Jonah’s bush or gourd was a gift from God to which Jonah had no right—he had not labored for it, it just appeared and was gone. Just like Barry Taylor in the lives of the AS2 Congregation… Are human relations in Church of no more value than that bush or gourd? Must we really accept the arbitrary and capricious sudden appearance and departure of others in our lives as a given? Should the Church promote such acceptance of the shallowness of the social order, especially a small Church like All Saints, Beverly Hills?
The Bible has some curious small corners, hard to interpret and harder to relate to real life, and one of them is the book of Jonah. Last Sunday in Church, the first reading (before the Psalm and Gospel) at All Saints in Beverly Hills was from that curious corner. As of September 21, the last Sunday of Summertime… many at all Saints were still reeling from the sudden resignation of the Reverend Barry Taylor. The 11:30 AS2 time slot was organized into a “Delphi Style” organization of small study groups… with “group leaders” handling 4-6 people in small groups to make sure that individual views were isolated and prevented from forming a coalition. Yes, I know all about Delphi as a strategy for “creating the appearance of consensus” by preventing communication under the guise of facilitating it, and I was totally shocked to see this at All Saints in Beverly Hills, so I walked out rather than be part of the charade….. I hate all “NWO” patterns of social manipulation, and this is just one of the most transparent classics. Churches faced with a crisis should meet as a Congregation….and like-minded folk that way can seek each other out. This was something else entirely.
Anyhow, at the 10:00 (traditional) service, one of the junior associate rectors delivered a sermon on a theme that I can only call the fragility of social obligation and the acceptance of arbitrary fairness. This is a problem in Christianity, and law and religion generally I think.
Nothing could be more arbitrary and capricious than God’s command to Jonah and Jonah’s unwilling acceptance and compliance and total frustration at the end.
The famous part of this book’s story is that Jonah spends three days of incarceration (for “contempt of God?”) in “the belly of a fish”. Everyone knows the story of Jonah and the Whale… even if you’ve just heard the song from George Gershwin’s jazz opera “Porgy and Bess” about it: “The Things that your liable to read in the Bible, they ain’t necessarily so.”
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Fo’ he made his home in
Dat fish’s abdomen.
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.
Attorney Clarence Darrow also famously cross-examined William Jennings Bryan on this point and other Biblical oddities like Joshua making the sun stand still while he besieged Jericho….at the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee in the 1920s, when a school teacher was prosecuted for the truly outrageous crime of teaching the theory of evolution. If you haven’t read about the Scopes Trial, you should at least find the movie “Inherit the Wind” (with Spencer Tracy as Darrow equivalent “Henry Drummond”—the names have been changed to protect the guilty) or else Henry Fonda’s monologue on the life of Clarence Darrow of Chicago…. [[[as for the founder of modern evolutionary theory… Charles Darwin’s father Robert, grandfather Erasmus, and in-laws (the family of the fine china artisan and manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood) were solid Church of England supporters…. and I myself have always wanted to reconcile Evolution and Theology….and in Barry Taylor I had found an ally in reconciling these seemingly far divergent lines of collateral evidence….]]]
Jonah 2:10 was, to my mind, solely included in the Bible as a test of anyone’s and everyone’s faith int he literal truth of the Bible….
“And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”
I want to talk to the Reverend Barry Taylor about this….. whale business…..But few (if any) critics of the plausibility of a human remaining alive for three days in the digestive tract of a Whale, Killer Whale, or Shark… focus on the worse (but far more plausible) aspects of the story: The Book of Jonah, like the story of the “Sacrifice by Holocaust” of Jephthah’s daughter in the Book of Judges, supports the notion that we must obey God’s express command’s unquestioningly, and without hope for Justice…. Jonah ultimately survives digestion by Whale and goes to Ninevah in compliance with the Lord God’s command… and preaches to the people and they repent… but Jonah is still not really satisfied…. he thinks it was a pointless exercise….which it may well have been.
Jonah was even worse than a Doubting Thomas—Jonah actually got ANGRY at God for making him go on this pointless, fruitless preaching expedition to Ninevah… Jonah decided he wanted to die (and for all we know, he did, but the Book of Jonah as it has come down to us only has four chapters).
In the King James Version, the Fourth Chapter of Jonah runs and the whole book ends as follows:
4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
2 And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
3 Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
4 Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry?
5 So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
6 And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
8 And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
9 And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
10 Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
11 And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Apparently the cattle had the last word. And this is apparently directly relevant to the fate of Barry Taylor and his AS2 Congregation. Because the accompanying Gospel last Sunday was the almost equally arbitrary tale about “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”—when workers who come in late in the day, close to sunset in fact, get paid exactly as much as those who worked all day. The lesson of this parable, of course, is that there is only one salvation, and “good for one is good for all.” You don’t automatically make “archangel” or anything else just because you are a cradle to grave Episcopalian, for instance….much to my eternal chagrin….and perhaps yours also, right?
So the bottom line on Sunday September 21, 2014, the Clergy at All Saints told us that Barry Taylor was just like the KJV Gourd or NRS Bush that God gave to Jonah outside of Ninevah. We did not work for Barry Taylor so we were not entitled to him. We have to accept God’s (and the Church’s) decisions about the fragility and uncertainty of life and social relations, and when people just disappear from our lives overnight—that’s par for the course and we should just be thankful, I guess, that we ever knew them at all.
I remain unsatisfied both with the “Whale of a Tale” in the Book of Jonah (God Basically Put this VERY Minor Prophet Jonah in Jail for Three Days for Contempt…. but dressed the jail up as a merely Metaphoric Whale—that’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it)….
I do not accept as legitimate the modern (or ancient) fragility of social relations, or that it is proper for the Church to contribute to the fragility of social relations and reliance on individuals. Christ supposedly values us all as individuals, not just as a collection of nameless souls….. We, like Dorothy as played by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie version of the Wizard of Oz, have [in the larger society to which we belong] no choice but to accept that, “people come and go so quickly here.” But in a Church like All Saints, a very small community in a very small corner of the very large City and County of Los Angeles, I think we are entitled to expect more stability and more accountability than we have gotten here….
I think I will take time this weekend to reread Charles Darwin’s possibly least famous work, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits.” It seems the proper antidote for plant eating worm in Chapter Four the Book of Jonah (as the Junior Associate Rector said last summer, it must have been a very large worm…. parallel to the extremely large and extraordinary fish/shark/whale in Chapters 1-2).