What do we treasure most about our lives? Sick people or people who are in chronic pain say it’s health. Teachers and professors say that it’s intelligence, or education. Poor people think it’s money and the accumulation of things. People who have a strong supportive family would say that family is most important. I have my own opinion, but I’m keeping it to myself for now. Among the greatest gifts, however, is getting second chance. Jonah learns that firsthand: when God called him the first time, Jonah ran away. He was supposed to go to the great city of Nineveh and speak God’s word of judgment against it, but Jonah said “Um….no thanks.” At which point he called his travel agent and booked an ocean cruise. He heads in the opposite direction, running from God, but the problem is, you can’t hide forever from God. As Joe Louis, the heavyweight once said—making this statement part of American colloquial vocabulary: “He can run, but he can’t hide.”
God found Jonah out there on his cruise ship and sent the worst storm anybody had seen. It scared the ship’s crew so much that they figured one of their passengers must have honked off God in a big way. When they found out that Jonah was trying to run away from God, they tossed him overboard right then and there. After being picked up by a giant fish and spending 3 days in the belly of a biological submarine, the fish burps him up on the shore. Just outside the city of Nineveh. Gee, what a coincidence…
God gave Jonah a second chance–a second chance to be prophet to the great city of Nineveh, another chance to say “yes” to his calling. Now, the people of Nineveh, as everyone knows, are the worst people imaginable. Like all the Assyrians, they were fierce warriors, cruel to people who angered them; they also thought they were the civilization that would last for all time. In their day, the Assyrians had come down out of the north on their chariots, using their spears and swords and conquering every land in sight. They had even leveled Israel’s capital city, Samaria, in a very short amount of time. Biblical archaeologists say they used to pile up their enemies’ bones outside the gates of Nineveh, just to let people know, as they entered, how bad they really were. Certainly in Jonah’s mind, they deserved whatever punishment God wanted to smite them with, but instead, unbelievably, God gives them a second chance, too. The God of Israel, the God whose cities they burned, whose people they ravaged, this same God sends Jonah, now strangely willing to preach, to give them another chance to repent. “Forty days more and the city will be destroyed!”
Jonah’s words convince all, from least to greatest, to put things right with God. Everybody puts aside their designer duds and cover themselves with sackcloth. They take Jonah’s words to heart, they repent, and God forgives them, cancelling his planned destruction of the city. Everyone got a second chance.
How about us? Don’t we need a second chance from God? Isn’t there something in our life, in our past, in our present situation, in our family, in our relationships that holds us in a quicksand of shame and blame? Don’t we sometimes wonder if we have God’s plan for us on the right path? Don’t we know on some level that we’ve been a little stingy with our love? Hesitant with our generosity?
Don’t we all know someone: a family member, or a friend, who’s been away from church for a while, or away from the sacraments, and they figure they can’t come back; that God won’t give them another chance? Or worse, that the Church itself won’t give them a second chance?
The good news is that our God is a God who loves to give second chances. Every time the Chosen People turned away from God, the Bible relates how God gave them another chance to be faithful. King David sinned more than once in God’s sight, and God always loved him enough to give him another chance.
Those fearless disciples in today’s Gospel, the ones who courageously leave their comfortable lives behind in order to follow Jesus, are the same disciples who will run away in terror when Jesus is arrested. They will not show themselves during his darkest hour. And yet, from every dark hour comes a resurrection morning and true to his word, Jesus himself gives them another chance to be steadfast after his resurrection. In fact, it might be that Jesus is really a woman disguised as a man. Think about it: he has to improvise a meal for five thousand guests with only leftovers on hand; he is constantly being misunderstood by groups of men, no matter how hard he tries to make himself understood. And even after he’s dead, he still has to get up because there are still things left unfinished.
Our God loves to give second chances, so how can we deny second chances to the people around us? How is it we deny second chances to ourselves, doubting God’s love for us, feeling unworthy and unlovable? Although I have been pastor of this parish for only a short time, I have been involved in pastoral ministry for 30 years. I have met and continue to meet people who doubt their own worthiness, who doubt their own divine nature and calling. These people are never content, never joyful, and they wonder why God doesn’t do something to change that. The truth is so simple: it’s not God that’s holding them back, they are holding themselves back! The only reasonable thing to do, the only intelligent thing, the only Christian thing to do is to imitate our loving God, the God of second chances and give ourselves a break. Give ourselves the same second chance we give others. Second chances are what it’s all about. Ask Jonah. Ask the people of Nineveh. Better yet, look within. Ask God yourself.