9/21/2014 sermon: “Bread for the World”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Jonah 3:10-4:11
15Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

Bread for the World

bread_worldToday is “Bread for the World Sunday.” Bread for the World describes itself as “a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.” And today is the Sunday that Bread for the World would like for churches everywhere to focus on their mission. Jumping on this bandwagon, the various feeding organizations have asked all the preachers in Alexandria to preach today about the physical hunger in our community. They even picked scripture readings to use to stir us up to do something about this hunger epidemic.

A problem with this approach is that there are many worthy issues, more than we have Sundays in the year. And, as Episcopalians, we have lessons already appointed for the day. So let’s see what Jonah can teach us about eliminating hunger, if not in this sermon, then surely in our Forum after the service today.

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If ever there were a people to be despised and feared, the Assyrians were those people. A superpower in the Ancient Near East in its day, the Assyrians invented the practice of exiling defeated people into other nations they had conquered. The Assyrians broke up cultures so effectively this way that the ten tribes of Israel’s Northern Kingdom were totally lost forever in the eighth century Before the Common Era.

The capital of Assyria was Nineveh, a city known the world over for its wealth and wickedness. I wonder, though, if ordinary Ninevites thought of themselves as either wealthy or wicked. Probably not; culturally, the Assyrians were very advanced.

  • If Nineveh existed today, this would be a place where people wore especially fine clothes because children throughout the world who lived in squalor would have made those clothes even more cheaply than they could have been made in Nineveh.
  • If Nineveh existed today, this would be a place full of coliseums where humans tore each other apart for the entertainment of others.
  • If Nineveh existed today, this would be a place where rich people could buy or take body parts from the poor to replace the ones that they themselves had used up.

Yes, Nineveh was worthy of being despised and feared, even if the Ninevites themselves were blissfully unaware of their depravity.

I am sure that you know about Nineveh, that most-ancient city. You know because God—our God, the only God there is—appointed a man named Jonah to go to that city and tell the Ninevites that God had decided that Nineveh would be destroyed.

I am sure you remember that, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah headed the other way. God … intervened … and in a most dramatic way turned Jonah around and convinced him to go to Nineveh. While there, Jonah walked through this wicked city, telling the people there of their coming destruction. And then a most amazing thing happened: the Ninevites thought, “Maybe this God might change his mind.” And so they repented, fully and completely. Those callous, craven Ninevites repented so well that they threw off their fine clothes and put on sackcloth, even covered their cattle with sackcloth, covered everything with cheap course cloth to show their contrition.

Maybe you know, back in those days, people’s cattle were their wealth. The equivalent today would be if we took every bit of money out of our wallets and bank accounts and IRAs and investments, and put a note on each promising to use them to buy tuna to feed the hungry. Yes, those depraved Ninevites repented so perfectly that God changed his mind about destroying them.

This is the backstory for our Old Testament lesson today. Today’s lesson begins with God repenting of his decision to wipe out the Ninevites. The gist of our lesson, though, is Jonah’s great displeasure at God for saving his enemies. Jonah told God that he knew all along that God’s mercy would trump God’s judgment. Besides, Jonah said he would rather die than be wrong, so Jonah had a serious pride issue. Jonah might well have been fearful, as well; the Ninevites were not considered to be very nice people, and Jonah was to tell them that they were doomed. But Jonah didn’t admit his pride or fear to God, just his displeasure that God had been merciful.

We, too, know that God’s mercy trumps God’s judgment. Most of the time we are grateful that God is merciful. Most of the time we count on God’s mercy. At least for ourselves. Where we start to wish for more judgment is for other people.

  • We wish for judgment against child-exploiters, until we realize that OUR clothes were made by exploited children.
  • We wish for judgment against those who are violent and beat the less powerful members of their families, until we realize OUR weekly entertainment relies on that same streak of violence.
  • We wish for judgment against those who treat others with such little worth that they treat them as a spare parts storage depot, until we realize that we let those same people sleep in the streets and go to bed hungry.

Unlike Jonah, we turn our own judgment against not the strong and powerful who profit by this system, but against the very ones most victimized by our system. Today we despise the homeless, and search for their character flaws, behaviors, and addictions to explain their plight and why we are unwilling to help them. Perhaps this is how we keep from examining the system we profit from and how it exploits others.

Jonah’s story teaches us that our economy and God’s economy are vastly different. God loves and relentlessly pursued the evil Ninevites, as seriously as God pursued the judgmental and self-willed Jonah. God loves absolutely everyone, even the rich and arrogant; even the prideful, fearful, and pouting poor.

After preaching to the Ninevites about their coming destruction, Jonah found a quiet spot with a view of the city. He sat there awaiting the very destruction of Nineveh that he told God he didn’t believe would happen. He sat there in misery until God appointed a bush to grow to shield him from the sun and wind. He sat there in bitterness after the city was not destroyed and in anger after God had appointed a worm to destroy the bush.

The lesson here is that everything is God’s: the Ninevites, their cattle, Jonah, the bush, the sun, the wind, and the worm. God is who God is. God does what God does. God appoints whoever God appoints to do whatever God wants done.

Apparently, God wants us to build some type of affordable housing right here on this spot. Apparently God wants us to find ways to bring the world to the church and the church to the world. Another way of saying these things is that God wants us to bring Jesus—who is God’s Bread—to a world that needs this Bread. How has God appointed you and Church of the Resurrection to help accomplish these things?

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