Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 17th of Tenth Month, 2021
Speaker: Katie Breslin
Scripture: Jonah 4
A few weeks ago, Sam and I adopted a dog named Rufus—or Rufus Bones as one of our friends cleverly named him. If you follow me on social media, you will undoubtedly see photos of this 10-year-old, retired rabbit-hunting beagle. He has become a welcome companion for daily walks and even more household entertainment for those of us who live and visit with us. Rufus isn’t the only pet that we adopted this year. He is joined by two cats, Jada and Willow. Jada, I adopted when I first moved to Richmond. Adopting her was one of the first signs I would stay in Richmond, and she has seen me through multiple years in seminary. Willow, Sam, and I adopted around the beginning of the year. She was a kitten when we first got her, the daughter of a neighbor's cat, and she stood out from her siblings because she has a very bushy orange tail. You can see a photo of her on the bulletin. This is why a few weeks ago Ben Richmond asked me if I had an animal ministry, recognizing that I had adopted another pet just a few months prior. I never thought of myself as an animal person, but ever since Ben said that, I’ve been thinking about how good it feels to coincide with animals.
Now, if you are looking at the program, you’ll understand why I called this sermon “bad cat.” You’ll see Willow, looking out the window, with her big bushy tail placed on the rim of the glass. This is a common Willow move, and Sam and I have learned not to drink from glasses sitting along on tables unguarded. Willow is, and always has been, a rebel. She is playful and outgoing. She is always at the center of the animal soap opera of our house. Sam and I have learned to laugh at many of her shenanigans because we know she is ultimately having fun. We find ourselves often saying “Willow was just being a bad cat.”
That was, until we adopted Rufus. Now, thankfully, all of our pets get along, but it created more competition for love and affection than was previously given. Willow was used to being the baby, and now she is the second behind a 10-year-old senior dog. It's hard not to compare Willow to the famous Brady bunch episode with the Brady bunch girls: Marcia, Jan, and Cindy. For those of you familiar with the Brady bunch, I could hear Willow saying in Jan’s voice, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
I say all of this to say that what I see happening in Willow is her reflecting on the change of circumstances that are now in front of her. Her response has been asserting herself for more attention and taking on more challenging leaps from our stairs to the fourier floor. While her bad cat actions have more to do with being seen, I believe there are many ways to be a “bad cat.” And as I reflected on the Book of Jonah, Willow’s tail and presence came to mind. I know a bad cat when I see one, and Jonah is a dictionary definition of a bad cat.
The Book of Jonah is one of the shorter books of the Bible, and we don’t see much of Jonah anywhere else outside the book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible and a passage in 2 Kings 14. Jonah is also mentioned as a prophet in the Quran and by Jesus himself in the books of Matthew, and Luke. In 2 Kings 14, we can place Jonah as a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam II of the northern kingdom of Israel. From this passage, we know that Jonah was considered a servant of King Jeroboam II, who reigned for 41 years and according to the passage in 2nd Kings, worshiped other gods beyond the Hebrew God. We see in verse 25 of this passage that prophet Jonah had been used by God to give prophecies that Israel would be victorious in its wars and would regain territory and strength. This put a spotlight on Jonah as a central role in the reign of Jeroboam II. So the Book of Jonah starts with Jonah having the knowledge that the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which he would have considered to be an enemy of his alliance to the kingdom of Israel. It would have been politically smart for Jonah to not go to Nineveh and essentially help them not be destroyed by his God. Jonah had motive and reason not to want to support Nineveh, which is a point that has been thankfully removed from the childhood rendition of this story. Jonah knew that his God was compassionate and might embrace his enemy if they turned to his God, and that gave Jonah even more “reason” not to want to save Nineveh with a warning.
One of the reasons I picked this passage is because the book of Jonah was a popular story in my vacation Bible school growing up. We would hear about this prophet who disobeyed God, then tried to escape but ended up in the belly of a fish. The picture book story would end with Nineveh being saved, but that is not the end of the book of Jonah. The first time I read chapter Jonah 4, I was amazed at the ending. The image of the Lord putting a plant over Jonah’s head and then, later after asking Jonah whether he was right to be angry, God sent an insect to destroy the shade Jonah was relying on. And Jonah’s defiant here with his insistence on his right to be angry. In the passage in Jonah 4, God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” God shows Jonah in his moment that his love and power goes beyond our human understanding of our collective relationship with the divine. And yet, here he is, being a bad cat with a sunburn.
The phrase “bad cat” in our household, and now in this interpretation is the reflection of the bitterness that can come from an unjust world. Both Willow and Jonah have what we would call logical reasons for acting out and feeling bitter about the situation. For Willow, it is adjusting to a new dog in the house. For Jonah, it is grappling with the understanding that his merciful God doesn’t always punish the “bad guys.” It might be the right thing to do morally, but it can still hurt the person affected by it.
I am also a bad cat sometimes. I am no stranger to bitterness. Sometimes to take my mind off the bitter feeling, I too want to push a paper towel roll off the counter or just be swallowed up by a big fish for 3 days by my own bitter self or yell at God that I am right in my anger. My anger at what life has thrown at me comes out in the ways that I navigate the world, whether it be reading anger into an email or assuming bad intentions from those who offer to help. I especially have felt it around the holiday season. I've spoken to this congregation about my decision to move out when I was 18. As someone who navigated college without parents, I felt like Jonah every time I had to fill out the FAFSA, which for those of you who don't know is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. I am very blessed to have an aunt and uncle who were able to step into some of those parental roles, but our system of higher education makes it hard for students who were in my circumstance to navigate college life. I tried to keep my bitterness to myself, and even some of my bad cat habits, but it was there and it was pain that was real. It's a pain I still feel at holidays sometimes when I see photos on FB with people and their parents smiling back at the camera. My nature would be to be happy for the people in the photos smiling back at me, but sometimes my bad cat tendencies come back—and I, too, want to yell at God or drink out of someone else's water glass to show them I don't need no stinking parents. I don’t think the lesson from here is that less people should have access to their parents, or even that I should have a relationship with mine, but instead through recognizing my bitterness I can see my own need to be loved during tough holidays and find motivation to spend time with others instead of being alone. My bitterness has led me to seek out more community.
I see myself in Willow as she is sorting through her feelings about another pet in the household. I see myself in Jonah being furious at God for guiding him to save Nineveh. I've been thinking a lot lately about how bitterness can shift how we look at the world, especially now when there is so much justifiable anger. It comes usually without being asked, adding a cloud into an already tense situation.
I believe that feeling this bitter, angry feeling is necessary to understanding the world differently. And the reason is that we must acknowledge our own doubts and address them in order to truly understand the new realities around us. It demonstrates the tension between our understanding of good versus God’s understanding of it. It's a way to grapple with the changes we are faced with. While that might be how we feel in the beginning, this story to me illustrates what I might be missing out on while I’m by myself, being bitter about something outside my control or a situation that I don’t understand. The childhood story of Jonah never shared why Jonah was reluctant to preach to Nineveh, but I believe this is an important part of the story. As humans, we are not always given God’s view of things from above, so this tension with God can be coming to terms with what is great about our world.
I don’t think feeling bitterness is, by itself, a bad thing because I think God still loves bad cats like me, Jonah, and Willow. I think God is sharing with me that it's okay for us to feel bitter, to question God with anger, as long as it is part of a longer process to dreaming of a better world. It is a humbling moment to realize we are all just part of a collective vision for this world, and also often to get out of our bitter feelings we need community and counsel with others to see the bigger picture. The only way I can survive in our world today where there is truly so much to be bitter about is by acknowledging that this is part of our world and it is often out of our control. I’m not able to physically require someone to wear a mask, making it impossible to get us to a place of “normal,” but I can see now how tired I am and work on solutions to reduce my bitter feelings. Some of those solutions do require analyzing my own biases … and a bit of chocolate.
Some good news — I’ve actually seen the bitterness slowly move away from Willow in her relationship with Rufus, after Sam and I invested more time into sharing with Willow how much we love her. It gives me hope that Jonah, too, was able to see his actions were necessary for the greater good of the world. If we think of the role of bitterness in our grieving processes, it can better equip us to adjust to the realities of our new situations. We are called to be servants of God. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a bad cat phase first.
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