- Parish House
Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
It’s science fair season in the Little Rock School District. I had the privilege of watching a couple of smart, young scientists at work. In trying to decide on a project, there was significant disappointment that the use of explosives was strictly forbidden, as well as growing mold or bacteria. That narrowed the options. One of the scientists found himself upset at being told to stop playing video games in order to think about his project, and it was in that moment that inspiration struck. He decided to ask whether playing video games makes kids grumpier. Or in more scientific terms, whether children experience a change in emotion over the course of screen time. Life experience told him that he is indeed grumpier when it’s time to turn off the games, so he hypothesized that there would be an increase in negative emotion as a result of playing video games.
Then we did what all families likely do, we googled scientific background information. The internet told us that there are eight primary emotions: joy, interest, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and shame. If you are keeping track, that means that three are positive emotions, while a majority of them, five, are negative. Perhaps we’re wired slightly toward the negative. This bode well for proving the working hypothesis. And so, with a robust sample size of eight neighborhood children, the experiment began. Each participant took a survey first, indicating on a scale of one to five, how much of each primary emotion they felt at the time. They played a video game for ten minutes, stopped abruptly and retook the same survey. The results were clear – playing video games consistently led to an increase in the level of negative emotions and a decrease in positive emotions. Parents, you are welcome to use this information as needed. And for the rest of us, it’s a good reminder to unplug from screens from time to time for emotional well-being.
Whatever grumpiness that fourth grade project tried to measure came as no surprise. It’s presence is not a new revelation about human nature. Maybe we really are wired in favor of negative emotions. That’s not hard to measure per se, but it is hard to know what to do with that knowledge. It seems clear that there are times when we are lost in our own crankiness and fall short of handling relationships well because of it. We affectionately call this “being in the bad place” in our home. It’s when we snap at the people we love instead of being present to one another. And this is not just a human relations problem. It gets really interesting when we do the same thing with God.
Have you noticed that there is a thread of crankiness that runs through the bible? Take, for example, the older brother of the prodigal son. He couldn’t believe that his father not only forgave his screw-up of a brother, but welcomed him home with open arms and a big feast. Or, remember Jesus’ parable of the day laborers in the vineyard? Some worked all day, while others came late, and they all got paid a full day’s wage. The people who worked all day grumbled, as you would, and the owner simply said, “are you envious because I am generous?” In both cases the head character is a stand in for God, who bestows grace extravagantly to all, despite the fact that some are more worthy than others. And this makes people cranky. It violates our sense of what’s fair or just. This is a particular sticking point when we deem ourselves more worthy or righteous than others. We think there should be some kind of reckoning in our favor, some kind of vindication, and when we don’t get it, we’re prone to snap at God.
Today we consider arguably the crankiest prophet in the Bible, Jonah, who struggled mightily with this. There are other adjectives than cranky that we could use for him, like stubborn, narrow-minded, and downright petulant. He’s great fun, really. His story is a tall tale, full of humor and hyperbole. He is the one who landed in the belly of the whale. That happened because God wanted to send him on a mission, and Jonah literally ran in the opposite direction, even getting on a boat to escape. Through a series of events and a storm, Jonah ended up in the great fish, who unceremoniously threw him up on the shore, putting poor Jonah back on track for the divine mission he was trying to avoid. That was to go to Ninevah, a great Assyrian city, the city of the Israelites’ enemies to be exact. We’re told that it was a huge city, three days’ walk across, which, by the way, is highly doubtful given the archaeological record. Then, when he was just one day in, all Jonah said was, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It was a one-line sermon that didn’t even mention God. In a shocking turn of events, the whole city immediately repented, adults and children alike. The story goes on with the king declaring a kingdom wide fast, and in an awesome detail, even the cows put on sackcloth and ashes. God relented on whatever punishment God had planned. And Jonah couldn’t stand it. He hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, and he sure didn’t want to see his enemies spared and now in good standing with the God of Israel. So he went and pouted outside the city. God and Jonah got into an argument about a bush that God provided to shade Jonah in his self-assigned time out. He snapped at God, suggesting that it would be better for Jonah to die than to live. And finally God says at the end, “Should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Wise closing words, compared to the childish mood of the prophet.
It’s a fantastic story, and we cheer at the end when Jonah gets his comeuppance. We’re clearly meant to side with God on this one, seeing how wonderful it is that God would be gracious even to Ninevites. Which is all well and good, until we realize that the same principal applies to our enemies, too. To those who disagree with us, those who are different, those who hate us, those who vote oppositely from us, those we don’t like, and to those who fall short in their relationships with us. This story is meant to shine a light onto our own crankiness, our own hard-heartedness and narrow mindedness. This is the uncomfortable side of God’s grace. We can only side with God for so long before we realize that there are hatreds and biases in us that grace won’t tolerate. Grace exposes them for what they are, which is a necessary first step in healing them. The good news of Jonah’s struggle is that in the final scene, in which Jonah is sulking and nursing his hard heart, God’s grace has the final word.
There is an important honesty in all of this. We cannot heal what we don’t acknowledge, and we cannot grow if we stay too comfortable. This weekend people marched all over the country to protest a variety of issues, a sure sign of turbulent and divided times. Like you, I have strong feelings about the issues facing our community and our country. It would be easy to demonize those who don’t agree with my views. It’s easy to snap at them. However we move forward on particular questions of politics and justice, we must acknowledge as people of faith that God’s gracious concern is for all, for people we think are on the right or wrong side of things. God’s grace is for us, and for Ninevites. That grace should make us uncomfortable at times, as it makes demands on our occasionally hard hearts just like it did for Jonah. And like faithful and problematic Jonah, when all is said and done, we wouldn’t really have it any other way, would we?
I think that if fourth graders can acknowledge their crankiness in a survey of primary emotions when they have to turn screens off, we can do the same. We may be wired in particular ways emotionally, which can lead to moments of crankiness, even to snapping at both people and God. And when we do find ourselves feeling cranky or self-righteous like Jonah, that’s probably a good sign that God is breaking through with a reminder of how grace actually works. “Should I not be concerned about Ninevah?” God once asked – further proof that grace is bigger than how we are wired. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.