Sermon: “Greed or Grace?” January 22, 2012

“Greed or Grace?” by Rev. Stacy Swain

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Mark 1:14-

Jonah, the “reluctant prophet” who God has to call two times before he begrudgingly does what God asks of him.

Jonah, the rebellious prophet who when he first hears God’s call to Nineveh goes in the exact opposite direction, jumping on a boat and fleeing for Spain.

Jonah, who gets himself tossed overboard to calm a tremendous storm, who is swallowed by a whale, who ends up spending three days in the belly of that whale before being vomited out onto dry land.

Jonah, who finally goes off to Nineveh to deliver God’s message but is so bitter about having to do so that afterwards he marches off in a huff to a bluff outside the city, to pout and fume.

Jonah, who gets so angry when God makes a bush to spring up to give him shade only then to be devoured by a worm the next day, that he rants “why not just kill me now!”

This book of Jonah seems like it ought to be prophetic after all it is set in the Bible in right next to the greats as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Amos. And his call seems authentic for it begins with the prophetic announcement “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah.”

But with all the odd and rather comical twists and turns of this narrative, one has to wonder what the prophetic message of the book really is. Is its prophetic message the words that Jonah reluctantly speaks to the people of Nineveh? The words that were read to us today? Or is there more going on here? [1]

Before we dive into that question. Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Jonah is often referred to as the reluctant prophet as if reluctance is that which distinguishes him from all the other prophets of the Bible. But in fact, reluctance is not atypical for prophets. When a human being hears the word of God telling him or her to go out and say something bold, something that often runs against the grain of the status quo, the dominant culture, the prevailing myth of the time, reluctance — if not outright protestation — is most often how the “would be” prophet responds.

We have a tendency these days, especially in my profession, to glamorize or romanticize the prophets. If someone says “O, he has a prophetic voice,” or that “she has a prophetic ministry,” we all sit up a bit straighter and nod knowingly (trying to hide just a shade of envy perhaps) for who wouldn’t want to have the hand of God upon them, who wouldn’t want to have the words of God in one’s own mouth?

Who wouldn’t? Well a true prophet of course. The role of a prophet is a hard and dangerous one. The prophet is called when there is a rift in the relationship between God and the people. The role of the prophet is to mediate between God and God’s people when things are not going well.

Remember Moses, the great prophet of the Exodus, when he goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and then comes back down only to find that the “stiff necked people” have turned from their faith in God to bow down to a golden calf, an idol of their own making. Remember how angry God gets and how God threatens to destroy them all? But then Moses steps into the breach, into the broken relationship between God and God’s people and talks God down from destruction. Moses asks God to remember God’s love for the people, to forgive them — and God does.

Or do you remember, how the prophet Micah speaks truth to power, chastising the wealthy and privileged for their excesses, naming the injustice of an economic system that privileges and protects the prosperity of a few while consigning the rest to poverty and branding them as less than and not deserving.

Standing in the breach and speaking God’s vision is difficult and dangerous work. Not something taken on lightly. Remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

But as high as the cost is of doing the job of a prophet, not doing it is even higher. For salvation is at stake. The deliverance of a people hangs in the balance. Deliverance from misguided, unjust, sinful ways of being in the world that rob them and others from experiencing the full, glorious humanity that God has entrusted to them and envisions for all is at hand.

What a responsibility. No wonder Moses, when standing face to face with the burning bush and hearing the message that God asked him to speak to the great and powerful Pharaoh, was reluctant. He stammers “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Or Isaiah, when the word of the Lord comes to him and he is to speak to Jerusalem of how they have strayed from equity and justice of God’s vision, Isaiah protests “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!”

So it is not the reluctance of a prophet that distinguishes Jonah. Reluctance is a natural response when faced with one’s own limitations and the enormity of the task at hand.

What distinguishes Jonah is that his reluctant stems not because he fears he is not capable of what is being asked of him or even because he fears for his own safety, after all Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian empire, arch enemies of the Hebrew people; but because he thinks that the people to whom God has asked him to speak do not deserve it. For Jonah, it is not he who is lacking; it is the people of Nineveh. The scripture tells us that Jonah flees from God when God first asks him to deliver the message because Jonah knows that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah4:2). Given what Jonah knows of God, Jonah fears that God may very well extend God’s grace to the Ninevites; that God may well deliver them into new life and in Jonah’s mind that would be just about the worst thing possible. In fact, Jonah would rather die than deliver the life changing message that God wants Jonah to speak.

That is why Jonah runs away to sea. That is why Jonah pouts on the hillside. That is why Jonah rants, “Just kill me now God.”

The prophetic message of the book lies not in the words that Jonah speaks but in the person and actions of Jonah himself. The book in its entirety is a carefully crafted farce or parody that uses hyperbole to bring into relief the tight fisted, greedy, self serving mind of Jonah that he himself is blind to. The book of Jonah is a prophetic utterance warning of the choice we have to make between greed and grace.

For grace is happening all around. The sea and sailors, the whale and worm, the very lowest of low, the people of Nineveh and even the animals are all aware of it. They are all participants in this flood of grace of forgiveness and second chances and new beginnings. And then there is Jonah, so entrenched in his world view that he is missing out on it all. What was it about Jonah? Exclusive and self centered, he thinks he knows better than God. That he knows what should and should not be. The only one that looses out in this story is Jonah. His refusal, his inability to engage grace ultimately leaves him sidelined.

The book of Jonah, it is believe was written in the post exilic time when the Hebrew people were struggling to make sense of what just happened to them. When they were prying their fingers open to release their understanding of God as just their own tribal God concerned with only their well being to a wider and wilder understanding of God as moving in the world in ways they could not understand but that ultimately they were called not just to trust but to participate in. This tension between wanting to hold onto God for ourselves and the expansiveness of God’s grace is reflected in beautiful and lyrical passages that pepper the prophetic literature about the Hebrew people being the ones through whom all the nations will come to know God. Listen to these words that speak the vision of reconciliation.

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,

The grace of God is not just for one people but for all.

And so the book of Jonah is a powerful indictment of our tendency toward self absorption. Our own tendency to clutch onto our way of seeing things. Our own sense of entitlement. Our own tendency to determine who we think is worthy and who is not.

So I wonder what the book of Jonah in its prophetic indictment of greed and exclusivity in the face of grace, may help us to see about ourselves or about the social, economic and political landscape of our time? Do we think there are some outside of God’s grace? Some who are undeserving and better left out?

If Jonah is a teaching of warning, the gospel passage today is a teaching of inspiration. While Jonah focuses on himself the Disciples are being draw into the time that has come. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and they do. When God calls we are to trust that what God asks of us is what is needed not only for ourselves but for the greater good. The time is now. We are no longer waiting. “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Good News.” The God of love and forgiveness, of second chances and new beginnings is at work in the world. The seas and the whale, the bush and the worm, even the rulers and animals of Nineveh see it, participate in it, rejoice in it. Will we? Let us be informed and warned by the book of Jonah. Let us never hold too tightly what we believe is ours. Let our hands and hearts be open so that like Simon and Andrew, James and John we may be led into the future God envisions. Amen

[1] This sermon is informed by T.A. Perrry’s The Honeymoon is Over: Jonah’s Argument with God. (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA. 2006).