I’m the outreach pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist, here in Denver. Among other things, we serve around 150 people breakfast every Sunday morning. Homeless people. Hungry people. We serve them breakfast and try to create a warm, welcoming environment.
I coordinate this breakfast and make it a point to be there through the entire meal. I walk around. I run and grab cups for coffee or paper towels for spills. Most of the time I just kind of wander and keep an eye on things. I talk to our volunteers. I talk to our guests. Actually, I usually just listen and try to memorize names. My intention is simply to be an open presence to the friends who join us for breakfast.
On Sunday, October 20, in addition to my regular early morning duties, I was to lead worship and preach a sermon. Given that I would be leading worship, I dressed up a bit more than usual. I wasn’t in a suit or anything, but I wore chinos, nice shoes, an oxford, tie, and sweater. I hesitated as I was getting ready to go to church Sunday morning. “Is it inappropriate to dress like this among the folks who I will be among at breakfast this morning?” I briefly considered wearing something else and changing clothes between breakfast and worship.
It’s not that I dress like a schlub on weeks that I’m not preaching. I’ll usually wear jeans and a button down shirt. But I was definitely dressed “up,” this Sunday.
As I was making my way around the common room, I happened to hear someone make a comment about me. I couldn’t tell you exactly what was said. It was so faint that I almost disregarded it as a trick of my mind. The only word I could tell you I actually heard was the word, “tie.” I decided I did hear something and glanced around the room. I noticed two of our regulars looking right at me from across the room: Chris and… (I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember his name) let’s call him Mustache.
Chris likes to talk to me about the freedom of the Holy Spirit. Mustache likes to quote scripture at me. Memorizing scripture was never really my jam. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember Mustache’s name. He makes me feel insecure.
As I approach Chris and Mustache, Mustache asks, “Did Jesus dress like that?” I said, “What?” Mustache asks again, this time with an edge in his voice, “Did Jesus dress like that?” Three responses came to me all at once:
I went with the third one and stood there stupidly, looking at Mustache, waiting for what came next.
"Doesn’t Paul tell us to be humble," Mustache asked. "Yes," I answered. "Well is all that being humble?"
Then, I said — and I’m embarrassed about this — “Man, I’m down here every week,” as if to say, “I’ve humbled myself enough to be here among the poor.”
I could go into the rest of our conversation in detail, but I won’t. I sat down at the table and we talked for ten minutes. I mostly ran through an automatic routine of hedges, justifications, and diversions installed in me by too much education and argument. What I really did was avoid the issue of the way I was dressed. I was totally rattled from that point forward, all the way through the rest of breakfast and worship. As an obvious and outward sign of my privilege, my clothing made me uncomfortable when faced by the fact by a homeless man.
As I dressed myself that morning and looked in the mirror, I did feel pride. I looked good. Maybe this is a small thing. There are dozens of ways to soothe my troubled conscience. I know all of the arguments already. But maybe it is everything.
Have I objectified the poor as an object of service? Have I made the homeless into a monolith, there so that I might appease my own guilt and the guilt of our society for creating the conditions that lead to homelessness in the first place? Have I taken even a step toward truly becoming a servant? Am I simply proud?
In ministry and service with the poor (hopefully it is “with”), these are the kinds of questions we must always be asking, no matter how we’re dressed.
Please excuse my er, um, ahm, uh, ums at the beginning of the sermon audio. Text as follows…
I want to talk about why I think this story is actually pretty funny. But I think we need some historical background first, to figure out what’s going on with Mr. Jonah.
Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire which was located in modern day northern Iraq. Archaeologists think this may have been the largest city in the world at the time with a population of 120,000 people. Our story for today says it would take three days to walk the whole city from one end to the other. At the height of its power, Nineveh had public squares, parks, gardens, and even a zoo. This is the city God threatens to destroy in the story — or at least that’s what we’re told.
The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capitol, was the dominating political, economic, and military force in the region for around 800 years. The Assyrians will only leave the scene when they are conquered by an even larger empire — the Babylonians. As the Assyrian Empire gained more and more power, they began to fight with the states to the west of them — that is Judah, where Jerusalem lies, and the northern kingdom of Israel. Israel is where our hero, Jonah, comes from.
It’s important to note that Assyria is named after its god, Assur. And as part of worship to Assur, it was seen as a divine duty for the kings of Assyria to conquer other lands and people, to take their wealth and to add it to the wealth of the Assyrian people. Nineveh is the center, the concentration of that wealth and the worship of Assur.
Finally, and this is most important, the Assyrians expanded their empire in a terrifying manner. They kept good records both in pictures carved into stone and writing on stone monuments. Assyrian kings recorded their conquests well. This is going to get a little bit graphic, but I think it’s important to understand Jonah’s motivations in the story. Assyrian kings brag of draping their enemy’s skins over piles of corpses and city walls, of impaling bodies on stakes, burning boys and girls alive, of cutting off arms, hands, noses, ears, and extremities. They brag of gouging out eyes and — I’m not kidding — making pyramids out of human heads before city walls. These are not nice guys. In our story today Israel is still independent, but it is basically a province of this brutal empire.
So, now we turn to try to understand Jonah, our hero of the day, if you can call him that. The empire we just heard about, these are the people God tells Jonah to go preach to. God wants to send Jonah to Ninevah — 560 miles over the desert — to a people who have been killing and pillaging Israelites for hundreds of years.
To Jonah this means two things. One, certain death. Or two, (and this might be even worse to Jonah) God’s forgiveness to the people Jonah sees as the wicked Assyrians.
Jonah can’t take it. He doesn’t want to die in Nineveh and he doesn’t want the Assyrians to be forgiven. So he goes the exact opposite direction, 750 miles to the west by boat, to Spain — basically the end of the earth. He doesn’t get very far though, before the storm blows up. He elects to be thrown overboard, God rescues him with a whale or a big fish, and he apologizes and goes to the Ninevites. He sort of half-heartedly preaches his message and, like, right away the Ninevites repent. This part is kind of unbelievable — even more unbelievable than the the big fish, I think. But I don’t think it’s the most important part of the story.
After he completes his mission, you’d think Jonah would be happy. God isn’t going to destroy a city of 120,000 people. The Ninevites hear God’s message in Jonah’s preaching and repent. Exactly what was supposed to happen, right? But instead of celebrating, Jonah marches out of the city finds a spot to sit and pouts like a child. He sits on a hillside under a bush that God provided for him for shade and just hopes the city will be swallowed by the earth. He complains to god that he just knew this is what would happen. “I knew you were gracious, and merciful, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent in punishing.” I’d rather be dead than see you forgive the Ninevites! So just let me die!
The bush Jonah sits under withers away. Jonah feels he is on the brink of death when God says, “you care for this bush which you didn’t even grow? Why then shouldn’t I care for a city of 120,000 people?” Then the story ends as abruptly as it began. God’s question goes unanswered. So how do we understand this odd tale?
We don’t really think of the Bible as a funny book. But I want to say Jonah is the funniest book in the Bible. Maybe not to us so much, but I think the people who heard the story originally would have really thought it was a hoot.
Okay, I know there’s nothing less funny than explaining a joke, but… here I go! Comedy functions on three levels. First, you have the pratfall. This is Chevy Chase falling down type humor. One of your friends stubs his toe, or spills a drink on herself, or maybe a group of friends do something stupid on a sledding hill. Maybe someone gets hurt a little bit, but not enough that it’s really bad. And in the right situation that can be funny. This is Jonah getting eaten by a whale and vomited up back on the shore territory. I think that’s funny.
Then there’s level two: referencing something that relieves tension for the audience. The name “Jonah” means “dove, son of faithfulness.” Well, doing the exact opposite of what God is asking you to do is maybe not so faithful. There’s a joke embedded in that. Then there’s the fact he’s been asked to go to the Assyrians at all. Jonah is told to go to the most brutal empire in the area, with all the power to force their will upon any other people they choose. That isn’t necessarily funny, but at first glance it’s pretty ridiculous. Once he gets to Nineveh he marches to the city center and sort of half-heartedly makes his proclamation — and the entire town, including the king, rub themselves in ashes, put on rags and repent their wicked ways — “yeah, right!!” But Jonah doesn’t see it as funny. And that’s where we get to level three.
Level three usually consists of referencing something the audience knows, but the character doesn’t. This is a kind of irony. For example, Jonah getting on a ship to avoid God is the stupidest thing he could possibly do. To ancient people in the Near East (the Near East is what scholars call the area around modern day Israel) the ocean was a force of chaos and disorder. If the God of the universe ruled over anything it was the ocean. It was God’s domain and an ever-present example of God’s power. So Jonah getting on a boat is a real knee-slapper. “He did what!? He got on a ship to get away from God!? Bwaahahahaha!”
Jonah’s behavior in Nineveh and afterward on the hillside uses all three levels of comedy to transcend humor and make a point for the audience of this story. We see Jonah angry at God for being willing to spare the Ninevites. While Jonah is having his fit he is so over the top that he says he’d rather be dead. Kind of unbelievable. We see him march out of the city and sitting under self-imposed misery on a hillside. In order to make a point, God even plays a kind of trick on him by growing a bush and then making it wither.
And then there is the irony. Jonah knows God is merciful, but he seems to forget. We also, as the audience, know that God is one that is primarily merciful, even to those who seem to disregard God’s people or God’s desire for justice for all. And we forget this too. By laughing at Jonah, the “son of faithfulness,” we are reminded that we should laugh at ourselves also.
What is most unbelievable in this story? That a prophet would be swallowed by a whale? Or maybe that God would forgive the Assyrian Empire? Or maybe that — and this is perhaps the most unbelievable for us — that God loves those we see as against us, or those who dislike us, or who attack us, or those we perhaps even see as enemies. Is God having care for these people unbelievable to us?
For me that final idea, that God loves me as much as God loves, for instance, the people who wrote the terrible things about this community, is the hardest to swallow. And it doesn’t strike me as particularly funny or fair. But, then, if I act as Jonah did in the face of this fact, perhaps I too deserve to be laughed at.
The following is an email I wrote in response to an article that appeared in the Denver Post on August 18th. Read the article, or at least skim, and then come back and read my letter.
My thanks to John Mann for inspiring the tone and spirit of this letter:
Public spaces should be safe, beautiful, and open to all. But your article “Crime and Drugs Bring Renewed Attention to Denver’s Civic Center Park” fails to capture the multi-faceted problems facing the homeless community who populate the park, and misrepresents the efforts of the so-called “well meaning” people engaged in ministry there.
I am one of those people, though I would not say I am there because I mean well. As someone who serves at least once a week, I have a few observations. First, everyone we encounter is not on drugs. The drug use and alcoholism that is present is often undertaken in an attempt at self-medication for untreated mental health issues. The complex issue of homeless and gang violence (two separate issues the article treats as one) are not only issues of enforcement and programming but are fundamentally political, an irony missed entirely by your article on a park nestled between Colorado’s courts and capital building.
The people in ministry at Civic Center Park do not only pass out cold lunches (not hot — I wish they were hot) but also work and pray for substantial political changes, and do so because we serve a population of Denver that has no lobbyist in state and city government. We are not well meaning, but we follow a simple call: all people are created in love and imbued with sacred worth. We feed people because they are hungry. We give them water because they are thirsty. We clothe them because they are cold. We serve them communion to let them know they are loved by us and loved by God.
Too many voices go silent in your treatment of the issues facing Denver in Civic Center Park. Perhaps a follow-up is in order?
All the best, Logan Robertson
It’s been several weeks since my last piece, but my time lately has been an odd mixture of being legitimately busy and struggling with writer’s block. The struggle continues as I’m typing this, really. I’m usually fairly certain of what I want to say when I sit down to write, but that sense of knowing has been quite absent lately. Of course any writer has dealt with this at one time or another, but it’s caused me to wonder whether my approach to it, my combination of attitude and actual response, is telling of whether I can actually call myself a writer.
Logan and I had a brief discussion about this a few days ago when he asked me “What makes one a writer?” The answer I formed did not describe me, and it quickly showed me where I am lacking, or at least where I think of myself as lacking. The problem is there is no universal blanket ideal covered by the word “writer.” People write successfully with drastically different styles, approaches, and attitudes when it comes to the activity of writing. So even though I answered Logan’s question as best I could, I knew that perhaps I wasn’t being gracious with myself. Perhaps my answer was more of what I thought a writer should be/do in order to get the work done, which really might just be a commentary on what I think I should be doing to get the work done.
That said, I’m still convinced that there are some traits or habits that writers, at least the ones who should call themselves writers, have. I admit that what I’m about to say may not apply to you, reader, if you call yourself a writer. Just chalk it up to the internal monologue I’m dealing with around the subject, and know that I’m probably still trying to figure out the answer by working it out here and now. Also know that what I’m referencing here is more of a big-picture musing than specific/organized thoughts on the subject. If that’s what you’re interested in, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Matter of fact, read it regardless of what you’re interested in; it’s that good.
The first trait that came time mind is two-fold: that a writer will have both a desire to write and actual words to express that desire when he/she sits down to do so. This is not true all the time, of course. No one person can constantly be the most prolific or have complete mastery of both thought and language all the time. It’s a bit much to ask, even of the greats. Writer’s block is a known concept for a reason, after all. Still, it seems that those who care about writing – as an expression, as art, as a craft – possess both the need and the general means to do the work.
I realize that’s a bit conceptual and abstract, which is why the second trait I sense makes one a writer is highly practical. Tied for importance with the desire to write and the skill/insight/intelligence/wit/etc. to do so is that one actually sits down and writes every day. It doesn’t really matter if what you write every day is material good enough to make it to a second draft or on to public viewing after that. What matters is to exercise, to practice, and weed the surplus of material for what’s usable.
A few weeks ago I attended Neil Gaiman’s reading/signing event in Nashville. Listening to a master of the craft talk about what his own process and career is enough to make you want to pack it up and go home, but it also provides some insight into how great material can emerge from just putting one’s head down and doing the work. Gaiman has stories to tell, so he plows through and writes. He mentioned how his latest novel, Ocean at the End of the Lane, began as a short story to his wife, but kept changing and growing as he sat down day after day, putting pen to paper and making a habit of the task. He even mentioned his personal tradition of writing with a different color of ink each day to keep track of progress. Like Gaiman, those with stories to tell should be strengthening the mental muscle needed to express them, writing and reading because they must to make things right within themselves and their world. Unlike Gaiman, most of us won’t be able to do so with such mastery, but that’s not the point. Writers write to tell the stories that rest within and yearn to be told without.
I couldn’t write anything for two months because life and work are busy, and 60% of the time I procrastinate all the time. Give me a break. Give yourself a break. To get out of the rut, I wrote this thing about writing. Now that it’s done I’ll try to put my head down and write, but don’t count on it.
Sorry, Neil Gaiman. At least I wrote this.
Another sermon. One of these days we’ll get back to posting our normal screeds. I’ve been preaching a lot lately, though. This one was delivered on 4th of July weekend. I have audio, but it’s a messy recording. I listened to about half of it and got fed up with all of the background noise and stopped listening. So enjoy some text.
Independence Day weekend, July 7, 2013, Matthew 5:43-48, St Paul United Methodist and Inter-Spiritual Community, Denver, Colorado
There was a wide valley that contained within it two towns. One town lay by a lake. The other lay by a river. The two towns were separated by a great forest.
The people of the lake and the people of the river arrived in the valley together. Some of them settled by the lake. Some of them settled by the river.
The valley was a good place to live. The soil was good. The sun was warm. Clouds rolled over the mountains, visited the valley, and went on their way. The forest was alive and gave its game and supplies to the people of the valley. The water each town bordered brought great abundance upon the people.
The people of the lake built close to the shores. They worked the water in boats: casting nets, traveling across the lake, making wood into lumber, building roads through the town. They traded with each other. They shared meals and songs.
The people of the river built their town along the banks. They also cast nets, fished, accepted the gifts the flow the river brought with it. They built mills powered by the river, traveled down its waters, traded amongst each other, and shared meals and songs.
In the years following their founding in the valley, the two towns prospered equally. But they started to differ. The increase in the fortunes of the towns were discovered by the world outside the valley. Outsiders visited the town by the lake and the town by the river seeking trade and fulfilling curiosity.
The river brought newcomers as it flowed. The people of the river welcomed the others as the river flowed by just as they welcomed the gifts the river had given them before. They traded with the newcomers. They shared freely the gifts the river had brought. Some outsiders simply passed through, others saw that the town by the river was good and stayed. They were no longer outsiders, but people of the river as well. The outsiders brought change, new customs, new languages, and funny ways. It was not always easy for the river people to get along with the people who came from outside the valley. But the river had brought these guests just like it had brought abundance, and the river town celebrated its newfound abundance and its new friends.
The lake also attracted newcomers. Visitors traveled on the roads the lake people had built. Some came only to visit, and to trade. Others, though, saw the goodness of the lake. They wished to cast nets, to fish, to travel across the waters and to share meals and songs. And so they aimed to build on the shores of the lake, as the people before them had done, and to become lake people themselves. But the first lake people grew jealous. They coveted their lake and its riches. They looked at the roads they had built and resented that others would use them. The newcomers were foreign and different. They spoke different languages, sang different songs, ate different food, and caused difficulties for the lake people.
The people of the lake set up tolls on their roads to extract wealth from newcomers. They claimed not only the shores but also the lake itself and all its riches as their own and no one else’s. Their stories became stories of their right to dominate the lake, the roads, and the forest. They began to claim that the valley was their valley alone. The good soil was theirs. The warm sun was theirs. The clouds did not visit the valley itself, but the people of the lake instead. The songs the lake people sang over meals were angry songs. They cast out the newcomers they could, and insulted those they could not.
Independence Day was just three days ago. Summer holidays are kind of different from winter holidays. Something about the heat kind of gets inside you. Summer holidays are all about spreading out, getting out of your place. We have big, outdoor get-togethers that mostly involve eating something that was cooked outside.
For Independence Day we hang red, white, and blue decorations around. We eat off of red, white, and blue plates, and wipe yellow mustard off our faces with red, white, and blue napkins. We pay a little bit more attention to our red, white, and blue flag that is a symbol of our country – of the United States. We pause and reflect on what that flag stands for. We ask, why do we continue to raise it and what does it say when we do?
One of the things we do on Independence Day is honor the veterans who have given their lives to service, who have lost their lives in battle, and who struggle with coming home. Some of them sit right here with us today, whether physically or in our memory. On Independence Day we also honor other Americans who have given their lives to make America great for all people. We honor women who struggled all over the country for the right to vote, we honor those who sat at lunch counters, and on busses, and marched for equality, we honor those who fight for the right of all to love and marry who they will.
America exists somewhere in the forest between the two towns in the story I began with today. And on Independence Day, of all days, I think it’s worth asking, which town are we?
It’s a very simple story – I know – and it misses all of the complex issues that are a part of living in this country. But I want to say that we are not one town or the other. Instead we are in the forest, in the valley. The forest is the complexity we face together. America is not one thing or another, not one town or another, but since the beginning has been attempting to see itself through the trees.
Our red, white, and blue flag, for its part, stands for many things. It stands for liberty, freedom, independence, sacrifice, generosity, speech, openness, equality, and opportunity. I am sure you can think of more. The red, white, and blue flag has flown over this country for more than two centuries and it has seen all of these values expressed every day. Unfortunately, it has also seen us fall short of those values, fail to live up to them, deny them to others. Here at home, the red, white, and blue flag has flown over slavery, the civil war, Japanese internment, segregation, racism, and homophobia. Abroad the flag has flown over war, colonialism, and terror.
The flag is a symbol as complicated as America itself, not just for Americans but also for those outside of America. We are truly in the trees.
I love America. I love the flag and much of what it stands for. I love America’s energy, dynamism, its multiple stories, peoples, backgrounds, religions, and races. I love the history and the people who have fought in various ways for the ideas that America stands for. But in the passage for today, Jesus calls us beyond the valley, though it may be good.
We are called by Christ, as individuals, beyond our own selfish interests. We are called to go beyond the bounds of loyalty to our families. We are called to go beyond the limited local view of our communities. We are called beyond even our nation, to see ourselves as part of a world of others.
The good rain, Christ says, falls on you, and your neighbor, and your enemy alike. It pays no heed to you, your family, your city, or your nation. The rain does not only visit our valley, but the clouds also roll beyond it.
We are called to do likewise.
There are interpreters of the Beatitudes – the section of the sermon from which this passage is taken – that argue the demands Christ makes are actually impossible. They say that the point Jesus was trying to make was that because we fall short of the perfection of the divine, we need grace. They argue that it is only because of grace that we are even capable of striving toward these lofty ideals, and that when we fail, grace will catch us, bear us up, and allow us to try again.
Christ says that we are not only called to go beyond our valley to embrace people like us. We are called to love even our enemies. The red, white, and blue flag of America symbolizes many things, but loving our enemies is not one of them.
That symbol. There. The cross… symbolizes love for the enemy, the stranger, the immigrant. It has no color and stands for no nation. It flings out its arms wide beyond the limited valley and calls us forward to it. It symbolizes the grace necessary to go beyond the valley ourselves.
The rain falls beyond the valley, and a forest grows there as well. We may not know it as well as our own. It may be harder to find our way. We may even be entirely lost there. But by the grace of God, the command of Christ, and with the courage of the spirit we are called to go.