January 22, 2012
We’re three weeks, four Sundays into a new year, and things are finally settling down. Winter has finally arrived, for better or worse, and now that the Packers have lost, we don’t need to be focusing our attention quite so closely on the NFL playoffs as we did, for example last year. We can begin to go about the business of the routine of the winter and of the Season of Epiphany.
One element of that routine, at least for those of us in Grace’s leadership, is to gather for a day or a day and half in a vestry retreat. We met yesterday—for those of who don’t speak Episcopalian, the vestry is the lay governing body of an Episcopal parish, equivalent to the church council or board of elders in other congregations. We did what we usually do at such meetings. We got to know each other—there are three new members, and with the departure of three people from the vestry and wardens we needed some time to begin to come together as a group, to learn how to work together.
We also did routine matters, like passing the budget for 2012. But most of our time was spent thinking about who we are as a parish and who God is calling us to be in this place. These are important questions that get at the heart of our mission and ministry. They are questions churches, organizations, even businesses ask of themselves in slightly different ways, and using different terminology.
I was struck by this fact a few weeks ago while reading online an essay entitled “Why should there be an Episcopal Church?” The author was asking the question about the national church, asking it in part because of long-term trends that point toward decline, and some uncertainty about whether the Episcopal Church has long-term future viability. It’s a question we should ask of ourselves: “Why should there be an Episcopal Church in this place—on Madison’s Capitol Square?” On one level, perhaps, the answer to that question is obvious. Well there’s always been one. But that’s not enough anymore. Why should there be a Grace Church now or ten years from now, or even a hundred years from now? What’s the point? What’s the reason for our existence?
Wrestling with that question means wrestling with the question: What is God’s call for us? And that question brings us to today’s lessons. The gospel story is another version of Jesus’ calling the disciples. Last week, we heard the Gospel of John’s take. This week, we’re back to Mark, and there are important differences that we might note. But instead of the Gospel, let’s talk about Jonah.
If you read my blog—and for those of you who don’t—it’s a place on-line where I comment on all kinds of things: everything from homelessness, to developments in Anglicanism, to trends in contemporary culture and religion. But each week, I try to begin the week with some comment about the coming Sunday’s lectionary texts. In any case, this week, I expressed my annoyance that over the three-year lectionary cycle, we only read twice from the Book of Jonah. What annoys me about this fact is that the story of Jonah is one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture. Frankly, it’s one of the best stories in scripture. So let’s start there.
What do you know about Jonah? Right, he was swallowed up by a whale. Why? Because God called him to go prophesy against the wickedness of the city of Nineveh. Instead of heeding that call, he took ship in the opposite direction. A storm came up and the sailors threw Jonah overboard to appease the wrath of God. This part of the story everyone knows well. He was swallowed up by a big fish and stayed in its stomach for three days. From the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God for deliverance, and after three days, he was spewed up on dry land.
God called Jonah a second time to go prophesy against the city of Nineveh, and this time he went. He prophesied its destruction, and miraculously, the people repented. When God saw their repentance, God changed God’s mind and relented. But this angered Jonah, who went out of the city and sulked.
This story presents the modern reader with many problems, the first being the impossibility of a whale, or a big fish swallowing a man whole, the man surviving for three days inside it, and then being spewed out. Then there’s Jonah’s prophetic activity itself. The text says that Nineveh was a large city; it was a three-day’s walk from one end to the other, and that when Jonah arrived, he walked a day into it, and there preached his message of doom and destruction. That’s all it took. One lone voice, and that of a foreigner, and the whole city, man and beast, put on sackcloth and ashes, and repent of their wickedness. It could happen, I suppose.
And if you were Jonah, how would you respond to this development? One would think he would be pleased with himself, proud of the effects of his preaching. But no. He complains to God, saying that the reason he didn’t want to go in the first place was because he knew this would happen. He knew God was a gracious God, full of mercy, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent. In other words, if Jonah was going to prophesy doom and destruction, he wanted to see it happen.
So what should we make of all this? A prophet who doesn’t want to be a prophet, certainly doesn’t want to be a successful prophet and resists his call. On that level, we can understand the story all to well. We can imagine resisting the tug of duty and responsibility, turning away from what we know we ought to do. We can even imagine, most of us, sensing God calling us in a certain direction, calling us to deeper commitment, to a richer spiritual life, and turning away.
That’s all easy to imagine, and in that sense, Jonah represents us, everyman. But there’s more to the story than just Jonah. Besides Jonah and God, there’s another actor, or set of actors in the story, and that is Nineveh itself. Now, Nineveh was the heart of the Assyrian empire, one of the great empires of the ancient near east, and one of the most brutal. It was Assyria that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century bce. Nineveh was the evil empire. Its power dwarfed all of its neighbors, including the kingdom of Judah. That makes Jonah’s resistance to God’s call all the more understandable, even if that’s not the excuse Jonah gave himself.
In the end, the book of Jonah is not primarily about Jonah. It is about God. It is a story of God’s love, mercy, steadfast love. It is about proclaiming not just God’s displeasure and threatening destruction, it is about knowing who God is, and proclaiming that message of love, mercy, and steadfast love.
And that’s the message for us as well. Like Jonah, that is what God is calling us to, as individuals and as a congregation. The God who is calling us is not a God of wrath and destruction, no matter how much some Christians in our culture would have us and everyone else believe it. The God who calls us is unimaginable in the extent of the love, mercy, and patience God has. It is that God we have experienced ourselves in the forgiveness of our sins. It is that God we are called to share with a world that knows hate and fear and violence. It is that message, a message we know for ourselves, that we need to bring to those around us. That is our mission, that is our call. Let’s go out and do it!