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What brings the question to mind this morning is the community-wide interfaith service coming up on the anniversary of September 11th. Lately I have been receiving some interesting mail on the subject (but NOT from our members, I hasten to point out). For example:
Dear Pastor Leininger,Finally, to help me understand, she included some additional material about Muslims - "as well as others in the kingdom of darkness" - plus a pamphlet called "The False Gospel of Islam."
Here is another. This from a local minister.
For the past week I have had a sense of disappointment in the plans announced in the Warren Times Observer by the Warren Area Ministerial Association for a September 11th memorial service. It's not that I don't think we should have some type of remembrance in Warren; certainly the events of that day had a strong effect on us and our lives are forever changed...The disappointment and theological drawback for me is the plan...to invite a Jewish and Islamic representative as equal participants...I am a Christian minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe that He is the Way and the Truth and the Life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. It sounds extremely exclusive because it is. I make no apology for it. Furthermore, I don't believe that listening to a person of another faith will enhance my understanding of God nor the people I pastor...You get the idea. Such controversy is not confined to Warren. Down in my old stomping grounds in North Carolina there is more. TIME magazine:
Homework is usually controversial only for the students who have to do it. But this summer the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which customarily assigns a book to its incoming freshmen, chose Approaching the Qur'an, a set of heavily annotated excerpts from the Muslim Holy Writ. Chancellor James Moeser reportedly asked his trustees, "What could be more timely?" And what could be more predictable than the brouhaha that followed: the rumbling overture on Christian websites; the brassy solo by Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, who compared the assignment to having students read Hitler's Mein Kampf in 1941; and the inevitable legal coda? The Virginia-based Family Policy Network, a Christian group, sued U.N.C., claiming the assignment amounted to state-funded promotion of a faith. The North Carolina legislature is considering pulling the school's funds for the project.(1)For what it is worth, I am not holding my breath for the Family Policy Network to sue the folks in Georgia that we read about in yesterday's paper who are forcing the schools to teach creationism based on the account in Genesis in their science classes.
Isn't religion fun? No wonder, as we read the gospels, that we see Jesus having more trouble with religious folks than any other.
We read about a deeply religious man in our Old Testament lesson. Jonah. Most folks know some of that delightful story. They know that God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah did not want to go and, in fact, took off in precisely the opposite direction. Then there was the storm at sea, Jonah getting tossed overboard, and the world's first recorded submarine ride - three days in the belly of a big fish. Finally, this venerable relative of Charlie the Tuna has what has been euphemistically referred to as an "involuntary emesistic reaction" and Jonah is barfed up on the beach. God says to Jonah, "Are you ready yet?" Jonah grudgingly agrees to go. TA DA! Wonderful message. You cannot run away from God!
But there is much more to this story. And, in fact, there is a much more important message than an inescapable God.
Back to what caused Jonah's journey to begin with - God had said go to Nineveh to preach; it would be an ancient version of a Billy Graham-style revival. That sounds like fun for a preacher, but if we examine the situation a bit, Jonah's reluctance becomes understandable. Ancient Nineveh was the capitol of Babylon... modern-day Iraq...and old Nineveh was just as much an international outlaw as modern Baghdad. God's instruction to Jonah was to go and rescue a long-ago equivalent to Saddam Hussein. No wonder Jonah wanted no part of that.
We pick up the story with the lesson. Jonah gets to Nineveh, preaches the shortest sermon on record (which may be why it proved so effective): "Forty days more, and Nineveh is TOAST!" There is no invitation to repentance, just this word of judgment. And the result is the most incredible response imaginable - everyone repents, from the highest to the lowest, from the king to the cows (which carries the story a bit far, in my opinion, but the point is made). So, as the scripture has it, "When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened."
Jonah's reaction is precious: he has a hissy-fit. "Right on, God! I KNEW this was gonna happen! I KNEW you were gracious and merciful, and I KNEW you would let 'em off. Go ahead, God. Why not just kill me right now? If I get back to Israel and word gets out that you spared Nineveh because they repented after MY PREACHING, I am dead meat anyway. Saddam doesn't DESERVE to be saved. This is the theological PITS!" Then the prophet storms out of the city, plops himself down on a hill to the east, builds a little lean-to to shade himself from the hot desert sun, and sulks...hoping against hope that God will see how important this is to him and will go ahead and blow Nineveh away anyway.
God tries to calm Jonah down. God gently asks him, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Jonah keeps on sulking. As a bit of a peace offering, God allows a fast-growing plant to spring up for a bit more shade. Jonah is so mad he misses the joke - it is a Castor Oil plant,(2) perfect for someone as obviously bound up as our reluctant hero. The blue funk continues. So, the next day God allows the plant to get eaten by a worm and... Well, listen to the text:
When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left (in other words, little children), and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"(3)And there the story ends. We never learn whether Jonah gets his act together. But we DO learn (if we have not known it before) that God's grace extends farther than we would ever imagine and, if we are honest, sometimes farther than we want.
Change the scene. Move it to a dusty Palestinian roadside. Jesus is talking with his friends. Not very long before, a wealthy young man had approached them asking what good thing he might do to possess eternal life. Jesus tells him to be obedient to the commandments he has always known and then to give away his considerable wealth to the poor and come follow. No go - as we are aware, the young man was possessed by his possessions rather than the other way around. Sad. And Jesus went on to note how difficult it would be for anyone with money to experience eternal life. Peter follows up with a reasonable question: "Look, we HAVE left everything and followed you. What then will WE have?" Jesus responds that they have nothing to worry about - a wonderful existence awaits, but then a strange statement - "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first"(4) - followed by the story we encountered in our gospel lesson.
The picture Jesus painted was one with which his hearers would have been most familiar. "The grape harvest ripened toward the end of September, and then close on its heels the rains came. If the harvest was not gathered in before the rains broke, it was ruined; and so to get the harvest in was a frantic race against time."(5) The landowner would come to the marketplace where day-laborers would gather before dawn. "I'll take you, you, you, and you," (as many as necessary), they would agree to work for what would amount to minimum wage - normally a denarius - not much, but enough to feed the family, and they would be off to the harvest. In this case, the owner of the vineyard found himself needing more and more workers to beat the rain, so three more times that day he hired more people - some at nine in the morning, some at noon, and even some at five in the afternoon, just an hour before quitting time. So far, so good.
Now the story turns strange. The paymaster's window. The folks who had only been at work for an hour were paid a denarius. Those who had been on the job since noon were paid a denarius. The ones who began at nine that morning were paid a denarius. Even those who had put in twelve long hours were paid that denarius. No surprise, they thought this was unfair. But the landowner responded, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"
Then there is that line again: Jesus says, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." In other words, in God's economy, things are not necessarily as you would expect. Jonah would say AMEN to that.
Pose the question with which we began again: What if you got to heaven and found out that God had decided to let EVERYBODY in? The message of the gospel is that such IS the case, even though Jonah and some letter-writers might not like it. Yes, we are all for being saved by grace, but only if we think that grace is deserved (for example, that grace which God extends to "good folks" like you and me). Hmm.
OK. One other issue. If we get to heaven and do indeed find that God has invited EVERYBODY in, what do we do with Jesus' statement quoted by my correspondents that says, "No one comes to the Father BUT BY ME!" Can we still hold that as gospel? Absolutely. And make sure we hold it as carefully as Jesus' words in John 10 that say, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also..."(6)
Let me illustrate this way. As many of you have heard before, when I was a boy, one of my best friends was an Orthodox Jew. This young man was (and is) one of the most religious people you have ever met - in fact, he is now an Orthodox Rabbi. All his life, from the time he was able to understand anything, he has known a relationship to the God of his fathers and has sought to deepen that faith in himself and others. He has a great respect for Jesus of Nazareth - wonderful teacher, indeed a man touched of God...but not the Messiah. I cannot imagine a scenario which would cause my friend to abandon those beliefs. What awaits him when he comes to the end of his earthly pilgrimage? Some would say, "Too bad. He never came to faith in Jesus, so he is lost...condemned for all eternity - he's gonna roast." Well, I do not believe that for a second. That does not sound like the God of love who sent Jesus and whose sacrifice on Calvary scripture says paid for not only your sin and my sin but the sin of the whole world.(7) I think that what will happen to my friend as he comes to begin his new life is that, no surprise, he is welcomed into the presence of God. However, perhaps he WILL be surprised to find that the reason for his warm welcome is that his ticket was punched by Jesus Christ.
One more question. If God HAS decided to let everyone in, what does that do to our efforts at evangelism? Well, for certain, it would change them. Instead of trying to SCARE the fire out of folks, we might have to begin sharing the good news as genuinely good news. Interesting concept, eh?
What if you got to heaven and found out that God had decided to let EVERYBODY in? That decision has already been made. Sadly, some will decide not to come in - a place that would welcome people NOT just like them would not be heaven at all - but the decision will be theirs. Not Jonah's, not mine, not yours, not even God's.
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God's grace,
Grace that is greater than all my sin.(8)
The word for today is GRACE. "When we get what we deserve, that is justice. When we do not get what we deserve, that is mercy. When we get what we do not deserve, that is grace."(9) Thanks be to God!
I have already come,
T'is grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.(10)
1. David Van Biema, "A Kinder, Gentler Koran," Time, 8/19/02
2. See "Gourds," Holman Bible Dictionary, electronic edition, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technologies, 1994)
3. Jonah 4:8-11
4. Matthew 19:30
5. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 222
6. John 10:16
7. See 1 John 2:2
8. Julia H. Johnston, copyright 1910, renewed 1938, Hope Publishing Co.
9. Unattributed quote posted by Larry Warren, Brookfield WI, Via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1996 09 22," #35, 9/18/96
10. John Newton