|Sunday, January 25th, 2009||
The Third Sunday of Epiphany
The Rev. Nina Pooley
Sermon Preached by the Rev. Nina Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Yarmouth,
Sunday, January 25, 2009 ~ The Third Sunday of Epiphany
My friend was pregnant with her second son, and wanted to name him Jonah. She had visions of having a wall paper border around his room with whales on it… to match his older brother, Noah’s, ark and animals paper. I remember laughing to myself – this was a new twist on giving your kids biblical names – for the fun room motif. Shouldn’t biblical figures be more than cartoon images on a wall paper border? But the more I read Jonah’s story, I think my friend might have been onto something.
Face it, Jonah is a cartoon character of a prophet, really and truly a caricature of a man sent by God, a fable more than a fact. This text isn’t meant to talk about a historical moment, so much as to tell a moral tale. It’s a story of hyperbole, exaggeration, and two-dimensional characters – to teach us something about ourselves.
The text of this morning’s Old Testament lesson reflects the second call of God to Jonah, and Jonah’s less than thrilled response. But for this text to weigh in much at all. we need to hear the rest of the story.
This is the second call, after Jonah responded to the first call of God, by attempting to run to the far ends of the earth and hopping a boat out of town. Finding himself caught out by God, on turbulent, God thrashed waters, Jonah allows himself to be thrown overboard, where he is swallowed by a huge fish. Inside this fish, he prays awkwardly to God, and is then vomited up on the shore, right where he didn’t want to go. Admit it, this is good stuff!
In fairness, there are good reasons for Jonah’s reluctance. God tells him to go to Ninevah, that great city. The text leaves out the crucial fact that Ninevah, as the capital of Assyria, is the center of the nation that destroyed the northern kingdom of
So when Jonah, conveniently spit out on the shore near Ninevah, hears the call of God for the second time, his consent is begrudging at best. He heads a little ways into the great city of
But this is a tale less about the conversion of a nation, and more about this two-dimensional sketch of a man and his reaction to this conversion. When Ninevah repents and is saved from the wrath of God, Jonah is miserable.
Jonah is furious, essentially because God is being, well God. Consistent to the God of
Jonah is in many ways, laughable to the end. And yet there is truth in this story, we have our Jonah moments, our less-than moments, those times when we are more a caricature than a person. And there is value in being able to see ourselves honestly at these times. There is a deeper truth about ourselves contained in these moments if we can admit to them.
I heard some of this going on in the benediction Rev. Joseph Lowery gave at the inauguration. Particularly in the end piece that was done in rhyme… I believe he meant to poke fun at us all, collectively. To point out those ways in which we can be garishly cartoon-like. Rev. Lowery said:
"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around – when yellow will be mellow – when the red man can get ahead, man— and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen." In the following hours I was online with friends and colleagues, some of whom responded vehemently to the implied characterization of whites. Saying things like, “How dare he? I found his words offensive, I’ve lived my life striving to be intentional and open minded, and ‘right’… A direct quote from one priest, “I felt the "white will embrace what's right" comment was to imply that there is a general wrong doing by whites. I will not be included in that idea, as I live my life with a conscious effort to give off positive energy and to do what is right.”
Well, my friends, I think they protest too much! No one, no matter how intentional can claim to have never acted in a way that was prejudiced, to have neither advertently or inadvertently hurt another because of race. I wanted to climb through the internet and sit these priests down and have a long chat about our limitations as human beings and our vulnerability and sinfulness, and our need for God’s grace in all of this.
For that’s what I heard in Lowery’s prayer – our need for God’s grace. We know, even when we say it in jest, that we are often less than we should be collectively and individually. And we pray for that time when our ridiculous divisions around and because of race are truly a thing of the past and we are less cartoon and more authentic in our relationships and interactions with one another. But until then, we can poke some fun at ourselves, knowing that there is truth in that humor, and that being able to see the humor is a step in the right direction. And we can pray to God to help us ‘grow up’ as individuals and a nation. So that we are as accepting and forgiving of one another as God already is.
Jonah’s greatest disappointment? That God would forgive those people and not destroy an entire city. Jonah sulked and pouted and threw a tantrum, and God gently taught him a lesson about forgiveness which Jonah didn’t really understand. Jonah, the garish representation of a reluctant prophet, didn’t really have to understand, as long as those of us hearing the story do.
The book of Jonah is followed by the book of Micah, a more authentic prophet, one that represents the best in what a prophet can be for the people/to the people on behalf of God. A prophet that is ‘grown up’ or has grown into the role.
Coincidentally, the last line of Rev. Lowery’s benediction is taken from Micah 6:8
“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
What does the Lord require of us? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God – to become a people who can do just that. To be aware of our failures and limitations, even our ridiculous prejudices, our reluctance to accept or forgive others. And to humble ourselves so that we might walk with God, as individuals and someday as a truly integrated, multi-racial community.
So in the closing words of Rev. Lowery, “Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen." And amen, and amen.