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When God Calls How Do We Respond?



Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 21, 2018

The Book of the Prophet Jonah is read in Jewish Synagogues every year on Yom Kippur -- the Day of Atonement. In Judaism there is one day set aside for reflection on one's mistakes, one's need for change, to make amends. Christianity has the entire season of Lent set aside for pondering one's failures and how to improve one's relationship with the sacred. And we don't start Lent until next month, so why are we reading Jonah today? And why the whole book?

We think of this story, if we think of it at all, as a children's story about a man swallowed by a whale. Since it couldn't possibly have happened (we know the biology of whales     and large fish, not to mention digestive realities, etc.) we dismiss it as myth.

But Joseph Campbell reminds us that,
         "Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been   well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the          ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images,        beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology        pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” 

So what does the story of Jonah have to teach us about "penultimate truth"?

Over the last few weeks we have talked about Jesus being called and then calling his disciples. We have been asking ourselves what it means to be called.

In the story of Jonah his father's name is Amittai, Hebrew for Truth! It seems that Jonah's story is about a child's rebellion against his father, Truth, and his calling to follow that Truth, God's truth. Jonah does not want to be told what he must do. He says no to his father and he says no to God.
But why does he refuse to go to Nineveh? Why does he run in the opposite direction even though he knows there is no where he can go to escape from God?
Why when he finally gives in, (after storm and near shipwreck and being swallowed by a big fish), is he so angry that the Ninevites repent? Why is he mad at God for being "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishment"? Does he hate the Ninevites that much?
And why is he angry at God for taking a shade bush from him that he has had for just one day, so angry that he wants to die? Who is this guy and what does he have to do with us?

Jonah is angry. And perhaps his anger masks his fear, given the tendency we have to see fear as weakness. Perhaps he is afraid to face the Ninevites. They are a foreign people. He may have heard that they are dangerous, mean, certainly they are "the other." Did one of them harm someone dear to him? We don't know!

Who makes you so angry you see red? Is it possible you are also afraid of those others who enrage you? Are we aware of our own fear under our anger? We live in a time of intense polarization. There is so much anger and fear in the air that we find it impossible to carry on civil conversations with people whose views differ too much from our own.

In the last week two books for review arrived on my desk ~ both by Christian authors, both titled "Unafraid." One, by a well-known Methodist minister, Adam Hamilton, with a full title of "Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times," the other, by a progressive Christian scholar, Benjamin Corey, called "Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith." Both books are responding to the times we are living in, challenging and encouraging us to acknowledge our feelings, but also to grow up in our faith.

Can we see ourselves in Jonah? Are we running from God? As storms rage around us, have we fallen asleep in the bottom of the boat? Do we know that God is in the stormy sea? Is our God everywhere?

I think of Jesus, whose friends woke him up when a storm threatened to capsize their small boat, and he calmed the waters with his powerful peaceful spirit. But Jonah isn't feeling peaceful. Indeed, the storm around him reflects the storm within him. And just when Jonah expects to die as just punishment for his failures, God rescues him in the most unlikely way. He finds himself swallowed by a fish, whole, with time to rethink his running and his failures and finally say Yes! to God.

He goes to Nineveh, preaches God's word of judgment, faces that he might die for such a bold declaration, and then sees the city and its people believe him and repent. And now he's really angry! This wasn't what he wanted at all. He feared they would kill him but he fears even more that they will be transformed and be saved. He tells God this was his worst fear: that God would forgive!

It is hard to accept that a people who have done you wrong, who have hurt you deeply, who have been your enemy for a lifetime, would be forgiven. Perhaps Jonah had lost a child to violence at the hand of a Ninevite. Perhaps their greed and cruelty had destroyed his community. Perhaps they have been known for generations as evil. Forgiveness shouldn't be this easy. There should be divine retribution. What we think of as "closure."

God's grace and mercy, patience and steadfast love are great when they are aimed at us; but difficult to accept when they are poured out on them... whoever "them" might be in our lives. Although for many of us our own failures seem impossible to forgive and we hold ourselves apart from God's amazing grace feeling deeply unworthy!

And the last vignette in this story is particularly apt for all of us who may be trapped in our fear and anger on any given day: Jonah goes off to pout. Makes a bit of a shelter for himself. God makes it even better by growing that miraculous bush over his head to fend off the heat of the day. And Jonah is happy about the bush!
But when God takes that bush away, Jonah is right back in his rage. "Yes, angry enough to die!" In one day, one small gift given and then taken away...
If you are anything like me, you might notice that moods can switch just like that: from peaceful to hopeless, from joyful to angry, from acceptance to fury, in one days time. And all God wants Jonah to see is that his courageous preaching helped save a whole city of people and animals and yes, bushes, from destruction.

I have a calendar on my wall with daily sayings that are often helpful to me.          A. Yesterday, the quote simply said: "When life is sweet, say Thank You and celebrate..." Today, it said, "When life is bitter, say Thank You and grow!" (Shauna Niequist)

Sometimes my life seems so full of demands that I feel tossed in a swirling sea of emotions and challenges. Maybe I need to be swallowed by a big fish and just rethink my path and pray for courage. Maybe I need to just do what is in front of me to do and not worry about the consequences. But I have expectations, desires, hopes for what I think is the right outcome. Sometimes things work out my way and I can celebrate. Sometimes they don't...and I can grow.
On any given day the sun may be too hot, the wind to strong, the meaning in all that I do, so very unclear. But God is here. Everywhere. I'm learning to be concerned about all the Nineveh's in our world: the plight of the Dreamers and their families, the needs of oppressed peoples everywhere, what is happening in Yemen and wherever war is raging, refugee families struggling to stay alive.

I'm learning to claim the calm spirit of the Prince of Peace, to wake up in my small boat with all of you: to believe in God's power to still the raging storm, so that I can do the work, that we can do the work, God calls us to do together. May it be so!