Essays and Sermons

In a polarized political world so fraught with angry people – it’s worth asking “Do You Do Well to Be Angry?” A question God once asked the Hebrew prophet Jonah. Sadly – what makes the biblical stories still relevant is that too many human weaknesses never change. We humans need to be reminded over and over, generation after generation, that foundational to our Judeo-Christian faith is the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I still remember how a geology professor from our local college, Hope College, walked into the adult education class at the church Bob and I were attending wearing two big buttons. One on either lapel. One button said, “Think Greek” and the other button said, “Think Hebrew.”   He’d come to talk to us about the geological proof for evolution and he said he was wearing the two buttons because too often in our discussions about evolution people were using the logical, philosophical and scientific ways of thinking we inherited from the Greeks. That way of thinking has brought us many good gifts and insights – but that’s not the kind of thinking to bring to bear when you’re reading the Bible he said.

The Bible he said, is a book of stories. And story is not science. When we hear the words “Once upon a time…” we don’t expect rules of journalism or factual detail to apply. We sit back, relax and let ourselves be born away by a good tale. Which is not to say that a good, fictional story doesn’t convey “Truth” with a capital T. Sometimes it does that even more effectively than a scientific report might.

If you would – I’d like you to imagine putting on that Hebrew button and listen as I tell the biblical story of Jonah. Sit back, relax, and hear the story the way I think those first listeners would have heard it, as a shake your head, laugh out loud comedy –  with something very serious to convey.

Long, long, long ago, there lived in the land of Israel a prophet whose name was Jonah. As often happens to prophets who have half an ear cocked all the time for “The Word of the Lord” Jonah woke up one morning and heard these words from God ringing in his ears:

“Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh and tell the people there that I’ve seen their wickedness and if they don’t repent I will rain down wrath upon them.”

Now waking up to God’s voice wasn’t unusual for a prophet. But what was unusual was the message. God said “Go to Nineveh.” But Nineveh was an Assyrian city. The Hebrew people didn’t like Assyrians. They didn’t like them at all. Assyrians were the enemy tribe – the bad guys. In fact Jonah and most Jews, thought the world would be a much safer, saner, and less frustrating place with fewer Assyrians around.

So, when Jonah hears God saying go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent – well he’s wondering what in heaven’s name God is thinking?   God’s not thinking like Jonah’s thinking that’s for sure.

Jonah does not want to Nineveh. So, he pretends he didn’t hear what God was saying. Which in a way was true because in Hebrew the word Shema means “to ohear” but also “to obey.”   The two meanings are inseparable in that Hebrew word (which is what makes it hard to translate with only one English word in certain biblical passages.) Shema won’t let you off with a simple hearing of the word. It implies that if you really hear what God is saying, then you’ll do it. To the extent that Jonah didn’t do what God asked him to do, well Jonah could act as if he didn’t hear what God said.

Which was obvious because instead of heading straight for Nineveh, Jonah hopped on a fast boat going in the opposite direction. He caught a boat to the city of Tarshish, which as those Hebrew listeners knew, was a city about as far in the other direction as you could go.

Once on board the ship, Jonah headed down below to take a nap. Classic avoidance wouldn’t you say? But it wasn’t long after the ship set sail that out of nowhere, in a matter of minutes almost, the mother of all storms was heading their way. Big purple clouds were pushed towards them by a violent wind that whipped up the waves. I mean waves are crashing over the bow of boat, the sides of the boat, the stern of the boat – and the sailors are terrified. They’re thinking, as they would in those days, that some god somewhere must be pretty angry about something.

Which is why they all start praying to their own particular god, begging forgiveness for whatever it is they might have done, while at the same time throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load, give their boat at least a chance to stay afloat. (Seems they adhered to that ancient philosophy, “Pray to god, but row to shore.”)

The captain of the ship, remembers Jonah, down in the hull and can’t believe he’s still fast asleep. He shakes Jonah awake and asks, “What’s with you? There’s a storm going on! You didn’t notice? It came up out of nowhere – strangest storm you’ve ever seen. We are all praying to our gods. You better pray to yours!”

But of course – Jonah didn’t want to pray. Then God would know where he was right?   Right. So – Jonah just pretended to pray.

Then the storm got worse. The sailors said, “OK – time for plan B.   Let’s try casting lots. Got to find out the reason for this storm.” They take a stone and paint a mark on it and put it in a little box. Then they take some other little stones and put them in the box too. They put a lid on and shake the box with the stones. Then – without looking ­– each one in turn reaches in a hand and takes out a stone. The idea was that the one who drew the stone with the mark on it – well – that would be a sign from the gods that that person was the problem. And of course, you know who got the stone with the sign on it. Jonah.

“What terrible thing did you do to anger your god and bring us this storm?” the sailors cried. “Well, actually,” Jonah said, “it’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go where Yahweh God wanted me to go.”

“Aw man,” they said, “why would you want to go and do that…Or – not do that?” “Too long a story and too late now,” said Jonah, “ You better just throw me overboard. I don’t think there’s anything else to do.”

But the sailors didn’t really want to do that. They knew what would happen to Jonah if they did. He’d be a dead man. So the captain yelled valiantly to his sailors, “Row! Maybe the storm will blow over and we won’t have to throw him overboard!”

Of course – the storm didn’t blow over and so finally, reluctantly, the captain said, “I guess we have to do it.” So the sailors picked Jonah up by his hands and the feet, stood at the edge of the boat, but even then, just before they threw him overboard, they looked up to the heavens and said, “God, the one Jonah calls Yahweh, we don’t want to do this. We don’t want to kill this man. But he says that’s what we have to do it. Know that’s the only reason we’re doing this.” And then with a great heave ho, they threw him overboard into the roiling sea.

And just like that – the sea went flat as unleavened bread. The wind, the clouds? Poof, they’re gone. Blue sky. Bright shiny sunshine. Whoa! the sailors are thinking – this was one powerful god! They promised themselves that as soon as they landed safely, they would look up this god of Jonah and make an offering. Thinking you can’t have too many gods like that on your side – right?

And Jonah? Sank like a stone. He didn’t know how to swim. The seaweed starts grabbing him from below so even if he could swim it wouldn’t help. Jonah figures this is the end of his story.

But it isn’t. Because, of course, God had sent the storm and now God sent a fish – a big fish. A whale of a fish. Big enough that when it opened its mouth it was able to swallow Jonah whole. And there he stays for three days and three nights.

Three days and three nights. Classic Hebrew story pattern that one. The length of time needed to die to the old self and rise again to new life, die to old thoughts, rise again with a re–newed way of thinking. Jonah had to die to his old way of thinking that he could outmaneuver God, outmaneuver the right thing to do.

And he did. He began to pray too – though it was more of your typical bargaining fox-hole prayer. “Oh God – I know you saved me from the deep, but if I die here I’ll never, ever see your temple again! What a shame that I’ll never be able to offer the amazing sacrifices I had in mind. But I know – deliverance is yours to give or not to give.”

Still God listens, hopes Jonah has learned his lesson and so upsets the stomach of that great fish, who promptly noses it’s way toward the shore and unceremoniously throws up the contents of its most recent meals, including Jonah, onto the beach.

There’s Jonah – grateful to be alive, gingerly standing up, covered in, well who knows exactly what, catching his breath, when there it is again that Voice of the Lord, message unchanged.

“Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent of their ways.”

And this time Jonah’s saying, “Sure thing. Whatever you say. Me and you Lord, me and you.” And off he goes to Nineveh.

Or sort of. You see Nineveh was a great city. So great that it took three full days to walk across it.  But Jonah walked into the city – oh, about a day’s walk in is all. He dips his toe in the front door of city you might say. And as he walks he’s calling out, “People of Nineveh, if you don’t repent, God is going to rain down destruction on you!” But he wasn’t really using his full prophetic voice. He was more mumbling the message under his breath, hoping people might write him off for drunk or crazy.

The amazing thing was, the people of Nineveh did not write him off as some damp, crazy person. They heard what he was saying. And – they began to do something about it. They put on sackcloth, which was the ancient sign of repentance. They even went right down on their knees and began to pray to Jonah’s God, praying that this God would spare them.

News of what Jonah was saying and what people were doing reached all the way to the palace of the king of Nineveh. And when he heard what Jonah was doing do you know what he did? Well he too put on soiled, dirty, sackcloth and even went one better. He sat right down in a pile of ashes (another visible sign of repentance) and issued a decree that everyone in Nineveh was to wear sackcloth – even the animals! And everyone, including the king, was to fast as well as get down on their knees and pray three times a day ­– morning, noon and night.

This king was taking the word of God seriously. Unlike someone else we know. And God was impressed by their repentance. So impressed that God told Jonah to tell the Ninevites that they would be spared.

Which just frosted Jonah.  He knew it. And he told God so, “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! That’s what you always do. That’s why I didn’t want to bring that message. You’re always being gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Always so forgiving! With you, so often, there’s no retribution for past sins, no consequences, no penalty for what they’ve been doing that can’t be undone!   You just forgive, forgive, forgive.   I’m sick of it. I’m sick to death of it.   I’d rather die than see anymore of this going on.”

God looked down at Jonah and said very sadly, “Jonah, Do you do well to be angry? Do you do well to be angry because I have forgiven the Ninevites?”

Jonah was too mad to answer. Maybe, when you are a prophet of God, you have a little more leeway for chutzpah when talking to God because Jonah just turned on his heel and walked right out of that city.

But he didn’t hop on another boat. No – he found a place to sit down on a hillside overlooking the city, half hoping those Ninevites would not make good on their repentance. I mean, people had promised things and not done them before, right? And then God might still wipe them out. Just in case it ended that way Jonah wanted to be there to see it.

God looked down and sighed again. Jonah still hadn’t learned.

So God arranged for a plant to grow right next to Jonah – just a small plant really, but tall enough and large enough to give Jonah a wee bit of shade. And Jonah welcomed that shade. It was getting really hot, sitting there on the hillside, hoping the Ninevites were going to perish.

Night came and Jonah fell asleep. But when he woke up the next morning, the plant was laying shriveled and dead beside him. Now he was angry all over again! What? God couldn’t even keep a little plant alive? And it was going to be even hotter then the day before! The hot dry hot wind was up. Jonah, so hot, so mad sputters angrily, “I’d rather die than be this hot!”

To which God replies, “Jonah – you are more concerned about a little plant that died than you are for the people of Nineveh.   Jonah, we’re talking about women and children and men. People, Jonah, people that feel like you feel, that bleed like you bleed, suffer like you suffer.   People who are lost and do wrong as you are lost and do wrong. Jonah…Do you do well to be angry?”

And so – the story ends, leaving us us wondering what Jonah might have said, or better – what he did in response to that divine question.

I love the way story, especially a funny story, draws us in with characters so obviously ridiculous they couldn’t possibly be us. And then right in the middle of our chuckle, our laugh we have the uneasy feeling that the foibles being skewered are not so very far from our own. I mean Jonah is so obviously uncharitable and mean spirited, so blind to the obvious. Not at all like us, not at all… right?

Of course not. The Hebrew storytellers wanted us to see ourselves in the mirror of their stories. Wanted us to remember those times when we knew where we needed to go or what we needed to do differently, and then didn’t. Ran from it even. Escaped into sleep, depression, substances, or even our commitments that make us just too busy to change direction.

And haven’t we people off sometimes? Gave up trying to save them. And maybe rightly so.

Maybe they needed the shock of being thrown overboard to wake them up. But what if they had fallen to their knees. Do we dare believe it’s for real, considering their past? What they’ve done to us or others. What to do, what not to do. It’s not always so clear.

The story of Jonah has been told and retold for thousands of years. It has stood the test of time because it still speaks personally to us today. Though at different times in our lives, different parts of the story may speak to us, stay with us.

What stays with me in telling and listening to the story this time, is that final question. “Do you do well to be angry?”

Anger. It seems everywhere these days. I’m feeling oppressed by it. Are you? This past summer – people at town hall meetings, red in the face, screaming into microphones, sure that the country is going to hell. People, angry, calling for a new kind of Tea Party to radically alter our government.

I kept hearing this one sound bite looping over and over on NPR (National Public Radio). A reporter asks a woman who is protesting, “Who pays for your health insurance” and she screams into the microphone, “I do!” As though everyone should be able to do that. Blind to the fact that she is merely one of the lucky ones must have a job that offers health care and pays her well enough for her to afford her healthcare.

And don’t get me going on what 24/7 “news” programs are doing to foment anger. I’m showing my age, but I’m am pining for another Walter Cronkite – someone who reports the news without commentating. I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly or Glen Beck or Sean Hannity – I don’t dare. The few quotes I hear now and then make me too angry. But so do the reputedly liberal newscasters when I tune them in. So many of them almost trying to outdo each other being strident, angry, indignant – to hold our attention, sensationalize the news.

Don’t get me wrong – there are times and there are reasons to be very angry. But I fear we’re beginning to trivialize anger. Use it with abandon. But that’s risky, because angry words can lead to angry and even violent actions. They have in the past – and we forget that at our peril.

But the world is growing angrier too. Or at least it seems that way if you read the newspapers. And that’s part of it too – we know more now than earlier generations about what is going on in the world.

I read the other day about soldiers beating protestors and even sexually abusing some of the women protestors in public and humiliating ways. You have radical Islamic terrorists righteously angry with those who don’t practice Islam the way they do, stoking that anger in others, promising them paradise if they blow themselves up and take innocent people with them. Though let us always be careful to recognize that these Muslims are part of a fringe group, not representative of the majority of those who practice Islam any more than are fringe Christian groups. They too have advocated killing others who don’t adhere toChristianity or their interpretation of true Christianity – for example those who literally target and murder doctors  who perform legal abortions.

“Do you do well to be angry?”

But it’s not just others that are angry. Who hasn’t been angry at one time or another. Angry with a co-worker who we don’t think is pulling their weight, costing us our bonus. Angry at the boss or the company. They don’t do things the way we think they should, or they’ve cut back our hours, or they’ve laid us off.

Or our spouse or partner angers us – again, the same old issues surfacing. Someone we call family pushes one of our “buttons” as family can know so well how to do – and we’re angry again.

It ties us up in knots. Makes us irritable, sometimes even violent. The question is for us:

“Do we do well to be angry?”

Roger Arbury – my neighbor of many years and long time member here at Unity, was telling me about phrase that helps him with anger: Disagree with love. Just saying those words relaxes me. Disagree with love. But how do you do that? How do you keep anger at bay?

Well one thing we can do is press the OFF button on the television or the radio when the rhetoric is angry. No matter who the speaker, or what side of the political spectrum, we can refuse to listen. We can turn them OFF.

And to the extent you can – don’t choose to be around angry people. Choose instead to make more room for people and a community who reflect what the Apostle Paul once called the “fruits of the spirit,” a way of living that is filled with the attributes of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Choose instead – a faith community whose goal is to remind us week after week how to nurture and cultivate these gifts. Hear that word – remind? Take it apart and you hear “re” – “mind” – redo your mind, let go of anger, change the way you are thinking if it makes you unnecessarily angry, or angry too often

Anger distracts us from Christianity’s core teachings about love and forgiveness. And it distracts us from identifying what is too often a source of our human anger – fear.

Listen to the words the anger mongers use: government take-over, baby killer, abomination, unnatural, foreign, illegal immigrant, terrorist. Words that make us afraid. Make us angry.

The sailors on that ship with Jonah were right. It’s important to know the source of the tempest. But they also lightened the load. Time I think to toss fear and anger overboard so we can calm our emotional seas.

This week – a little “homework.” Find or identify at least one re-minder partner. Someone who will be willing to ask, when you can’t ask yourself, or when you can’t hear God’s voice asking “Do you do well to be angry.”

We don’t know how Jonah answered that question. The story doesn’t reveal that. But perhaps that’s because Hebrew storytellers knew it’s more important how we answer that question: Do you do well to be angry?

Offered November of 2009 at Unity by the Lakeshore
Douglas, Michigan

 A version of this message was first offered at Christ Community Church in 1999. Sadly – all that had really changed are the specific reasons for the anger that seemed everywhere then when we were in the midst of the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton.

And in 2016, when I posted this we are closing in on another decade since the message was offered at the Unity Church in Douglas, Michigan. Republican candidates for President of the United States unashamedly stoke fear of the “other” – the immigrant, the Muslim Syrian refugee, the government, President Obama and of course their political opponents. The question that God asked of Jonah, still so relevant today –  “Do you do well to be angry?”