Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who Knows? An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Did I talk about Lynnette Scavo in my Ash Wednesday meditation? You know I did...

“Who Knows?”
Jonah 3:1-4:11
February 22, 2007
Ash Wednesday

When they were very young my children were involved in a Christian education program designed to give them a hands-on experience of faith and church—acting out bible stories with small wooden figurines, “playing” with items like candles, communion plates, etc. I remember looking through the curriculum and sensing that its creators were really on to something… church for children is so often about what they can’t do, what they are prohibited from doing. How refreshing to find a program that invited and encouraged the very young to have ownership of their spiritual home on the same level we encourage in adults. Anyway, I remember leafing through the materials and laughing out loud at the description of Jonah. Jonah was the Backwards Prophet. When God says “Go right,” Jonah goes left. When God says go east, Jonah goes west (quite literally).

Truth be told, all the stuff for which Jonah is famous (or infamous) happens in chapters 1 and 2 of this tiny book from the minor prophets. His famous reluctance—really, recalcitrance. God’s anger at Jonah, causing the storm that gets him thrown overboard like a case of rotten fruit. And of course, there is the matter of his languishing in the belly of the fish for three days. We come upon Jonah after his fishy sojourn, when he is more—shall we say—receptive?—to God’s commands. As chapter three begins, God says “Go to Nineveh,” and instead of lighting out for parts unknown, Jonah obeys. He has become, as my grandmother would have said, “biddable.” What follows is, in keeping with the beginning of the book, a tale full of exaggeration (I’m not sure it would take three days to walk across the 5 boroughs of New York City), absurdity (can you say, livestock dressed in sackcloth?) and, ultimately, the outcome God is seeking.

Make no mistake. God wants the people of Nineveh to repent. “Their wickedness has come up before me,” God says, and one gets the image of the divine nose wrinkling with disgust at some foul stench. But God, here, is like nothing so much as a mother, dreading doling out punishment to her children, and seeing what she can do to avoid it.

I believe my love of pop culture has already been much noted in this community, so you will forgive me if I refer, just for a moment, to an episode of Desperate Housewives. For you uninitiated, Lynnette Scavo is the woman who, at the outset of the series, is drowning in the mayhem of life with four children under the age of six, and who is longing for a return to corporate America, a place where she was actually able to exercise some power. Not so with her noisy brood. In one early episode Lynnette must cope with the embarrassment of knowing that her three riotous boys have stolen from a neighbor, and they must be punished.

Scene: the boys are sitting at a table. Their mother stands across from them, looking down sternly. Laid out on the table are implements of torture—that is to say, a hairbrush, a spatula, a “hickory switch,” improbably cut from some tree in their Southern California suburb. She then enumerates in disturbing detail how much pain will be inflicted by each item when it is used for the inevitable spanking. The boys protest. Lynnette is stern and immovable.

"Too late. You STOLE. And then you LIED. Even worse, you made me look bad in front of Mrs. McCluskey, who you know is Mommy's sworn enemy." So, she says, “Pick your poison.” gesturing to the aforementioned instruments of torture: "How about a belt? It's a classic." She runs through the rest of the choices, as the boys continue to wail that they don't want to be spanked. Lynnette reminds them that "thieves get spanked, that's just the way it works." Unless! Unless they swear never to steal again and write Mrs. McCluskey a nice letter of apology. (1)

Of course, the boys relent. And of course, they are not spanked. Do you know why? Not because they don’t deserve punishment of some kind—they certainly do. They are not spanked because their mom doesn’t want to spank them. They are not spanked because she cannot bear to make them suffer. And so she devises her own form of psychological warfare to ensure that the boys will escape their dreaded fate. The mother protects her beloved children.

As does God. It is hard to see the Almighty in the story of Jonah as anything except an anxious and anguished deity who dreads punishing the evil deeds of the people of Nineveh. The Ninevite king asks, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” But what he doesn’t know is that God has done every thing in God’s power to avoid having to carry out the sentence. Instead, God has appointed a prophet and given the wicked a chance to reform themselves. And on the strength of just one pronouncement, we have a turnaround so startling that, yes, even the cattle are quickly dressed in penitents’ clothes. God chuckles. And then God relents, because that’s who God is.

What we need to understand is that God is less a ball of fiery fury and more a wounded lover. God longs for the people to repent, but beneath that longing is God’s desire that the people love God. That they simply wake up to the fact that God is there, caring, loving them, cheering them on to new and better life. When we become convinced of the fact that we are “bathed in [God’s] encircling kindness,” (2) there is no question of wickedness. There is no question of sin and evil. There is only grace.

And notice who is advocating for the “Let the punishment fit the crime” position. Jonah, who is royally ticked that his preaching worked and the people are saved. And God pulls a splendid little practical joke on him, the bush growing up, the bush being eaten by the worm, and then God’s unassailable logic, “You cared more about that bush than about 120,000 people. AND animals. You silly, silly man.”

Here we are, with the 2007 equivalent of sackcloth, but really just ashes, prepared to remind ourselves, for a season, that we truly are surrounded by God’s encircling kindness, and that, indeed, our only comfort, in life and in death, is that we belong, not to ourselves, but to God. And we have more options to remind ourselves of that truth than the Ninevites, for whom repentance came in one basic flavor. Some of us have spent years in which Lent was defined by what we could not do, what we were prohibited from doing. But really, the great value of Lent lies in the hope that the disciplines we observe result in an opening of ourselves to God. That’s all God really wants. That’s all we really need. Amen.

(1) Jessica Morgan, Television Without Pity (
(2) Norman Fischer, Psalm 145, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms


more cows than people said...

powerful use of vivid images. another great sermon from mags- thanks!

hey would you be willing to speak with a woman in our presbytery whose completing applications to seminary about your discernment process, returning to seminary a bit later in life?

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks for this commend MoreCows.

Let's speak about this woman in an email...