Sunday, January 22, 2012

The real miracle of Jonah

Today is the Third Sunday after Epiphany and the lessons are Jonah 3:1-5, 10Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 and Mark 1:14-20. Here is my sermon from this morning:
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Today we wade into the water with one of the most extraordinary but overlooked books in the entire Bible, the Book of the prophet Jonah.

You may be familiar with the tale from popular lore. Jonah is tossed overboard and is swallowed by a fish. He prays to God to be saved, and ends up on shore, where he delivers his message to the city of Nineveh and they are saved.

This biblical story has a major footnote in our modern conflict between religion and science.

In the Scopes trial of 1925, wherein a school teacher in Tennessee was charged with a crime for teaching evolution, the great trial attorney, Clarence Darrow, famously cross-examined his rival attorney, William Jennings Bryan, about whether he believed that every word of the Bible was factually true.

Bryan said that he did.

What about the whale swallowing Jonah, Darrow asked.

It was a fish, Bryan corrected.

Ok, a fish. Do you think a fish swallowed Jonah?

“If the Bible said so,” Bryan replied rather smugly. “One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.”

Or just as hard, Darrow shot back.

And so the Book of Jonah, at that very moment, began to stand as a great continental divide between those who read the Bible as inerrant fact and those who think it a fishy tall-tale.

Unfortunately that divide did something else to the Book of Jonah. Modern people – Christians especially – lost sight of the point of the story of Jonah – and the point was not that a fish swallowed Jonah.

To gets the real point, it helps to hear the story of Jonah through the ears of the people who wrote it.

Start with a bit of background about the book of Jonah that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were apparently clueless about:

Jonah was written as a satirical tale. If you lived 2,000 years ago in Israel, you would think it a funny fish tale, and funny with a sharp point. In fact, one commentary I read pointed out that the structure of Woody Allen's humor is based on Jonah.

Jonah in Hebrew is Noah spelled backwards.

Instead being saved on the ark – a boat – Jonah is tossed overboard from the ark. Instead of Noah saving all the creatures from the flood, Jonah is tossed into the flood and saved by a creature.

How did Jonah get himself in this fix?

Jonah has been sent on a mission by God to warn the people of Nineveh that they will be destroyed if they don’t return to the way of God. But unlike Noah, Jonah wants no part of what God wants him to do.

Jonah loathes this mission – he is from Israel, and Nineveh is the enemy of Israel.

Jonah doesn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent; he wants God to destroy them.

Nineveh, by the way, is the same city that is now called Mosul in Iraq.

Jonah tries to escape his mission by going in the opposite direction. He gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, or Carthage, on the African coast.

A storm kicks up, and the ship’s crew tries to figure out who is responsible for the storm. It’s Jonah, so he tells them to toss him overboard.

He’d rather die than complete his mission to save the enemies of Israel.

Jonah is swallowed by a fish, and he realizes he cannot escape God or his mission, and he prays to be saved. The fish spits him out on shore.

Jonah begrudgingly goes to Nineveh, and warns them of the peril they face. Then to his disgust, the people of Nineveh repent and are themselves saved.

Jonah can’t believe God would save Nineveh, and so Jonah sulks. He resents that these foreigners – his enemies – are just as loved by God as he is.

The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures put this book in the Bible to remind us of this universal truth – that God really does love all people – people who aren’t like us – people who don’t share our language, or our religion, or our politics, or our way of doing things.

God loves even our enemies, and that may be as hard a concept for us to comprehend as it was for Jonah.

The miracle for Jonah is not that he is saved by being swallowed by a fish.

The miracle is God’s grace that connects Jonah to his enemies, and connects all of us together on this earth.

The sin of Jonah is his lack of compassion for people who aren’t like himself. His sin comes from not seeing the connection he has to the people unlike himself.

In Jewish tradition, the entire Book of Jonah is always read aloud on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which this year begins at sunset September 25.
The reason Jonah is read on Yom Kippur is the story is presented as a lesson about how the entire nation of Israel needs to repent for the sin of ignoring the poor, the foreigner, the enemy, the other.
Everyone is responsible, no one is off the hook. Repentance is not just personal, its communal.

Our idea of Lent as a season of personal atonement and repentance is directly based on Yom Kippur, so as Lent draws near, we do well to pay attention to Jonah.

We are on the hook, too, and like our ancestors, we are called to repent for the sins we share together.

“Repent” means to turn around, to change and to see what is in front of us that we’ve ignored.

Repentance has no meaning unless it comes with actions. Like Jonah, we are called to act with compassion toward those we overlook, especially for those we find it hardest of all to see and love.
Yesterday we had the first of our listening sessions as we discern where God is leading us as a parish.

A participant in our group mentioned that a good starting point for us as a parish is to ask what repentance would look like for the entire Church if that repentance contained not just words, but actions?

That is not a question easily answered but is one central to who and what we should be about.
There is great hope in this story of Jonah. In spite of himself, Jonah does what God calls him to do.

Jonah is certainly an imperfect messenger, but God chooses him anyway.

The biblical accounts are filled with stories of imperfect messengers.

In the Gospel of Mark today, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, and they know not where they are going or how it will come out.

They are ordinary fishermen, and in the days ahead, these fishermen will be filled with doubts and fears, and their flaws will be on full display. They don’t always get it.

These first followers will encounter to people not like themselves, just as Jonah does. They will be called to pray for their enemies, and they do. They will be called to cross social and religious boundaries, and they do.

And they will surprise even themselves, and we are the beneficiaries because they answered the call to follow.

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims. And so it is, even with us. May we learn how to answer that call and follow, and bring the Kingdom closer to all God’s people. AMEN

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