Date: June 19, 2016
Bible Text: Jonah 3:10–4:11 | Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
Jonah is a little book, 1,400 words, in Hebrew Scriptures but defies any one category. Perhaps thinking of this as a legend, or an enacted parable is closer to the writer’s craft. Most of all, it is satire…think divine comedy with a message for us today.
God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh, the largest city in Assyria, whose pagan sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty to preach “repent” or they “would be no more”. Without reply, Jonah hires a boat, to take him to Tarshish, the farthest spot on earth away from Nineveh.
Obviously, he will not do as God asks. While en route, the sea rages, threatening all lives on board. In a state of desperation, Jonah confessed he worshiped God, who was the creator of the seas and dry land and (oh by the way) he was also fleeing from his obligation to God.
Jonah is thrown overboard. Rather than let him drown, God appoints a big fish to swallow him. While lingering in the belly for three days, Jonah prays, since God alone can save him. Jonah’s prayers are answered and the fish vomits onto dry land.
Again, God’s prophetic word comes to Jonah to go to Nineveh and this time, he does. Despite only preaching to one-third of this great sinful city, Jonah is an immediate and raging success. All the Ninevites, from king to cow, put on sackcloth and they fast, repenting from their wicked ways. Jonah becomes the only prophet in Hebrew Scriptures to witness his own success. But, the story does not end there.
This is where our reading picks up. Listen for the climax as I read from the final verses of Jonah.
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When God saw what they did, how they (the Ninevites) turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.
But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
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Eternal God, from whom we come into this world and to whom we will return, we humble ourselves before you. Open our hearts and minds to hear your word in these ancient words. Through this story of struggle, may we feel your fierce claim and your love for all lives. Amen.
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When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, historians believe he painted the reluctant Jonah at a focal point and in a reclining position as his self-portrait. When we read Jonah in our recent Bible read along, many, including me, identified with Jonah. We seemed to know what it meant to run away from a task we think is either too hard or too far-fetched. (Sometime I will tell you about my month-long Jonah moment.)
Jonah’s storyteller created every opportunity for us to see a reflection of ourselves in Jonah and by doing so, when God confronts Jonah; God is questioning us.
As much as we may identify with being disobedient to God’s call at the beginning of the story, not many of us will welcome imagining ourselves as a petulant child, sulking, sitting alone on a hill, and wishing to die. Nor, God’s fierceness; “Is it right for you to be angry?” But, sometimes that is how we behave and need to be challenged.
Jonah was the most successful prophet ever. All of God’s creatures, men and women, cattle and sheep, even the king, within Nineveh changed their hearts and minds when they heard Jonah speak God’s word. And yet, Jonah flees from the city, to get a prime view on the hill to watch them burn because he thought that was what God planned to do to those sinning people.
Although Jonah had confessed throughout the story that God was a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” he did not think it was right for this sinful city to get such a large portion of God’s grace. Jonah wanted them to perish.
God calls him on it; “Is it right for you to be angry?
Jonah must know what Machiavelli would later write; it is better to be feared than loved. Teach those Ninevites and everyone else who is not part of the in-group, then they will follow the straight and narrow.
Jonah’s anger may come from thinking the Ninevites don’t deserve God’s love. Jonah knows their kind and even if they are acting repentant, they cannot be trusted. Even if God created them and even if Jonah knows God is “abounding in steadfast love,” Johah thought for God to pour out so much mercy to so many sinners, will create a morally lax society.
Or, Jonah simply thought it was not fair. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the older son fumed it was not fair for love and mercy to be showered upon his sinful younger brother.
Jonah is the quintessential human being, the classic model of the human species, for there is a flaw in his character, one that he cannot erase on his own. It is his desire to control his own destiny and to determine who should and should not be punished.
Or, Jonah could just be selfish. He sits atop a hill, all by himself. Jonah had disobeyed God so many times and received forgiveness. Just days ago God sent a big fish to save him from drowning, even though Jonah was blatantly running from God. Perhaps Jonah thought there simply was not enough mercy to go around.
We don’t know exactly why Jonah is angry. But, is it right for him to be angry, God wants to know.
Divine mercy is beyond our grasp, particularly when we do not try to offer human mercy to friends, neighbors, or family, let alone with strangers. This ancient story is retold time and again, throughout all monotheistic traditions, including Islam, to indict us when our actions do not conform to our professed belief; God is merciful and abounding in love. We don’t get to decide who receives God’s mercy and goodness, God does.
Shortly before his death in 1631, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, John Donne, wrote the following meditation:
The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author and is of one volume.
When we profess to live as followers of Christ, we are “ingrafted” as Donne described and connected, each to the other, through God. We just delighted in welcoming new life into the church universal, through the sacrament of baptism as we also lit a candle for each death this past week in Orlando, mourning senseless gun violence. Ingrafted into body, the beginnings and endings of these souls claim us and bind us together as well as all the days in-between them.
The sacrament of baptism was not a private affair between Anderson Jette and God, but required his family and the congregation to participate from a liturgy that has been handed down since the time of Christ.
Standing before God, everyone made a life-long commitment to support the child and family, to pray for them, and to speak words and live in a way that all children will come to know the love of God.
We have an eternal connection with everyone through baptism and we all receive God’s grace made known through Jesus. And, Jesus came for all people.
John Donne’s meditation continues:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. …and so secure yourself (myself) by making recourse to God, our only security.
It was and is customary for a church in England to ring the bells upon the news of someone’s death. It honors the one whose time on earth has ended and reminds us the same death that came for him will come for you and me at some time.
Whether we light candles or ring bells, much of our nation experienced a visceral response with those who died this week—either through a remembrance of Orlando or compassion with those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Very likely this tragedy renewed the grief and anger and fear felt from one of the other mass shootings we have survived. Or, any shooting regardless of the number of those who were wounded or died.
Just a year ago, we lit nine candles, commemorating the deaths at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston. It was such a tragedy, but more so that it occurred in a sanctuary, which by definition is to be a safe place.
Most of the victims in Orlando were gay, Latino, men of color, members of a local LGBTQ community that had long found refuge and safety at a gay bar, Pulse. But, for many, this was more than a nightclub. In a society in which sexual identity has been a means to exclude and condemn, many gays will tell you a bar or nightclub was the first place they could be honest and open, and who God created them to be. It was a place to feel loved, and accepted. Pulse nightclub, was for many, a sanctuary. Like the African Americans killed in Charleston, those killed in Orlando were in their unique sanctuary.
Tragically, Islam was again a victim in this shooting, maligned by the killer and his act is now fueling those who will use this to further discriminate against Muslims.
Some will say, it is not appropriate at Kenilworth Union, or from any pulpit, to speak about gun violence and gays. But without speaking honestly—free from fear and with love—we cannot begin to heal the pain in our homes, church or community.
Some will say it is not appropriate for us to speak of the common bond of faith we have with Islam. Yet, rising from the same Abrahamic foundation, we have much in common with Muslims.
This past week, over 200 Muslim scholars, clerics, and national leaders, crafted a statement in response to the Orlando tragedy, condemning the actions of the lone perpetrator. They begin with “We unequivocally say that such an act of hate-fueled violence has no place in any faith, including Islam.”
And continue more fully…
“We will not allow the extremists to define us, mold us in their benighted image, or sow the seeds of discord among us. We are one people, so let us all in good conscience and human solidarity reject this extremist narrative and assert our shared humanity and mutual respect for the sanctity of all human life.”
In grief, but not giving into fear, we are breaching established norms. Last Sunday, as lines of people, waiting to give blood, stretched for blocks in Orlando, several Chick-fil-a stores opened—defying the company ban against working on Sunday—to serve food, free of charge. You may recall in 2012, the son of this company’s founder set off a fury in the LGBTQ community—and others—for its stance against marriage equality. Employees would not condone such exclusion or hate.
Courage is spreading. In Washington DC, a group of Orthodox Jews, decided to move from their synagogue to a gay bar as an act of solidarity. Here are portions of the reflection from the rabbi:
I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African-Americans.
Approximately a dozen of us, wearing…yarmulkes, went down. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.
We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing…. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.
Everyone embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw. 
Today, in light of violence and the divisions we have created, when asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?” We can say “Yes,” it is right for us to be angry. It is Father’s Day. Every one of those who died has a father who grieves deeply. Some who died were fathers themselves, whose children will not have their presence as they grow up. Yes, God, we are angry and can imagine you, as our heavenly father, must also be angry and grieving and frustrated with all your children. By opening our hearts with such passion brings us closer to being at one with God and able to turn our lives and communities to live as God intends.
Yes, we are angry, so many divisions have erected between people, so many rules exist which do more to extinguish life than preserve it. So many are dying and we have not done anything to stop it.
Jonah got a lesson from in the power of divine mercy and abundant love when he saw Ninevites, the most stubborn and self-centered people, were able to change and love God. And God rejoiced in life.
But, rather than participate, Jonah chose to be alone, and when that was not enough, he may have realized preserving his self-righteousness was possible only by dying. But, death and loneliness is not what God wants.
God’s love is ferocious and will chase after us, even to the corners of the earth, or if we try to hide in the belly of the deep. God is relentless and will chase us down until we understand, love is stronger than hate. God’s love will bind together islands into one great land. Weapons divide whereas love is the only thing that will win.
Please pray with me. Our God, our help in ages past, use us to restore the hope for the future….Help us to show in our liveswhat we proclaim with our lips:
Good is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
hope is stronger than despair.
 R. W. L Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
John Donne, “Meditation 17”, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition Vol 1, M.H. Abrams, Gen Ed, (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1993) 1123.
 Daniel Burke, “Muslim leaders: ‘We will not allow the extremists to define us'”, CNN, June 16, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/14/living/orlando-muslims-statement/.
Hayley Peterson, “Chick-fil-A workers had a touching response to the deadly Orlando attack,” Yahoo Finance, June 17, 2016, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/chick-fil-workers-had-touching-161406882.html;_ylt=A0LEVvZhqGJXPSEApDwnnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTE0amprcWNiBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDRkZVSTJDMV8xBHNlYwNzYw–.
 Shmuel Herzfeld, “America at its best when it’s enduring its worst,”
Chicago Tribune, June 16, 2016, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-orlando-orthodox-jews-gays-mourn-perspec-0616-md-20160615-story.html.