Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings: Jonah 1:1-10, Matthew 6:25-33
Our grandson, Ayden, recently celebrated his first birthday. To join the celebration we had to make our way from Camden to Summerton where the other grandparents live. Now, at least one of us knew the way to the party – but we decided ask Jason the best way to go.
Jason is the voice of our newest toy – a personal GPS. Getting Jason’s help is simple. Through the magic of GPS, Jason already knows our starting point, so all we have to do is put in the ending addresses and he does the rest. He’ll warn us when turns are approaching, and if we miss a turn, he always says the same thing: “Route recalculation.”
He said it a lot during this trip. Wanda knew the route she wanted to take and it wasn’t the one that Jason wanted us to take. At our first deviation from the assigned route we heard Jason calmly say, “Route recalculation.” Then, Jason tried in vain to get us to go back to the assigned route. He kept telling us to turn left at the next road that would put us back onto our original route. Whenever we kept going forward, he would again calmly intone, “Route recalculation.” He kept this up for miles, patiently recalculating our route every time we disobeyed his gentle commands to turn and get back on our original route.
I was amazed at how serene Jason was every time he had to recalculate our route. I fully expected that Jason would lose patience with our wanton disobedience at some point and in frustration, shout, “Well, if you didn’t want my help, why did you ask?” If I were in charge of programming these GPS thingies, I’d make sure Jason would say that after awhile. But, Jason never became frustrated by our insistence at going our own way. It seemed as if Jason just knew that at some point we’d find ourselves in a situation where we really need him, so he bided his time patiently. And Jason was right. When we got to Rimini, the bridge was out on our normal route and we had to take a detour down an unknown road. It was Jason who got us back on track.
Traveling with Jason feels a lot like going through life trusting God to mark out our path. God wants to lead us on the best path for our lives, but we don’t always follow. So, when we deviate, or simply refuse to go the way God wants us to, God calmly says, “Route recalculation,” – as many times as necessary.
We’ve all gone through these route recalculations in our lives. We feel God’s nudge in one direction and we immediately head off in another direction, just like Jonah. Our reading this morning is all about route recalculations. God tells Jonah, very clearly, to go to Ninevah. What does Jonah do? Right away, he fled to Tarshish.
And God said, “Route recalculation.”
On the boat to Tarshish, however, a terrible storm arises and the men aboard the ship learn that Jonah is fleeing from God. They decide they can only save themselves if they toss Jonah overboard, so they do.
And God said, “Route recalculation.”
Jonah was then swallowed by the whale where he prayed for God’s deliverance and the whale spits him out.
And God said, “Jonah, go to Ninevah.” Jonah went – and who could blame him.
Hopefully, our route recalculations are not has harrowing as Jonah’s, but sometimes, when things are just not coming together in your life it could be a warning that you’re headed for Tarshish instead of Ninevah.
Hear God saying, “Route recalculation.”
As I began to prepare this sermon, I became more and more troubled with the underlying message of Jonah’s story. Am I truly saying to you that God has a pre-programmed, pre-written path for your life, and if you deviate you’ll end up in a world of trouble? This is exactly the theological idea I grew up with in the Southern Baptist church. I remember many, many sermons where we were told that God has a plan for you. God has your life all mapped out – all you have to do is pray and discern. You’ll know if you’re on the wrong path because there will be nothing but trouble for you – storms, whales – they’ll all get you until you get right with God.
Am I saying that to you?
No. I believe we have free will and that God is our partner, not our mapmaker. God is our traveling companion, our navigator, not our destination plotter. God has not planned each moment of your life or where you’re supposed to end up in this life. God is not controlling us. God wants to inspire us and empower us to live abundant, fulfilling lives.
So, no, our lives are not predestined, but our lives do have purpose – and we are happier and more blessed when we are seeking and living into that purpose.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “We seldom realize fully that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks. We act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide to entertain ourselves until we die. But we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was. Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.”
But, because we do have free will, we’re certainly free to reject God’s purpose for our lives. God allows us to walk apart from her – to reject her subtle nudging – to reject her two-by-fours to the head. But, we must remember that God is persistent and patient and will make as many route recalculations as it takes.
As theologian Karl Barth once said, the crucifixion was our no to God. The resurrection was God’s rejection of our rejection. God rejected Jonah’s rejection and kept on recalculating the route until he went to Ninevah and delivered the message God had for the people. So yes, you can reject God as a partner on the journey of life and keep heading for Tarshish, but don’t be surprised if God rejects that rejection and keeps seeking a relationship with you.
Wanda went to Tarshish recently. I didn’t realize that ancient city was so close to Summerton, but it is. When we arrived at Ayden’s birthday party, we discovered that Wanda’s son Jamie had already prepared a tub full of filled water balloons. As we left to get some ice, he lobbed one at us that hit the car and splattered us with water. When we returned, Jamie made the horrible mistake of turning his back on his mother.
She hit him squarely in the back with a water balloon. War had been declared.
Wanda spent the rest of the day watching her back. Carrying the camera around made her off limits – for awhile. Holding one of the babies at the party kept her safe – for awhile. Staying inside the house kept her safe – for awhile. But, despite her best efforts, like Jonah, she could not ultimately avoid her fate as Jamie dumped her in the kiddie pool.
You can spend your whole life heading for Tarshish if you want to – but our lives are so much more fulfilled when we start living with the conviction that we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was, to accomplish a purpose. Our lives are so much more fulfilled when we accept God as our partner in this life and work with God to co-create a life that not only makes us happy, but serves the world around us.
This idea of purpose fills us at once with a sense of relief – we’re not just here to entertain ourselves until we die. God really does want to infuse our lives with meaning. But the idea of purpose also fills us with a sense of dread. If God is not mapping out our lives for us, then that means we have to take responsibility for where we are right now. It means we have to take responsibility for where we want to be. It means we have to take responsibility for our dreams and our hopes. It also means we have to take responsibility for our fears and our doubts.
This is where we begin to think that Tarshish wouldn’t be such a bad place after all.
And God says, “Route recalculation.”
Andover-Newton Theological School professor Kirk Byron Jones writes in his new book, Holy Play about his own Tarshish experience. He was pastoring a church in Louisiana but felt called to go to seminary and pursue a career as a teacher. He was torn by this dilemma. He wanted to remain with his vibrant, growing church, but this desire to go to school consumed him. He didn’t want to make a mistake or choose the wrong path. He agonized over the choice.
One day, along the banks of the Hudson River, he prayed. He “put it all on the altar,” he said, giving his problem fully over to God. When he opened his eyes he noticed his surroundings for the first time and saw two paths just below where he was standing. As he contemplated the paths, he heard these words, clearly and distinctly: “Know this: Whichever path you choose, I will be with you.”
When you are co-creating your life with God, there is no wrong path, because no matter which path you choose, God will be with you. Hear this good news – when you live with the conviction that God has put you here to accomplish a purpose, there is no wrong path. It would seem that Jonah chose the wrong path and got rocked by storms and swallowed by a whale, but if you look at the scripture, God is always there. God is with him in the boat during the storm. The scripture says that God “provided” the whale. Think about it – without the whale, Jonah was a goner in the stormy seas. So, God “provided” the whale and saved Jonah’s life.
Going to Tarshish does not mean you’ve chosen the wrong path. No matter which way you go, God is always making the necessary route recalculations to lead you to your life’s purpose. The key is to remember that God never leaves your side. God never abandons you. Even when the storms come, even when huge problems swallow you whole – God is ever present, ever guiding, ever speaking, ever loving – God will not leave you alone! Know this: Whichever path you choose, God will be with you.
But, we worry, don’t we? We fret about what our purpose is and an entire publishing industry has sprung up around that anxiety. We’re inundated with books about our Purpose Driven Life and self-help books aimed at making us feel like we’re good enough, smart enough and doggone it people like us. We live in a paradox – fleeing down the road to Tarshish while at the same time seeking desperately for our purpose. Whatever it is, we just want God to give it to us, and we want it to be easy, please. We feel dissatisfied because we have this nagging feeling that we could be far more than we are, but at the same time we’re paralyzed with fear because we have this nagging feeling that we could be far more than we are.
Just as Kirk Jones heard God’s voice of comfort, so Jesus gives us that same message in Matthew. We are never left to our own devices. God takes care of all of her creation – not just the birds and the lilies – but his precious children. We have no need to worry when we are seeking God’s partnership in our life, when we are in relationship with our living, loving Creator. No matter which path we choose, God will be with us.
God speaks comforting words whenever the path seems hard. God speaks comforting words whenever we are seeking our life’s purpose. God speaks comforting words no matter which way we turn.
Hear those words of comfort this morning: “Route recalculation.”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.