Let us pray.
Confession is good for the soul -- at least that is what the famous Scottish proverb says. And so as the title of today’s sermon suggests I am trying to enhance my soul by telling you about my recent encounter with the devil. I was hoping that you would find yourselves speculating about a “prodigal” pastor and what kinds of trouble he might have gotten into on his sabbatical in a far off country. That might have enlivened, if not enhanced, my reputation. But having heard my children’s message, you may have guessed that my encounter was with a Tasmanian Devil not the one in the “Blue Dress”, Mitch Ryder describes in his rock classic.
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One of the things I most wanted to do during my time in Australia was to see the animals that are unique to that island continent. Australia -- having being cut off at a very early time from the other land masses of the world -- has a unique set of animals found nowhere else, such as wombats, kangaroos, duck-billed platypuses, quolls, wallabies and Tasmanian Devils. High on my “must see” list was the Tasmanian Devil. By reputation I knew them to be aggressive carnivores with huge jaws. From earliest times they were feared and despised by the Australian settlers for killing the farmers’ stock whether sleep, cattle, goats or a family’s dogs and cats -- hence the name Devil. They were until the last half of the 20th century extensively hunted.
So when we were visiting Cradle Mountain National Park in Tasmania and we saw there was a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary nearby, Lynn and I and our friend Clare went to see them first hand and to find out why they needed a sanctuary. Much of the information I had was simply myth and as it turned out -- wrong. To be sure Devils are definitely carnivores and will devour a small animal -- bones and all. But they are in fact very shy and utterly no threat to human beings. Indeed, much of what they live on are the remains of animals killed by others. After the biologist at the sanctuary explained how misunderstood they were, he excused himself for a moment only to return with a Devil clinging to his chest and arms. Quite clearly the Devil was scared to death of human beings except his handler. As the handler walked around the room he stopped in front of each of us and let us pet this Tasmanian Devil. He went on to explain that -- despite the rather benign behavior of the Devils -- they are still feared and despised by many. It is difficult to give up on our fears, dislikes and hatreds even in the face of the facts. In a sense we like our demons and devils to stay bad and evil. It makes life easier -- we can separate the good from the bad and we don’t have to worry about the gray areas. We don’t have to challenge our stereotypes and myths.
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Let’s turn to our scripture for today. Jonah hated and despised the people of Nineveh. Nineveh, you see, was the capital of Assyria – the Israelites’ archenemy for centuries. Jonah so hates the Assyrians that he rejects God’s call to go and prophesy to them and heads in the opposite direction, trying to get to Tarshish by boat. Of course, we know the next chapter in the story. A great storm arises that threatens the survival of the boat Jonah is on. The sailors do everything they can to survive -- tossing cargo overboard but nothing helps. Eventually, Jonah confesses that he is the reason for the storm and the focus of God’s ire. Jonah tells them to toss him overboard. The sailors don’t believe in God but act more honorably than Jonah. They try and row through the storm rather than throw Jonah overboard to his death. But it doesn’t work and so over he goes only to be swallowed by the big fish.
Stuck in the whale Jonah, either out of faith or desperation or a bit of both, prays to God. And guess what -- God hears this prayer and the fish throws up miraculously tossing Jonah onto the shore. You know the story could end here. The prophet sees the light and God is revealed as loving and forgiving. But it doesn’t. The divine call to Jonah to go to Nineveh is made a second time. Let’s be clear Jonah is smart and courageous otherwise he would not have been picked by God for prophet duty. Jonah, therefore, does not defy God a second time but goes to Nineveh and proclaims that the city will be destroyed because of its sins.
Amazingly, the Ninevites get it; they, including their king, hear and believe. They fast and wear sackcloth. And God “changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring on them; and he did not do it.” A truly happy ending and yet there’s still more to our story. There is one person who hates this ending – Jonah. He wants Nineveh and its inhabitance crushed and burned. You see to him are devils. These are the folks who over the years have fought with the Israelites over borders and land. Many Israelites have died. And to top it off the Ninevites don’t even worship God. And so Jonah is extremely disappointed – even angry -- with God.
O Lord! Is not this what I said, while I was
Jonah wants his devils to stay devils and to be punished. I must confess I like Jonah. We can understand him. He is like us. Jonah is just the kind of up front responsible person we might want in Chappaqua. Seemingly he wants nothing but justice and fairness here. The Ninevites are bad and they deserve to be punished. And yet he misses a critical point or two. First, he doesn’t really look at and get to know the Ninevites. He knows them from a distance -- by their reputation as it were. In the same way many think they know the Tasmanian Devils. Jonah dismisses the acts of repentance by the Ninevites. He doesn’t talk to them about their new found belief in God; he simply ignores their response to his prophesy. He is comfortable in good being good and bad being bad. Don’t make me look behind the myths, the stereotypes and the reputations. Don’t ask me to challenge my preconceived notions.
In this desire to keep things the way they were, he enlists the concept of justice. Can’t you hear Jonah saying, ‘it’s only fair that they be destroyed after all the destruction and suffering they have caused.” And you know he may be right. A strict application of the scales of justice might dictate Nineveh’s destruction.
But, of course, our loving God reflects something more than justice –
He embodies mercy and forgiveness. Recall what God says to Jonah at the end of this story
And should I not be concerned about Ninevah,
God does not see the Ninevites as the devil. He sees them as part of creation, maybe not perfect but with the potential to be good.
I think we all know that we can’t rely on stereotypes. The better we get to know someone the less likely we are to demonize them. It is good to be reminded, however, to take the time to truly know others – even those who appear to be distasteful or worse. The danger of calling simply for justice is less obvious. No one should read this story as a reputation of justice. Fairness and justice are bedrock principles in our faith. But they are not sufficient. Today’s other lectionary text which we didn’t read is about the laborers in the vineyard. The parable in which all the laborers regardless when they start work get paid the same. It too is a lesson on the limits of justice. We all struggle with the fairness of the owner’s pay process. And yet when we look at that story no one is treated unfairly. The workers who start in the morning get what they contracted for -- a day’s pay. The others simply are treated generously getting more than a per hour pay scale would dictate. But when it is understood that all are getting what is needed to live on for day – it is easier to accept.
Justice is important; it is where we must start in dealing with others. God is saying, however, it is not always where we should stop as Jonah did. The zeal for justice alone shouldn’t be used to separate us from others. Leavening justice with mercy requires that we see the other -- not as demons or devils -- but as human beings, God’s creations!. Jonah had a hard time with mercy. To him these Ninevites just didn’t deserve it. The problem was God thought they did. And frankly God was right.
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I have one final point. There are more than 100,000 devils in Tasmania and yet they are at serious risk of extinction. In the last decade a mysterious form of cancer that is passed from one Devil to another has struck them down. Now as we know that virtually never happens. Cancer is usually the out of control division of our own cells. In the case of the Devils the cancer cells come from other Devils when they bite while playing or tussling over food. The cells from one Devil are inserted into the skin of another and before long a tumor has appeared. What is so strange is that the Devil’s immune system does not fight the foreign tissue. After much research scientists believe that the problem is that the devils are too inbred. The genetic make-up among Devils is so similar that the immune system of one does not understand the tissue from another to be foreign. Scientists are searching for Devils with different genes to broaden the Tasmanian Devil gene pool. Solving this problem, however, will be difficult.
My point in telling this sad story is that it highlights the danger of walling ourselves off from others. Creating compartments of the good and of the bad – demonizing others and walling ourselves off from them threatens us not with genetic inbreeding but cultural inbreeding. When we narrow the voices we listen to, the information we receive, the people we know, we risk thinking inside the box, inside our comfort zone only. We risk approaching problems with the same old fixes. One of the lessons I got traveling this summer was that while we face similar problems from one culture to another, sometimes others have found an entirely different way to respond to the problem.
Quite clearly Jonah was wrong and God was right. We all must be prepared to reach out to the other – even “pray tell” to touch a devil. Amen