Did anyone else here have a hard time getting up on Thursday morning? There was a bit of a cliffhanger that kept many of us up on Wednesday night. I’m looking especially at the man whose email address is “mncubfan”—how are you feeling, Chuck?? If you were under a rock or stranded on a desert island for the last week, you might have missed the news that the Chicago Cubs are the “Lovable Losers” no longer. After more than a century of losing, the Cubs have won the World Series of baseball. All throughout this past year as one thing after another fell in place for them, Cubs fans kept pinching themselves and reminding each other not to get their hopes up too high. Their team—like a certain Minnesota pro football team—always manages to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The Cubs actually winning the World Series seemed unbelievable. The Boston Herald’s front page on Thursday captioned the moment the best: “Pigs fly. Hell freezes over. Cubs win!”
What do you suppose was the feeling on Thursday morning in Cleveland, home of the other team? I searched the Ohio newspaper headlines, but there were no signs of joy there. Instead, the news read: “So Close”, “Loss for the Ages”, and “Heartbreak by the Lake”. Our United Church of Christ national headquarters are in Cleveland, and I heard that it was very quiet in the offices on Thursday. The UCC prides itself on championing the cause of the underdog—and with their impeccable losing history the Cubs certainly qualify. Nevertheless, it violates “team spirit” to rejoice when something good happens to the “wrong” side.
No wonder, then, that Jonah feels such righteous anger at God over the merciful treatment of the Ninevites. Jonah is a prophet sent to declare divine judgment against them. God says, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh was a place that inspired narrowed eyes and disgust from Jonah. It was a capital city of the enemy Assyrians, across the Tigris River from the city of Mosul in modern-day Iraq. In Jonah’s eyes, the Ninevites were a “basket of deplorables”, their approval ratings definitely under water. He’d be only too glad to see God smite them from the face of the earth. So when Jonah finally gets to Nineveh, he doesn’t work very hard to change their ways. Other prophets proclaim chapter after chapter describing God’s judgment, whole books exhorting their audiences to change. But Jonah uses just one short sentence: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” This is what one commentator calls “the least heartfelt sermon ever”.
Now consider what happens next. “The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” The king covered himself with the ashes of repentance. He proclaimed that nobody should eat or drink, as a sign of how sorry they were. Even the animals fasted, wore sackcloth and prayed for divine mercy. Who knew that Jonah surviving three days the belly of a great fish was the most believable part of the story? The truly preposterous part is that Jonah preaches nine words and the entire enemy capital is converted!
Nevertheless, in light of their repentance God reconsiders the calamity that would have destroyed Nineveh. Then sputtering Jonah hits the ceiling. “I knew it, God!! You always do this! You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Every time that anyone starts to have a change of heart—including our worst enemies!—there you are offering forgiveness!” Jonah’s critique boils down to this: God is not a “team player”. That’s the difference between God and human beings like Jonah. God cares more for mercy than punishment or revenge. God wants the redemption of all, not just those who are on “our” side.
This matters today because we are on the cusp of a most consequential election. I have not seen the American public this divided and hostile to one another in all my life. Our media and political parties have participated in a “race to the bottom” whereby the candidate who wins is the one who drives up higher the disapproval ratings of the other. What makes the news are not competing proposals for the upbuilding of the nation and world, but scandals that take the feet out from under one side or the other. We may be sheltered from the worst vitriol against the presidential candidates, but back-to-back ads smearing House candidates have been blaring ominously from our televisions for weeks on end.
Tuesday’s election will finally decide these contests—can anyone say “alleluia”?? But that which has been revealed in this election cycle will not go away on Wednesday morning. Seams of division have been split open by the dark arts of electoral fearmongering, and trust in the process of democracy itself hangs in the balance. This is personal as well as political: friend circles, work relationships, and the family tables we anticipate at Thanksgiving bring us face-to-face with people whose election decisions we condemn. I’m sure we are of multiple minds here at church too. We have every encouragement in the world to demonize those who are “other”, and call for the repudiation of not just political parties but people as well. Jonah stands ready to write off the Ninevites, content to tear off entire limbs from the body politic.
Except: we follow a God who is “gracious…and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” We are Christians united in the body of Christ, baptized in the death and resurrection of Christ, and fed at the table of Christ. The church witnesses to unity in Christ’s love, seeking a just world for all. Because here’s the thing—when Jesus sits at table for the Lord’s Supper before his own body was crowned with thorns, then pierced and killed, he did not insist that everyone there think like he did. In the upper room where Christ passed the bread and the cup, there were people with lots of problems, and they brought those problems with them to the table. They brought betrayal, in the presence of Judas. They brought desertion, in the presence of Peter. They were sinners. And some, I assume, were good people. Christ did not ask for party affiliation or allegiance when he decided whom to serve. Instead, he passed the bread and the cup to all, proclaiming unity in the place of brokenness and community in the place of isolation.
This is still the message of Christ’s table and of Christ’s church: that grace invites every person in (no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey), then grace leads us in the challenging growth process of discovering the best in another and confessing the worst in ourselves. In this way, God’s truth is more fully realized and grace reveals saints where we might have seen only sinners. That is what Jonah experiences, and that is the unique community of the church in this time. Our Conference Minister Shari Prestemon put it most clearly when she wrote this past week:
[Christians] have a moral and theological imperative to be fully engaged in the healing, restorative work our nation now so desperately needs. As a prophetic church, we must be willing to name and confront the social sins — racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.—that this campaign season has so harshly laid bare. But at the same time we as Church have to find a way to make real our own theological language of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. We need to call upon that extravagant love we proudly profess to begin stitching the gaping wounds of our nation back together. And while doing it we need to be willing to see the sacred and inherently good image of God in every single person we encounter, even and especially when the person in front of us is the person with whom we have adamant disagreement.
I believe in that vision, which is why I’m here on Sunday morning and not somewhere else. I suspect it’s why you’re here too. That is the community that God feeds at the table of Christ, the community which we endorse by our presence, and the community we strengthen today with our pledges and offerings. These are signs back to God, that the table open to all, including our enemies, holds more hope for us than the donkey or the elephant. We are co-creators with God in all that we do and all that we empower in Christ’s name. We will not flee the confrontation with those we consider enemies in Tarshish. Instead, we will follow God’s call, pray earnestly for blessing on the people with whom we disagree, seek holy wisdom at the ballot box and in all we do publicly and privately, then celebrate wildly when God makes clear a healing way forward. With divine grace, our sentiments may differ from that of Jonah, as we give and participate in gratitude for God’s deliverance of the winner and loser alike.
Let us pray: Holy God of power and might, thank you for the inspiration of unity beyond that which we could accomplish by ourselves. Hold our communities, our nation and our world in your grace, then show us how to be repairers of the breach in Jesus’ name. Amen.