He walked into their apartment hoping she wasn’t there. But she was.
“How’d the sermon go, Reverend Swaggart,” she said from her seat at her work desk across the room.
“Jesus,” he said. “You’re on me as soon as I walk in the door.”
“I thought it was good when I read it,” she said. “Did they all have their hearing aids on?”
“First of all,” he said taking off his coat and hanging it on a peg by the door. “Jimmy is one of the greatest preachers ever. I mean Hall of Fucking Fame.”
She shook her head as she kept her eyes on the notebook she was writing in. He leaned on the wall by the door as they talked.
“Second,” he said. “Yes, the old Episcopalians loved it. They thought it was a fucking anti-war sermon, but….”
“Ahhhh,” she said. “I told you. You didn’t listen to your advisor. The Saddam reference. Forgiveness.” She turned and wagged her finger at him with satisfaction. “Didn’t some Bishop just go all John Lennon a few weeks ago?”
“Fuck,” he said with exasperation. “Nothing gets by you, does it?”
“It was in the New York Times, dear,” she said. “Hard to miss.”
“Bishop Browning,” he said. “And yes, they said ‘War is not the answer. No cause will be served, no crisis resolved, no justice secured.’”
“You memorized it?”
“It’s catchy,” he said. “Most stupid things are.”
“That’s funny,” she teased him again. “You’ve won the heart of all the old pacifist Republicans in town.”
“Yeah,” he said. “A bunch of them came up and thanked me for being so bold.”
“What did you say?”
“I was like the guy in that song, The Weight,” he said. “One old guy shook my hand and asked, ‘You’re against the war, right?’ I just grinned and ‘No’ was all I said.”
“What did your advisor say?”
“Well, he said I did a good job of drawing the people into understanding the story, the narrative. But he worried it was too controversial.”
“The war thing?”
“No, he was more worried about Calvinism,” he said. “All my talk about ‘our destination,’ and God being all powerful and all knowing.”
“I told you,” she said still turned away from him and toward the desk. “People were confused. They didn’t get it. The thing is a pastiche of neoconservatism and Agustus Toplady.”
“Thanks,” he said wearily, then sardonically, “At least I know you were listening when I went on and on about my process. I really appreciate that.”
“Don’t be so petulant,” she said.
“He said I was wandering into a hinterland — he used that word — of accepting predestination as a fact while suggesting salvation is conditional on exchange between people. I was, he said, accepting the Westminster Confession but….”
“Did he pick up on the capitalist crap you put in there?”
“No,”’ he said sitting down on the couch. “And Goddammit, it’s not crap.”
“You know I think all your Calvinist stuff is nonsense,” She laughed again. “But I know you, and I can see what you’re doing.”
“He didn’t like that I said that thing at the end about communion being in the presence of Jesus.”
“Transubstantiation!” That made her giggle and she turned in the chair to face him. “In a way, it makes me love you more, you’re like the people I study.”
“Yes, I know. Data. I’m data to you.”
“But I know the back story,” she said. “I know what you’re trying to resolve.”
“Look,” he said. “I’m tired of this. I’m just trying to figure out what the fuck I’m supposed to do with myself and my life.”
“Are you still going through with baptism?” she asked. “Or are you going to follow the other Tractarians and become a Roman Catholic?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to be baptized – As an Episcopalian. I love the liturgy. It’s everything I longed for growing up. Eucharist is like dinner in a fancy French restaurant, everyone with different outfits, moving around plates and cutlery. The hymns. There’s no fear, only beauty. I can’t help it. I love it. Silly, I know.”
“It isn’t silly,” she said. “We can’t always live in our heads. There are other things we need to do besides think all the time. At least they ordain women.”
He held back his response on ordination. He had thought once about becoming a priest and monk himself. He wasn’t rejecting Catholicism; he was embracing it. He was tired of explaining it to her and himself.
“Look,” he said, “I know you look at my real anxiety about free will and salvation like it’s an Indian rain dance or something, but I’ve got to figure this shit out.”
The rain dance comment annoyed her as much as her comment about ordination of women annoyed him; like a brother and a sister they’d sometimes get close to the “ow, that really hurt” moments in their rhetorical wrestling. They weren’t there yet.
She stood up and turned to face him with her hands on her hips; he called it the “Far Side Lady Pose.” It always happened right before he got into trouble.
“I preached a sermon to help cap off my Master’s degree,” he said looking up at her almost apologetically. “You’re pregnant. I’m conservative and you’re a communist. I have no skills other than arguing about arcane bullshit. Where am I going? Where am I supposed to go? He’s right. I am in a hinterland. That’s what I was getting at.”
Some silence passed as they each held their space.
“And do I look like a daddy to you,” he said, expressing a vulnerability she’d come to appreciate.
She sat down next to him on the couch.
“I’m no theologian, but I thought you wove yourself and your own thinking together beautifully,” she said. “I know what you were doing, I know the needle you’re threading.”
She put her hand on his chest.
“You’re somewhere between grandpa’s fire and brimstone fundamentalism and John Henry Newman’s syncretism; somewhere between that boy in the pews wanting to avoid the rapture and live his life, and that pervert Swaggart.”
“You always tell me anthropologists have to do it all,” he said. “Sometimes it is nice having a therapist in the house.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way to pay the bill,” she said. “Today is free.”
“Thank you,” he said looking at her, laughed, and lightly pinched her ear. “Did I tell you that you were looking especially pregnant today.”
She shook her head and smiled at him.
“Fuck you,” she said, and leaned over and kissed him.
The reading today includes part of the book of Jonah, from the third and fourth chapter. Unlike most prophetic books, Jonah is biographical; we are drawn to his story, his drama, as he attempts to evade God’s will. I suggest that our lesson from it today is about free will and forgiveness and how they are connected.
The story of Jonah is about a man who is called to go somewhere, a destination, a place he does not want to go to do something he does not want to do. The call is the same one God has for us; go to your neighbor and forgive and love them.
At the beginning of the story, God calls on Jonah to help save the city of Nineveh — in modern day Iraq, a place we’ve come to know in the news the last several months — and Jonah tries to run away. Jonah runs because he knows God is merciful, and Jonah wants Nineveh to be destroyed; the last thing he wants is God to be merciful. But God wants to use Jonah to save the city. Jonah was a nationalist and Nineveh was part of Assyria, an enemy of Israel. Why would Jonah want to help God save them?
Imagine God calling one of us to go to Bagdad to preach to Saddam Hussein knowing that we’d be successful, he’d repent. But wouldn’t that just delay the inevitable? Wouldn’t that just leave an evil man in power? We can imagine that this was the kind of thought Jonah was having.
But after Jonah stubbornly forces the crew of the ship to throw him overboard, and he spends three days in the fish, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh. He arrives at his destination. His efforts are successful, Nineveh is spared, and at the end Jonah sulks, unhappy with the outcome.
The central question of Jonah is the one God asks Jonah and He asks us: “Should not I spare Nineveh?”
But today, this story should make us wonder, “Why would an all-powerful and all-knowing God choose Jonah, a disobedient and self-centered man who even after saving a whole city can only worry about himself? Why does that God need Jonah? Couldn’t he just save Nineveh on his own? Couldn’t he have found someone else?”
In the Enchiridion, the stoic philosopher Epictetus extols his listeners to,
“Remember that you are an actor in a play, the nature of which is up to the director to decide. If he wants the play to be short, it will be short, if he wants it long, it will be long. And if he casts you as one of the poor, or as a cripple, as a king or as a commoner – whatever role is assigned, the accomplished actor will accept and perform it with impartial skill. But the assignment of roles belongs to another.”
We’re Americans. We don’t like to think that the “assignment of roles belongs to another.” More deeply, as humans, we resent the notion that we have no choice, that we are predestined for anything. Don’t we have free will? Can’t we act using our own strength to save ourselves, to save a city? Or has the story already been written?
Let’s consider forgiveness.
Have you ever prayed to be forgiven as ‘we forgive those that trespass against us’ and not really meant it? Have you ever wanted God to forgive you but, well, maybe give that other trespasser what they deserve? If you have, then you know how Jonah felt. His conflict is not one that the book presents as a villainous one, that is, he does not undertake to subvert God’s will but to simply avoid being an instrument of it.
What if I love and pray for my enemies and it actually works? Then my enemies will escape justice and fairness. My enemies will end up benefiting from what they’ve done to me or others. How could God be so merciful? Can you imagine shaking your fist at the sky saying, “Stop being merciful to my enemies!” This is a human thing.
In the Eucharist, right before we pray the Our Father together, the priest says, “Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.”
He is the author. What sort of story is he writing here? What is our destiny? Will we resist the role he has assigned us and like Jonah try to evade it, or shall we, as Epictetus suggests, “accept and perform it with impartial skill?”
The answer to the question of whether God should spare Nineveh, Jonah, us, and our enemies is in the Our Father.
Listen closely to the words, their logic: ‘As we forgive.’ For though our request for forgiveness comes first as we pray the Our Father, salvation is in the second part of the phrase.
As. We. Forgive. Those. His forgiveness of us can only happen when we forgive others, even those who deserve what they have coming to them. Especially those people.
In our other reading, Jesus calms the storm. In an earlier verse, the narrator tells us that when he was alone with the disciples, he “explained everything.” Yet, when a storm rocks their boat violently, they were afraid, but even more afraid after he calmed the storm. They wonder, in spite of Jesus’ candor with them, “who is this man, that even the wind and waves obey him?” Jesus asks them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
In Jonah, God asks the prophet, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Why do we sometimes feel so angry, resentful, and afraid at the prospect that we have no choice but to love and forgive those we feel don’t deserve it? Why do we feel that to exercise our will, we must and can choose to be saved or not? Why can’t we understand and accept that salvation is to use our free will to accept His for us?
Here’s the message, the Good News.
God needs us just as we need Him. He has a relationship with us, and like any relationship with a wife, a husband, a loved one, a mother, a father, a boss, a friend, an enemy, there are many feelings and frustrations, ups and downs, joys, and disappointments.
In the same way God needs us as a collaborator as he writes the story of our lives, we need each other. Yes, it could be easier to be free of dependence on other people. And it is true that those we forgive may not be worthy of our forgiveness. Those we love may vex and flail us. Life isn’t fair or just. But what redeems these facts is the relationship we have with one another, a spontaneous order of interaction, mutual benefit, and dependence.
God can do anything, he’s omnipotent. He didn’t need Jonah to save that city. God is omniscient. He knows whether you are saved or not. But he’s telling us, ‘Go to Nineveh.’ He’s telling us, ‘Go the trespasser.’
God wants us to engage with Him, in faith and confidence, and with each other and, as frustrating as this may be, He will not let us evade His will for us. He will be sure we arrive at our assigned destination. Yet, we cannot be saved without our neighbor; when we save the other, we too are saved. Salvation is not a solitary endeavor, or affirmation of the Creed, or repeating of words at an altar call. Salvation is ongoing, willful action based on our faith in His will for us.
Salvation isn’t a transaction solely between you and God. And we cannot save ourselves by what we do. Instead, salvation is an exchange of value between each of us and Him.
Salvation is to be forgiven by forgiving. Salvation is an exchange of the love and forgiveness that he freely gives to each of us which we must share with one another.
In a few moments we will share a meal with each other in the presence of Christ just as the disciples who met him on the road to Emmaus. Before I take the bread, I will pray, “We do not presume to come to this thy table trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”