The Rev. Helen Havlik
March 8, 2020
Lent is the 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays) that gives us time for getting closer to God. This year our theme for Lent is Called to the Cross, as we travel the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and the disciples. Along the way, Jesus has some challenging things to say to everyone who listens to him—even his friends. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 12, beginning with vs. 38. Listen to God’s holy word.
Most of you know I’m the oldest of five kids—myself and two sets of twins. As I’ve gotten older I absolutely appreciate what my poor mother put up with—when my younger brothers were born, she had five children under age seven. And we were an unruly bunch, quite creative in how we got ourselves in trouble. One day, for example, my baby brothers were in their bassinettes in the back yard. I was in the house when I heard my mom shriek and then run out the front door. Apparently Nancy and Bill, who were five at the time, were racing the bassinettes, which had wheels on them, around the house—one of them tipped and my mom looked out the window in time to see a swaddled baby rolling out of the basket down the grass into our neighbor’s driveway. (He wasn’t hurt.) We also fought a lot—nothing to do with me, of course—as the oldest I should have the final say about most things, right? This led to much squabbling—and I was never good at backing down and saying sorry, even when my mother insisted. Though I swear, if anyone tried to bully one of my siblings—verbally or physically—I was right in there to defend them. But wait, the offender would say, you just called him such and such. “I can say it but you can’t because he’s MY brother.” MY brother, MY sister, we all need the people in our lives who will defend us from bullies, who will travel the highways of life with us. Who have to take us in when we need a place to go. The question is who are they?
For Jonah, the answer definitely was NOT the Ninevites. You remember the prophet Jonah. God wanted him to go to the great city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, and get the people to repent of their evil ways. The first time God asked, Jonah hightailed it to Joppa and caught a boat to Tarshish. You know what happened next. He spent three whole days in the belly of a fish before it spit him up on dry land. So when God asked again, Jonah did what he was told—though he grumbled all the way there. He grumbled even though his mission was a success and the Ninevites actually repented. Apparently Jonah didn’t approve of God’s choice of whom to be concerned about. Apparently Jonah thought God should care only about Jonah’s family, the people of Israel. And apparently God had other ideas.
Jesus seems to have had something similar in mind when he brought up Jonah to the scribes and Pharisees that day. They wanted a sign from Jesus that he really was a prophet, bringing them a message from God. They wanted to be sure of who he was before they listened to him, because he made them really nervous, quoting Isaiah and referring to the Son of Man from the Book of Daniel and casting out demons and the like. In many ways Jesus’ understanding of Torah was stricter than theirs because he always went beyond what people said they believed to what they actually did based on what was in their hearts. So why bring up the minor prophet Jonah when they asked for a sign? We hear “three days” and our ears perk up because we remember the three days between Jesus’ death and resurrection. But there’s an even bigger connection between him and Jonah. Jonah a prophet of Israel had no interest in preaching to the Assyrian enemies of Israel. Even when his words brought about repentance, he pouted to think he played any part in changing God’s mind. And so when Jesus brings up Jonah, he’s saying that God’s love is all-encompassing. That God doesn’t discriminate against Ninevites or Samaritans (whom Jesus also knows a thing or two about) and since God doesn’t, neither should they. And then Jesus says his family is more extended than just the mother who birthed him and the brothers he saved from bullies. “Anyone who does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” A much bigger family than we imagine.
The Rev. Scott Davis grew up in Worcester, Mass., and moved to Michigan a few years back to serve as pastor of Second Congregational Church, which is how I know him. One day we were talking and I mentioned that my family had some ancestors in Acton, Mass. “My dad’s family is from Acton,” Scott said. “Oh really,” I said, “I’m related to Isaac Davis from Acton. He was the first revolutionary soldier to die at the Battle of Concord & Lexington.” “Sure, Great Grandpa Isaac,” he said. I’d known Scott for awhile at that point and had never made the Davis connection. We’re actually fourth cousins five times removed. Big family—in fact, more than 10 million people can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower alone. I know many of us here this morning are cousins, but I bet many of us are and don’t know it.
Recently a company called Momondo wanted to show how connected we really are. They took 67 volunteers from various backgrounds and countries and tested their DNA a la Ancestry.com. The researchers explained that each of us gets half our DNA from each of our parents, who get half from each of their parents—and so on, meaning that we’re made up of tiny bits of DNA gathered over millenia. Along with this they asked people about their family backgrounds and how they felt about their particular home country. They asked how the participants felt about people from other countries and racial-ethnic groups. “Do you have any countries you don’t like or nationalities you don’t get on with?” the researchers asked. Many of the people said they were 100 percent British or French or Kurdish or East African. One man said he was 100 percent Icelandic, which made him better and more important than anyone else. You can guess what happened. The British man who said he didn’t like Germans turned out to be 25 percent German. The Kurdish woman who didn’t like Turks had Turkish ancestry—and a Turkish cousin she didn’t know about literally in the research group. The Icelandic man who claimed to be better than anyone else had a little bit of every European nation, including Spain. The Frenchwoman who was so proud to be all French was actually 32 percent British. “This should be compulsory,” she told the researchers, “I mean there would be no extremism in the world if people knew their heritage. That there is no pure race.”
We live in an era of “isms.” Ableism, sexism, adultism, ageism, antisemitism, classism, racism, nativism, ethnocentrism. Behind every one of those “isms” are mothers and brothers and sisters we may not have recognized as family because we don’t share the same parents or last name. We may not have recognized them as family because of their class, color, country of birth, ethnicity, language, age, gender, religious faith. All these “isms” have to do with “us” vs. “them” and “I’m not just different from you, I’m better than you.” We still sort people into categories to keep them in their place—which too often is outside of our concern and beyond the concern of God. But Jesus is concerned with how we afford dignity to the people God has created and loves. And he gives us the only criteria that he uses to decide who’s part of his family: whoever does the will of God.
So Jesus gives the scribes and Pharisees, his disciples and us a choice. We can go to Nineveh—in other words, accept that even those people we see as different and even unacceptable, are cared for by God—or we can run the other way. Part of running the other way is that we cut our own connection with God who loves without discrimination. We end up outside the circle, wanting to get in but stuck in the belly of something like a stinky fish, hoping that God will relent about us.
I hope I would do anything for my siblings—that’s a big sister’s job. But not just for them—for whomever God sends me to, who are also my mother and brothers and sisters.