September 24th, 2017
One of the most difficult things for human beings to grasp is that God is not us. God is not an object for us to understand, like the rest of creation. We can, through the miracles that are the scientific method and logic, understand things in the world. In fact, we get so used to understanding, or at least, thinking we understand, that we just assume that we will understand God. Never mind that even though we can understand the natural world, there is an infinity yet to be known—did you hear about the discovery that even brainless jellyfish have to sleep? Why? We don’t know yet—but we will. But the knowledge of the sleeping habits of jellyfish is not the same knowledge as direct knowledge of God, much less understanding. God is the great confounder of our understanding, the mystery that reveals just enough for us to grasp. I think God is like a cliff, that you can climb, one handhold at a time, and you can explain how you got to where you are and how you are going to get to the next handhold, but not much more than that except—once you’re on the cliff, you can’t step off. You’ll die.
Now, most of you know that Jonah is the guy that spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale. He got there because God told him to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. Jonah was, as they say, disinclined to acquiesce to God’s request, and headed to Tarshish instead. There was a storm, he jumped into the sea, the fish swallowed him up, and three days later, spit him up on dry land. The Bible remains silent about the remedies for Jonah’s laundry, but nevertheless, after brewing and steeping in the juices of a fish belly, Jonah did his job, and finally settled down to watch God blow Nineveh out of existence with fire and brimstone. Except—God’s word also did its job, and the people of Nineveh repented. This fits with the satire, since the prophets’ targets of old rarely repented.
We usually don’t pay any attention to this last part the we hear today. God’s decision was “very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry.” And in his anger, Jonah’s true intentions show themselves. “This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding with steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.” He is so angry about God’s mercy he wants to die. The most amazing thing about the story of Jonah is not that God doesn’t blow up Nineveh, it’s that God doesn’t blow up Jonah. Because if I were God, I would certainly consider blowing him up. I would consider it with much consideration.
But who are we to tell God what we want God to do? Earlier in Jonah, Jonah tells the panicked sailors that his God is “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Who are we to judge the LORD? God calls the people of Nineveh, a great people, a powerful people, a huge city, and therefore hub of commerce, culture, and innovation, as a people “who don’t know their right hand from their left.” God is such that God loves infinitely every particular thing. God’s love is an infinity of infinities, and God’s forgiveness is an unfathomable sea, where wonders exceed even sleeping jellyfish.
So, although we cannot understand God like we understand, say, molecular biology, we can know some things. We can know that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We know this not only because we read it in an ancient satire, but also because we have heard a story about a man from Galilee who died and rose from the grave. We know God’s love for us precisely because it does not conform to our understanding, and that has brought us to this cliff we’re climbing. Faith is like clinging to a cliff—the farther you go, the more the abyss yawns, but the more real the mountain becomes. And like the cliff of faith, the steadfast love of God becomes more real as we lean on it more and more. God is gracious and generous and loving, and cares for every person.
We Americans sometimes have the audacity to call ourselves a Christian nation. Even in the best of circumstances this sounds to me dangerously close to heresy: Christ is Lord of every nation, and Christ’s church lives in every nation. I heard a slogan recently that I’d like to repeat here: God hates flags. To be a Christian is not to be a citizen of a particular nation, but to possess dual citizenship in the kingdom of heaven and your country. Only one trumps the other, and I think you know how that should work. In the kingdom of heaven our laws are grace, generosity, kindness, self-control, unity, humility, gentleness, and an open border policy: whoever wants to come into the kingdom of heaven can.
Here’s a story from Pastor Alexa Salvatierra, and I’m sorry to say it isn’t made up, or satire, or a metaphor:
I met a woman who was a small business owner in El Salvador and who had distant relatives in the States. Gang members, who often extort small businesses in the country, came to her and said, “We want $500 from your rich relatives.” She couldn’t get money from the States, but she scraped together everything she owned and gave them $500. They immediately responded with a demand for $1,000 and the threat that if she called the police, they would “get her.” She left the house, went a distance away, and called the police. Then, the gang members and the police showed up at her house and raped her multiple times.
Her eight-year-old was in the next room and they told her, “Your daughter is really pretty. She’s perfect for selling.” So they ran. The mother and her eight-year old fled El Salvador and entered the US. They are still not safe. They think they are safe because they made to the States, but they are not. We have been working with them to get a lawyer so they can apply for asylum, but it’s very difficult because their story is not unusual. She’s an evangelical Christian, and they’re being helped by a church, but she’s one of thousands in that situation. Her story struck me so deeply because it’s so common, and yet it was so vivid.
There are no borders in the kingdom of heaven. This is why churches will take in people from other nations. You may have heard of the sanctuary movement—it’s activist movement that is trying to protect undocumented people from deportation. Pastor Alexa Salvatierra is an ELCA Lutheran from California, and I would bet that she has thousands of stories like these. Our own parish, Our Saviour’s Atonement, has been engaging in its own discernment about how best to help the thousands of people being torn from their families.
We may not be able to know God like we can know a jellyfish, but even a jellyfish knows that God loves compassion and kindness and generosity. Our country, it appears, is divided on generosity. But any illegal immigrant facing what that woman faced should never, ever have to go back unless she can be safe. And any church, if it knows the love of God, ought to be a support for her and her family. That’s what the church is about, and that could be what a Christian nation would be about.
So today, if you’re sitting and watching whether football players are kneeling or not, remember that the point of the kneeling is that people of color are shot with impunity by police. Remember that as we’re watching a game, 3.5 million Americans are without any basic needs in Puerto Rico. Remember the devastation and recovery in Florida and Texas and California. Because a church will remember and reach out. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack