Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-4, 11 and Mark 3:20-35 for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 7 2015
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-4, 11
3:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
It is complicated to be a Christian these days. We have just read two texts that bring some of the complexities to the surface. The issue is how to read these ancient texts as a modern person. We read from the story of Jonah and the gospel of Mark. In Jonah, one of the famous characters is a big fish that swallows Jonah and three days later deposits him on land. I doubt if there are many here who take that literally.
The gospel text included a conversation about demons, Satan and exorcism, and again, I wonder how many of us are comfortable with taking that literally. I do not want you to feel obliged to.
But both of these texts are about God and what God is doing in the world, and so both of them are also about evil. I do not know anyone, regardless of what you think about demons, who does not believe that evil is alive and well today.
Both of these texts are also about people who get it wrong; not just a little wrong, but completely backwards. Jonah shares that distinction along with the scribes from Jerusalem. There is much to learn from them, so we will look at both in turn.
Jonah’s Family Values
First, Jonah. The people of Nineveh were enemies of Israel. Jonah has a family problem. He wanted God to be the mascot on his family’s flag. You could say his slogan was “blood and soil” – one the Nazi’s used, and the Hutu’s and the nationalists of countless groups who claim the right to do enormous evil with God’s blessing. It is not a small mistake; God wants the exact opposite.
Jonah wants judgment and wrath; God wants mercy and redemption. Jonah wanted a tribal God for his in-group, his people alone; God wanted all the families of the earth to know the blessings of forgiveness.
But Jonah was so emotionally committed to the concept that his own family, the family that descended from Abraham, was the only family on earth that God was supposed to be concerned with, that he would rather die, he said, than to live in a world in which all the families of the earth were blessed, if that included Ninevehites.
If he had bothered to remember the original blessing promised to Abraham, he would have had to recall those exact words: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3)
To not want all the families of the earth to be blessed is to want the exact opposite of what God wants.
So, Jonah wants the opposite of what God wants. The Jonah story is about one way in which people get God completely wrong. The gospel text is about another, but it also has to do with family issues.
There is no question that Jesus was acting in a deviant way, and his family was getting alarmed. He did all kinds of things that violated norms of correct behavior. In this text we see that even his family tries to shut him down.
Remember, Jesus’ teaching theme is that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Raising huge crowds and talking about a kingdom sounds like revolution. If the Romans caught wind of it, it could get a lot of people killed. So, Jesus’ family was upset. This ends up being fortuitous: it gives Jesus the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a part of his family.
But it goes further than his risky teaching about an alternative kingdom. Jesus is a direct threat to the scribes, the bible literalists in Jerusalem with their own vested interests in maintaining the status quo (and who, by the way, benefit financially from the way the system works).
In what way? Already in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has violated the Sabbath by his “work” of exorcism and healings more than once. He has become ritually unclean by touching a leper. He has done what only God is allowed to do, by telling a man his sins were forgiven. He has had dinner with an infamous sinner, a tax collector, instead of shunning him. He has defended his disciples’ grain-plucking on the Sabbath, a direct violation of the Law of Moses. The biblical boys were upset.
The issue is whose side is Jesus on: God’s or Satan’s? The answer should have been obvious. All of Jesus’ work was on behalf of hurting people. All of his actions were directed towards their well being. People who were isolated and shunned because of their demons and diseases were healed and restored to their communities. Sinners were forgiven. Social outcasts were included. If a person could look at all of that goodness and think it was the work of evil, they were not just a little confused, they were, like Jonah, completely wrong.
To not want all the families of the earth to be blessed is to want the exact opposite of what God wants. What does God want? Jesus shows us: God wants our well being, our flourishing, our healing.
Jesus and Family
How does that happen? It always involves family. A dramatic, but underplayed shift in Jesus’ teaching has just taken place. Up to now, the central metaphor for what God is doing, has been kingdom. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” But now, for the first time, the metaphor dramatically morphs from kingdom to family.
The way to think about what God is establishing through Jesus should now be seen as the creation of a new, alternative family.
Perhaps “kingdom” is too structural and impersonal. Family is relational. No one can be healthy without a family of love and support. Which is why this gospel text is so profoundly important. In this text we hear Jesus redefining his family. It is not about ethnicity or geography; it is not about blood and soil as Jonah believed. Jesus’ family is made up of everyone who, as he says, “does the will of God.”
This is an amazing statement:
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This is called non-dual thinking. It is way outside the box. It is outside all the boxes that normally define the parameters of family. It is outside the bloodline box, outside the shared history box, even outside the religion box. But this is exactly the kind of non-dual thinking the mystics of many different traditions have spoken of. It is not a coincidence that Mark’s gospel has told us about Jesus’ spiritual practice of long periods of silent, contemplative prayer. Meditation changes your brain, and this is evidence.
Getting back to the story, non-dual thinking means that Jesus defines family as everyone who does the will of God. For Jesus, being family, doing God’s will, means many things. It means working on the side of the common good; extending God’s circle of inclusion until there is no one standing outside of it. It means seeing with God’s eyes, people who are suffering, and not being okay with it, but doing something.
Opposition: Vested Interest
It should not be missed that the Scribes who were calling Jesus evil had direct self-interest in shutting him down. He was a threat to their pocketbooks and their power. If everyone started thinking that God was more concerned with mercy than sacrifice, their whole temple enterprise would collapse and their income along with it.
It is still the case today that when people feel their self-interest threatened, whether it is a threat to the money in their accounts or to their cherished sense of how the world “has to be” to suit them and to suit their people, they get narrow and mean.
But the family Jesus identified answers to a higher calling. We are that family. We are called to goodness. In the face of any and all discrimination, we will stand for inclusion. In the face of poverty, we will stand with the poor. In the face of suffering we will stand with the victims. These are the defining family character traits we bear. We are the family that understands that it is still God’s will to bless all the families of the earth.
Being this kind of family has huge implications that touch many areas of life, but today, I want to bring this down to one issue. Being in this family that Jesus created, in our day, this means that we will stand with the planet itself which is so threatened by human action. Global temperature change is a fact that is undeniable. The only people who challenge it are those with clear vested interests, that is, financial interests, at stake.
In the service of personal financial gain they are willing to put everyone else at risk. That is precisely what it means to make money into Mammon and bow down to worship. That is the opposite of good.
But there is a huge amount of money at stake, and so the climate change deniers own cable news channels, newspapers, radio and internet services, and have created doubt in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus.
Florida too, has, adopted a policy that banned state environmental officials from using the term “climate change.”
Why? “The prediction raised fears that home insurance rates would increase and coastal development would slow.” Development would slow. That is, someone’s chance to cash-in would be diminished.
This is part of why we need to be here for each other in the way that a family is. We need each others encouragement and support. And, we need to work together in an organized way to make a real difference. It is not the will of God to ruin this planet as a place for human habitation, no matter how much money is on the table.
To not want all the families of the earth to be blessed is to want the exact opposite of what God wants.
Many of us have moved to this area because of how amazing it is. We have the Gulf, the wetlands, the wildlife refuges, the parks, right outside our door. I know from many of you how directly related this beauty is to your experience of God. You and I feel wonder at the beauty of a sunny day, and the awesome power of storms, like we have had this past week.
We were made for this. No other animal looks up at the stars and gets goose bumps. No other creature feels awe at the sight of a pelican skimming effortlessly over the water or a baby turtle wriggling out of the sand.
We believe in incarnation: that God is the ultimate Source, and so we find transcendence in the world of matter and beings. We are the ones who experience Christ in the physical sacramental bread and in the cup we share, as we gather as a family around the Lord’s table. We are aware of God’s presence in everything, and in everyone.
God still wishes to bless “all the families of the earth.” And, as humbling as it is to consider, God does not prefer us to anyone else on this planet. But God invites all of us to be a part of his worldwide family, by doing God’s will; by joining him in being a blessing.
It is complicated to be a Christian these days. We need to keep close to the Source in the face of evil. That means, like Jesus, the spiritual practices of prayer and meditation. I sometimes wonder if Jonah would have practiced meditation or yoga, perhaps he would have had compassion for the people of Nineveh. I wonder if more of us practiced contemplative prayer if perhaps we too would be better family to “brother sun and sister moon” as St. Francis was.
This is an important part of the reason we gather together as this new family that Jesus has created. We gather to worship our Creator, and to encourage and strengthen each other to be the people of God in a complicated modern world where so much is at risk and so much is at stake.
So, let us be the family we are meant to be. Let us be the worshiping community that joins to do the will of God, before it is too late.