Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Ray Philbeck’s Country Store was located about a mile from the house that I grew up in. As I have shared with you before, that country store was the first stop my sister and I would make on our way to school each morning. Our breakfast choices were predictable-a Sundrop and honey bun for Allyson; chocolate milk and peanut butter crackers for me. As far as I remember, no money was ever exchanged between Ray Philbeck and me and my sister. Once our breakfast items were displayed on the counter, Ray would simply pull out a box from under the counter, take out a piece of paper on which he would make some notes, and then send us off with a simple reminder to “do good in school.” While my parents still live in the house of my childhood, Ray Philbeck’s Country Store on New House Road has long been boarded up. But the boards that have covered the windows and doors for over two decades now do not shut out the memories I carry of my childhood experiences inside that country store.
As I remember, the store was divided in half by a pot-bellied stove that kept the men who sat around the fire in straight back chairs drinking their morning coffee toasty in the winter months. To the left of the front door were the candy, snacks, and canned food isles. Across the back of the store were all the drink boxes-the kind that had lids that you either slid or lifted. To the right of the front door was a table that held a cheese hoop, a barrel of dill pickles, and a jar of pickled eggs. And just beyond that, to the right, were all the dry goods, fresh vegetables and the basic household items that one might need in an emergency. Ray Philbeck’s store was one of my favorite places to go-especially on Saturdays when my father and I would go there after cutting the grass and doing all of our outside chores for our reward of a coke and a pack of peanuts. And yes, we poured our peanuts into our coke. But possibly my fondest memory about being in that country store was a question that I would get asked at least once a week by one of those men sitting around the stove. Invariably, one of them would look at me and in a gruff but kind voice ask, “Who do you belong to, gal?” My answer was always the same, “I’m Don and Cora Petty’s youngest daughter.” Sometimes my response would elicit a knowing nod. Other times, I would hear, “So, your Don’s girl.” Or “Tell your grandpa Ryburn Buck said hello.” On my way out, I would smile and nod, promising myself I would try to remember to tell my grandpa that Buck said hello.
“Who do you belong to?” was a question that, at least at that time in my life, I could answer with confidence-I belonged to Don and Cora Petty. As an eleven or fourteen year old, it didn’t matter that my answer was simplistic and superficial. I had answered the question as it was intended to be answered and that was enough. But as I have learned over time, as it is with all good questions, our responses change and deepen as we change and grow and come to understand the deeper implications of them-whether theological, spiritual or emotional.
This question, “Who do you belong to?” or as our English professors would prefer, “To whom do you belong?” is the question at the heart of the two texts that Jack has read to us this morning. To begin with, Jonah struggles with the question in spades. For the two chapters prior to our reading, Jonah has spent his days and nights running from it. You will recall that it is Jonah whom God chooses to go to that great city of Nineveh to deliver God’s message of judgment against the people there. The story that plays out as Jonah runs from God is one of the most entertaining, if not comical, stories of the Bible. Eventually, though, whether from pure exhaustion or spiritual insight, Jonah accepts God’s claim upon him and agrees to go to Nineveh on God’s behalf. That’s where we pick up the story this morning. We read that Jonah goes to Nineveh, delivers God’s prophetic message, and then leaves the rest to God and the people of Nineveh. Have you ever wondered what changed Jonah’s mind about going to Nineveh? Was it being swallowed by a big fish? Was it living in the belly of that big fish for three days and three nights? Or was it his gratitude for emerging from the darkness alive? Any of those are possible. However, I believe that ultimately, it was Jonah’s struggle with this basic question of belonging that enabled him to go to Nineveh. In the end, Jonah realized God’s claim upon him; he realized who he belonged to, and in that awareness he was able to live out his full potential as God’s beloved. Tradition has interpreted this story to be about Jonah running from God. I believe that as much as Jonah was running from God, he was also running from himself. Maybe the lesson we learn from Jonah that tradition hasn’t taught us is that when we run from God, we run from ourselves and when we run from ourselves we run from God.
How much like Jonah and the people of Nineveh are we? A lot! Instead of embracing God’s claim on us-instead of accepting that we belong to God-we run, and we run fast. We act in destructive ways. And in doing so, we hurt ourselves, those around us and ultimately God. This truth has been a part of our human story since the beginning of creation. But just as Jonah and the people of Nineveh found out, when we recognize that we belong to God and when we live as though we belong to God, we begin to see ourselves and the world differently-we begin to see ourselves more as God sees us and the world as God sees the world. And when we see ourselves as God sees us, “Who do you belong to?” becomes not a question but a way of living in this world. When we see ourselves as belonging to God, when we live as though God has a claim upon us, we live with confidence no matter what our struggles may be. We live centered and anchored in what’s important in life; we treat others and ourselves with compassion; and we love more deeply, forgive more graciously and give more generously.
Paul brings into focus with even more clarity this question of, “To Whom Do You Belong?” While the context in which he delivered his message to the church of Corinth is different from ours today, his words could never ring truer than for these times in which we are living. Listen again to his words:
…the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
It is clear that Paul was preaching the end of time. And like with Jonah, there was an urgency to his words. His message was clear: to God and God alone do you belong. You do not belong to your spouse; or to your pain, or to your successes, or to your possessions, or to this world. As people of faith, you belong to God.
Now I don’t stand before you preaching the end of time. However, I do believe that in many ways the present form of this world is passing away. Change is occurring-politically, socially, environmentally, spiritually, and religiously-in ways that we can’t even understand right now. But we feel it and we sense it. Some of this change is exciting and some of it scares us to death. So what can Paul’s words mean to us in these times in which we are living?
Obviously, I don’t believe we should take from Paul that those of us who are living in committed relationships should walk away from them. I don’t believe Paul’s words should suggest to us that we deny our feelings. I don’t think any of us should go out and sell all our possessions and withdraw from the world. But what I do think Paul’s words can remind us of, that is so important for us to remember, is that ultimately we belong to God. We do not belong to our parents or our partners or our children. We do not belong to our pain or our successes. We do not belong to what we have-our houses, our cars, our jobs, or our bank accounts. Yes, we live in this world, but we do not belong to this world. We belong to God.
But what does it really mean “to belong to God” especially, in these difficult economic times in which we are living. When you’ve just been told that you no longer have a job, what does it mean to belong to God? When there’s not enough money coming in to pay the mortgage, or put food on the table, or buy the medicine you need, what does belonging to God really mean? Here’s what I think it means. When we can remember that we do not belong to our jobs or our bank accounts or our possessions or our worries, but instead belong to God, we have an anchor or a centeredness to our living that gives us strength and hope and courage for any challenge we may face. To center ourselves in the knowledge that we, indeed, belong to God has the potential to make our deepest pain more bearable and our greatest joy fuller and deeper. For generations, people of faith have made it through difficult and challenging times by remembering that ultimately they belonged to God. For me, the idea of belonging to God is not some ancient thought dead on the pages of scripture. The truth that each one of us belongs to God is as real and as powerful as the events I witnessed this past Tuesday as I watched the swearing in of the first African-American president of the United States of America.
“Who do you belong to, gal?” I wonder what they would have said at Ray Philbeck’s Country Store had I responded: “I belong to God.” I wonder what difference it could make to us individually and collectively if in these ever increasing difficult economic times we began each day saying out loud before putting our feet on the floor, “I belong to God.” It may very well be the strength and hope we need for these times in which we live.