I’ve worked in enough churches over the past nine years to tell you that some congregations arrive early, and some arrive as a big crowd just on time, some hurry in just past the appointed hour, and others spread themselves evenly over the spectrum. But for a preacher, being at church early matters, which is why being late to worship is a classic anxiety dream for preachers. It happened to me in real life once, when I was a student. I preached at a church one Sunday in June of 1997 and had a return engagement for July, but no one told me there was a summer schedule and the second of those services would start an hour earlier. I arrived and found the service underway. I peeked in a side door to the chancel, and the deacon motioned to me. A member of the congregation was preaching a sermon he had written for a Scout Sunday long ago.
I pretty much wanted to die, but when it was time for the pastoral prayer, I got up and prayed it, because someone pointed to me and then to the microphone. I got through that part all right, but I couldn’t imagine what would happen when the service was over. Would someone let me have it? After all, it had to be my fault, right? I was angry that no one told me, and a little afraid they had and I just didn’t remember.
I suspect there was some grumbling I didn’t hear directly. Just like the grumbling over the vineyard workers who got the full pay even though they worked only the tiniest little sliver of the day. We wonder why the owner hired them, and we also wonder where they came from. Did they get the time wrong…in their case by 10 hours, not by one? Had they been looking for work elsewhere and failing to find it? Were they just slackers? Why did they get the full day’s pay?
This strange occurrence probably gave a sense of excitement to the workers who picked grapes all day. Maybe they would get a bonus? But no. They received the pay they were promised. And I suspect every one of us has had some experience where things didn’t seem to work out fairly, some experience where we saw someone else get a better deal, or fairer treatment, or unfair advantage, and we wondered why and even complained about it, to ourselves if not to others. And maybe we even complained to God. Though perhaps not quite as directly as Jonah.
Jonah has a great advantage over us, because God is a character in his story, actually holding a conversation with him. A pastor friend says he was a grown-up before he found out there was more to the Book of Jonah than a guy who ran away from God and got swallowed by a whale. He suggested that in his church they didn’t teach the end of Jonah because it didn’t match up with the image of God they wanted the children to have. They wanted the children to know that you’d better do whatever God wanted as soon as God wanted. Or else.
Or else a whale would swallow you.
And on this day we’ve sent our children downstairs to begin another year of their faith education, I certainly hope they will learn lessons that will enable them to live lives that will please God.
But the ending of Jonah’s story takes us in another direction, even into another time and another understanding of God. It gives us a God more like the one Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
|Jonah as portrayed by Michelangelo|
Which is funny, because my friend grew up in a Christian church. And so did I. But just like him, I didn’t know until I was grown up that it was a “great fish,” and not a whale, and I didn’t know there was more to the story of Jonah. And since the end makes no sense without the beginning, here’s a thumbnail account. God wants Jonah to bring a message to the people of Nineveh, a huge and hugely immoral city. Jonah resists. He can’t believe there’s any worthwhile purpose in going to Nineveh. God’s just going to have to destroy those terrible people anyway. And as far as Jonah’s concerned they wouldn’t be worth saving. He wants nothing to do with them or God’s errand and takes ship in the opposite direction. He’ll be thrown overboard in a storm because the sailors have heard him say he’s trying to escape God, and they consider him to be a curse on the ship. The great fish comes not to harm but to save Jonah, to preserve his life, and it is at God’s word that the whale—er, fish—spits him up onto the beach.
Eventually Jonah does get to Nineveh, where he brings an ominous message to the whole city. Nineveh has only forty days! After forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed. And to Jonah’s surprise, and maybe even to God’s, the people of Nineveh undertake a fast and dress in sackcloth, both signs of repentance. Even the animals go without food and wear sackcloth. Perhaps it seems a little over the top, but where there is such deep brokenness, they seem to understand that a big display will make the point more effectively.
So far, so good. The message has been shared—turn to the one God! The message has been received! The people do so. And God responds. God’s heart is moved, and God decides not to destroy the city and its inhabitants after all.
No. It’s just the beginning of the end of the story.
Jonah has issues. You have to wonder why God would pick him out for this errand in the first place. And what I find gripping about this story is the way God keeps talking to Jonah, even when Jonah goes into a funk so severe he describes himself as “angry enough to die.”
I expect the early-arriving vineyard workers felt something similar. But Jesus’ story tells us that God’s love is available to all of us, whether or not we show up early in our lives, whether or not we know we are God’s from the beginning.
And that may be a bitter message to those of us who feel like we try hard all the time. We come to church, we volunteer our time, we fill out a pledge card, we may even pray and read our Bibles! Shouldn’t we get a bonus?
It might just make us angry.
It might fill us with the kind of bile Jonah felt in his throat as he tried to tell God just how furious he was. Why would God change the rules of the game? Why would God decide NOT to destroy those terrible people?
Why would God embrace the latecomer? Doesn’t God appreciate the hard worker?
Shouldn’t God give grace according to our qualifications?
We might want to stop ourselves before we go too far. We might want to remember the times we did things wrong. And we might want to listen to Jesus. Whatever we do that is good or faithful is a response to God’s grace, not an application for it. That grace is not a loan given with our good behavior as a guarantee. In the economy of God’s grace, there is no shortfall. In the economy of God’s grace, there is no bankruptcy. In the economy of God’s grace, there is always enough for everyone.
God’s grace is greater than
• Our crankiness
• Our sense of entitlement
• Our righteous indignation
• Our judgment of others
• Our outright intolerance
Furthermore, God still puts us to work, even if we run away like Jonah, even if we grumble like the early arrivers, even if we spend the day farting around and get to it late like the 3 o’clock hires, and especially if we’re overlooked by others until almost the end of the day.
I told you earlier that I wondered if the church where I came late would let me have it. On that July morning in 1997, I gave the Benediction and waited to see what would happen next. A very nice lady came straight to me and said, “We are having a special coffee hour at Mrs. Brown’s house. I hope you’ll follow me right there so you don’t get lost.” At the coffee hour, the Treasurer sought me out and pressed a check into my hand. “I can’t take this,” I said. “No, no,” she insisted. “You must take it.” Oh, they let me have it: love and mercy and generosity and hospitality and grace—so much grace. I drove home smiling, having learned more than just to check on summer worship times.
|Jonah Under a Bush Outside Nineveh|
We don’t know if Jonah ever got up from under the poor, dead bush. The story ends on the cliff-hanger of God’s question to Jonah, and we might understand it if God considered Jonah beyond redemption himself.
But God still extends love and forgiveness, mercy and grace, despite the worst we can do, despite the worst human beings surely have done. Jesus would lose his life because people were angry enough to kill God, yet he still calls to us, two thousand years later. He calls us to open our hearts and minds to receive God’s love and acceptance. And that’s the Good News for all of us, early birds and latecomers and Jonahs, too. We can stop wasting our precious lives feeling angry enough to die. We can turn to our loving God and become joyful enough to live. Amen.