(thinking about Jonah 3:1-5, 10)
My friend, Mrs. B, lives by all accounts a quiet life in retirement with her husband and Bernese Mountain Dog, Larry. I look forward to her posts to the Berner email lists I read, and every now and then she sends me an email because it means something to her that my emails come from Rev. Songbird Luck. Mrs. B and I share a Christian faith, but I have no idea her denomination or her creeds or her practices. I only know that she signs every email with this signature line: "If dogs don't go to heaven, I want to go where they go when I die."
Can I get an Amen?
In chapter 3 of the book of Jonah, after all sorts of dramatic encouragement from God, our hero finally gets around to his work, warning the citizens of Nineveh that they are on God's bad side: Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty
days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (Jonah 3:4)
They decide to put on sackcloth and fast, on the off chance God will offer a second chance. You have to hand it to them, too. In the verses the lectionary skips, we learn that
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no
herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall
they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with
sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from
their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” (Jonah 3:7b-9)
Poor animals. They fasted and wore sackcloth, too?
This may sound silly to us. (Okay, it does.) But it points up something that has been on my mind all day today about religious language and practice. The inclusion of the animals might seem quaint to us, or perfectly sensible, or even heinously disrespectful to God. You and I might well disagree about which interpretation sounds right or helpful or even tolerable. The Revised Common Lectionary SKIPS over the animals, remember that. Maybe they thought it encouraged cruelty to animals?
(Please chuckle now. Thank you.)
So, we have an ancient story, possibly completely invented and possibly bearing some relation to a true incident and also possibly accepted as literal by some folks–in fact, the book of Jonah was a case study in some text I read in seminary, stressing these interpretive dilemmas.
And here is the difference between what I understand to be an inclusive response versus an exclusive one.
I may not agree with your interpretation of the Jonah story about the animals, and if you take it in certain ways I might well think you could use some education in the genres of ancient literature, or the unlikely existence of a city that takes three days to walk across.
But here is what I will not think. I will not think I am in a position to judge your faithfulness simply due to our differences.
I will not say that a Christian is a person who reads only a certain translation of the Bible, or receives Communion four times a year or every single day, or sprinkles infants or immerses adults, or likes guitar music or organ music better on Sunday morning. I may prefer to do things differently than that other Christian does, or understand the reasons differently, but I will not say or suggest or imply that our disagreement means the other person is not a Christian.
I don't know how God will sort out our differences in the end. But I will keep trying to err on the side of inclusion, because I understand Jesus in a particular way that leads me to believe he would want me to live like that. And because that's true, I refrain from using gendered language for God in my writing and speaking, and I invite children to the Communion table and I try hard not to judge. I really try hard on that last one, but the people who trip me up, the situations where I find it most difficult, revolve around inclusion, or the lack of it. It's hard for me to feel welcoming toward people who think I, or my church people, or my friends, cannot be Christians because we don't speak a certain way about God, or ask people to be who they were not born to be, or render judgments about our observance of the sacraments.
Or whether we believe dogs go to heaven.
No one has taught me more about inclusion than Molly, the best church dog a pastor could want. On Sunday morning she went to church with me in a snowstorm. Before the service, she sat near the door and greeted new arrivals. While I led worship, she sat with a nice couple who offered to keep an eye on her–though she knows when it is time to lie down and listen and merely humored them. At coffee hour, she made the rounds to greet the late arrivals and accepted a piece of cheese from the snack table. Whether with a "Wroo" or a paw uplifted or the kind of smile only Molly can give, she reached out to everyone she met without stopping to ask when and where they were baptized and whether or not they still had the certificate.
Jonah had a hard lesson to learn in Nineveh, that God may just love someone we think of as ill-willed, ill-considered, ill-met.
Elizabeth Anderson, the poet who shared her work at the Inauguration yesterday, wrote:
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial,
national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need
to preempt grievance.
I hear President Obama, a person of faith accused of being not really a Christian by many during the campaign, asking us to live that way, inclusively, lovingly, with a maturity that obviates the need to be competitive about our particulars.
To my mind, Jesus would approve.
I know Molly does.