Monday, March 26, 2007

No Mere Fish Story

Just finished preaching through the book of Jonah. I took on successive chapters for the four Sundays of March, and the experience was a hoot.

The popular memory of the book of Jonah is that it's a tale of a man who was swallowed by a fish. With a closer look, we discover the Big Fish has a bit part. He's merely the water taxi for a prophet who ran away from God.

There's so much in Jonah's story that is appropriate for Lent. Jonah avoids what God calls him to do, and go in the opposite direction. When the fish carries him back to his jumping-off place, he reluctantly goes to Nineveh, where he was first sent. He preaches a gloom and doom sermon, using a minimum of effort - only five words in Hebrew, only traveling a nominal distance into the city. And he is furious when the whole city repents and God changes his mind about blasting away Jonah's congregation.

"That's why I ran away in the first place," Jonah complains to God. "You're too kind to these people, and I couldn't stomach the fact that you would probably forgive them!"

To put it another way, Jonah is furious because God doesn't run the world according to the laws of punishment. If you do something wrong, there is always the possibility of forgiveness.

This is exactly what Jonah complains about: God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy, ready to relent from punishment. He grumbles about it.

All of this is a set-up for God's last word in the book: "Shouldn't I be concerned about 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from the left? And their cattle?" It's a question still dangling in the air. It's a sign that God is interested in something more than punishment.

Thank God that the last word on our lives will be compassion – God’s compassion. Thank God that the end of punishment comes on Good Friday. The world punished Jesus by putting him on a cross - - and when we did that, we ourselves were not punished. Instead we heard the Crucified One pray, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know their right hand from their left.”

Well, so much for scorekeeping. Life is not about keeping track of sins, or clutching our grudges, or clinging to our judgments, or comparing ourselves favorably to others. Life is about the mystery of God’s compassion. Every moment of our lives is a milestone of God’s mercy. Every moment is an extravagant gift we could never afford to purchase. The grace of God is a gift, a free gift to pass along to others.

Makes me wonder: do you suppose the clearest sign that people belong to God is that they've decided to stop punishing one another?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On prayers in the Garden

“Then Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:41-42)

This is one of the few prayers of Jesus that has been recorded for us. It comes from the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, and it teaches three truths about prayer:

(1) Jesus is not bashful about saying what he wants.

(2) Jesus knows he may not get what he wants.

(3) Jesus will ultimately align himself with what God is doing in the world.

Anybody who prays can speak of these insights. We must ask God for our heart’s desires. We have to respect God enough to receive whatever answer is given to our requests. And when the dust settles, the deeper call is to accept whatever God provides or doesn’t provide, so that we can participate in God’s greater desires for the world.

Some are surprised that Jesus prayed to avoid his death. That, after all, is the “cup” which he wants removed. The church records this all-too-human moment in the Savior’s life. It seems as if he seeks an alternative to the cross. And why not? There will be humiliation, brutality, scorn, and heavenly silence. What healthy soul seeks such things?

Yet, whatever the reason, no alternative is provided - - and Jesus is crucified.

Later in Luke’s writings, the church will declare that Christ’s death on the cross was the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Yes, but such declarations can never be made in advance. It’s only after we hear the sound of hammer and nails that we hear Jesus pray again: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” God answers that prayer affirmatively. The cross becomes the signpost of salvation.

Centuries later, there’s a chapel in the Garden of Gethsemane called “The Church of All Nations.” It is surrounded by olive trees. In the garden, tour guides chat piously how some of those trees are ancient enough to have heard Jesus pray. Maybe so. But as you approach the door of the chapel, a sign warns: “No Explanations Inside the Church.”

The chapel of prayer is not a place for tourists or pious chatter. It is only for those who stand before the mystery of God’s ways in the world. It is for those who ask while kneeling.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How St. Patty Drove Out the Snakes

Last Saturday was the big St. Patrick's Day parade in nearby Scranton. It's touted as the "third largest St. Patrick's parade in the country." There are some who believe it's held a week earlier than the actual holiday so that people can get intoxicated two weekends in a row.

Nobody we know is neutral about the parade. With a small Jesuit college near the parade route, there's no telling what you might see. Two years ago, three undergrads wandered down the middle of Mulberry Street. Shirtless, they were insulated in green body paint. One was swigging from a gallon milk jug that he had loaded full of stout. It was only 8:45 in the morning.

The local Irish Christians don't seem embarrassed by any of this, even though there is nothing in the stories of St. Patrick to authorize it. The ancient saint was abducted by pirates (probably with their own snouts full of stout). Taken to Ireland against his will, Patrick escaped six years later and returned home.

Then he experienced a call from God to return to Ireland and preach the Gospel. Ever thankful to God for his previous escape, he followed orders and did just that. The legend is that he drove out the snakes off of Ireland by preaching the Gospel to them. Who am I to argue with that?

Each year I am concerned about the local alcohol abuse in mid-March. While tavern owners in a Rust Belt city argue that it's good for business, it is a waste of perfectly good brain cells.

Not only that: I thought that Irish Christians were generally more serious about keeping a holy season of Lent. Given the current practice, the only repentance seems to take place on the morning after. And it lasts for only fifty-one weeks. Or less.

Friday, March 2, 2007

To Mom and Dad on their 50th anniversary

They look so young in the old black and white photograph. The country boy with his flat-top, the small town girl who wasn't quite twenty-one. So full of promise and hope.

Glenn was getting out of the Navy, with dreams of becoming an engineer. Elizabeth Ann (or as her sisters called her, "Betsy") was going to retire as a secretary and raise a house full of children.

Fifty years later, their four children celebrate the remarkable life that they have shared. The love of our Mom and Dad continues to shape us in so many ways.

On March 2, we gathered in an Italian restaurant to celebrate their golden anniversary. Dad surprised Mom by flying in my sister Mary from Atlanta. She's seated next to Mom on the left, and announced she and her husband Brian will have their first baby in November. So God's generosity continues!

Brother Dave (dressed in blue) arranged the dinner, with his bride Julie preparing a delicious cake at their nearby home. My other sister Debbie is getting around pretty well after a knee replacement; she's leaning over the table on the right and mugging for the camera. Four of the grandkids are lurking at the far end of the table.

The Cute Couple continue to inspire us all, and had no problem aiming the cake at one another's mouths. They continue to be our role models for life and love, and we are so proud to be their children!

Thank God for parents like them.