Sermon: Jonah, Nadia, and Me

At Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Torrance, CA) we have a tradition where on the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, the outgoing Senior Warden delivers the sermon during worship before the meeting. The following is the sermon I delivered to the congregation on January 25, 2015. It was the Third Sunday after Epiphany. Texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B were:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

God said to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah…”

In this season of Epiphany, we’re hearing a number of stories that focus on occasions when God speaks to individuals and directs them to take action in His name. Last Sunday, we heard about the boy, Samuel, who, in the middle of the night, heard a voice call his name. He didn’t understand what was happening, but his mentor, Eli the High Priest, told the boy, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ”

In her sermon, Bonnie spoke quite frankly about her own experience of lying awake in the middle of the night, worrying, and waiting to hear a voice of reassurance telling her everything was going to be ok. Pastoring a church – of whatever size – is a tremendous responsibility. And even though she didn’t mention it specifically, I am sure that the duties of caring for this flock would keep any Rector awake some nights.

Bonnie also asked the question of which would be worse? Hearing God’s call, or never hearing anything at all. If we hear the voice of God, that call demands a response: hearing means accepting responsibility and taking action. It is an awesome duty to live out a true calling.

So in this season of Epiphany, as we’re looking at the instances when God calls his faithful, we can see a wide range of responses to God’s call. And the story of Jonah is an important one for us to examine.

Our lesson begins with this detail: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” That is our clue that we are picking up the story of Jonah in the middle of a three act play. And this middle part of the story has a happy ending.

The people of Ninevah have sinned. And as Christians living in the 21st Century, we read about how a bad people heard God’s message through the prophet Jonah and responded. Ninevah declares a fast, they mourn, they repent, and God spares them. This cycle of sin, judgment, repentance, and reconciliation is one Christians are well familiar with. Hearing how the people of Ninevah repented and were spared, we are consoled knowing that if we fall that we too are able to repent and be restored to relationship with God. The salvation of Ninevah cheers us, knowing that salvations remains ours for the asking.

Jonah, on hearing the news that Ninevah faces destruction yet can saved, has a very different reaction from ours.

At this time, Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrian empire. Scripture tells us that 120,000 people live in Ninevah, and that on foot, it would take three days to travel from one end of the city to the other.

God told Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah was to declare to the people, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Jonah recognized the voice of God. He understood what was expected of him. And he didn’t want to have any part of God’s plan.

In last week’s reading, Samuel was young – he is old enough to work in the temple, but is also described as being still a boy – and although he is living and working under the High Priest Eli, he is most likely sheltered from the outside world and naïve enough to do what he is told without questioning. Jonah, on the other hand must be a grown man, and although he is a faithful servant of God, the truth is that no task could have been more distasteful for an Israelite of that time. The Assyrians were Gentiles, idol worshipers, and would have been hated as such. But beyond that, the Assyrians oppressed Israel cruelly, and were warring enemies. God had threatened to destroy the capital of one of Israel’s worst enemies. The last thing Jonah wanted was for Ninevah to be spared. Jonah knows hate. And, in fact, Jonah is a bigot. Jonah wants to see the Assyrians overthrown, not forgiven. His heart is dead, and he wants nothing to do with seeing his enemy spared God’s wrath.

We all know the story of Jonah and the big fish from Sunday school. Jonah boards a ship headed as far away from Ninevah as he could get, they run into a storm at sea, and Jonah confesses he is the reason the ship is about to sink. The frightened ship’s crew throws Jonah overboard, and he spends three days in the belly of the fish, an experience Jonah himself describes as “the belly of Sheol” – Sheol being another word for “the grave”.

Jonah is perhaps the biggest fish story of all time. Biblical literalists have spent a countless amount of time and energy trying to find a fish in the ocean as big as the one described in the Book of Jonah, and in trying to collect anecdotes about people who were swallowed by whales and survived. But if we focus on these details, we will miss the point entirely. The big fish is only a tool to bring Jonah himself to repentance.

The fish spits Jonah out, dropping him back at the place where he began. I can imagine Jonah standing up on the beach, dusting himself off, when God speaks to Jonah for the second time, “Get up, go to Ninevah…”

Powerless in the face of God’s compulsion, Jonah relents. He goes to Ninevah. The people hear his warning, they proclaim a fast, and repent. And, as promised, God spares this city of 120,000 people—men, women, children, and animals as well.

Jonah complied, but wasn’t particularly happy about the situation. And the Book of Jonah doesn’t end on a happy note for Jonah himself. The city is saved, but he is resentful. The enemy of the nation of Israel lives on. The story ends with God questioning Jonah. God’s questions go unanswered, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions and to ponder where, in our lives, do we refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When I think about this theme of reluctantly responding to calling, I am reminded of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran priest. Nadia recently wrote a memoir titled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” – the title, of course, refers to the church plant she founded in Denver, CO, – the House for All Sinners and Saints.

In interviews, Nadia speaks honestly and openly about her own calling to a life of faith and to the priesthood. She says of her experience as a Lutheran,

“I love[d] the emphasis on grace, the fact that God always is coming to us. There’s nothing we do to make our way to God. God is continually coming to us and interrupting our lives and wanting to be known. And I had experienced that to be true. And I was so grateful when I stumbled into a place where I didn’t have to like remove half my brain in order to believe the things that they were telling me to believe.”

Nadia and I were both was raised in a fundamentalist Christian tradition. As we came of age, we both questioned what we’d been taught, found it didn’t work for us, left that tradition, and sojourned for some years outside of organized religion entirely. My secular friends who knew I’d left the Church of Christ were surprised to hear I still considered myself a Christian. I just wasn’t ready to give up on God. Nadia says this about her experience outside organized religion …

“…with everything that happened and all of the stops along the way, I never really managed to be an atheist. I couldn’t pull it off. I think the fact that there is a God is something that never left me no matter where I sojourned to.”

And, she, like myself, searched for and discovered a better way to follow Jesus. She characterizes her journey as a love story. Describing her calling—away from a path of self-destruction and toward a path of religious faith and service in the priesthood—she says,

“…becoming Lutheran for me, because being somebody who got clean and sober, it really felt like this rather rude interruption of my life by God, like I was really OK being dead by the time I was 30 and I had this tragic sense of who I was and God — it was like God plucked me off that path kicking and screaming and went, ‘That’s cute. I’m gonna put you over here …’ “

I’m sure Jonah, too, would have described God’s calling as a rude interruption. But keep in mind, not all callings are as disruptive as these. As you reflect on your life, ask yourself: where do you feel God calling you?

In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, is famous for writing, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

God doesn’t speak to us today in quite the same way as he did in the time of Jonah. Discerning our calling – our life purpose – will rarely involve the shocking experience of being thrown overboard from a ship at sea to spend three days in the belly of a fish.

Brooks and I moved to Los Angeles in 2009. Brooks had a life dream of going to Cinema Makeup School, and for a number of reasons, I was ready to get out of Memphis to live somewhere different. We landed in Alhambra. For about three years, I worshiped at All Saints in Pasadena, where I got my introduction to the Episcopal tradition. At every service, they say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome at God’s table.” And when you’ve been raised in the kind of fear-based religious tradition as I was, it is easy to scoff and say, “Yeah, right!” But when I’d look over the audience, I saw a lot of people just like me. And slowly I realized that they really did mean what they said.

I had been damaged by my experience with fundamentalism, but I wasn’t ready to give up on God. By the time I found All Saints, I had been away from organized religion for about 8 years. Our move to LA coincided with the feeling that I was ready to find a new faith tradition to get involved with – I was ready to return to church. Discovering the Episcopal Church through All Saints was like a breath of fresh air to my spiritual life.

I spent three years at All Saints, slipping into and out of worship services fairly anonymously. Those three years were a time of recovery and healing for me. But at the end of those three years, I was feeling that I wanted to find a smaller church to get involved with, a place where I could dig in and make a real difference. Brooks and I moved again, just over three years ago now, to Torrance, where I found St. Andrew’s.

The religious tradition I grew up in doesn’t use words like calling or discernment. However, I can now look back and say with confidence that I felt a calling. Remember Buechner’s criteria: your deep gladness, and the world’s deep need. I remember looking up this church’s previous website and thinking, “These people need me.” As you are aware, that website project ended up begin just the tip of the iceberg.

As you will read in my Senior Warden’s report for 2014, I have enjoyed serving this year as your Senior Warden. This has been a year of tremendous personal growth for me. Being Senior Warden has been challenging. I’ve made some mistakes. But I am ending this term with greater confidence in my own ability to lead when the need arises. And for these opportunities, I am truly thankful.

This is a small but very active church. When you look over the Rector’s Report, I expect you will be as amazed at the sheer number of events that take place here through the year as I was. Making this parish run requires the hard work of each and every one of its members. We do a lot with a little here.

As we go into this New Year, I would urge you to reflect on where and how you serve, and ask where you might be called to do more than you do now. This church is a place where someone can serve God and their neighbor to as great an extent as they’re willing and able. The harvest is ready, but the workers are few.

Let us pray:

Gracious God,

Send us anywhere in this world You would have us go
Only go thou with us.

Place upon us any burden You desire
Only stand by us to sustain us.

Break any tie that binds us
Except the tie that binds us to thee.

Amen.

 


 

References:

1. Opening prayer is from Psalm 19:14

2.Nadia Bolz-Weber quotes are taken from her interview with Krista Tippett OnBeing podcast Oct. 23, 2014. Transcript here >>

3. Closing prayer is found here >>

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In Which God Answers Prayer

“Lord… make me straight. I want to live a normal life like my parents have. I want children and a wife and two-story house with a white picket fence. I don’t want be alone the rest of my life. I want to be good and go to heaven when I die. Make me straight…”

When I hear people talk about how God answers prayer, I remember all those days and nights I spent praying to God, “Let me be straight.” Having been raised in a fundamentalist family, I knew being gay wasn’t an option. I had been taught that God answers prayer, so I took my problem to Him. I was afraid and had no one I could talk the situation over with. A couple of years ago, I wrote in my spiritual autobiography, “If fervent prayer or if just wanting it to be so could change someone’s sexual orientation, it would have happened for me.” I spent uncounted hours, alone and in the dark, praying to God, “Let me be straight.” Today, almost 30 years later, I’m not straight. Did God answer my prayer?

What you think about prayer will be a direct result of what you believe about God. In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong describes how most people’s concept of God develops at about the same time they are learning about Santa Claus. (“He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good…”) As children mature and become adults, so their concept of Santa Claus matures also. Too often, however, concepts of God remain stunted and never mature past that early point even as people grow up and become mature adults in all other areas of their life. God remains for them the white-bearded man in the sky, sitting on a throne surrounded by clouds and sunshine, peering down at us humans on the Earth far below.

What was I expecting to happen, as I poured my heart out in prayer? I wanted a sign. I wanted to be transformed in some way that would make my life—and my future—look and feel like a life I considered normal. I wanted to be spared the pain and judgment I expected to receive from my family and church if (when) I came out. I wanted to be spared the loss of relationships that I knew would end if I embraced what I knew to be my true identity. The closet is a cold and lonely place, and I didn’t think I could live in the closet my entire life. I wanted to be spared the difficulty of making a choice between what I had been told was right and what I experienced as right.

When I consider the subject of prayer, a couple of Biblical figures come to mind. Jesus, just prior to his arrest, prays in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” And Paul, writing to the Corinthians, states that God had given him a “thorn in the flesh” for which he prayed three times that it be removed. Did God answer Jesus’ prayer? Did God answer Paul’s prayer? If I expect God to grant what I ask, then God can only be said to have answered Jesus’ prayer if Jesus had been spared crucifixion. Paul continued to write as if God had spoken to him verbally, “…he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” Maybe this response was meant to be taken literally, but I don’t hear the voice of God that way, so I have no reason to believe Paul did, either. In these instances, the prayer and the pray-or were sincere and heartfelt, yet the answer to these prayers didn’t arrive in the form of wish fulfillment. There was a greater plan which these requests would have thwarted. So clearly the concept of whether and how God answers prayer is more nuanced than yes or no, or even not yet.

Did God answer my prayer?

As time went by, as hours became days became years, what I prayed slowly changed. As I poured out my soul, expressing my desires and my fear to Him, I believed then—and I continue to believe today—two things. First, that God hears my prayer. And second, that He understands my suffering. God is the one “in [whom] we live and move and have our being” not out there in space somewhere, far removed from us. God is one who “loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” God is the one who become flesh, lived among us, and “who in every respect has been tempted as we are…”

God did answer my prayer, not by granting my wish to become straight but by helping me understand that I didn’t need to be made straight at all. I believe that God’s Holy Spirit was walking with me in my journey to understand his will for me. As time passed, what I prayed changed as something inside me changed. I moved from asking of God “let this cup pass from me” to instead saying, “in all things, thy will be done.” Like Paul or Jesus, I accepted the situation I had been given. I surrendered my will to let God’s will unfold.

If your concept of God is punitive, then he acts as Cosmic Cop, waiting to punish otherwise good people who might once slip up and commit a sin. If your concept of God is that he materially rewards the faithful, then you may expect him to act as a kind of Cosmic Butler, waiting to grant the wishes of those who he deems good enough. Neither of these concepts is healthy. Neither of these concepts are true to the God I find in scripture. As my concept of God has matured, I no longer see God as cosmic cop or cosmic butler. Because God is ineffable (defying expression or description, too sacred to be uttered), I have a hard time visualizing what God is like. The images of Cop and Butler—so similar to the image of Santa Claus—are simple and simplistic, easy to imagine and ultimately facile. My God remains mysterious, greater than I can conceive in any easy way, but he does speak to me quietly, in a small, still voice that takes patience to discern.

Faith, Discernment and Doubt

National Public Radio published a piece titled From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Teresa MacBain, 44, had been raised conservative Southern Baptist, but had found the United Methodist Church where she spent nine years as an ordained minister leading a congregation near Tallahassee, FL. The NPR piece describes her experience of coming out as atheist, describing the process of beginning to ask difficult questions following her ordination. Eight years later, she recognized that she had become an atheist. She spent the next year slowly coming out to others.

The piece focuses a great deal on MacBain discussing accepting atheism, attending an American Atheists support group, and her experience losing relationships with the people she formerly pastored. I’m not sure what she expected when she began the process of speaking about her atheism. Much of the backlash she has experienced should have been expected — people are people, and when someone publicly announces they’ve lost their faith, people with weak faith themselves will recoil and retreat rather than engage in any meaningful way.

Many comments on the article that I’ve read have focused on how un-christian they feel the people of MacBain’s church behaved toward her following her leaving the ministry and church. I had a different reaction. I wanted to know more about how she came to the United Methodist Church, and what made her think she had a calling to become ordained clergy?

MacBain would have been in her mid-thirties when she became ordained, and that seems really late both in her life, as well as late in the process, to begin asking questions like:

  • Is Jesus the only way to God?
  • Would a loving God torment people for eternity?
  • Is there any evidence of God at all?

Why, I want to know, didn’t her discernment process lead her to ask some of these questions? There must have been something flawed in how her discernment process was managed.

Why, as a person of faith, wasn’t she already asking these types of questions? The article lacked any discussion about what she believed before she expressed a desire to enter the clergy. And it failed to provide any insight other than to say that MacBain began to ask hard questions after her ordination.

My experience is similar to hers in that I was raised in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist church. About four years ago, I relocated to Los Angeles and began attending worship services with Episcopal churches near where I live. I’m not called to ordained ministry at this point, but we — Episcopalians — do discuss ministry and discernment in terms of our daily life. We’re all priests and ministers to our fellow human beings, and each person is encouraged to discern in their own life where they are called to serve.

When I decided that the tradition I was raised in wasn’t dealing honestly with issues that I considered important to the integrity of my faith, a faith they had instilled in me, I had to walk away. I could have looked at the hypocrisy and dishonest approaches I was raised in, and let the bad behavior of some people — including members of my immediate family — lead me to conclude that all religion is false and look to secular humanism to find meaning in life. But I wasn’t ready to give up on God. And I recognized that just because  a majority of people believe something, or that a set of doctrine is traditionally believed, that doesn’t make either the majority or their doctrines right and true.

I faced a choice, and I chose to believe, but I had to search for a different way to believe… When I grapple with the consequences of letting go of Biblical literalism in favor of a metaphoric, inclusive faith, I find myself less and less certain that there is an afterlife even while wondering if I’d really mind so much if I did bump into Hitler in Heaven. But I haven’t yet let go of the idea that following the teaching (and example) of Jesus would make life on Earth better for everyone, or that the effort would be pleasing to God.

I sympathize with MacBain, though. I ask myself tough questions about my faith. I try to listen to that still, small voice of God speaking to me against the roaring noise of my own desires and aspirations. And I know I will always have more questions than I will have answers in this life.

What about you? Where do you feel called to serve? Do you wonder where God is? Does he hear and care?

Or maybe you can’t believe in Heaven if Hilter will be there, too.

Let me know what you think.