Rev. Diane K. Hooge
I cannot preach on the Jonah text without thinking about a Sunday evening in March 1983, when I sat listening to an Old Testament Professor from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He had travelled to Reedsport, Oregon, to preach the ordination sermon for Barbara Hineline. She was the first woman to be called to a solo pastoral position in the American Baptist Churches of Oregon. Like many of us, she has since crossed over into the United Church of Christ denomination.
At that time, I was the Lay Minister of Senior Adults at Emerald Baptist Church in Eugene. I had gone back to school in Gerontology at the University of Oregon, and had used that education to help establish a new senior adult program. I had been on the staff for five years, and I was very clear that I had no interest in ordained ministry.
It was during the preaching of that sermon on Jonah, when the professor talked about the meaning of the Hebrew words describing the depth of the ocean, and explaining the meaning of the three days in the belly of the fish that my mind went to the three previous years of my life. Our young son had been hospitalized and diagnosed with a tough disease, I had been involved in a serious accident on my morning jog, which resulted in two years of surgeries and rehabilitation, and my husband, Ken, was living in Salem because the bottom had fallen out of Eugene’s economy. It was our opinion that President Reagan’s trickledown theory was nothing but an illusion and Oregon was not in a recession but a depression. Our house had been on the market for a year. Our plan was to move to Salem where Ken was working and living during the week. I thoroughly identified with the Professor’s definition of Sheol. Like a drowning man in the farthest depths of the sea, Jonah was shut out from God’s presence. And, I had felt shut off from God’s presence.
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, mysterious, uncomfortable yet 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’s been years since I have preached on Jonah, however, there is a section of this story, an image that has always stayed with me. It comes from these words; “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 9 and 12. After one long sleepless night, I finally said “yes” to God.
We had three major sales to unload the cargo of our lives.
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 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 passive solar home that Ken had built. enable him to become aware, conscious and clear—in other words to wake up.
William Bridges in his book, Managing Transitions talks about unloading old baggage as part of transitions. We need to be prepared that sometimes unresolved past issues come up within a community during change. This is an opportunity to heal old wounds. It’s a time to look at how we might enhance our organizational structure. It’s often a time to shore up systems. It is also often a time when new leadership emerges. Our mandate, like the people of the text, is to discern what the compelling task is that God has for us.
I have great appreciation for Jonah’s resentment of God’s mandate. 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 towards 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 (to Ninevah) 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 an intervention in order to save the city of Ninevah.
This story has the capacity to touch us on an uncomfortable 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 called him to do, but he still clung to the belief that Ninevah should and 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. 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 difficult to hold compassion for those in the denomination who have different views regarding inclusion and don’t choose to be open and affirming. The call to care for our enemies is a tough one. It’s also hard to care for those with opposite viewpoints…the call to care for loved ones that we may struggle to love, but don’t like, is some of the most challenging work to which we are invited to be involved.
Our mandate, like Jonah’s, is to discern what the compelling task is that God has for us. There are many great tasks that have been the work of this church: environmental, marriage equality, caring for orphans in Haiti, non-violent training—and the list goes on. The gift of being a part of a denomination is sharing our justice issues with other United Church of Christ churches. We have the opportunity to make a collective difference. Like Jonah, not all of us find it easy to say “yes.” Some of us have internal work to do. Perhaps the invitation during this time of a new crossing is to be listening for the nudging of the Spirit. The challenge in the midst of grief and change is to be willing to open ourselves to God as we take time to listen for clarity as to how we are to be the church in this new season of the church’s life.
Every movement towards a new stage of the spiritual journey demands that we evaluate where we are. It means a discernment process. As I have been listening to the stories of members of this congregation, I am aware that this community has been a safe sanctuary for folks to try out new ways of being. For some of you, this is your first church…some of you have come from other faith communities because at this stage of your lives you felt compelled to make a change. People often explain to me how they have felt supported as they have taken on new roles or challenges. Jonah’s story invites us to name what might be holding us down. God’s calls invites to be freed up. We’re invited into the waters of God’s river. To follow means discerning the unique invitation for each person. The miraculous part is the connection with God that enables a sense of flow or a sense of unity with God. That’s what the reign of God is all about…integrity on the journey that leads to authentic action, peace and freedom. The gift of this church is having companions on the journey. Amen.