A reflection on the Propers for Lent 3C by The Rev. Crystal Karr
Jonah 3:1-10 NRSV
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’ 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it
Luke 13:1-9 NRSV
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
I was a daddy's girl, I absolutely adored my father. However from a very early age and on I was a witness to his methods of terrorizing my mother, girlfriends, and stepmothers. As a young girl I believed that however scary and mean my father was to "his women" it was only because they must have done something to deserve it. As I grew older I began to realize that the women in my father's life did not deserve his violent outbursts which left warning signs all over the house--broken windows, holes in the wall, and purple bruises on their flesh. I then became disgusted with him and wanted nothing to do with my father. And yet, I could still recall just how wonderful, fun, and loving he was to me. Those feelings of adoration still pop up and make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. My husband can't understand how I could possibly love him and yet I do and know that I always will. Children are resilient.
The town of Nineveh was filled with sin and violence. Jonah, like my mother in regards to my father, no longer wanted anything to do with it. Nineveh was scary and awful--nothing good could possibly come from it. Yet, God, like the child I was, sought to forgive Nineveh. Sure, God was prepared to destroy the town, to cut it off but wanted to give that second chance, because maybe, just maybe the people could change, and despite the violence and sin, God loved the people (and creatures) of Nineveh.
God continued to instruct Jonah to go to Nineveh even after he tried to run away! God put Jonah through hell--in the belly of a great big fish. Even after my mother tried to run away she was brought back to my father every weekend so she could see me. I remember many weekends in which he put her through hell as she came to get me. But I loved my daddy, I still do.
As I got older I understood my mother's terror of my father. I wanted to protect my mother from my father. She deserved better. I was prepared to cut my father out of my life because I knew he wouldn't change.
Jonah proclaims to Nineveh that in 40 days God would destroy the entire town--beasts and people--all were bound for destruction. There was no hope--that's just the way it was going to go.
But then, the people heard Jonah's cries for destruction. The king declared that there would be a fast for both humans and beasts, all would cry out and worship God because maybe, just maybe there was a chance at reconciliation--even though Jonah had offered no hope, no word of encouragement, there was a fast. There was also forgiveness.
I'd like to say that my father changed, his violence stopped but that's not entirely true. He tried. The tears would stream from his face and words about love would pour from his mouth and while he might fast from his anger and violence it was just a fast. It was only temporary.
Often we understand God as father or mother. This always has problems because there are too many people who had broken fathers and mothers who abandoned them, abused them--physically, sexually, emotionally. The love of fathers and mothers can be great but because of our sin-sick world it can also be very destructive. So for some of us the image of God the parent doesn't work--it's not just unappealing but it hurts us.
But what if we imagined God as Loving Child? I'm now a parent and know that children aren't always so loving, innocent, and pure but stay with me for a bit and remember that all of our images of God are flawed.
God has the love of a child, a resilient love that exists and longs for reconciliation even when everyone else has given up, even when it hurts us. This is a love that sometimes gets angry, upset, and is greatly pained by the things it sees go on in the world, the love continues, grows, and matures. Even as it recognizes the pain and hurt, the damage, that the parents of the world have caused the love remains strong, indestructible.
While a child is resilient but not indestructible we worship a God who is indestructible. No matter our attempts to kill God, in the flesh of Jesus or emotionally, we cannot do it. The Resurrection tells us that God is more than what the evil we inflict on one another, upon God's creation, and yes, upon God--God's love remains steadfast.
In the 2nd scripture the master declares the fig tree's barrenness and demands that the gardener cut it down. However, the gardener begs for it to remain, for yet another chance, another year to help the tree grow fruit. Now, a fig tree grows fruit almost the entire year, it's continually producing fruit, it's the bunny of the fruit trees! The master is probably correct in declaring its barrenness, that if it has not produced fruit after 3 years then it won't ever yield fruit! Yet, the gardener isn't ready to give up. The gardener is willing to give it another try, to nurture it to grow and yield figs as it was created to do. The gardener is even willing to get really dirty by spreading manure on the soil around the tree! The gardener will do whatever it takes. The gardener says that if it doesn't work then he'll cut the tree down the following year--but I can't help but wonder if he'll make the same proposal at that time. Perhaps not but another year in the life of a fig tree is quite an extension!
We fail God over and over again, yet God remains steadfast. We try but we fall down, we screw up and yet God picks us up again and again. Jonah ran away but God delivered him from the belly of an enormous fish. Nineveh repented even when it seemed that all hope was gone.
In our world of sin and brokenness the cycle of violence continues. Children of abusive parents continue to love their parents even in the midst of disappointment and great pain--not only as children but into adulthood. In no way am I belittling the pain and suffering of abused children, rather the love that resides in them reminds me of the love that God offers to us. So often you can't understand it unless you've experienced it.
It's not a love of open arms rather it is a love that has experienced great pain and suffering but exists anyway, it is resilient, it continues to grow even from a distance, even when it is saddened by the behaviors of the "other"--whether that is a parent, or humans. It is a love that works in spite of despair and hopelessness. It is a love that has lived in a broken and sin sick world but continues to live and work and hope beyond what could ever be imagined. Thanks be to God. Amen.