As a student, did you ever try to get away with not fully doing your homework assignments? I would be willing to bet we all tempted fate once and a while especially on the nights before a snow day or for those subjects that we struggled in. I did this from time to time myself. I remember in seventh grade, I had one of the hardest English teachers and math teachers in the school. Math was a tedious torture for me. I enjoyed English because I was particularly good at it. It was the year of intense grammar drills. We had these old fashioned workbooks to work from.
Every night she would assign ten plus pages back and front of grammar work. She would say, “Label every word in every sentence on these pages back and front”. I could do that and it would take like a half an hour. Meanwhile, my math teacher would assign seventy five questions in math “Make sure you show all your work”, he would say. These were not so easy for me. I would work for sometimes four hours at home trying to come to the right answers which very rarely happened for me. So sometimes after going out of my mind trying to figure out math homework, I would just skip the English work. I remember sitting in homeroom scurrying to finish that English work which was quite brazen being that I had homeroom with the English teacher. Well one morning I was caught. “Ms. Ladegard, are you doing your homework in my homeroom before class my class?”
I was frozen stiff scared that I might fail. She happened to be one of the scariest teachers in the school. Well that day she gave me a zero for the day. I was so angry with her. I was angry because I knew the work I was doing was good work. I was angry with myself because I had gotten caught, never mind being angry that I made a poor decision. I didn’t understand why I was being embarrassed in front of my classmates and why I was being punished when the work was still correct and good. She wouldn’t even look at it.
I remember wanting to sink underneath my desk and prayed that God would take me out of the situation. Lessons. I learned a lesson that day about proper study skills and appropriate actions for school. I may not have been able to admit my wrong then but I was in the wrong and I never again attempted to do my homework for her class, at least, in homeroom. In many ways, God works to teach us and to form us as well and not just in school when we are young and impressionable, but throughout our life stages and with every life experience. We learn about love, compassion, our own strength, forgiveness and healing. We learn about just how deeply we are cared for in this life. God does not create all of the experiences of life. But he most certainly uses all of the experiences we have in this world to shape and mold us into better people. Our experiences, our missteps and mistakes and how we handle them change who we are and they can either embitter us or they could open our eyes and our worlds to the possibilities of the Holy.
God becomes that tough teacher from time to time helping us to see when we have failed and gracefully redirecting us to different actions for the future and this is exactly what God did for Jonah in this final chapter for today. You might remember from last week, that God had forgiven the people of Nineveh when they repented. Now part of me thinks that Jonah must have really enjoyed the power he wielded over a people who were an enemy of Israel. He may have thought, “Alright, I don’t want to do this but at least I will be able to hang around and see God destroy this city. At least I will feel victorious and vindicated by their destruction”.
When that didn’t happen, Jonah threw an adult temper tantrum. We all have them from time to time. He got angry with God and stormed off into the wilderness refusing to eat or drink anything. Much like a child does when they get angry and insist that they are not going to eat or breathe until they get their way. Or when we get angry as adults and choose to freeze people out by not speaking to them for days, weeks, months or years. Jonah was angry and upset. Jonah wanted to get away from the cause of conflict and he wanted God make account for his decision to forgive an unholy people who represented all those peoples who sought to destroy Israel. Jonah was only thinking of himself and his people and the potential lose if this city were allowed to survive. Ultimately, like all of us from time to time he had trouble seeing the greater picture.
Sometimes we get so angry, so upset that we fail to see not only what we are doing to one another but we fail to see what our actions, our hopes, our ill wishes would truly mean for people, families, and communities. What we see in our scriptures for this morning is that God is trying to awaken compassion and empathy in Jonah. God is trying to help Jonah take the next step in his spiritual development to start thinking outside of himself and his culture and see God’s possibilities and inclusiveness more clearly. Jonah was out in the desert just sitting in the sun pouting about God’s mercy. God used Jonah’s anger to teach him about compassion and grace. God grew a tree to shade Jonah so he wouldn’t die in his angry fit. Then God took that tree away to inspire conversation between God and Jonah. And this is what God said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nin′eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Perspective is what God left Jonah with. We may not always understand or see the greater picture of God’s plans but we are reassured that God has them. With this question, we close this book and our series of forgiveness, we are left with an unspoken challenge when we go forth and interact with the world and deal with slights and infractions. We are sent forth to deal with the complexities of life in this world. That challenge is to try compassion first, to try for empathy and once the anger passes to try to view the situation and life from another perspective. This is the most important challenge we live by that offers healing, wholeness and new beginnings for all peoples and communities. We are called to take time to just breathe before we act or wish ill of others. We are challenged to deepen our spiritual development by not acting just upon our emotional impulses but to allow God to lead in these moments of questioning and pain.
 Jonah 4: 10-11, RSV.
(based on Jonah 4: 1-11)