Intercessions for September 18, 2011

Kind of hurried this week. Kind of a simple reflection. But still, powerful teachings for us in this week’s readings. God’s generosity, given to people no matter how wrong it seems. How unfair! How lucky……

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11

This is a fabulous passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. Jonah is chosen by God to be a prophet, and tries his darnedest to weasel out of the deal. God threatens to destroy the wicked city of Nineveh, and “encourages” Jonah to preach repentence to them. He does, they repent, and God spares their destruction. All good, right? Glorious, really. Imagine Indianapolis coming together in unity to repent and cry out to God for forgiveness.

Petulence, thy name is Jonah. He gets pissed that God has spared the city, and starts with the protesting and demanding. He wants to die (which I read as foolish pride), and sulks off to the desert. God comforts Jonah by providing a bush for shade, but then appoints a worm to kill the bush. The Lord giveth and taketh away.

God is gracious and merciful! God wanted Nineveh to repent, uses Jonah to speak that message to the city, and they do. God lets Jonah rant and roil. God teaches Jonah in a humorous way (punked, almost), which certainly shows God’s patience. The reading stops with God’s very straightforward teaching, so we don’t yet know whether Jonah will himself repent, but the teaching is powerful for us.

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ Jonah 4:9-11

The prodigal son returns home in destitution, his father welcomes him and rejoices that the son who was lost has been found. And the older, “responsible” brother is angry. Seems like the same story, and we don’t know whether the brother will come around or not. We want justice, don’t we? But why? To prove we were right? Sometimes we just can’t let go of other peoples’ bad decisions. We should be glad for the repentence that we might be privileged to see. Because punishment is not grace. Punishment doesn’t necessarily turn someone from self-destruction. But when someone turns, when we have reconciliation, when we have wholeness and healing, there is our true happiness. Why Jonah is angry that Nineveh is spared escapes me, beyond looking at the anger through the story of the prodigal son. And God wants a healed Nineveh way more than a ruin. Lesson 1.

And Lesson 2 – thoughts from God. What business is it of yours if I forgive? It’s my forgiveness to give. God has full freedom to forgive Nineveh. What would you have me do when you go astray, and I have the choice to forgive or condemn you? You’d best keep that in mind – you should be so lucky that I forgive you like I forgive Nineveh.

And finally, Lesson 3 – entitlement. Your holiday bonus is half of last year’s. The nerve! You’re disrespected, right? But, it’s called a bonus, and not salary, for a reason. Of course, depending on your employer, you may receive a bonus that’s tied to performance, and this illustration becomes a little more complicated, perhaps. But still, you didn’t have to receive a bonus. News flash – most people don’t get a bonus! If you remember the gift of your bonus, you’re bound to be much happier than if you feel entitled to it. It’s a fundamental truth, but don’t lose sight that besides the chiding, it’s a gift of wisdom for us, a help for us to be happy.

This passage led me to write a prayer for the Church of Christ, that we might teach forgiveness to a world that seeks justice and “morality”:

Merciful God, bless Your Holy Church in all places, that we might all show the world how to forgive, as we forgive. Grant each of us a hunger for reconciliation over punishment or satisfaction, just as you desire our hearts and our love over our suffering.

Philippians 1:21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Philippians 1:21-26

Paul’s words remind me of the desert fathers. They fled to the desert, away from civilization and community, to seek an intimate, private connection to God. But how could Paul bless the world, or anyone else, by leaving? Is Christianity about my personal relationship with God, or is it about our communal relationship to God and to each other? It strikes me that the canon is written to a community, not to a single person. The Torah is a story of covenant between God and His people, Israel. The Gospels are stories of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, living, walking, teaching, healing among all people in all classes.

Paul goes on to describe his hope, that the Philippian community would continue to build each other up, to walk with God in community, not as individuals. The message here seems to be that there’s something important about following Christ in community, with all the temptations and snares of the world bearing down on us. We’re not perfect people, and life in community is surely guaranteed to sometimes bring out the worst in us. It’s harder to make group decisions, than to live in a silo. It’s harder to listen, and to be listened to. But of course, striving doesn’t mean winning. Striving only means striving.

This passage led me to write a prayer for the Local Community, that we might seek connection and not isolation, in our age of virtual reality and affluence:

Spirit of Love, fill us with a burden of love for the people around us through our days. As we may strive to succeed, to complete our daily tasks, to seek Your face for ourselves, help us to take time to care for those around us, to let go of our own agendas, and to be available to others, as we follow You together.

Matthew 20:1-16

Ah, back to entitlement. This reading is a parable about laborers in a vineyard. The landowner begins early in the morning with hiring workers for his vines. A few hours later, he hires some more. A few hours later, still yet some more, and so forth. At the end of the day, he pays everyone the same wage. The first-hired workers grumble, expecting more than their late-coming colleagues.

Jonah. The brother of the prodigal son. Us. This reading adds to the passage from Jonah, telling us about God’s abundance and generosity. Hint – we’re not the first-hired workers. We should be so thankful that God is like this landowner, and is so gracious and generous as to shower us with the abundance of His love and blessing. We experience the benefit of this, and why on earth would we begrudge anyone else, regardless whether we find them “worthy” or not? Because how “worthy” are we?

And again, another reminder that indeed, what business is it of ours who God chooses to bless, or to not bless? A gift is still a gift, freely given, and we aren’t the giver.

This passage led me to write another prayer for the Church of Christ, that we might all the more show the world that God’s blessings and welcome are for all people who would hear:

Lord of Welcome, fill our hearts with thankfulness, that you welcome us to your life-giving feast, and you love us, just as we are. Bless us, Your Church, to be a people of welcome for our communities, and to proclaim what we know, that You are a God who blesses, who showers with abundance, and who is gracious to all of us.

This week I wrote in something of a hurry, so I’m feeling a little ambivalent about my reflections. But then again, sometimes the right message is simple. This week, perhaps we might just reflect on God’s generosity – so abundant, and yet bestowed on people who just don’t deserve it. What could it mean to forgive or to care, when it just feels so wrong? That’s a big challenge. But perhaps just start with the question. I pray that you and I can both chew on this thought through the week, and let it teach us both something about grace.

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