A Homily Delivered on Earth Day 2012
In Conjunction with a Thanksgiving Ritual to/for Mother Earth led by our Indigenous American Guest, Owltalker
The Little Mermaid was willing to give up her most prized possession and maybe contact with her family for the rest of her life for the chance to become human and spend her life with the man loved. This compelling story from Hans Christian Andersen continues to stir the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike. The Little Mermaid was not content with the life that had been given to her in the depths of the oceans, at least not after, against her father’s demands, she swam to the top of the waters where she encountered the world of humans and saw the young prince with whom she instantly fell in love. Love has made many of us suddenly discontent with where we had been before love overtook us.
In the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” which has been running on Broadway for several years the Little Mermaid sings this very touching song as she’s in the process of confronting her discontent with the world below the surface of the waters.
I want more
I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancin’
Walking around on those — what do you call ’em?
Oh — feet!
Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
Strolling along down a — what’s that word again?
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin’ free — wish I could be
Part of that world
What would I give if I could live out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?
I’m ready to know what the people know
Ask ’em my questions and get some answers
What’s a fire and why does it — what’s the word?
When’s it my turn?
Wouldn’t I love, love to explore that world up above?
Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world
Psychologist Abraham Maslow let us know that discontentment isn’t necessarily an emotional illness, though for some people it sadly becomes that. Maslow said, “Even if all [our basic human] needs are satisfied, we may still often, if not always, expect that a new discontent and restlessness will…develop, unless the individual is doing what she or he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet….”
We could call the prophet Jonah the prophet of discontentment. Outside his one small circle of familiarity and control, he seems to have detested most other tasks and most other people as well. Ironically, perhaps, Jonah was an exceptionally effective preacher, and he was content with his profession as long as he got to preach where he wanted to preach and stay with the sermon subjects with which he was most comfortable; it’s a good job if you can get it.
The day arrived when God came to Jonah with what should have been perceived as a challenge, yes, but more than that, a divine affirmation of his gifts of proclamation. God said to Jonah, “I need you to do some mission preaching in Nineveh. Yes, I know it’s the capital city of your people’s most fierce enemies, the Assyrians, but they are not a hopeless lot. They have the potential to turn to me if appropriately guided and challenged. That’s where you come in, Jonah. You have the guts and the gifts to preach a message that doesn’t beat around the bush. If you tell them they have no sensible choice but to turn from their wicked ways and toward me, they will hear you and be saved from the self-destruction toward which they are speeding.”
Jonah said, “Well, God, you surely know how to build up a preacher’s ego, but I’m going to have to say, ‘No,’ to your gracious invitation. Here I’m very content. What I do is appreciated. I know the ropes, and I’m comfortable.”
God asked, “And?”
“Well,” Jonah clarified, “AND I’m staying here for those very reasons.”
God said to Jonah, “I wasn’t extending you a dinner invitation, Prophet Jonah. I was politely telling you where your next ministry is. The thing for you to do is to start packing.”
So, Jonah takes God’s advice, partly, and packs, but then he runs as fast as he can in the direction opposite Nineveh. When he’d run out of land, he paid the crew of a small cargo ship to let him sail even further, he thought, from God and Nineveh.
The ship’s crew were not men of faith, but as the short story is told they had extraordinary spiritual insight nonetheless. When confronted by a life-threatening storm at sea, they assume the gods are behind it. Each crew member and any extra passengers like Jonah were interviewed to see who’d most recently ticked off a deity. Jonah was the one. They pled with him to make things right with his God, and he said, “Nah. Just throw me overboard so the storm will stop and you good people will be safe.” We now know that God doesn’t cause storms at sea to punish passengers or the members of a ship’s crew. God didn’t have it in for the more than 2200 people who disappeared after the Titanic surged into an undetected iceberg 100 years ago last Sunday.
Jonah thought that anything bad that happened to him or anybody else was God’s doing, as when a huge fish came and swallowed him whole–whole is good–after he insisted that the sailors throw him overboard. If a fish swallows you whole, it’s an attitude changer for sure. Jonah starts to pray, begging the God whom he arrogantly and angrily forsook to get him out of his hell as the big fish’s gastric juices began to work. Not really expecting God to hear him at that distance from God, he was shocked when God planted an answer in Jonah’s consciousness, “I have a solution.”
“Thank God, God,” Jonah screamed out, jumping for joy, which disturbed the fish’s sensitive stomach causing the fish to vomit. Not to be indelicate, but that vomit was Jonah’s ride out of the belly of the big fish. After a day in the spa for a good cleaning, head to toe, Preacher/Prophet Jonah was on his way to Nineveh to preach the mini-message God had given him for the Ninevites. A Christianized version of that message would be something like this, “If you don’t repent, and I know you’re too evil to be bothered with that, you are going to rot in Hades, separated eternally from the God whom you’ve rejected.”
He become discontented once again because, they heard his message and took his advice. “We’re going to embrace your God, and we’re going to make amends for all the evil we’ve done.”
God said, “Hallelujah.”
And Jonah said, “Damn those Ninevites. They don’t deserve a break, and they certainly don’t deserve God.” In the hot summer of his discontent, he goes and sits out under the killer sun and rehearses the many reasons for his discontentment. God, he concludes, is behind most of his problems so he ends his career and his life self-alienated from God and overwhelmed by discontentment. A sad ending to a story, a sad ending to a life.
Aesop had one of his many characters say, “The one who is discontented in one place will seldom be content in another.” And Ben Franklin once said, “To the discontented person, no chair is easy.”
In Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi, he made a bold claim that not many people before or after him, today included, would dare to say if they were truth tellers: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.” What? That’s unAmerican, isn’t it? Discontentment is what keeps us going. Not only are we incapable of saying what Paul said, but also we’d turn away from someone who offered to teach us how.
Be careful not to let yourself hear Paul saying, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, therein to be complacent.” Being content and being complacent have nothing in common. Twenty-something of your sister- and brother-congregants spent six and a half hours of their Saturday yesterday laying the groundwork for a long-range plan for our church. We have a lot going our way these days–though we do not dwell in the realm of perfection. In any case, if someone doesn’t plan for our future we won’t have one. It’s easy to be content when things are going our way.
Similarly, on this Earth Day, we say that unless Earth’s inhabitants care for her, we will have no future with Mother Earth because we will have gluttoned away her marvelous gifts, and she will be no more. We cannot become complacent in the growing challenges to keep our Planet healthy and strong. We may have to be content for a while at times waiting for a critical mass of people to see the dangers of environmental abuse and get on board with antidotes and reversals. That doesn’t mean we sit around doing nothing in the mean time.
I think Paul meant that he had learned to live with those factors over which he had no control. Certainly, Jesus had had to learn that lesson. Paul didn’t mean he learned to love negative circumstances, but he’d learned to pick his battles; and he wasn’t going to lose energy fighting against what, for the moment, he was unable to change. He was determined to find meaning and a way to affirm life even when things were not going his way for the moment rather than end up like Jonah did.
You know the serenity prayer, though you may not know that it was originally penned by Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.