God's Sense of Family
All Saints; November 6, 2016
Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10
I co-taught a class on the Book of Jonah at our Synod School last summer; a major point we emphasized is how very funny the story is. Jesus told some funny stories to drive his ideas home, and the Book of Jonah is one of the funniest stories in the Old Testament. So it should not surprise you that on this All Saints Sunday I should accompany this funny story with a quotation from the musical comedy The Addams Family: "Living or dead, family is still family" (Morticia).
I may be stretching the idea a bit to apply the story of Jonah to God's sense of family, but go with me and you can decide how preposterous this is. The part of the story most people remember is that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and then vomited out three days later; that's a relatively unimportant feature of the story but is part of its humor. And our Narrative Lectionary has us read about Jonah's call and preaching, and the effect he has on the sailors and on the people of Nineveh, but it skips the meat of the story, which is chapter four.
After Nineveh repents, God changes his mind and doesn't destroy the city; you heard that (3:10). The key to the story is in what happens next: Jonah throws a fit. He is unhappy about God's failure to destroy the city. Imagine you are a citizen of a small country that is being oppressed by your large, wealthy neighbor to the north, and God declares judgment against that country. You look forward to seeing those people get what they have coming to them. And then they repent and God decides not to do it. Jonah protests, "I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (4:2). That sounds good, but Jonah doesn't like it. The mercy of God is good news if you want God to be merciful to you, but it's bad news when God is merciful to your enemies.
So Jonah sat and sulked. And God asked, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Of course not. You and I can comfortably sit here and agree that Jonah should not be angry at the mercy of God, but then we are not the citizens of a small country being oppressed by its large neighbor to the north and wanting to see that large neighbor get what it has coming to it.
But God is indeed merciful. On this All Saints Sunday, I'm taking that to mean that God has a wider definition of "family" than you and I do.
As far as we here are concerned, the family of God are all those who have been called by God in Jesus Christ and have responded to that call through commitment and participation in God's Church. The sign of family is Baptism. That's the definition the Bible has given us; that is the definition we live with. The Book of Jonah suggests there might be more to the family than that, but that is not for us to know or to decide. What you and I decide is how we respond to the mercy of God: do we give thanks that God is merciful, or do we sulk because "those people" aren't getting what they have coming to them?
So, some disconnected observations. A nation is not a family, but perhaps this week, in particular, we need to think of ourselves that way. Families fight, and our nation has been quite combative for a number of years now, and especially so in this year's election. Even if others do not, Christians must take a wider view than party or self-interest. If the election is decided on Tuesday, then whoever is elected President will be the President of all of us. If the decision is postponed, as happened in 2000, then we Christians, at least, must be patient and let the rule of law take its course. Many people will not; whatever happens Tuesday there will be screaming and name-calling and finger-pointing. You and I do not need to participate in that. Those who scream and call names and point fingers are Americans, just as much as we are. They are family, even if they are the family you would rather not spend Thanksgiving with.
At the same time, we need to remember that we belong to two families that are larger, deeper, and more significant than the nation. The first is the human family. Many years ago I was at a General Assembly of our Church and saw some protestors holding signs. An elderly lady was holding a sign that read, "The Presbyterian Church loves communists." Now, I didn't know what she meant by that, or what I was supposed to take from that; I certainly didn't know what we were doing to give her that idea. But I wanted to walk up to her (I didn't) and say, "Communists are people, too."
I don't know what motivates hatred among us, but I feel as though most of us have some group that we love to hate. Jonah hated the people of Nineveh. Some folks hate those of a particular race, or a particular religion, or a political agenda. Whatever. If we could see that we are all human, we all are made of the same stuff, we all need to eat and work and love and be loved, to raise children and to have friends… well, I'm still dreaming of that, even at my age. Dreaming of a day when we see each other as human, not as Americans or Russians or Democrats or Republicans or Christians or Muslims or white or black or… Well. I didn't invent the dream; it's in the Bible. And if I'm going to believe in God then I need to dream God's dream.
And the other, larger family is, of course, the family of God. For our purposes, we think of the Church as the family of God, but Jonah learned that God was merciful even to Nineveh. The Church is greater and more important than any particular nation, including our own. I heard part of Terry Gross' interview of Stephen Colbert this week; he said, "I think the Church is larger than any political moment." He's right. Our life in God is deeper, more significant, more lasting than this week's election or anything else involving a mere nation.
Today we celebrate and remember those who have been part of our life in God and who have died in the past year. We remember their qualities, their love, their frustrations. And we celebrate their faith, their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, their calling in him.
God called them into the family of God, as God has called us. God is merciful to all, even to Nineveh. Thank God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church