24 January 2021
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
How do we respond?
How do you individually, in your everyday life, respond to God’s call?
How do we collectively respond to it?
We might ask first: how does one hear God’s call?
Last week, Tammy talked about hearing God amidst the noise and tumult of our world…seeking a space similar to the one the psalmist describes today…a place where we can rest, and breathe and pray: “For God alone, my soul in silence waits.” It is vital to have places and methods by which you can reliably be still and know—and remember—that God alone is God, and be open to God’s messages. It’s also vital, as Tammy also pointed out, to have a community in which to check those messages. Because we don’t always hear correctly, or completely. And our initial response might not be the best, or most faithful, or most sustainable.
That’s why I’m glad to have Jonah paired with today’s Gospel…Jesus walks along and see Simon and Andrew. He says, “Follow me” and immediately they leave their nets and follow him. Then he sees James and John. He calls, and immediately they leave everything they have ever known and follow.
Clearly this is the way Mark thinks it’s supposed to go. Hear the call. Respond to the call. But I’ve rarely experienced it that way in my life. I think I’m getting better at it…I hope I am…I certainly keep practicing…but it’s still almost never as simple and clear-cut as this.
True, in our reading from Jonah…God calls…Jonah goes…the people of Nineveh repent…but…there’s more to it…
Jonah is one of those stories most of us vaguely remember from Sunday school, especially the part about the fish. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. But do you remember why he was in the fish? Jonah is part parody, and part satirical commentary on different responses to God’s call. It’s also a crystalline reminder of God’s perseverance, God’s responsiveness, and God’s mercy.
Jonah ends up in the fish because the first time he flat refuses to do what God tells him to. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah…”Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.” (Jonah 1:1-2, Jewish Study Bible).
And Jonah gets up and runs in the other direction. Now, prophets often initially try to get out of it…Moses says, “can’t you send someone else?” Isaiah says, “who am I?” Samuel last week is confused by what he hears…but Jonah doesn’t try to talk his way out of it…Jonah “set[s] out to flee to Tarshish.” Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It’s in northern Iraq. No one is exactly sure where Tarshish was…some say it was just off the coast of Israel, some that it was as far away as Spain…the point is it was in the opposite direction…it was as far from Nineveh as you could possibly go.
Jonah gets on a boat, which is immediately beset by a storm. The crew, who are all non-Jews, panic but quickly figure out that they’re in trouble because of Jonah. And Jonah, totally calm about all this says “throw me overboard and the sea will calm down” (maybe he was thinking, “If I drown, I won’t have to go to Nineveh”). Now the sailors, who all worship other gods respond immediately to Jonah’s God and refuse to throw him overboard. But the storm keeps up and eventually they cry, (to this God they don’t worship) “Please, LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person!” (Jonah 1:14) and they throw him overboard.
But of course, God doesn’t let him die…God has something for him to do, so God sends a great fish, who swallows him…keeps him there for three days…and then spits out on dry ground. Which is where today’s reading starts. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” (Because with God there is always a second chance it seems), and this time Jonah goes to Nineveh.
Nineveh, like Egypt, and Babylon in the bible is almost always described in negative terms. It’s a foreign city. Hardly anyone there believes in God or follows the way of God. It is the beating heart of the empire…“you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” than in Nineveh. But, in Jonah, Nineveh is the place where Jonah only barely starts proclaiming this message, “40 days and Nineveh is undone,”…it’s a three day walk across the city…he only walks for a day…1/3 of the way in…and what happens? This whole corrupt place “great and small” from the king in the palace to the animals in their pens repents. They fast. They put on sackcloth. They sit in ashes, they “Turn back from [their] evil ways and from the injustice of which [each] is guilty,” (Jonah 3:8).
It’s a stunning transformation.
No one in Nineveh believes in God. Jonah never even mentions God in his proclamation. And yet, the response, not just of a few, but of everyone is “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” And repented.
There’s a fourth and final chapter to Jonah, that I won’t go into…although I encourage you to read it…it’s both amusing and poignant. The whole book is only 4 short chapters and is worth revisiting. Like all good satire it’s both sharp and funny, critical and hopeful. And it makes us ask: How do we respond to God’s call?
Clearly running away and avoiding it is not the answer. Repentance is a much better response. And we need repentance, because we all resist the call at times. And it helps to have others around to encourage us to do the right thing. Sometimes we don’t really understand what we’re being called to do…and having a group of trusted fellow travelers to test and sift and discern what the call really is for you…is vital.
Sometimes we resist because we may not yet agree with the work we’re being asked to do… or we think “that’s not going to work,” but as Jonah learns…God is persistent…and if the arc of the universe does indeed bend towards justice…then we all have work to do in that bending.
Sometimes we resist because it all seems too hard…too daunting. A lot of us have felt that way…maybe still feel that way…Have you heard the story of the wise person and a fool who went to a great library. They both looked at all the books. One took one down and began reading. The other cried, “It’s too much, I won’t ever be able to finish,” and left. So which of the two was wise and which one the fool? In the Talmud the Rabbi’s teach, ”It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
Don’t let the immensity of the task be a reason not to engage the work.
The Prayer Book says it is the duty of every Christian, “to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” Reconciliation is a gargantuan task…much bigger than any one of us…It is not your duty to finish the work of reconciliation…but neither are you free to neglect it.
It will take faith. It will take courage. It will take connection and humility, and vulnerability, and a willingness to risk and reach out across many differences and bring healing.
It’s the work we are called to, and it is the work will will continue to do, with one another, and with God’s help.