A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on September 28, 2008
Reflecting on Second Chances
Now God said to Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against their wickedness.” But instead Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish and went and found a ship. God sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest, so that the ship was about to be broken. The mariners were afraid, and cried every one unto their god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it. But Jonah was down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
The shipmaster came to him, and said, “O sleeper, arise, call upon thy God that we perish not.” When he saw what was happening Jonah admitted that he was the cause of the storm. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
Then God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights when Jonah prayed from within the fish's belly, repenting his sins and his flight from his task. And so God caused the fish to vomit Jonah upon the dry land. And for the second time said, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh.
And Jonah entered the city and he cried, and said to them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And the people of Nineveh believed and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”
And God saw their work and that they had turned from their evil ways; and God forgave them.
But this displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed to God, and said, “I beseech thee, take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”
So Jonah went out of the city and sat in the dust. And God prepared a vine, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might shelter his head from the heat.
The Book of Jonah (adapted from the King James Version)
I grew up in a form of Baptist Christianity, which believes the Jews are the chosen people. What that in fact means is complicated and not entirely a good thing. For short hand, think Jews for Jesus, although I’m talking way before they emerged. And not that this meant we knew much about Judaism. Frankly what little of Jewish ways we discerned came mostly from reading the Scriptures, not without value, but hardly a snapshot of a living faith. My grandmother, the spiritual center of our family avoided shellfish, which we thought a Jewish thing, although coincidently didn’t feature strongly in her Missouri-bred diet, anyway. And, also, we had no problem eating various parts of the pig, another very Missouri thing. I guess the bottom line was we liked Jews, or we figured we would if we ever met one.
I often mention how pretty much all the Yiddish in my vocabulary was learned as a young adult living in a Buddhist monastery. What this means is my first encounters with real Jewish folk were actually with “JuBus,” Buddhist-identified Jews. Talk about an eccentric perspective. But that was I got, and, you know, it’s an attractive approach to religion. Read Sylvia Boorstein sometime.
Now, and for many years, I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist. You’ve heard the old joke, I presume. How the guys were sitting in the coffee shop reading the morning paper when Joe looked up from the obituary page and said “Oh, my. Fred died. He was just buried from the Unitarian church. To which Sam replied, “I had no idea Fred was Jewish.”
For many reasons even though our roots run firmly through Protestant Christianity and even our liturgy is rather obviously derived from the Protestant tradition, we have a close affinity with a few significant Jewish perspectives. We are deeply informed by the unity of experience, an observation, which derives, I believe, ultimately from the Jewish intuition of divine unity. And, probably most important we are all about covenant; something I really believe derives from ancient Jewish traditions. In some ways you could say if there are Jews for Jesus, Unitarians could be thought of as Christians for Moses. Sort of, kind of, at least, if you squint and hold your head at just the right angle.
In any case Judaism is quite important to most UUs. In a majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations we mark a couple of traditional Jewish holidays as part of our informal but important to us religious calendar. It’s a rare UU congregation that doesn’t usually take up Hanukkah themes somewhere in December. And, in my experience in congregations across the continent, the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are explored every year on a Sunday pretty close to where they pop in the lunar calendar.
How we do this and to what purpose is worth reflecting on. I think about the various ways I’ve thought of Judaism and its spiritual teachings over the years. My engagement, I hope we see “our” engagement is of necessity informed by history, by biases, and hopefully, through a desire to be a little wiser in living. It’s good to know about our neighbors, but the real task for us, as followers of a Universalist path is to allow ourselves to be informed by the ways people have encountered life and faced death.
I’m a person on a spiritual quest, a pilgrim on the way of heart and depth. Which I believe is our common purpose. So, as I consider something like Rosh Hashanah, my hope is as best I can to let the wisdom of our spiritual cousins whom I adore to allow their teachings to wash over me, to challenge me, to push me in new directions.
Now, out of that sense and aspiration, today, as I hope to continue to explore those themes I’ve been working with this month, of a deep not knowing, of how important our actions are, and now particularly of our intentions and second chances; I feel I couldn’t be more fortunate than to have an opportunity to stop and consider all this within the context of Rosh Hashanah. I won’t stop there, can’t; but I do believe it helpful, for me, and maybe for you, to pause and to reflect.
While I’m suggesting we need to embrace a deep not knowing, that doesn’t mean ignoring what is knowable. Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year.” And as you probably know this is the Jewish New Year. So, tomorrow, Monday will mark the year 5768 in the traditional Jewish calendar. And if anyone hasn’t yet done so, let me be the first to wish you a happy New Year! Happy 5768!
In a UU Liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we learn. “The spirit of (this) time is woven about two books: the Torah and the legendary Book of Life. According to legend on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, the Angel of Life writes each of our destinies for the year to come. During the ten days following, the Days of Awe, the Book of Life is kept open. If we then merely try to understand how to take the Torah’s insights with us into the everyday world, the Angel of Life must reconsider what has been written. By taking thought, we have made changes that will alter the future. At the last sound of the Shofar on the day of Yom Kippur, says the legend, the Book of Life for the year to come is sealed. All is (then) written.”
Liturgically we find this holy day is all about an assessment of our lives. It is a time for reflection and, it is unlikely we will have lived up to our deepest hopes, desires and expectations, I certainly know this is so in my case. So, it becomes a time for repentance. Not a bad way to begin a new year, I think. Or, at the starting moment of any enterprise, say, like the beginning of our UU church year, which is scant weeks on.
There are any number of ways we can enter into this time of reflection and repentance. One text closely associated with this time is the biblical story of Jonah. In fact the entire text is usually read aloud during this season. We’re UUs, so for our text today while trying to keep the heart of the matter I also cut the story by about half. The Readers Digest version, if you will. Hopefully I accomplished my editing and spot rewrites without doing too much damage to the story. Accurate enough, because I believe it provides some important lessons as we look forward to the next year of our lives.
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about the story of Jonah. I really like how it starts with that rushing off for Tarshish. To the writer, that meant Jonah got his divine commission, and takes off in the exact opposite direction. He was heading for the very ends of the earth. So, we have a first class shirker being picked by God for his important job. What’s not to love here? Sounds like my story. And yours? What task are you not living up to? What calling from the depth of your being are you avoiding? I bet there’s something.
And this running away leads to some hard time in the belly of the beast. Again, what consequences have you found in your life out of avoiding your deeper responsibilities. I suggest, within this context, we’re mostly talking about relationships, how we deal with others, how the more fortunate deal with the less fortunate.
By the bye, this belly of the fish thing was a favorite point for mocking by the other religious current in my young life, my Robert Ingersoll influenced father; who counted the fish story along with pillars and four corners to the earth as evidence these stories were myths. And for my dad “myth” meant lie.
I, I hope you have picked up, have a different take on myth, on the value of story as a way into our human hearts. Found if we don’t cling to the stories as literal truth. I don’t try to take this old story as history, it isn’t. But rather as our spiritual ancestors attempting to address something important about human lives, which it is. I suspect the rabbis who chose to reflect on this story during Rosh Hashanah often had a similar desire.
I mean what a story. When Jonah finally, finally repents and goes and does the prophesying, and the people in their turn repent, he's royally annoyed that they did and didn't get their divine punishment. He wanted fire and brimstone. He got repentance. In fact he’s so angry he wishes he were dead. So, Jonah starts as a jerk and ends as a jerk. Along the way he does a couple of good things. There’s an amazing poem sung from the belly of the fish, but I’ll save reflecting on it for another year. But, most important, we find in doing those couple of good things, Jonah redeems himself.
What captures me here is the theme of second chances. Here the divine strews second chances before Jonah like a child throwing fistfuls of rose peddles during a wedding processional. Great globs of second chances picked up in a chubby hand and thrown indiscriminately in our path. I believe the greatest gift of our humanity is that we get these second chances. And, here’s another important point. We don’t all get them. A child born into a decade long drought in the third world isn’t going to see many second chances. And there’s a discrepancy in who gets them right here in Providence, as well. I believe if we are all really connected, as I’ve said before, and will again, then those of us who have these second chances, owe something, have an enormous responsibility to take them, to grab them, and to allow the changes in our lives they hold out. The lives of those children may be in the hands of us, you and me, embraced within our willingness to look beyond our comfort zone. The question of second chances, of turning hearts, and moving in new directions is that important.
On this way our intentions are critical. We need to notice and intend to change. That’s the gate. We may not succeed the first time, or the second. Frankly it strikes me Jonah never completely comes to terms with the gift of his life. But along the way he intends to do the right thing. And that’s very important. But even that’s not quite enough. It’s a gate into the garden, but not the garden. Hence that notion of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. You can’t just intend good things. We need something more.
Frankly, what that more is, is a small distinction, easily missed. But, it makes all the difference. And, that’s where I think about the vine. Jonah does the job, people repent, and filled with anger that they did and didn’t get fire and brimstone, he goes out of the city and sits in the dust, sulking. As we’ve observed, a world class jerk. And then in that lovely coda to the story God causes a vine to grow up and shade, as I imagine it, his old balding head that had been burning red in the harsh Near Eastern sun.
Now in the fuller version of this story the vine is created and destroyed and a relatively obvious moral is drawn out of the event. But I’ve found the most value for me in just contemplating that vine and that shade provided even for foolish, shirking, vindictive Jonah. What that suggests to me, what that sings to me is that I’m not doing this alone. Never have been. The problem only comes when I think I’m responsible all by myself and must make it happen, must, as one wise person described it, push the river. Can’t be done. The intention that fails us is the one that tries to control things. The intention that leads to the good is surrender.
For me Jonah points the way. I’ve found it in those moments when, as Jonah-like as I am, I’ve resisted, I’ve complained, I’ve done my best to avoid, and nonetheless, at some point, reluctantly, usually late, never fully aboard, but somehow still stepped up to the plate and filled with ingratitude and insincerity, and absolutely not knowing where it will go, still have acted in service of the good. We need to let our intentions be surrender, it needs to be an opening of our hearts. But in that, in that precious moment I’ve found it is all revealed. God’s vine has sprung up, and its shade has covered me.
Lovely, strange, and powerful. I suggest if we just open our hearts without expecting something in particular, without trying to push the river, without trying to be God’s agent, and simply commit to taking the second chance and reaching out a hand; with that all will be well. Here’s my counsel. Repent of whatever you have done to cut yourself off from the world and just reach out your hand. If we can do this, at the end of the season the angel will record our names, yours and mine in the book of life, along with Jonah and all the reluctant who have nonetheless heard the stirrings from the depths, the call of the great covenant, the way of intimacy, and however hesitantly changed the direction of their lives and in doing so helped to heal the world.