Love enough to live

Mad enough to die?

The Old Testament Prophet Jonah was. At least he said so, twice.

Just how mad do you have to be to want to die? When people get mad, they usually want someone else to die, which explains why cycles of violence and hate can go on for centuries.

Last week, when the city was still reeling from the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue, a Presbyterian minister was seen on camera shouting at the President who had come to pay his respects. “You’re not welcome here!” the minister shouted in the video, which quickly went viral.

And the cycle escalated.

We spent the next morning dealing with Facebook posts and messages which came in to the church from across the country. To the angry people who posted or called, it didn’t matter that the minister didn’t serve at our church. We were Presbyterian, so we must be responsible.

At the presbytery office, the deluge of hate was even worse.

People weren’t mad enough to die, but they were mad enough to wish the worst for that minister.

And the cycle escalated.

Jesus never responded to hate with hate. He wept over the city he knew would crucify him. He prayed for those who carried it out.

Do we believe he died for us, haters that we sometimes are, or not?

Do we believe it, or is it just an abstract idea, like a favorite saying we hang on the wall?

I think a fair test of whether the Gospel has penetrated your heart is whether you can avoid being hateful to people you think deserve it.

Can we love enough to live?

Fish story

Some bible stories are hard for modern people to wrap our minds around. For example, the bible says Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and then three days later he was spit out on dry land.

But the fish has nothing to do with our problem with the Jonah story.

If God really is God; if God created the universe out of nothing; maneuvering one fish to swallow a runaway prophet is no big deal.

Our real problem with the Jonah story is that we don’t think it applies to us. Our real problem is that we fail to see ourselves as Jonah.

When we read Jonah, it’s easy to see his problem. He’s self-righteous. He can’t find any good reason for what God is calling him to do, so he must be right, and God must be wrong. He can’t see that God might actually know better than he does what’s best for him.

Self-righteousness is the reason we don’t think the Jonah story applies to us. Self-righteousness is what keeps us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. Self-righteousness is why we won’t listen to our spouse, our friends, or our pastors. We think we know better than them too, so we take offense. We run the other way.

But if God is offended by our self-righteousness, he has a funny way of showing it.  In Jonah’s case, God sent a ship with a pagan crew, a storm, and a fish to get Jonah to see God’s better way.

I wonder if God could be using the storms that come into our lives in the same way.

Instead of imagining what it might be like to be swallowed by a fish, perhaps we could imagine why God would have to go to such great lengths to get our attention.

 

Othering

In case you missed it, there was a national debate about a nomination to the Supreme Court recently. The level of vitriol of each side for the other was astounding. The situation was not made better by multiple cable channels devoted, not to reporting news, but to showing clips of the outrageous things the other side said.

“Othering” is what you do when you put people who are different from you into categories so you can marginalize them.

Just in time, Tim Keller released his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. It’s just as good as Keller’s The Prodigal God. I pray that everyone would read it. Keller introduced me to the term “othering.”

Jonah was one of the religious insiders of his day. He knew more about God than anyone. Yet when God called him to preach to pagans, “others” who he hated, Jonah ran away. Jonah got on board a ship crewed by, guess who? more pagans, still others he didn’t like. Yet in every detail, the pagans in the story were better than Jonah. When a big storm came up, they tried to figure out the cause (they knew someone had sinned). They did everything they could to save the ship and all on board, including Jonah. They prayed fervently. Jonah did nothing.

Keller says we “other” because we haven’t allowed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to penetrate all the way into our heart. We may believe, but our beliefs haven’t changed us. If we still get our self-worth from something other than Jesus’ love and grace for us, then when our beliefs or status are threatened by someone, we marginalize them. We “other” them.

God sent Jonah on a mission, not just to save unbelieving pagans, but to save Jonah from his own self-righteousness.

Jesus identifies with the other, even when the other is us.

God’s love for the city

Nine years ago, First Pres was considering calling me as its senior pastor. If there was one thing more improbable than me being a pastor, it was me being the pastor of a city-center church. It was something I’d never done nor considered.

But then I listened to a sermon based on Jonah 4:11, where God said to Jonah, “Shall I not be concerned about that great city?” In the sermon, Tim Keller poured out a vision of God’s love for cities, which are concentrations of God’s most beautiful creations: people. Could this be the message God was calling me to help proclaim?

In the 1980’s, Keller was part of a group of Presbyterians (PCA) that planted an evangelical church in Manhattan. Everyone told them they were crazy: New Yorkers were too hip; too unchurched; too sophisticated. But they spent a lot of time getting to know New Yorkers. They built relationships instead of a church building. They relied on orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. The centerpiece of their worship was a 35-minute, Christ-centered sermon.

Today, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has thousands in worship in services across New York. They’ve helped plant hundreds of churches in cities around the world. Suburban churches, including several in our area, are getting in on the movement.

Those churches want to be where we are.

Hundreds of thousands of God’s most beautiful creations live, work, or visit within a short walk of our church every day. Some are thriving, some are hurting, but like all of us, they need a relationship with the creator.

God has us right where we’re supposed to be. He wants us to share his love with the city.

 

Passing through the waters

The videos coming out of Missouri were heartbreaking. Floodwaters had risen rapidly and with little warning. Homes were underwater or swept away. Most of the deaths happened when people underestimated the strength of the current and tried to drive through the water. One bewildered survivor said that he had gone to work in the morning and came home to find four feet of water in his home.

As the New Year began, people everywhere were being overcome by different kinds of floods. Some faced the holidays for the first time after the loss of a loved one. A friend was laid off after working at a company for years. In our family, the question of how to care for aging parents was made more difficult when one parent was diagnosed with progressive kidney disease.

The truth is that many things in life can leave us asking who am I? Where do I belong? Do I even matter?

This is the week when the church remembers the baptism of Jesus; when we remember that God went under the water for us. The prophet Isaiah wrote that when you pass through rivers, when you pass through waters, when you walk through fire…God is with you. It would be easy for God to wave a cosmic hand and lift us out of our troubles. Instead God chooses to do something infinitely harder, and in doing so proves his costly love for us: God walks with us through the floods and fires.

When the religious insiders asked Jesus for a sign to prove who he was, he said the sign they would get was the “sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jonah had spent three days in the belly of a fish, but Jesus would spend “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus allowed himself to be overwhelmed to death.

The floods of life are always going to come, and at the worst possible time. They may engulf us, but Jesus proves they ultimately won’t overwhelm us.