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“Hospitality to Strangers”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 25:31-46
Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7
Hebrews 13:1-2

 

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

 

Hebrews 13:1-2

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

~~~~~~~~

 

This passage from Genesis stops me in my tracks before the story even gets going.  From the start we are let in on the fact that God was in fact meeting with Abraham, but it does not appear that Abraham knows this.  Rather, he looks up and sees 3 strangers standing nearby.

And not knowing that these 3 strangers are in fact God, Abraham’s response is so much more remarkable.

 

Do you know those who will fall all over themselves to bless and care for you?

That is the image I get here of Abraham.  Upon seeing strangers, he immediately jumps up, runs to them, and humbles himself – bowing low before them.  He begs them to allow him to provide for them nourishment as they rest awhile, and they accept.  He instructs Sarah to use the choice flour to bake cakes.  He instructs his servant to choose a calf, tender and good, from the herd to slaughter and prepare as food for his guests.  He gathers it all together with curds and milk and takes it to these three strangers

I am struck because I’m not accustomed to anyone going to such great lengths without a profound history of foreknowledge and respect for the guests.  Or perhaps one would go to such great lengths if one was afraid and wanting to pacify and please their unexpected guests.

But beyond such scenarios, I think we hardly ever see such willing, determined, and generous hospitality in our time.  …especially for complete strangers.

In fact, I suspect our first response would be more akin to irritation at the danger we might feel and the inconvenience of the drop-in.  And I, for one, find myself reticent to share the very best of what I have.  I usually want to save some (or all) for me…

 

But I suspect what is happening here is more about social norms.

With no fast food, no hotels or motels, every traveler remained dependent on the kindness and generosity of complete strangers.  And you would be more welcoming to others because you know that one day you may have to call on that same generosity and kindness, for survival.

 

But I suspect that Abraham’s own character is on display in this exchange.

He didn’t have to use the choice flour, to kill the tender young calf.  He didn’t have to run to meet them.  He didn’t have to.

He could have spoken only after they fully approached.  He could have remained seated, after all, he and his camp outnumbered them; Abraham was holding all the cards.  He could have served them but begrudgingly, not eagerly.  He could have planned to rob them of whatever they had on their person and to leave them half-dead somewhere obscure.

But Abraham rises, he runs to them, he humbles himself, and he lavishly serves them.

 

The writer of Hebrews exhorts the people to show hospitality – for in doing so, some have entertained angels.  But even greater than angels is God.  And here, we find that in entertaining these strangers, Abraham has indeed welcomed God.

And this may sound far-fetched to us – as we do not expect to encounter God in our driveways, hallways, or front steps, but Jesus brings is home, when he tells the parable of the nations.  In this parable, God separates people, and the deciding factor is how they behaved to “the least of these,” the nobodies, the unmentionables, the dregs, the invisible, the dispensable.

 

Please do not hear me as condoning these disparaging and demeaning names for those most vulnerable in our society.  But I use these words, to hopefully call to our minds the various faces of those we have passed by.  Can you see them?

Can you see the faces of those deemed un-noteworthy?  Those who have been counted as collateral damage to progress?  Those ostracized and rejected?  Those condemned by the dreadful circumstances into which they have sometimes been placed, been born, or fallen into?

 

Do we show this abundant, eager, insistent hospitality? 

Do we humble ourselves before them – not assuming our better situation is the result of our efforts alone, or that their disparaging situation is the result of their negligence or sin?

 

I suspect most of us cannot say we have ever offered hospitality like that which we see in this story of Abraham.

Let that sink in.

 

When the Kingdom of God is – at its center – hospitality to the stranger, how have we gone so wrong as to judge and ignore those who come close to our tents. 

I am guilty.

 

And what is it that we miss when we fail to welcome God in the stranger in our midst?

Where would any of us be now?  …We children of Abraham – not by blood but grafted onto the family tree by the grace and favor of our God?

Scripture says that in this meeting the Lord met with Abraham,
and in this meeting unawares,
God foretells that this aged couple will at last bear a child of their own flesh and blood!

It is the hope for which they long-waiting, went astray, and stopped hoping altogether. 

 

What is the hope for which you long-await?
What is the hope for which we long-await?
What is the relief and provision that will be balm to our souls?

I suspect that you, like me, ache.

We ache.
And our long-waiting has taken the form of prayer,
Of hope,
Of discouragement,
Of misguided efforts, and
Of despair, …at times.

 

How much more-so would your whole being ache
To think that God’s mighty and perfect provision came,
But was ignored,
Judged,
Dismissed,
Despised,
Shown the door?

 

God shows up among us in the stranger.

God shows up among us in the powerless.

God shows up among us. 

 

And what will you do?

 

What will we do?

…when such stranger shows up here?

 

What will we do? 

“Sheer Annoyance, and What God Does”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 16:16-24
Acts 16:25-34

 

Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to youa way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailercalled for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.


 

This scripture passage is so interesting.  Why is it included?  What does God have for us in it?

We hear a story of Paul and Silas and the believers.  On their way to a place of prayer, they happened upon this girl enslaved, who brought a great deal of money to her owners because she had a spirit of divination.  Nowadays, we’d probably talk about this differently.  We’d perhaps call this a gift or possibly premonition.  But then, the disciples and apostles attributed many, varied talents and abilities to spirits.  They themselves had the Spirit of God in them.  Others had other spirits.  We hear often of those possessed by spirits that caused them great distress or bodily harm.  Not all spirits were of God, and there was only one Holy Spirit, given by Christ.  So it was clear to them that the spirit in the girl was not of Christ.  But we do not hear any concern for the girl’s well-being or her deliverance from spirit possession or slavery.  No, those very valid concerns to us were not as concerning to the disciples for whatever reason.

 

Slaves were in fact common everywhere.  And Paul in particular was of the conviction that Christ would return imminently.  Thus, everyone was to make do and be at peace in whatever life circumstance they found themselves.  Something bigger was at play.  GOD was in their midst.  Salvation was at hand!  And there wasn’t much time.  Everyone needed to make the most of the time, for the time of salvation was upon them!

Paul was not out to change the social order.

 

Did he believe that slavery was right?

I don’t think so.  He famously entreats the Galatians with this instruction:

for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

The Galatians are to stop making distinctions among themselves, even those as basic as gender.  For Christ overcomes all social order.  Christ makes us all family, all Abrahams offspring, all heirs according to the promise of salvation.  Power and privilege are upheaved.

But Paul also writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,there remain with God.”

 

 

Historically, this passage was used, among others, to justify slavery.  It’s ironic, since Paul also instructs the believers not to become slaves of human masters.  But both of these readings miss the main point.  The main point for Paul was that everyone should stay as they were.  There was no time for pursuing human goals and interests.  No time for marrying even.  Be content as you are, Paul entreats.

 

And so this question of slavery in Paul remains a bit of a mystery, but after studying this matter for some time, I am convinced that Paul was both Pastor and Prophet.  Paul both cast a vision of what life in Christ truly means – which was no more slavery and distinctions of power and authority – AND yet Paul instructed the churches in how to follow, there and then, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, in their day – “remain as you are,” he entreats.

 

While some of Paul’s words are very vision casting, others are very situationally specific – responding to a very specific circumstance, in a certain day and time.  I find it wise to distinguish between these two different approaches of Paul first – so that I read them in the way they were intended to be read.  I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees!

So in this story of Paul of Silas and the girl with the spirit of divination, I am not too concerned that Paul didn’t address this matter of slavery.  While it would be morally reprehensible in our day, it was a very common situation and in a time when Paul believed they had no more time.  Paul was being true to his own belief-system:  he wasn’t trying to upset the normal social order; there was no time for that.  Rather, he was out to spread the good news as rapidly and effectively and widely as he could.  And thanks be to God that he did, because it is very well likely that you and I are here today in large part because of Paul.

 

The greater mystery to me in this situation is why Paul or Silas or the other believers didn’t simply set the girl free from this spirit, as they’d done and Jesus had done so many other times.  Perhaps it was because the girl wasn’t in imminent or physical harm from the spirit.  Perhaps it was because the girl was satisfied with her life and abilities.  Perhaps it was because the girl was enslaved, and they didn’t want to upset her owners.  We don’t know why they didn’t start out by casting out the spirit inside this girl.

 

One possibility is that they were making every effort NOT to come off as dissidents of society.  In 1 Peter, we are instructed to submit to all human power and institutions.  And in Paul and Silas’ actions, we see two men submitting to the local authorities, above and beyond any would ever be expected to.  The chains fall off these men and all the prisoners in an earthquake during the night, but miraculously all the prisoners stay.  This is so unexpected, the reason seems clear:  it is Paul and Silas.  They have fully and completely submitted to the governing authority and they appear to have successfully prevailed on all the other prisoners to do the same.

Their submission to authority speaks volumes to their credit in this ancient world, and I believe this was very intentional and strategic.  It was their living in this extraordinary way that they distinguished themselves as people of integrity.  In this fashion they demonstrated their trustworthiness and love.  THIS is what wins over the hearts of the jailer and his whole household.

Christianity in its beginning could have surely been squashed.  Had it set itself up as opposed to the social order or the governing authorities, it surely would have been quenched.  Then how many generations upon generations would not have heard?  Would we have followed in their footsteps to indeed set the prisoners free…if they had boldly begun upheaving all social order at the start?  We do not know.  But the likelihood is that we would not be here.

And is this way of being – of delaying justice in order to achieve another goal – best for all Christians in all times?  I do not think so.  Is it best to always be in a position of obedience to authority?  I would say certainly not, though it is sometimes honorable.  Are we all called to remain as we are – making the most of our present circumstances?  While it is certainly in our best interest to find peace and joy in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, I think God’s call is to DO justice – not just preach it.  There are times when we are called to FIND the joy in the midst of injustice and oppression.  Certainly those in Nazi prison camps needed this kind of peace and glimmer of joy in a situation they could not change.  However justice and love compels us to act to change our social order.  And we follow in Christ’s footsteps when we follow a call to social justice.

 

I guess all this is to say it boils down to God’s call in your life.  God’s call to you is unique, and I believe there is no better path for us than to follow – be in finding contentment where we are or speaking out and working hard that justice may cover the earth.  For most of us, God is calling us to both these things.

 

As for the girl with the spirit of divination, I am inclined to believe that the disciples reticence to address the girl’s slavery or her spirit of divination was due to these commitments not to challenge the social order but to submit to authority and thus spread the Word of God as unobstructed and effectively as possible.

 

SO WHY DOES PAUL then eventually do it anyway?

Is it because he changes his mind about not meddling in the affairs of society?

No.  Scripture is very clear that Paul’s casting out of the spirit was NOT a decision at all.  Rather it was a reaction.  Paul was fed up!  He was tired of their girl following them around, saying they were slaves of God.  He was “very much annoyed.”

Paul.

And this makes me smile.

Paul was annoyed. 

 

For any of you wanted comfort and confirmation that God can use even you – YOU with your irritability, your pickiness, your neediness, your deep sadness, your checkered past…YOU.

God can use you.

Now Paul & Silas go through the ringer on this one.  Their action was treated as theft – because the girl could no longer be profited on by her owners.  And the two men were beaten severely with rods and chained in the innermost cell, in stocks.

But true to their beliefs and living what they preached, they made the most of the time:  they sang hymns and songs to God.  And all those jailed around them listened to them.

And they must have made quite an impression in that short time, because when the earthquake leaves all the chains open and all the prisoners free, Paul and Silas have somehow won their trust and respect enough that no one chooses to flee.  They all stay.

Paul and Silas thus minister to their fellow prisoners.  They minister to the jailer who owes his own life to them for staying and not running away (after all, the jailer would have likely been executed himself, if everyone escaped under his watch!).  And then the Jailer’s own household is all saved.

 

Through this act of annoyance, God is still glorified.  God still works good. 

 

We do not hear any more about the girl set free from the spirit.  It is hard to know.  Was her life better after that?  Was it worse?

All we can hope is that her life was made better and that perhaps she got her freedom.  But we do not know.

There is so much we do not know.

 

But what I do take away from this is God’s ability to use all of us – even our possible mistakes and missteps and mere humanity – for God’s glory, that many more may hear and know God through us.

And so Lord, let it be!

Let it be that through us, many more may hear and see, know and believe, receive and experience your unbreaking, never-giving-up love for us all and all creation.

 

And Lord, we ask that you will heal our land.  Heal our hearts.  Heal our social order.  Help us follow you faithfully.  Keep our eyes fixed on you.  Help us make good use of the time that is now – doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with you, our Lord and our God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Answering the Call”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jonah 1:1-3, 15-17; 2:1,10; and 3:1-5,10
Psalm 139:7-12, 16b-18

Jonah 1:1-3, 15-17; 2:1,10; and 3:1-5, 10

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.

So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its
raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, thatgreat city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a threedays’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Fortydays more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Psalm 139:7-12, 16b-18

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

Jonah… I love this guy. I love this guy because I see us in him.

As many of us have longed for, God openly speaks with Jonah. I don’t know if it was an audiblevoice of God or a strong stirring of his heart. I don’t know if he heard it in the silence or thenoise. But what we know is that God spoke and Jonah heard.

And Jonah was faced with a choice.

Now unlike so many of us who have grown up in church – knowing the right answers and wanting to appear holy, while all the while secreting wanting to do things in our own way – it does not appear Jonah has or pays any mind to others. There is no audience in this story, judging and weighing Jonah’s choices.

No, Jonah is a free man.

And with that freedom, that many of us may only feel in the dark or away from prying eyes, Jonah chooses to ditch the call of God and get as far from God as possible.

Unfiltered. Unrestrained. He intentionally and openly walks away from the call of God. In fact,walking wasn’t enough, he sought a faster means. He purchased a ticket and boarded a boat bound in the precise opposite direction of God’s call to him – seeking, scripture says, to go away from the presence of God.

Now this is gutsy stuff.
You can’t deny Jonah that.
He hears from the God of the universe and says no, as he runs in the opposite direction.

Gutsy or foolish, perhaps. But one needn’t doubt where Jonah stands. He steps on theopposite side of what God is doing, clearly and decisively.

What about you?

Can you recall moments when you’ve felt God calling you to do or say something? Can yourecall a time when you heard God directing you in the way you should go?

What did you do?
Did you WANT to do what you felt God directing you to do?
How did you feel?
Were you glad to sense direction from God?
Did you joyfully follow God’s leading?
Did you turn up the noise and try to tune God out? Did you start running in the opposite-most direction?

Jonah was not the first and was certainly not the last to decide that HIS way was better thanGod’s way – that God’s call just wasn’t for him – that he wanted to get as far away from God’scalling as possible.

With hearing comes responsibility. With knowing come accountability.

And we are a people who have heard. We are a people who have experienced the love andmight and power of God. We are a people who have received the stories of God’s fiery justice and unfailing love. We have been entrusted with the stories. We have met God in oneanother. We have experienced God’s love calling to us in the darkest hour, speaking hope intoour despair, light into our darkness.

I suspect many of you have heard God calling, in a myriad of ways, for much of your lives –though perhaps you may not have called it God at the time. You may have experienced it to be a lingering thought, a sense of importance, a nagging idea. You have felt compelled to act or to speak. You may have felt your truth burning in your chest, ready to explode if you didn’t give itvoice or feet or wings.

God speaks to us in so many different ways. For Elijah it was in the silence, after the earthquake, storm, and fire. For Moses, it was through the burning bush. For Balam, a character in one of those obscure, surprising Old Testatment stories, it was through his own donkey. And for Jonah, God makes Godself clear through the storm at sea and then in the belly of the large fish.

God speaks in a number of ways.

At first it seems God speaks to Jonah quite plainly. But as Jonah runs and turns away from God,God’s message and discipline get more and more creative. And this is the thing about God –God knows exactly how to speak with each one of us – unique and particular and peculiar as we are. God knows how to get across the message.

So when the tempest picked up and the sea came alive, threatening to swallow up all on board that ship to Tarshish, Jonah knew. He knew it was because of him. He recognized the consequence of his choice and how it was threatening all those around him.

And he makes a choice, in that moment, to take responsibility for his choice, to confess his running from God, and to be thrown overboard that all the others might be saved.

Interestingly enough, it seems, they may have been saved in more than one way, as scripture says this incident caused them to fear God and pay their vows to God.

So here,…even in this brazen act of self-determined disobedience and the severe consequence that followed, God was turning it all into something good…

And then there’s the big fish.

At this moment I confess my mind immediately jumps to finding Nemo. My son was little when Finding Nemo came out, and I watched that movie over and over and over again!

Nemo is the story of a young clown fish and his father Marlin. The gist of the story is that Nemo, in a self-defining act of rebellion against his Father, ventures into dangerous waters on adare from his friends. This one act leads to his Father’s greatest fears being realized, as his sonis discovered by divers and scooped up to become someone’s new pet fish. The Father races after his son, but he’s no match for a motor boat, and soon he’s left swimming fast after avanishing trail, with no hope of ever finding his son.

It’s in this moment that he literally runs into an angel fish Dory who is eager and willing to help but suffers from short-term memory loss. An unlikely pair, they travel together, venturing far beyond the safety of Marlin’s reef, in search of his son Nemo, using only a Sydney Australian street address to guide them (in the ocean!).

At one point in the film, they’ve just come off the East Australian current and have beendumped in what appears to be no-mans-land. With no fish or vegetation in sight, all directions look the same, and they find themselves swimming in circles, lost in a haze of murky water for what seems like hours. Their differences take center stage at this point, and despairing of ever finding his son, Marlin begins laying into Dory, laying on the criticisms, … just as many of ushave been found to do with the very ones walking beside us in our lowest moments…

That’s when they spot a large shadow in the distance. It moves, and seems to come and go.They suspect it to be a whale, so Dory confidently breaks into her best “whale voice” and triesto communicate that they need help getting to Sydney. Marlin, highly doubting Dory’s whalecommunication abilities and fully convinced that Dory is only make things worse for them, piles even higher his criticisms and complaints, just before a school of quail breeze past them, saying,“Run away! Run away!” Peicing together than whales eat quail, it dawns on them that a whale is indeed coming for them, just as they are swallowed whole and find themselves in the belly of that great fish.

And this is why I think of Jonah.

Here in the belly of the whale, Marlin is convinced that they are dead meat. Literally. Dory, ever the optimist keeps talking with the whale in her best whale voice, asking the whale’s helpgetting to Sydney, while the cavity around them begins to drain of water. Believing that the water is definitely draining into one hungry whales stomach, Marlin tries with all his might to swim against the flow and hold on for dear life. What he doesn’t know is that in letting go, thewhale is saving them both, blowing them right out into the Sydney harbor.

And so we return to Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Convinced he is dead meat, he is resigned to his death. He deserves it. He has run from God, disobeying the most high. But on the 3rd day in his dark, nautical dungeon, he prays. Even running from God, God is with him. God speaks and he is amazed, because he knows he is undeserving, and he recommits himself to God, the Great Deliverer.

And this is when, what appeared to be his end, becomes his new beginning, his rebirth. The fish spits him out on land.

And there on the beach, God speaks to Jonah again, saying, “Go to Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

What does Jonah willfully do? He turns and goes to Nineveh. He walks through it, proclaiming God’s Word to them, and this greatly wicked city responds. They repent of their sins. They turn away from their violent, wicked ways. And God has mercy upon them. God does not bring the calamity upon them that he had planned to do.

God was giving both Jonah and the people of Nineveh a second chance – the chance to hear to obey, to listen and to follow, to turn away from death and enter into life. And in their different ways, through very different paths, they both returned from great disobedience, to true obedience, from running away to pressing into, from evil to goodness.

God is calling still.

God knows there is much wickedness in the world. Many have blood on their hands. Many have risen on the broken backs of others. Many have built their kingdoms at the expense of our planet.

God knows there is much brokenness in our world. Many despair. Many have given up on trust or hope or justice. Many have given up believing that good is more powerful than evil, that light is more powerful than darkness. Many have given up on the church.

Our God is here. Our God hears. And our God is calling.
To you and to me.

May we be found
to trust and answer the call.