Play It Again, Jonah

This morning’s worship at St. Joseph’s went very well — no mix-ups in the readings, the congregation received the sermon very warmly, and Rhonda described me in extravagantly laudatory terms that set back my spiritual discipline of “receiving compliments gracefully” by about ten years.
I left out the line that tickled me yesterday (and still delights me; I’ll be looking for years for a good context in which to place this): “Many are called, but few are boatswain.” I’ll put the sermon as I actually preached it in the “More” section of the post.
Now, it’s time for me to walk the dog, drive to the airport, pick up my beloved and rhinoviral daughter, and eventually to settle in for the night. I’ll swing over to J. P. Kang’s blog (he assures me that “I started blogging seriously”). I’ll start thinking of random things about myself, since both Kazpah and Yroa tagged me for one of these internet exercises in self-disclosure (Kazpah asked for a less inquisitorial 7 items, but I’ll roll hers into Yroa’s and pad them out with a few more).

St. Joseph’s Church, Durham
Jonah 3:1-5, 10/Ps 62: 6-14/1 Cor 7:29-31/Mk 1:14-20

3 Epiphany B
January 25, 2008
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Amen.
   If you’re starting a rock and roll band — and this being a university parish, at least half of you probably are doing so — if you’re starting a rock band, a hip-hop collective, or some other musical endeavor, you could do worse than to call your group “the Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets.” The GFP, as the music press would surely call you, hasn’t already been taken; the syllables roll pleasantly off the tongue; the name suggests innumerable possibilities for posters, album cover art, and t-shirt designs. I don’t believe in hogging good ideas, so that name is yours to adopt — though I’d be honored if you put a little acknowledgment in your album credits. And if you ever need a back-up singer with a deep voice, you know where to find me.
   “The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets” comes from the Book of Common Prayer’s translation of an ancient Latin praise song, the Te Deum Laudamus (you can check it out for yourself on page 52 when the sermon gets boring). The hymn lists all sorts of beings who praise the Lord: angels, cherubim, seraphim, apostles, and martyrs, and among all these the hymn invokes “the goodly fellowship of the prophets.” That phrase suggests to me the cozy ambiance of a neighborhood pub, the kind of bar where wild-eyed Ezekiel grabs you by the collar and tells about his most recent vision; where dolorous Jeremiah stares into his half-empty glass; where Isaiah comforts, comforts he his people; where John the Baptist sips a bottle of water (since he would take neither wine nor strong drink). And among these somewhat grungy, inspired prophetic types, one member of the goodly company would stay apart from the others. Maybe off at a dark corner table, scowling, sits Jonah.
   Jonah differs from the other prophets in oceans of ways. First of all, when the word of the Lord came to Jonah ben Amittai, Jonah refused to cooperate. He took the opposite course of action from what Simon and Andrew, James and John did; he does the opposite of what we heard about in last week’s lesson with Eli and Samuel. Whereas Samuel answered God’s call by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” Jonah lit out for an undisclosed location where he figured the Holy Spirit would never find him. Prophets often make a big deal of not being worthy of their job description, but it took Jonah to flee to a foreign country where he hoped to enter the Prophet Protection Program. Jonah sets a new world record for reluctance to serve answer God’s call.
   Second, Jonah seems only to have a single line of prophetic message. When God finally induced him to fulfill his prophetic job description, Jonah meandered into Nineveh and he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s all Scripture tells us about his message: no crushing criticism of the Ninevites’ sins, no poetic promise that God would save them if they repent. Just one line, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Odder still, God gives Jonah this single prophecy to utter, and then God decides not to do the exact thing that Jonah had been instructed to prophesy. Among biblical prophets, Jonah comes in last for prophetic-fulfillment winning percentage. Jonah loses a prophetic throw-down against a Magic 8-Ball.
   And then of course, try as he might, Jonah can’t seem to lose the smell of fish.
   But as distinctive as the aroma of aging fish innards must have been — and I once worked in a fish cannery, so Margaret and I have great sympathy for what Jonah’s friends among the prophets must have had to put up with — Jonah stands out from the goodly fellowship of the other prophets most because of his unfulfilled prophecy. The prophecy that Jonah announces, that seems to come directly from God — the prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction goes unfulfilled. Jonah preaches what God tells him, but God does something different, as though Jonah were a sort of divine decoy, a holy head-fake. In a way, the most prominent point of the book of Jonah seems to involve Jonah understanding that God was using him to save the Ninevites, without Jonah changing his own attitude. He would rather sulk beside his withered gourd-vine than rejoice that Nineveh has been saved. Rather than sing about God’s amazing grace (how sweet the sound), Jonah gets up from his seat in a gloomy corner of the bar, shambles over to the jukebox, and chooses Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way.” He plays it twice.
   Jonah sits off by himself in the goodly fellowship of the prophets, but you wouldn’t have to look too far to find sisters and brothers for him in the church. Many folks who love the Lord and yearn for the coming of his kingdom also want very much for the kingdom to look pretty much like their neighborhood, only with the annoying neighbors thrown out and some (but not too many) like-minded friends moved in. Many leaders in the church, today and all through the centuries, have prayed the words, “Thy will be done,” at the same time they move heaven and earth to make sure that my will be done. Their Frank Sinatra theology presumes that they have a prophet’s-eye view into the mind of God — but unlike Jonah, they refuse to entertain the possibility that God might be up to something that doesn’t square exactly with their own priorities.
   After all, Jonah didn’t object to proclaiming God’s message of condemnation to Nineveh. Jonah (eventually) did what the Lord called him to do; but what provoked Jonah to bicker with the Lord God Almighty was God’s willingness to not annihilate Nineveh. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah recognizes that God may be up to business that he doesn’t agree with, and he complains about that to God — but he doesn’t quit believing in the God of Israel, nor does he start his own branch office of the faith, where he can listen to Frank Sinatra records as liturgical music and do things his way. As grouchy as God’s grace makes Jonah, as grimly as he testifies to God’s will, Jonah exemplifies a faithfulness to God that stays strong even when God isn’t giving us things our own way. That’s as much the mark of Jonah’s sanctity as the special effects with voices and fish and plants; the other kind of people, those who substitute their words for God’s word, can be found all over the place, but they don’t count for much by way of being prophets.
   At the same time, watch how God handles the story. The glorious God of grace doesn’t smite Jonah with a lightning bolt when Jonah disobeys God’s call to go testify; God keeps after Jonah, and even when the storm endangers the runaway prophet’s life, God protects Jonah and provides for his fishy rescue. After Jonah pouts because the Ninevites believed God and repented from their violent evil, God doesn’t slap him silly. God sticks with Jonah, inviting him to understand better God’s love for a hostile Gentile city. The story doesn’t tell us that the Ninevites affirmed God‘s sovereignty, and they surely didn’t accede to the Torah as their law, but God pardoned them anyway; and God pardons Jonah for his obdurate resentment that God would bring about the salvation of a hundred twenty thousand souls at the cost of Jonah’s personal dignity.
   Now, I could begin wrapping up by pointing out that the story ends up with both the rancorous prophet and the pagan Ninevites in God’s good graces. That’s just the kind of result we should expect from this merciful God, and few of us would have a different reaction from Jonah’s. Peace and harmony sound all right in the abstract, but when they require that we actually forgive and embrace people — wicked people, people who have injured innocents and who don’t even understand the wrong that they do — most people would rather dwell in protracted bitterness than reconcile themselves to someone who has done them wrong. The peace of God, however, soars above our understanding and draws into communion a profoundly diverse Body. But again, “diversity” doesn’t usually bother people very much as long as it’s the kind of diversity we prefer. For some folks, that means both “Duke fans and Carolina fans, as long as they’re the same race,” or as long as they hold the same views on sexuality; for other folks, it means a very strict commingling of every imaginable sort of humanity according to a rigorous calculus of proportions and percentages. But if instead of “diversity,” we view the peaceable people of God under the category of “catholicity” — a more traditional theological term — we, along with Jonah and the Ninevites, have to acknowledge that the diversity, the catholicity of the Kingdom derives not from our determination, our legislation, our schism-atation to include or exclude anyone, but from the wisdom of God alone.
   All that would be true enough, a plausible way to wrap things up. This morning, though, I’m struck even more by the way the story shows us God putting up with Jonah’s ungrateful sulkiness, and God’s accepting the Ninevites pragmatic penitence. It doesn’t seem as though the Ninevites actually believe anything particular about God, after all. They don’t say the Nicene Creed, or call on Jesus to be their personal savior; they say, “Well, if the God of Israel’s going to annihilate us in forty days, maybe this ‘looting and violence’ business model won’t work out for us. Let’s try penitence instead!” And God doesn’t force Jonah to prophesy or to rejoice at the Ninevite’s salvation. God bears with our short-sightedness with a patience and wisdom that come to expression precisely by not coercing any of us. God invites us, and welcomes us, into a catholic communion, if we will but yield our determination to do things my way.
   Such a communion includes the pagan Ninevites, who have to figure out how to get along with the sourpuss, smelly, sanctimonious prophet whose preaching saved them. That communion includes Jonah, whether he likes it or not. Such a communion includes the glorious company of the apostles, the noble army of martyrs, the holy church throughout all the world, adoring, praising, worshiping the God who calls all the earth to come together with the goodly fellowship of the prophets, in a catholic diversity that bespeaks not your way, nor my way, nor Jonah’s way, but the blessed way of God’s patience, grace and peace.


3 thoughts on “Play It Again, Jonah

  1. I’m glad you posted this sermon, AKMA. I enjoyed it very much, and I’m going to send the link to my occasionally churchgoing children (22 and 28). They appreciate a good sermon, especially when they don’t have to get up early to enjoy its benefits!

  2. AKMA is too modest to say that he had the congregation rolling most of the sermon – the whole time bringing Jonah to life. One long time congregant called it the best sermon she’d ever heard.

  3. A lovely sermon on one of my favorite figures. I’d have been rolling in the aisle too!

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