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Jonah 3.1-10

Mark 1.14-20

It’s Not Pie

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

At last count there are going to be three pies at the Froggatt Thanksgiving table:  son-in-law Adam is a terrific pie maker, and he is bringing an apple pie and a meat pie – not mince meat, but meat.  I’m contributing a chocolate pecan pie; it’s kind of a family favorite and there was a small but vocal rebellion when I changed it up to chocolate pumpkin last year.  But Debbie has said she’d like a pumpkin pie as well, so there just may be a fourth – meaning with twelve for dinner on Thursday, there will be a lot of pie left over, so in the good old New England tradition of pie for breakfast, come by early Friday morning and we’ll save you a slice.

The very first line of this week’s UCC stewardship insert reads, “At first glance, Jonah seems an odd choice for a reflection on stewardship.” You can say that again!.  Jonah?  The reluctant prophet who, when God called him to go to Nineveh, on the far eastern side of the Mediterranean, promptly boarded a ship to Tarshish on the extreme western side of the sea?  Jonah, whose very presence on the westbound ship nearly caused it to sink in a vicious storm until he was thrown overboard and the storm immediately subsided?  Jonah, who suddenly found himself, Pinocchio-like, in the belly of a giant fish?  Jonah who, after being vomited out of the fish’s belly found himself on a remote beach where God, who cannot be fled, tapped him once again on the shoulder and gently reminded him, Nineveh is that way?  Jonah who, reluctantly and resentfully carried the good news of God’s grace and salvation to the Ninevites, and who, when they repented and turned from their evil ways to embrace the God of heaven and earth, instead of marveling at his success as a prophet took it as a personal insult and went away to pout?  This is a good stewardship model?  In part, I get it – when the minister ascends the pulpit to remind us of our financial and material contributions to the church, who in their right mind does not have the urge to run as fast and as far as possible in the opposite direction?  If we were to take the example of Jonah to heart, we would have titled this morning’s sermon “Run Away!”

But let’s sit with Jonah for a few minutes more.  What caused him to run away?  What caused him to be successful?  There is not one moral to the story, there are many, but this morning I think Jonah was motivated by an unusual type of fear:  he was afraid of being successful.  God had called him to bring the word of judgment and reconciliation to Nineveh, which as the writer describes was a great and wicked city.  And Jonah would just as soon it remain that way.  Nineveh was Israel’s enemy, and Jonah had no desire to do or say anything that might deliver God’s abundant grace to them.  Nineveh was a useful enemy; their wickedness was so great that most of the rest of the world could feel pretty good about itself by comparison.  It would be as though we compared our current national anxiety with the life in the Soviet Union and concluded, well, maybe democracy is looking a little shaky right now, but it’s OK just as long as we don’t become as bad as that!   It’s easier to keep your enemy at arm’s length than to consider that they too might be beloved of God.

But we need to ask the question Jonah asked himself:  what does it mean that God might love our enemies as much as God loves us?  Does that somehow tarnish or diminish God’s love for us?  Or does it raise the question, why is anyone an enemy?  I was having a conversation Friday morning with two of my favorite people – two of my favorite non-church people that is - Charles and Teresa, and one of the things we talked about was why people are so quick to take sides?  What if we take no sides?  What if we accept no one as an enemy?  Or, following God’s lead in Jonah, what if we take both sides?

Part of Jonah’s mistake, I think, is reflected in Lee Moses’ stewardship reflection this morning.  Jonah understands the love of God as a limited asset.  How can God forgive Nineveh, that great and terrible wicked city?  I mean, I understand how God can forgive me, because I’m a pretty loveable and forgivable guy!  But Nineveh!  Kind of cheapens God’s grace and mercy, don’t you think?  But God’s love and grace are boundless – there is always more to go around.  As it has been fashionable to point out lately, it’s not pie:  God’s love for the other doesn’t mean there’s less for me.  At some point the Froggatts are going to run out of leftover pie, but God’s bakery just keeps pumping them out.

Then again, God’s love for Jonah’s enemy calls Jonah’s own judgement into question, and that’s difficult for anyone to countenance.  By the same token, God’s love for my enemy, or if I lack a clear enemy, which I think and hope I do, God’s love for someone who strikes me as offensive or reprehensible and unlovable, calls my own judgement into question, doesn’t it?

In a few moments you and I will dedicate our pledges to our church.  Friends, this is a generous congregation.  I spoke earlier this week with Jonathan Tobin our church treasurer, and he told me that this year’s pledge income, for 2023, is on track to surpass our 2023 pledges.  That is, some of us are contributing even more than we promised.  Thank you.  I thank you, and the congregation thanks you for your generosity.  Sue, what was the total of the grocery gift cards we collected and you distributed yesterday?  And how does that compare with last year’s total?  And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  We sent over $2400 to Lady Doak College earlier this year, we support 17 food-challenged families through Chester Elementary School’s Backpack program, we have sent funds, over and above our weekly giving, to relief efforts in Hawai’I, Ukraine and Pakistan, and we are looking for ways of deepening and increasing our local outreach.  This is a generous congregation.  But the story of Jonah challenges us to be generous in ways that go beyond our wallets.  Whatever we have learned about generosity and abundance in this stewardship season wants to overflow into our hearts as well.  Can we love our enemies?  Now I grant you that speaking of anyone as enemies is an antiquated way of phrasing this, so let me put it this way:  can we love those who do not love us?  Can we break down whatever emotional or spiritual walls that permit us to perceive others as, well, other, as unlovable, or not worthy of our attention or generosity? 

That’s the hard part.  Most of us can probably find a way to bring God that extra 5% we’ve been asking for:  if you’re giving $20 a week, five percent is just another dollar – most of us can do this.  But to find love in our hearts for the unlovable?  I’d rather part with the extra dollar, thank you very much, because it doesn’t cost me nearly as much as reevaluating my relationships with others, it doesn’t compel me to look deep within and consider the ways I may need to reorder my attitude and my understanding and my heart.

The book of Jonah does not end well.  Jonah does not have a change of heart; the book closes with him sitting petulantly on a hill overlooking the newly redeemed and forgiven city of Nineveh and wishing it were otherwise.  At the end of the story we are left, not with a troublesome tale that is nearly and satisfyingly resolved in a way that sends us all happily home, but rather it concludes with an open question:  how deep is our generosity of spirit?  Is it deep enough to allow for the transforming power of the love of God that transcends our own understanding?  Is there room in our faith for a God who loves the people we cannot or will not or do not yet know how to love?  I believe there is, and I believe we each reach a different level at different times and in different ways.  And the wonderful part of it is that even when we are struggling to find love in our own hearts, God continues to be as gracious and understanding and forgiving and empowering with us as God was with Nineveh, that great and wicked city.  Whether we prefer apple or pumpkin or pecan or meat, at the end of the day there is pie enough for everyone.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697

 

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