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Crossing Boundaries
January 21, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana; First United Presbyterian EP

Text: Jonah, Mark 1:14-20

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time …

A second time because the first time Jonah had run off.  A second time because God has dragged Jonah back, where he now laid sprawled on the beach covered in whale puke.  A second time because when it comes to prophets, Jonah was among the most reluctant ever known.

One of the most reluctant prophets ever known – also one of the most successful.  Jonah peels himself off the beach and goes to Ninevah.  Striding the length and breadth of the great city, Jonah preaches with such eloquence, such conviction, such urgency the entire city repents of its sins, turns toward God and seeks the Lord’s salvation.  And God, who had considered destroying the city, relents.

The world has known great preachers, but never has there been a preacher greater than Jonah.  Never has one led so many people to salvation at one time.  Yet Jonah’s heart doesn’t match his words.  As God showers the Assyrians with mercy, Jonah shoots bullets of hatred back toward heaven.

“O Lord!” he prays, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled in the beginning; for I knew you were a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” 

Jonah hated the Assyrians.  He detested them. From his youth growing up near the sea of Galilee, Jonah had heard horror stories of the Assyrian’s wicked ways.  Possibly he’d had friends or family members or distant relatives killed by their armies.  If he had lived long enough, he would have seen the Assyrians destroy his village, carry off and kill his people, nearly eradicate Jewish identity and culture. 

The Assyrians were one of ancient Israel’s fiercest and cruelest enemies.  If the Israelites were God’s chosen people than the Assyrians were to be God’s most detested people.  Jonah going to the Assyrian capital of Ninevah would have been like the great revival preacher Billy Graham going to Moscow at the height of the cold war, not in 1992 when he did go, but back in the 1950’s or 60’s when his sermons routinely cited Russia and communism among the great threats facing humanity. 

Jonah had only hatred and vitriol for the Assyrians.  He did not want them to be saved.  But God had only love for them.  God yearned for their salvation.

Centuries after Jonah’s great revival, Jesus would walk the same hills Jonah had walked only now mothers told stories about the evil Romans instead of the Assyrians.  One day, as Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee he spots his friend Andrew and his brother Peter.  Their friends James and John mend their nets not far away.  Five young Jewish men, about the same age, from the same place, with the same convictions, of the same gender.  A perfect club.  A perfect set of companions for an adventure. 

Jesus calls to them with a promise: “Come, follow me.  I will make you fish for people.”  Jesus conveniently fails to mention how uncomfortable that journey would become – how, as God had called Jonah before them, they would be called from ministering to people like them to ministering among – and even with – people they’d been taught to avoid, to distrust, even to hate.

In Jesus’ day devout Jewish men took great pains to only associate with those just like them – equally pius, equally devout, equally following the law, equally Jewish, equally male, equally clean.  Lepers, tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, women, the poor, anyone seen to be in any way different or not blessed by God  – those were to be avoided at all costs.  Yet Jesus’ disciples would come back from an errand and find Jesus chatting with a Samaritan woman at a well.  Or eating at the house of a tax collector.  Or healing the daughter of a Roman soldier.  Or accepting the ministrations of a “fallen” woman.  Talk about awkward!  Talk about uncomfortable!

I wonder if Peter would have followed Jesus if he’d known how much he’d be stretched and challenged by a savior who ignored boundaries of class, status, culture and even religion to bring God’s grace to all who yearned for a new life.  I wonder how many disciples left because Jesus went too far – too far by blessing tax collectors, too far by allowing women to sit at his feet, too far by challenging those who saw God’s grace limited to those who looked like them, spoke like them, believed like them, voted like them, dressed like them, talked like them.

Years ago I had the privilege of preaching at a church in the Shenandoah mountains on the far edge of suburban Washington, DC.  The congregation had been planted a few years before my visit and was struggling.  We missed, the pastor told me.  We should have put the church on the other side of the interstate – where the houses were nicer, the neighbors whiter, and richer, and better educated.  Where the neighbors were more, well, Presbyterian. 

Or maybe God had placed the congregation exactly where it needed to be.  Maybe by planting their church in their personal Nineveh God called them into a ministry of discomfort, a ministry of grace so profound it expands boundaries, a ministry where we reach out to our neighbor and our neighbor reaches back and together we grow in relationship with God.  A relationship defined by nothing except the profound love of a God so gracious, so merciful, so slow to anger, so abounding in steadfast love that all human boundaries and barriers fall away.

How often, when faced with God’s call for boundary transcending grace, do we run the other way?  How often do we allow God to stretch us – to discomfort us – so we become a people, a community, radically defined by God’s radical, boundary transcending grace?