Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, California
January 21, 2018
Ever had one of those moments when you give advice to someone else and you feel so right about doing it, then the same advice comes back to stare you in the face, and you’re like I don’t want that advice! I don’t want to listen to that!?
Remember last fall when we were discerning leadership for this year for the ministries and mission of the church and I said, “If you’re asked to do something and you feel resistance to saying yes, it’s probably because you are truly being called to do that something.”?
Well, ten days ago, I got an email from Bishop Carcaño asking me to do something and I thought, “Oh no. I don’t want to do that!”
This past week the Order of Elders and the Order of Deacons gathered in the Santa Cruz mountains. We are required to do this each year to connect and offer each other support and accountability, to learn and to reaffirm our calls as pastors in the California-Nevada conference of the United Methodist Church.
As you may know, the United Methodist Church is currently in a process, led by a group called The Commission on a Way Forward, that is trying to find a place of deep unity on human sexuality and other matters. Right now there is no unity. There are some, like Epworth, who are deeply committed to full inclusion, and the rights and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and some who want to perpetuate a codified discrimination of anyone who falls outside of strict definition of heterosexual.
After fifteen months into this process, three dominant models have emerged. One model from a group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association draws a line in the sand and says, advocates for continued discrimination based on a literalist and culturally bound reading of the Bible, one is a model that doesn’t compel discrimination but doesn’t eliminate it either—this ironically, is called the “Uniting” model, and one tries to create space for everyone to peacefully co-exist. The caucus of clergy who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender has intentionally not put forward a model, but instead has engaged a strategic approach to the work that privileges relationship, grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring unity.
I know for some of you I’m way into the weeds on this, so suffice it to say, the Bishop asked Brian Adkins, the only gay clergy person on the 32 person Commission and a former pastor of this congregation, to report on the Commission’s work, followed by three responses, one from the Wesleyan Covenant Association, one from the Uniting model, and one from me on behalf of the caucus of queer clergy. And my internal response to this “invitation” was “Oh no. I don’t want to do that.” I didn’t want to be pitted against two persons who felt that discrimination was necessary or at least ok, and I didn’t want to become one dimensional in the process, with one aspect of my identity being focused on to the exclusion of the rest of my identity.
Our scripture today is from the book of Jonah. Jonah also was asked to do something and his response was “Oh no. I don’t want to do that!” So the story goes that God comes to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh, and tell them that God is fed up with their corruption and wickedness and can’t stand it any longer. Unlike the Women’s Marches that happened all over the country yesterday where hundreds of thousands came together to call for justice, integrity and compassion and felt the power of solidarity, Jonah was asked by God to do this task alone.
To Jonah, Nineveh was the worst place he could have been asked to go. Nineveh was the long-time capital of the Assyrian empire. It represented to the Jews the cruelty of Assyrian warfare and iron rule. The Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 723 B.C. and deported people, then threatened to subjugate the southern kingdom of Judah. It was not a place that was necessarily safe for a Hebrew to go.
Though the call comes from God, Jonah’s just not willing. So instead of heading Northeast across land towards Nineveh, he goes to the coast, boards a boat at the coastal city of Joppa and heads away from Nineveh toward the city of Tarshish. On the boat, the scripture tells us that Jonah tells the sailors about his situation. I wonder if he was bragging or if he said this in kind of confessional way or if he was just processing out loud like we do when we’re confused and upset. So when a storm so big comes up and all the sailors are praying to their gods to save them, they ask Jonah what they should do. The scripture reads as if Jonah calmly says, “Well, this is all happening because I’ve refused God’s request. I’m the problem, so go ahead and throw me over and the storm should die down.”
Well, at first they don’t want to do this because they don’t want blood on their hand, but eventually, the sailors do throw Jonah over the side of the ship. The storm calms, and Jonah ends up in the belly of a very large fish. In fact, the scripture says that God provided this fish! For three days and three nights, Jonah sang hymns of praise and repentance. Then, God had the fish cough up Jonah, or as some of the versions say, expectorate Jonah, onto the beach.
Now this is where our text for today picks up the story. God comes to Jonah a second time and says, “Go to Nineveh already and deliver the message I asked you to!” Now you’d think that Jonah would have put away his truculent attitude while he was repenting in the belly of the fish. But no. He sets off for Nineveh kind of dragging his feet. He arrives at the edge of Nineveh and the center of the city is a day and a half’s journey in. Jonah walks one day into the city, decides that’s good enough and makes the shortest prophecy in the history of the Old Testament. He says, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
And then something amazing happens. The people listen. They put on sackcloth and repent, and the king hears the prophesy and puts on sackcloth and ashes and decrees that everyone from the people to the animals need to fast, put on sackcloth and repent. And they do.
This kind of outcome is miraculous! It’s as if one lone woman had marched on Washington, DC yesterday and got to, maybe Arlington or Bethesda, stopped, proclaimed in one sentence that our government must start taking care of all of its people, and it happened.
The King of Assyria and all of the Ninevites repent. And God changes God’s mind and no calamity befalls Nineveh. You’d think that Jonah would be pleased about this outcome, grateful that his efforts actually had a successfully result. But the opposite is true. He complains to God, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven. He wanted them to be punished. But God’s mercy was the response to their repentance. It’s interesting that Jonah was so upset. Just days before he himself had been the recipient of God’s mercy when he was first swallowed up by a giant fish and kept alive and then coughed back up onto the beach.
This is so often the case: we’re grateful for mercy for ourselves, but frustrated when mercy gets extended to others. Ephesians tells us that mercy and grace are two sides of the same coin: mercy is not getting what we do deserve, and grace is love and salvation even when we don’t deserve it. The Southern writer Flannery O’Connor wrote, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” I would say the same is true of mercy as well. To truly see it and accept it can be painful, and it changes us.
Like Jonah, I vigorously resisted the invitation to proclaim to my colleagues in the California Nevada conference, and the denomination, a call to repentance this week. When any of us respond to God’s call to call others to repentance and faithfulness, are we ready for the outcome? What if those who have been persecuting us and others get off scot free? Are we ready to let go of the labels we’ve attached to “them” such that there is no more “us” and “them”? The story of Jonah tells us that in the wideness of God’s mercy, the “us” and “them” was an illusion in the first place.
God’s mercy is so boundless that it is, in fact, beyond our comprehension. We are called to faithfulness, in the words of the prophet Micah, this means to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with God. The three points of this prescription of faithfulness are inextricable. As we work for justice and call for justice, others will respond, even when ours seems like a hopeless task. And God’s mercy will extend to them and so our job then is just to walk humbly with God. The main character in the book of Jonah isn’t Jonah, it’s God! So, too, is this true in our lives. May we know that God’s grace precedes our very existence, just as it does each morning before we even get out of bed. And may we know, in our own failings, mistakes or lack of consciousness, that God’s mercy knows no bounds. This, my friends, is good news. Amen.