. He hesitated, then turned and headed back to the church.”

Not only do we worship at the Church of the Second Chance, perhaps the text we claim as sacred should be called the Book of the Second Chances. The Old Testament begins with that great theological poem describing God’s spirit in the midst of creation. In the mind of the poet, this story has little to do with the universe and everything to do with the day-to-day confusion that often dominates our lives. For years I understood the creation story to suggest God created something out of nothing. But a closer examination of the text reveals God’s creation emerges from chaos. Jon Levenson writes, “To the ancients, the concept of ‘nothing’ was identified with disorder, injustice, subjugation, disease, and death. When God creates, order replaces disorder, justice replaces oppression, and healing replaces disease and death. Creation is the replacement of nothing with something and that something is seen by God to be good.” I find that to be a very comforting thought.

But let’s not stop with creation. The Old Testament is the persistent story of turning nothing into something. Abraham is given the chance to turn nothing into a nation. Jacob, a man of deceit and mistrust, wrestles with his nothingness. Moses leads slaves to freedom. The wilderness invites former slaves to find their identity in a God of mercy. Each voice that follows, be it David, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, retreats to the wilderness to create something out of their nothingness. Every narrative from Abraham to Ezekiel is driven by the hope that each new quest will end in perfection. But those of us who spend way too much time out of bounds know that is wishful thinking.

The good news is the story does not end in the Old Testament. There is a second chapter to this book of Second Chances. In the Gospel of Mark we are introduced to John the Baptizer. One might refer to John as the High Priest of Second Chances. John hung out in the wilderness, wore a camel shirt, and ate locusts dipped in honey. He was hardly the guy you would want your daughter to marry. John was a wild man, devoted to preaching a one-theme sermon that began and ended with the word, “Repent.”

If John had stayed in the desert or if John had remained out of politics, he probably would have kept his head a lot longer. But then John would have not have been such a compelling character. John knew it was not just the average guy on the street who needed a second chance. John believed all of God’s creation longed for a rebirth from the chaos that held the world in captivity.

I have nothing but admiration for the John the Baptists of this world. Too often the church becomes a self-imposed sanctuary from chaos. We need folks like John who have the courage to raise volatile questions. John wants us to become involved. He wants us to take a critical look at the compelling questions of our day. John puts our feet to an uncomfortable fire and that demands repentance. The difficulty for folks like John is that consternation only goes so far.  To be critical is admirable. But to have no alternative path sends us into a deadly tailspin. Second chances are a wonderful opportunity, but second chances are worthless if we make the same choice over and over again.

I once preached in a community that was filled with born-again Christians. Each year many of the churches would hire a well-known TV evangelist to come and hold a revival at the local high school football stadium. For three nights the house was a rock’n as the name of Jesus was proclaimed. Each year my fellow preachers would inform me that thousands of folks had turned their lives over to Christ. I never saw much difference in the size of their churches, and I certainly did not see much change in the attitude of our community. But every year the same folks went to the football stadium to get born-again all over again. They got born-again so many times I couldn’t keep up with their birthdays. I never witnessed their second or third chances doing much good. That is when I became convinced it takes more than the ranting of John or even the heavy lifting of Jesus to get the job done. I believe the grace of God to be universal, but I also believe the reconciliation of this world depends on us making some radically different choices.

Our story continues with the appearance of Jesus. The personification of Elijah opened the door for the embodiment of the Messiah. The God of Second Chances laid down a trump card and even John the Baptizer was silent. This play was so astounding the heavens were torn apart. And then God spoke, “You are my Son, and I am pleased.”

Have you ever thought to yourself, “What is it that God found pleasing about Jesus?” That seems like such a simple question. God found everything pleasing about Jesus.

But specifically, what pleased God?

Well the list could be endless. Jesus was perfect. He was the perfect example of perfect love, perfect obedience, perfect forgiveness. Jesus was that second shot down the middle of the fairway without a two-stroke penalty. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of what God desires our second chances to become:

Perfect love of God and neighbor;

Perfect obedience toward the perfection of our relationship with God and neighbors;

Perfect forgiveness in our imperfect transactions between God and neighbors.

No one gets it right the first time. The God of Second Chances has spent an eternity watching us begin our lives over and over again. Thankfully God’s patience is endless. Thankfully God’s grace is timeless. Thankfully God waits:

Hoping we might try something different;

Praying we might embrace God’s past and God’s future;

Knowing that Jesus has shown us the way to do both.

The good news of Second Chances is God constantly invades the seasoned ground of our chaos.

DON’T WALK….. RUN toward the light of God’s grace.