God’s Unnerving Mercy

We got a couple of passages that are, well, doozies.  They speak about God’s mercy which is way beyond what we could ask or think.  This sermon is a continuation of sorts from my sermon for 9/11 on forgiving.

Here it is.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matt 20:1-16

We heard the tail end of a story many of us may remember from our childhood if we went to Sunday School: the story of Jonah and the Whale.  We know the part about Jonah being on the boat and getting tossed overboard and being eaten by that great fish, but the other details are fuzzy.

So I’ll give you the recap: Jonah, an Israelite prophet, was called by God to cry out against the Ninevites because of their great wickedness.  Jonah didn’t want to do this, so instead of heading east to Ninevah, he went west.  He gets to a sea town, pays his fare and hops on a ship.  In the middle of the Mediterranean, a wild storm kicks up, each crew member prays to their particular god.  Still stormy.  They throw everything overboard.  Still raging.  They draw straws, and Jonah gets the short stick so they want to know what he’s done.

 

He tells them that God is angry with him, and the only way to calm the sea is to throw him overboard.  They’re reluctant, but finally do it.

 

Whale enters stage right, swallows Jonah.  He prays there in the belly of that fish (and yes, I know whales aren’t fish; Scripture says great fish, but the size we’re talking has to be what we know today as a whale).  Indigestion sets in after a few days, the fish burps up Jonah on dry land.  And he high tails it to Nineveh.

 

He preaches, they repent and, as we heard today, God forgives them all of their great wickedness and decides not to destroy the city and all its inhabitants, both human and animal.

 

And Jonah is ticked.  He knew God was going to do this, which was why he fled west in the first place.  He wanted to see those blasted Ninevites suffer for all the wrongs they had done; Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and had, many years earlier, destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He wanted them to pay for their transgressions.

 

But they repented.  And God was merciful.

 

So instead of being thrilled as a preacher for bringing all those Ninevites to repentance, Jonah is angry at God.   He goes off to sulk on a hill overlooking the city to see if God might be fickle enough to flip-flop again and rain down fire and brimstone, because the relatives of these very Ninevites had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, who were among God’s chosen people.

 

Last Sunday I spoke about Jesus’ call on us to forgive and how difficult that can be, and yet how it is the only real Christian response.  Some of you have followed up with me and said things like, “I can maybe forgive, but I can never forget” or “That’s fine, but I’ll still remember what happened on 9/11.”  We say things like this because we’ve heard that we are supposed to “forgive and forget,” as if forgetting traumatic experiences is something that can be done with the snap of a finger.  And we don’t want to forget.  And I would agree that forgetting isn’t really possible and that we should remember.  But I want to push a little and say that it’s important how we remember.  If all we are remembering is the hurt inflicted on us, if what we don’t forget is the anger or hurt, then we aren’t really forgiving.

 

One of my seminary professors, theologian Miroslav Volf, has written extensively on this topic of forgiveness and remembering rightly.  Prof. Volf knows what he’s speaking about.  He’s a Croat Christian from the former Yugoslavia, and tells of his experiences of being treated as a CIA spy when he returned from his studies in the US leaving his American bride behind in order to perform his compulsory military duty in the early 1980s for the then communist Yugoslavia.  He speaks at length about watching the horrors inflicted on his countrymen by the Serbs in the 1990s.  And he speaks about wrestling with the call of Christ to embrace the Serbian fighters, called cetniks, who were ravaging his homeland.

 

Ultimately what Prof Volf says is this: “the Passion of Christ requires us to recognize that the grace of God… extends to every human being”  Even more so, the cross “honors victims even while extending grace to perpetrators.”  And ultimately, the work of Jesus Christ “helps the wronged and the wrong doer reconcile.”[1]  We are to remember that through Jesus Christ those harmed and those doing the harm are each offered grace by Jesus, and while those harmed find solace in Christ’s being harmed as well, we are reminded as well that Christ died to forgive the wrongdoers.

 

And the catching point comes precisely at the next line often repeated in the Epistles, which is this: and we are, all of us, wrongdoers.  This is not to say that we should dismiss any evil lightly, or that we shouldn’t even remember.  But our remembering, as Prof Volf explains it, should be done in light of the work of God done in Christ’s Passion.  When we are harmed, we should through God’s grace take the long view, the one that recognizes in Christ that we are all to be reconciled.  We are not to overlook wrongdoing, we are indeed called to denounce injustice.  But that must never lead us to retributive violence.  He writes, “The Passion memory is a hopeful memory since it anticipates deliverance from the wrong suffered, freedom from the power of evil, and reconciliation between the wronged and the wrongdoers — for the most part, a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”[2]  Let me say that last line again, “a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”

 

In other words, none of us is as innocent as we might like to think.  It’s so easy to look over at the “other” —whoever that is, the person or group that we have vilified—and see the wrongs done.  But to see the wrongs we’ve done, well they’re not quite so bad in comparison.

 

But God shows mercy on us all, without regard of whether we think someone deserves God’s mercy or not.

 

Which is quite unnerving if we think about it from our perspective.  We are like Jonah wanting the Ninevites of our day to get their just desserts.  We’re not sure we want to share the message of God with them for fear that they too repent and come to experience God’s mercy.  We want, instead, to hoard God all to ourselves, letting the evildoers in our lives to enjoy the consequences coming their way.

 

We want, like Jonah, to go sit on a hilltop to watch the impending fireworks rain down on their lives.

 

So when Jesus compares the kingdom of God on this day to this unbelievable generosity, it makes us squirm, or I’ll speak for myself, it makes me squirm.  It is so much easier to place labels on people and say they are outside of the love of God.  It requires little work to determine who is part of God’s “in” group and who’s out.  But God keeps on showing that when we do this, we get it wrong.

 

One commentator this week repeated a lesson he learned from his first seminary professor: “I remember [her] saying that universal salvation may or may not be true, but it is certainly unchristian not to hope it is true.”[3]  That’s uncomfortable to us who want God to be fair, that is, we want God to be merciful to us and judgmental to those who’ve harmed us.  But what we see as fair, God sees as completely unfair.  God want to extend the arms of love that God offers to each and every one of us.  To the conservative one and the progressive one.  To the American and the Libyan.  To the border patrol officer and the illegal immigrant.  To the white woman on Wall St. and the Hispanic woman cleaning her home.  To the child on the streets of Bangledash and the pimp who claims ownership of him.  From the American soldier to the member of the Taliban.  The cross of Jesus is for us all so that we all can find God’s mercy and forgiveness, and, ultimately be reconciled one to the other.  That is the hope of God for us all.  Shouldn’t we join God in that hope as well?


[1] See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, 2006, Pg 118.

[2] Volf, 119.

[3] Todd M. Hobbie, “Jonah 3:10-4:11 Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, pg. 74.