February 19, 2017: “Lessons from Mema: Who Pays Their Rent?” Jonah 1:1-3 and 4:1-3

My grandmother owned rental property.  For Clinton South Carolina she was quite the real estate mogul, at one point she had two different trailer parks and somewhere between five and ten houses or apartments that she was renting out.  By all accounts she was a very good landlord, but she was not the best business person.  I believe the original plan for the rental property, back when my grandfather was living, was for it to be an additional source of income for the family, that’s generally why people own rental properties.  She didn’t do too well with that part of it though.  The problem came from her day job, I’ve told you before she was the church secretary so she was the line of defense when people came in needing help, she was the one that they always talked to first, and it was through those conversations that she got a lot of her renters.  Not all, but a good deal of people came to her that way when she was working, and even after she retired people would kind of be steered her direction.  If you came to the church because you needed a place to live you often ended up at one of grandmother’s properties.  Which was good, it was a good thing that she did and it helped a lot of people.  But she wasn’t good at the business end of things, she wasn’t good at making money off the property because she lacked one of the things necessary to turn a profit in the rental business: she couldn’t kick people out.  She did not have it in her to make people leave if they were unable to pay their rent.  She would give chance after chance, she would work out deals, I kid you not, one week we happened to be at her house multiple days, every day there was a different person outside mowing her lawn to cover that month’s rent.  Her grass got cut three different times that week.  So her rental properties were less of a business and more of an elaborate charity in a lot of cases.  Some people got their home or trailer, paid their rent on time, everything was good, but some people didn’t and she had a very hard time dealing with the ones who didn’t, she did not want to be the kind of person who put people out on the street.

As she got older, she had sold a pretty good chunk of her properties and then started signing it over to the sons that were going to be inheriting that specific thing.  She was interesting like that, it was very important that each son inherit something physical, it wasn’t enough to sell it and leave them the money she wanted to actually leave them something.  My dad was finally able to sell the house he got last year on what he said was one of the happiest days of his life.  Even though she didn’t own the properties anymore she still wanted to be involved in the process and that led to an interesting exchange between her and my dad one day.  His house was empty and he had found someone to rent it, an African-American woman and her son.  He did all the background, they had everything ready to move in and my Mema told him he couldn’t do it.  When he asked why her response was, “they don’t pay their rent.  I’ve never rented to them because they don’t pay their rent.”

I’ll give you a minute to unpack that sentence.  “I’ve never rented to them because they don’t pay their rent.”  One might be inclined to ask how she could know that black people don’t pay their rent if she had never rented to a black person.  And if one, at twelve years old, were to raise that question one would be told to keep his mouth shut and leave the room.  Beyond the oddness of the statement is the larger issue, she rented to tons of people who didn’t pay their rent.  Half the trailer park wasn’t paying their rent, when had that ever stopped her before?

My grandmother was not a racist, she did not hate people of other races based purely on their race, I’d be shocked if she “hated” anyone.  In fact there was a specific African-American woman whom she loved, she visited her every week and Cora Lee actually sat with the family on the same pew as my Dad’s aunt at the funeral per Mema’s instruction.  She was not a racist the way we think of the word.  But she did have a prejudice.  She did believe that there were things that were true of black people as a whole that might not be true of individual black people, she did give the benefit of the doubt to some people and not others.  That doesn’t mean she was any less great of a person, that doesn’t take away from the love I have for her or the good she did in her life, but it is a reality.  And I would guess it’s a reality that exists for us that we maybe wouldn’t like to discuss or admit.  I would guess we all have within us things that come from what we’ve been taught or exposed to or where we’re from or when we grew up that make us treat or react to some people differently than others.  That doesn’t make us bad people, but it can impact or abilities to serve the kingdom of God.

Jonah serves as a great example of this.  Jonah was a prophet, called by God to go and speak to a great city.  What better gig could a prophet ask for, right?  Big city, full of people, he gets to go and preach the word of God to them.  Except when the time comes that’s not what Jonah does.  Jonah doesn’t just not go where God tells him to, Jonah goes in the opposite direction, gets on a boat, and sets out to get as far away from this task that God has called him to as he possibly can.

If you’ve been in church you most likely know the parts of the story I skipped, a storm comes up at sea, the sailors on Jonah’s vessel try everything they can to survive it and finally Jonah admits he’s the problem and has them throw him into the sea where he is swallowed by a “great fish.”  He spends three days inside the fish until he is thrown from it back to land and is once again commanded by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh.  This time Jonah does what he’s told: he goes, he preaches, and…the city repents!  Good things come from his preaching, he sees results.  That should be where the story ends!  God’s triumph over the nations, the repentance of a great city, this should be cause for celebration.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Jonah doesn’t celebrate.  He’s not happy about the way things have gone down.  And when he speaks to God about it he declares that the reason he’s not happy because he knew that this is what would happen.  That the people would hear God’s words, repent, and that God, because God is merciful, would let them off the hook from the destruction that was coming their way.   He is so upset about that he asks God to kill him, he says he would rather die than live.  A prophet’s goal is to speak the word of God and have some reaction to it.  The majority of the prophets in Israel tried in vain to get their own people to hear the word of the Lord and change their ways because of it, Jonah managed to do it in a foreign land where they did not have the connection to God that the Israelites did, he should be excited that he was able to bring about this great change.  But he’s not.  And the reason he’s not seems to be centered around who it was he was speaking to and who it was that received God’s mercy.

Nineveh was a city of the Assyrians.  Scholars debate how major a city it every truly was in the Assyrian empire but it does get mentioned its fair share of times by the prophets and seems to hold the same ability to represent its nation that other cities have.  When Jerusalem is spoken to all of Judah should hear, Samaria for Israel, Damascus for Syria, Tyre for Lebanon, its one of the literary devices the prophets used.  Nineveh seems to represent Assyria, and the Assyrians were bad news.  The Assyrians left devastation in their wake.  The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they Assyrians were Jonah’s enemy.  And God wanted him to go and give them a warning of their coming destruction?  God wanted to give the Assyrians a chance?  God shows love and mercy to the people of Nineveh?

Jonah lets his bias control his call.  He flees in the opposite direction because he does not want to give the people of Nineveh the opportunity to right their ship.  He wants them to be punished, to feel God’s wrath.  We don’t know a ton about Jonah.  He is mentioned in 2nd Kings as a court prophet to one of Israel’s (the northern, post-split Israel’s) kings during that nation’s Golden Age, but we assume if God called him and spoke through him that he can’t be a terrible person.  Prophets have flaws throughout scripture but we don’t see an example of a prophet who we’d say was an awful person.  I think its safe to assume Jonah was a decent if not good person, but he had a bias in him, he had a flaw that got in the way of fulfilling his call from God.  I don’t know that he hated the people of Nineveh, but he was definitely thankful for God’s mercy when it was directed at himself in the belly of a great fish and offended by it was shown to the Ninevites.  His bias, his prejudice, didn’t make him a bad person.  It didn’t stop him from following laws, from being a fine upstanding citizen, but when God called him to action it did cause him to get up and go in the opposite direction.

Our biases, our slight prejudices, those things don’t necessarily make us bad people.  Most of us don’t feel them strongly enough to break laws, to cause harm to other people, to actively work against those who look different from us or practice a different religion or speak a different language of vote for a different party.  But they can make us get up and go the other way when God calls us to act.  They can cause us to miss our opportunity to serve God’s kingdom.  Because sometimes obeying God means disobeying ourselves.  We never fully see the power of God’s grace until we see it represented in someone else.  I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Dylan Roof, the young man who murdered nine people at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston.  We’re both 26 year old white boys from South Carolina.  We both grew up in Southern Baptist Churches.  We both have reddish hair.  We’re both sinners in need of God’s grace.  If my bias doesn’t allow me to see that, if my bias disallows for grace for him while expecting it for myself because I deserve it and he doesn’t, then I’m not understanding God’s grace.  If we expect grace for ourselves and not the other we’re failing to understand ourselves fully enough.

You may be familiar with the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis.  If you haven’t read them I would highly suggest it, it’s a series of letters written from a senior devil (Screwtape) to his nephew (Wormwood) who has just been assigned his first human, tasked with leading the young man down a path towards hell.  Screwtape advises Wormwood not to focus on making the man a horrible person, because the worse someone is the more likely they are to eventually realize it and seek forgiveness.  He says instead to focus and making the man good enough.  Just good enough.  Make sure he’s a decent person, and keep him fixated on what’s wrong with other people.  If he does that, the man will be so focused on their problems and how small his are in comparison that he won’t see his own sin, his own desperate need for God’s grace, and even if he does he won’t be interested in sharing that grace with others.

Sometimes, many times, almost all the time, obeying God means disobeying ourselves.  It means going against our natural instincts and our built in bias.  It means, in the words of Jesus, “denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him.”  Would you pray with me?

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