At Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Torrance, CA) we have a tradition where on the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, the outgoing Senior Warden delivers the sermon during worship before the meeting. The following is the sermon I delivered to the congregation on January 25, 2015. It was the Third Sunday after Epiphany. Texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B were:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
God said to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah…”
In this season of Epiphany, we’re hearing a number of stories that focus on occasions when God speaks to individuals and directs them to take action in His name. Last Sunday, we heard about the boy, Samuel, who, in the middle of the night, heard a voice call his name. He didn’t understand what was happening, but his mentor, Eli the High Priest, told the boy, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ”
In her sermon, Bonnie spoke quite frankly about her own experience of lying awake in the middle of the night, worrying, and waiting to hear a voice of reassurance telling her everything was going to be ok. Pastoring a church – of whatever size – is a tremendous responsibility. And even though she didn’t mention it specifically, I am sure that the duties of caring for this flock would keep any Rector awake some nights.
Bonnie also asked the question of which would be worse? Hearing God’s call, or never hearing anything at all. If we hear the voice of God, that call demands a response: hearing means accepting responsibility and taking action. It is an awesome duty to live out a true calling.
So in this season of Epiphany, as we’re looking at the instances when God calls his faithful, we can see a wide range of responses to God’s call. And the story of Jonah is an important one for us to examine.
Our lesson begins with this detail: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” That is our clue that we are picking up the story of Jonah in the middle of a three act play. And this middle part of the story has a happy ending.
The people of Ninevah have sinned. And as Christians living in the 21st Century, we read about how a bad people heard God’s message through the prophet Jonah and responded. Ninevah declares a fast, they mourn, they repent, and God spares them. This cycle of sin, judgment, repentance, and reconciliation is one Christians are well familiar with. Hearing how the people of Ninevah repented and were spared, we are consoled knowing that if we fall that we too are able to repent and be restored to relationship with God. The salvation of Ninevah cheers us, knowing that salvations remains ours for the asking.
Jonah, on hearing the news that Ninevah faces destruction yet can saved, has a very different reaction from ours.
At this time, Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrian empire. Scripture tells us that 120,000 people live in Ninevah, and that on foot, it would take three days to travel from one end of the city to the other.
God told Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah was to declare to the people, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah recognized the voice of God. He understood what was expected of him. And he didn’t want to have any part of God’s plan.
In last week’s reading, Samuel was young – he is old enough to work in the temple, but is also described as being still a boy – and although he is living and working under the High Priest Eli, he is most likely sheltered from the outside world and naïve enough to do what he is told without questioning. Jonah, on the other hand must be a grown man, and although he is a faithful servant of God, the truth is that no task could have been more distasteful for an Israelite of that time. The Assyrians were Gentiles, idol worshipers, and would have been hated as such. But beyond that, the Assyrians oppressed Israel cruelly, and were warring enemies. God had threatened to destroy the capital of one of Israel’s worst enemies. The last thing Jonah wanted was for Ninevah to be spared. Jonah knows hate. And, in fact, Jonah is a bigot. Jonah wants to see the Assyrians overthrown, not forgiven. His heart is dead, and he wants nothing to do with seeing his enemy spared God’s wrath.
We all know the story of Jonah and the big fish from Sunday school. Jonah boards a ship headed as far away from Ninevah as he could get, they run into a storm at sea, and Jonah confesses he is the reason the ship is about to sink. The frightened ship’s crew throws Jonah overboard, and he spends three days in the belly of the fish, an experience Jonah himself describes as “the belly of Sheol” – Sheol being another word for “the grave”.
Jonah is perhaps the biggest fish story of all time. Biblical literalists have spent a countless amount of time and energy trying to find a fish in the ocean as big as the one described in the Book of Jonah, and in trying to collect anecdotes about people who were swallowed by whales and survived. But if we focus on these details, we will miss the point entirely. The big fish is only a tool to bring Jonah himself to repentance.
The fish spits Jonah out, dropping him back at the place where he began. I can imagine Jonah standing up on the beach, dusting himself off, when God speaks to Jonah for the second time, “Get up, go to Ninevah…”
Powerless in the face of God’s compulsion, Jonah relents. He goes to Ninevah. The people hear his warning, they proclaim a fast, and repent. And, as promised, God spares this city of 120,000 people—men, women, children, and animals as well.
Jonah complied, but wasn’t particularly happy about the situation. And the Book of Jonah doesn’t end on a happy note for Jonah himself. The city is saved, but he is resentful. The enemy of the nation of Israel lives on. The story ends with God questioning Jonah. God’s questions go unanswered, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions and to ponder where, in our lives, do we refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves.
When I think about this theme of reluctantly responding to calling, I am reminded of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran priest. Nadia recently wrote a memoir titled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” – the title, of course, refers to the church plant she founded in Denver, CO, – the House for All Sinners and Saints.
In interviews, Nadia speaks honestly and openly about her own calling to a life of faith and to the priesthood. She says of her experience as a Lutheran,
“I love[d] the emphasis on grace, the fact that God always is coming to us. There’s nothing we do to make our way to God. God is continually coming to us and interrupting our lives and wanting to be known. And I had experienced that to be true. And I was so grateful when I stumbled into a place where I didn’t have to like remove half my brain in order to believe the things that they were telling me to believe.”
Nadia and I were both was raised in a fundamentalist Christian tradition. As we came of age, we both questioned what we’d been taught, found it didn’t work for us, left that tradition, and sojourned for some years outside of organized religion entirely. My secular friends who knew I’d left the Church of Christ were surprised to hear I still considered myself a Christian. I just wasn’t ready to give up on God. Nadia says this about her experience outside organized religion …
“…with everything that happened and all of the stops along the way, I never really managed to be an atheist. I couldn’t pull it off. I think the fact that there is a God is something that never left me no matter where I sojourned to.”
And, she, like myself, searched for and discovered a better way to follow Jesus. She characterizes her journey as a love story. Describing her calling—away from a path of self-destruction and toward a path of religious faith and service in the priesthood—she says,
“…becoming Lutheran for me, because being somebody who got clean and sober, it really felt like this rather rude interruption of my life by God, like I was really OK being dead by the time I was 30 and I had this tragic sense of who I was and God — it was like God plucked me off that path kicking and screaming and went, ‘That’s cute. I’m gonna put you over here …’ “
I’m sure Jonah, too, would have described God’s calling as a rude interruption. But keep in mind, not all callings are as disruptive as these. As you reflect on your life, ask yourself: where do you feel God calling you?
In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, is famous for writing, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
God doesn’t speak to us today in quite the same way as he did in the time of Jonah. Discerning our calling – our life purpose – will rarely involve the shocking experience of being thrown overboard from a ship at sea to spend three days in the belly of a fish.
Brooks and I moved to Los Angeles in 2009. Brooks had a life dream of going to Cinema Makeup School, and for a number of reasons, I was ready to get out of Memphis to live somewhere different. We landed in Alhambra. For about three years, I worshiped at All Saints in Pasadena, where I got my introduction to the Episcopal tradition. At every service, they say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome at God’s table.” And when you’ve been raised in the kind of fear-based religious tradition as I was, it is easy to scoff and say, “Yeah, right!” But when I’d look over the audience, I saw a lot of people just like me. And slowly I realized that they really did mean what they said.
I had been damaged by my experience with fundamentalism, but I wasn’t ready to give up on God. By the time I found All Saints, I had been away from organized religion for about 8 years. Our move to LA coincided with the feeling that I was ready to find a new faith tradition to get involved with – I was ready to return to church. Discovering the Episcopal Church through All Saints was like a breath of fresh air to my spiritual life.
I spent three years at All Saints, slipping into and out of worship services fairly anonymously. Those three years were a time of recovery and healing for me. But at the end of those three years, I was feeling that I wanted to find a smaller church to get involved with, a place where I could dig in and make a real difference. Brooks and I moved again, just over three years ago now, to Torrance, where I found St. Andrew’s.
The religious tradition I grew up in doesn’t use words like calling or discernment. However, I can now look back and say with confidence that I felt a calling. Remember Buechner’s criteria: your deep gladness, and the world’s deep need. I remember looking up this church’s previous website and thinking, “These people need me.” As you are aware, that website project ended up begin just the tip of the iceberg.
As you will read in my Senior Warden’s report for 2014, I have enjoyed serving this year as your Senior Warden. This has been a year of tremendous personal growth for me. Being Senior Warden has been challenging. I’ve made some mistakes. But I am ending this term with greater confidence in my own ability to lead when the need arises. And for these opportunities, I am truly thankful.
This is a small but very active church. When you look over the Rector’s Report, I expect you will be as amazed at the sheer number of events that take place here through the year as I was. Making this parish run requires the hard work of each and every one of its members. We do a lot with a little here.
As we go into this New Year, I would urge you to reflect on where and how you serve, and ask where you might be called to do more than you do now. This church is a place where someone can serve God and their neighbor to as great an extent as they’re willing and able. The harvest is ready, but the workers are few.
Let us pray:
Send us anywhere in this world You would have us go
Only go thou with us.
Place upon us any burden You desire
Only stand by us to sustain us.
Break any tie that binds us
Except the tie that binds us to thee.
1. Opening prayer is from Psalm 19:14
2.Nadia Bolz-Weber quotes are taken from her interview with Krista Tippett OnBeing podcast Oct. 23, 2014. Transcript here >>
3. Closing prayer is found here >>