Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands"

George Bernanos, in his book The Diary of  A Country Priest, describes the ministry of a self-effacing and unsuccessful country pastor. Most of the time the priest appears to be inept. The village he serves ignores him and the people all but abandon him. Particularly harsh is one of the women parishioners, mostly motivated, it seems, by her own personal bitterness towards God. At length the priest is called to minister to the woman as she faced death. Somehow he manages to break through her defenses and helps her to surrender to God’s mercy. “‘Be at peace,‘ I told her. And she knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it forever. It will be I that gave it to her. Oh, miracle, thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands.
The theological lesson expressed in the story of Jonah, in the alternate Hebrew Scripture reading (Jonah 3:10-4:11), is one of the most important in the Bible. Jonah, clearly, was a man of “empty hands”: empty by his own stubborn choice. 
Jonah had a unique call from God: to go and speak for God at Nineveh, capital of the Assyrians, one of Israel’s hated enemies. God commissions Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repentance, but he refused. “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”  Jonah books passage on a ship, and during the journey a massive storm arises and threatens the ship and its crew. The sailors on deck, laboring to fight the storm, cry out to their deities to save their lives. Meanwhile, Jonah has gone below decks to the inner part of the ship to take a nap. The captain comes down and finds him sleeping, rouses him, and says, “What do you mean, you sleeper? For God’s sake (and ours) get up and call on your God so that we don’t sink!” The picture is one of total empty-handedness. No one knows what to do next.
Up on deck the sailors are brainstorming why this evil has befallen them. They can only conclude that it’s because of the new guy on board, Jonah. In “grilling” him, it comes out that Jonah is running away from the Lord and from his responsibility to the God of the Covenant. Because the storm is getting worse and they’re feeling more and more helpless, they decide that they need to take action. Jonah, by this time, is having a serious case of remorse and suggests that, perhaps, if they throw him into the drink, the storm may subside, since he is apparently the cause of the trouble. For a second the sailors are reluctant, but then, with no better idea and completely empty-handed, they grab Jonah and pitch him overboard.
And the Lord,” says Scripture, “appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah…” Jonah ends up with a lot of time on his hands to reflect and get things right between himself and God and his neighbors -- three days and three nights! His subsequent prayer to God hints that, perhaps, Jonah is beginning to realize who’s really in charge here. “You brought me up from the pit...Salvation comes from the Lord.” At length God bids the fish to unceremoniously spit Jonah out!
On the second try, where the passage appointed for today’s liturgy begins, God convinces Jonah to once again take on the mission to Nineveh. To all appearances Nineveh was a big city, since Scripture alludes to a three day journey! Jonah gets only about a third of the way across the city when he experiences what must be every pastor’s dream. The entire city grinds to a halt; a fast is proclaimed; everyone, including the king and even the animals puts on sackcloth; and all bow before God, renouncing their evildoing and violence. God, the merciful, the forgiving, the compassionate, surrounds the Ninevites.
Now, you’d think that with that kind of success Jonah would’ve been ecstatic and would’ve recommitted his own life to God on the spot, and preached to those Ninevites with a zeal and fervor that would make Billy Graham look like an amateur Sunday School teacher. Instead, Jonah is unwilling to let God be God. God “had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened…” And Jonah was angry! His heart was full of resentment and bitterness towards God for sending him to a non-covenanted people: you know, the wrong denomination, so to speak! He resented the Ninevites because all along, on the journey and now, both the sailors and they had acted with more faith than he had. They repented, changed their lives, opened their hearts to God the Mighty One, while Jonah remained empty-handed and empty-hearted.
In a gesture that calls into question Jonah’s mental stability, he removes himself to “East Nineveh”, sits alone in a tent and waits! His hardness of heart convinces him that the people of Nineveh are faking. Sooner or later, he figures, they’ll go back to business as usual. Then we’ll see how lovingly-kind and merciful this God will be as God brings doom down on the city!
But it doesn’t happen. Jonah just sits there, baking in the hot sun. The Lord, “gracious and full of compassion...loving to everyone...faithful in all God’s words and merciful in all God’s deeds…”, as Psalm 145 describes God, lets a plant grow to provide some shade for Jonah. Jonah would never say it, for he’s not speaking to God at the moment, but the shade of the plant feels pretty good. The next day, however, Jonah notices that the leaves are dropping off and that the plant seems to be withering, dying: very much like the way Jonah is feeling inside. A fat worm has found the succulent plant (we’re told that it may have been a castor oil plant, which might indicate that what Jonah really needs is a good catharsis!), and soon there’s no more shade. The sun beats down so severely that Jonah almost suffers heat-stroke, and in his heart Jonah is probably near to cursing God for killing the plant, not to mention that God has also taken away some very nice shade! “It isn’t fair!” “Why?” “Why me?” “How dare You?”. Jonah is possibly thinking. And God says, “You pity the plant for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh?…”  The last lines of  the Gospel appointed for this Sunday (Matthew 20:1-16) ring like an echo to this question: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong...I choose to give this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?…
Here are a couple of ideas you and I might think about over the next week. First, you and I, like Jonah, each have a unique call from God to do God’s work. And that’s the point: it’s God’s work. Anything you and I do as followers of Jesus is to be guided by what he wants, not by what we want. God’s will for us and in us can only be accomplished if we’re willing to accept our human inadequacy, unsuccesses, frustrations, our inability of ourselves to hold out anything but empty hands to him or to one another. The “sweet miracle of our empty hands” is God’s. 
We all run the temptation, particularly when we have any sort of deep “spiritual” experience, some form of personal conversion or renewal, of putting words into God’s mouth, or of attributing to God’s will our own human motives, preferences, and inspirations. This is dangerous enough for ourselves, and even more so when we project such things onto others and their actions. Listen to the great preacher John Wesley’s caution: “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from God. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil.” When you and I, like Jonah, are too proud to allow God to do God’s will, in the way God wishes to work these out, whether in our own lives or in the Church, then we can be sure that we’re running in the opposite direction from God’s presence. There’s great wisdom in testing the authenticity of our experiences against what we pray so frequently: “...for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever…
Secondly, the messages of both Jonah and Matthew today are interrelated with last Sunday’s theme of forgiving others without limit. There’s a perversity in each of us that begrudges God’s unworldly generosity and God’s will to give a sister or brother, or a group of people, what we judge to be “undeserved” rewards. Matthew’s parable has been called the Parable of the Eccentric Employer. Ours is an eccentric God, a God of the unexpected and the startling. God’s economics frustrate us because they’re so unlike our standards. Followers of Jesus don’t bill God for services rendered. Being called to God’s work, early or late, is always an undeserved, unmerited privilege. None of us earns his/her way into God’s reign. The joy of it all is that God’s amazing grace and lavish generosity enables all of us equally to come to salvation. Even with our best efforts, we’re all overpaid. Matthew’s parable is, indeed, a word to each of us against an unbending, grumbling attitude, whether of the strong against the weak, the old-timer against the newcomer, the faithful against the “sometime” follower of Jesus.
The Lord is near to those who call upon God, to all who call upon God faithfully.” 

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