It was while I was listening to that sermon that I experienced an overwhelming knowing that I was to go to seminary. I sat in that small church sanctuary having various peoples’ words come back to me from past conversations and encounters. It was an incredibly uncanny and powerful experience. When we were driving home, Ken turned to me and said, “You were thinking about going to seminary, weren’t you.” When we arrived home, our home had been sold that day.
It has been years since I have preached on Jonah. However, there is a section of this story, an image, that has always stayed with me. “And the Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the seas so that the ship was about to break up. Then the sailors became afraid, and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo, which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah, had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down, and fallen asleep.” The sailors offered the wake-up call. The situation was desperate.
When there is a calling upon our lives, we are often in a frantic situation and there is often a demand to get rid of the extra cargo. For several months following that long ago ordination service, I argued with God and patiently tried to explain that it would not work for me or our family to move to the Bay Area in order for me to attend seminary. I did not want to uproot our two sons who were 8 and 13. I spoke with friends and was disappointed when they didn’t think that it was an absurd idea. After one long sleepless night, I finally said “yes” to God. We had three major sales to unload the cargo of our lives. We sold our 4-H animals, bales of fencing, bags of feed and endless piles of stuff that represented life on nine acres in the country with a new three year old house that Ken had built.
The harder cargo for me to get rid of was the kind of cargo that resides deep within one’s psyche. Water is symbolic of the unconscious. Jonah’s descent into the unconscious was to enable him to become aware, conscious, and clear – in other words to wake up.
Whenever anyone comes to talk to me about what often sounds like the issue of unloading the cargo of their past, I always encourage at least two things: number one, I tell them that to do the inner work of unloading the cargo of unresolved issues, they are going to need to free up as much time as possible because that process takes an enormous amount of energy. And, two, I let them know that they will probably discover that there will come a time in their process when they will most likely want to begin unloading the cargo in their outer life…reflecting the work from their inner journey. I have often heard reports of how folks have ruthlessly begun cleaning their closets and sorting through drawers, basements and attics to get rid of the weight of whatever has held them down.
I have great appreciation for Jonah’s resentment of God’s call. He heard God’s call to Ninevah, and he immediately googled Tarshish and bought a ticket. Even though his name means dove, he had no peace loving feelings about Ninevah. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, now known as Iraq. Assyria was the historic enemy of Israel. In her book Gospel Medicine Barbara Brown Taylor writes about how “sending Jonah there was like sending a nobody from Tel Aviv to tell Saddam Hussein he was going to hell.” Jonah clearly had an understanding of what historically had happened to God’s messengers. And, he had no desire to be a part of any intervention in order to save the city of Ninevah.
This story touches us on such a deep human level, doesn’t it? Jonah fought God’s call every step of the way. I can picture him with his clenched teeth putting up posters around town directing people to the town square for a Wednesday night meeting. After the singing of a few hymns, he stepped to the pulpit and offered his words…all eight of them. “Yet forty days and Ninevah shall be overthrown.” Even our Episcopal friends would find that to be a short homily. He’d done what God had asked him, and he was “outta there.”
No one could have predicted the outcome, least of all Jonah. He did what God had called him to do, but he still clung to the belief that Ninevah would be destroyed. He could not have predicted that the king would take his words seriously and demand that a fast be instituted by every person and every animal. The king demanded that everyone was to wear sackcloth and ashes. Rather than having the pleasure of watching Ninevah go up in smoke, Jonah witnesses, the city responding to God by repenting of their actions. Jonah, like so many of us, wants to make the discernment as to who will receive God’s grace, and who won’t. Jonah cannot accept the fact that God’s picture of justice does not look like his picture. He learned what we all must learn which is God does not keep the kind of score cards that we tend to keep. Nothing about this story is under the category of “fair” –it is all designed to fit under the heading of “grace.”
As always, we’re invited into the story. American soldiers, many of whom do not want to be in Mosul, the modern-day Nineveh, are dealing with Iraqis who don’t want them there. No, they aren’t on a mission from God, but suspicions and animosities match the ancient story, don’t they? I confess that it is difficult for me to look across the political aisle that I deem “correct” and have compassion for those on the other side. It’s often difficult for many of us to hold compassion for those in our American Baptist family who have a different view regarding inclusion. And, on this Fathers’ day weekend, I celebrate those who will fully enjoy this day of honoring various men in our lives. But I suspect that there are also those within this congregation who stood before a card rack finding it difficult to find a card that they could authentically send…one that said enough, but not too much. The call to care for our enemies, the call to care for those with opposite viewpoints…the call to care for loved ones that we don’t love or perhaps love, but don’t like, is some of the most challenging work to which we are invited to be involved. Sometimes God’s invitation is to re-enter unresolved issues and open ourselves to God’s healing power around old wounds. Our mandate, like Jonah’s is to discern what the compelling task is that God has for us. Like Jonah, not all of us find it easy to say “yes.” Some of us have internal work to do to unload heavy emotional or disordered spiritual cargo. As individuals and as a community, we are taking our place in the long history of the Church as we listen for the nudging of the Spirit. Finding common ground is some of the hardest work we enter into because it demands opening ourselves to that which we would prefer not to be involved. It demands listening, compassion and caring.
- It demands believing in a God who loves unconditionally.
- It demands believing in a God who does not give up on us or on our enemies.
- It demands believing in a God who heals and forgives.
The sailors in our story forced Jonah to reflect on his life. They asked him questions designed to understand his God. May we be willing to go overboard and dive deep to find clarity regarding God’s invitation to us in our life for this time and for this season – both as individuals and as University Baptist. And, may we be willing to companion one another on the journey. Amen.