Monday, January 22, 2018

Other Way Around - Jonah, Jackie and Lifelong Formation

In 1945 Jackie Robinson was playing Negro League Baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs. He was known to be scrappy, clean cut, multi-talented and willing to confront institutionalized segregation. Branch Rickey was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was known to be courageous, devious, brash, conservative and innovative. There was a day where an agent was sent to find Jackie Robinson and bring him to New York, where Mr. Rickey invited Mr. Robinson into what had to be the most frightening and alluring call. The call to stand up against the vast forces of racism and injustice, to shred social norms common conventions because we will be judged by them. What was it like to be Branch Rickey? What was it like to be Jackie Robinson? What experiences, what gifts and skills, what knowledge, what mentorship enabled these people to dare to change an enormous and broken system?

Who were Simon Peter and Andrew? What were their experiences and convictions? How did the work of a fisherman correspond to the journey Jesus was calling them to? Fisherman do messy life-giving work that offers food for others. It's a livelihood that requires you to serve as a team to work together to listen to each other. It's work that requires mercy and patience and Trust in the abundance that God has given.

Who was Jonah? We are sort of told he's a prophet, not so much told as it's implied. However, in the whole text Jonah, the only utters one sentence of something that is sort of like typical prophecy. Yet this text is prophetic even if it does not shout oracles. We read Jonah with a couple of drawbacks. The first is that some of us confuse it with Pinocchio for obvious reasons. And then relatedly, the second is that most of us have only encountered a disneyfied children’s Bible version. Which is too bad because it is only about 1000 words,  and it is unlike so much else in the bible, it is a whole story.

Jonah is a person who been called by God, who is presumed to be a prophet, and he is compelled to go and invite the people of Nineveh to repentance. In the name of the one Lord God of the universe. These are people Jonah hated and assumed were all terrible and dirty and no good at all. The dislike isn’t just the dislike of the unknown and the foreign. Nineveh is a major city of the former Assyrian empire that had been known for its cruelty all across West Asia. The prejudice and misgivings were generations old. Whatever Jonah’s gifts and talents were, they seem not to have been teamwork or ‘get it done-ness’. Jonah’s response to this specific call was to say ‘Heck no’ and get on a boat going in the opposite direction. While he is on that boat terrible storms swell up and after some theological discussion with the shipmates Jonah is sent overboard and swallowed by a really big fish. While cast down to the bottom of the sea, while he is in the bottom of a fish he offers a beautiful work of art of a psalm of lament and petition and thankfulness to the Lord of all.

After three days he is tossed back onto the shore and goes as directed to Nineveh.He follows through with the proclamation, and these people that he disliked and really wanted God to dislike, as we heard today, they repented and praised God. And Jonah, well, he got mad and sulked about it. Biblical Scholars have classified Jonah as an allegory, fable, folktale, historical account, midrash, novella, parody, saga, satire, short story and tragedy to name a few. And usually what they suggest is that it is some combination of those forms. Jonah is a story of resistance, a tale against the keeping of God in our little boxes, and how God can work with our hardness of heart. Jonah is a glimpse into how some lives of faith can be lived in unexpected forms. Jonah is a complicated and compelling story of the mixed-up-ness of the people God invites to establish his field of dreams.

My primary source for knowing anything about the interactions of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey come from the movie 42. And every time I watch that film I'm struck by two things. The first is that there's not nearly enough baseball (about 26 days till college baseball begins). And the second thing that captures my attention is the complex theological reflection that is present in the words and actions of Branch Rickey. I don't know if what we get in the movie is true to him or if it's true to the thoughts of the screenwriter. But every time I'm enlivened by the evidence of deep Christian formation that is present in those conversations. Conversations about the radical choice to raise up and stand by Jackie Robinson. You don't get to this understanding of this choice by glancing at ten ways of easy discipleship. You don't get to this call by osmosis. As offered in the film, the daring action and the strength to weather the storm is evidence of a person who has a whole lot of gumption and a plenty of organized spiritual study, and conversation and prayer.

If you're going to learn to play the cello and you sign up for orchestra class, but you never touch an instrument and you only sit in the back of the room you may learn a great deal about music, but you will not learn to play the cello. If you are going to join a baseball team and you never take the field and never practice, well that's called a booster, might even be called a fan. But it's not a baseball player. The discipleship that Jesus calls us to isn’t a casual following. It is a surrender of all that I think I know and all that I am afraid to let go of. Our goal is union with God and each other in Christ, and our call is attending to the fractured mess of this world to pursue that union. It isn't self-help or self-seeking but self-surrendering.  

One of the clear prophetic directions of this unusual prophetic text of Jonah is that all means all means all means all whether I like it or understand it or not. God is more than ready to partner with us in what we can barely comprehend. The ball doesn't come from us, the pitch comes from God. I don’t have to get it, I don’t have to like it, I only have to trust that God believes in us. The whole way of Christian discipleship isn't something we do on our own we do it with a team and the support the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is already out on the field extending mercy to those we least understand and us at the same time. How will you take the challenge of divine call in these lessons to put aside bluster and resistance and lean into the mission of God? How will we learn to extend mercy into the cycles of violence and blame that are a stormy sea all around us?

I am wondering if there is a way for some of you to move from booster to player? It occurred to me recently that I might have been going about the ‘getting together part’ of this all wrong for a while. Clergy leaders like myself are well equipped to be companions and resources for your journey. We are tour guides and librarians. The plethora of clergy and retired clergy at St. Paul’s and among our ecumenical neighbors, we are pretty good at listening to the questions and sometimes we know where to look for answers. What we are less capable of is arranging your schedules for you. In twenty plus years I have never been able to really do that. 

So here is the challenge. Well, some of you - the boosters and rookies and fans and occasional bench players and everyday players - I want you to figure out how to get together with 2 or 3 others and INVITE ONE OF us ALONG. Get together more than once. Sing hymns or old camp songs and wonder about them together. Watch Crash course videos and discuss. Listen to on being podcasts and talk about them. It doesn’t have to be a forever plan but a get-together and plant seeds plan. Let us be a people who are putting ourselves in the direction of being changed through study, and prayer and fellowship.

Jonah was a radically imperfect servant of the Lord. Just like every one of the apostles and all of Jesus’ disciples right down the line to you and me. We cannot wait until we are perfectly ready until all the players align to start swinging. Step on the field, step into the box. Goals tend to go better with a final date - so your get together and invite us along challenge, you have until Opening Day, which happens to be Easter weekend (as it should be) - April 1. Jesus says come and follow me, we would love to come and follow him with you.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington