January 14, 2018: The Shortest and Worst Sermon Ever by Rev. Beth Hayward (Jonah 3:1-10)

By the time this sermon is over I hope to have convinced you that the prophet Jonah, is the source of the shortest and worst sermon ever, not me. I will to do my part by going on quite a while! We’ll get to Jonah’s sermon shortly but before that, this story is so fun it’s worth starting at the beginning. Jonah, all four short chapters of this biblical book are so much fun. It is humorous and exaggerated, over the top and filled with irony. I once heard it said that Jonah being swallowed by the whale is the most believable part of the entire tale. The fact that a city of one hundred twenty thousand people all changed their ways and reoriented their lives, that’s the part that makes us skeptical. But I’m getting ahead of my self.

“God came to Jonah a second time.” That’s because the first time God came to Jonah and said: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me,” Jonah didn’t listen. In fact, the first time God called, he hopped a boat for Tarshish. If your Biblical geography is as rusty as mine let me tell you it’s like catching a boat to Hawaii when you were only asked to go to Hope, sure the weather is better in Hawaii but honestly.

We can scoff at this reluctant prophet but isn’t there just a bit of truth in that urge to run the other way when faced with a task that pushes us beyond our comfort zone. Isn’t it true that we’d put a boatload of effort into avoiding a calling that requires more of us that we feel willing to offer? Jonah wanted nothing to do with the great city of Nineveh, a city of people we’re told who don’t know their right hands from their left. No Hebrew in his right mind would bother with that rotten bunch. Everyone knew that Nineveh was a hole of a country. They were a write off, evil to the core or at the very least so different that it wasn’t even worth paying them any attention.

Anyway, Jonah knew like everyone else that the God of Israel had no interest in this archenemy. Who can blame him for catching a boat in the other direction? Surely he had heard God all wrong.

While on the boat a great wind blows up and the sailors determine that it’s Jonah’s God who is the source of the deadly storm, so they throw him overboard where he is famously swallowed up in the belly of a big fish. After three days seeing no other options he decides to pray, to the same God he just about died running away from, and he’s spared from certain death as he’s unceremoniously spewed back up on dry land. This is where we join the story today when God comes to Jonah a second time.

You get the impression in these epic biblical tales that God is standing on a mountaintop making declarations, shouting out with a megaphone “Hey Jonah – Let me tell you what to do.” I don’t know about you but the calls I receive from the divine happen much closer to the heart, more like a nudge coming from within, like a possibility that arises again and again, a whisper that you can easily ignore, until you can’t. In biblical times people held a worldview that attributed everything from weather events to physical ailments to the hand of God. God would intervene in supernatural ways controlling at God’s will.

With our scientific knowledge it is more helpful for us to imagine God being at work within creation rather than as a force separate from all. Some theologians, like Richard Kearney, suggest that God should be thought of as possibility rather than an essence or being. The possibility of God, Kearny insists, relies on our response, our yes to the divine impulse at the heart of the universe, at the heart of our being. In other words we can best see evidence of God’s presence in the moments when we finally say yes.

Don’t think for a minute that if we place the possibility of God in our hearts rather than on a mountaintop as a force that intervenes unilaterally in the world, that God has stopped speaking. I heard the voice of God this past week when my back gave out for 36 hours and I found myself limping around the house in pain. It sure felt like a divine megaphone moment – take care of your body, take time for yourself, you are not superhuman, you can only help others if you start with yourself.

Or maybe you’ve heard the divine in a thought that rises to consciousness again and again in spite of your efforts to keep pushing it down, or as a niggling in the pit of your stomach that you can’t seem to shake.

God came to Jonah a second time because we’re not so good at hearing the first time. We humans are adept at running the other way, because the call of the Holy more often than not, leads us to roads that look challenging to navigate.

Jesus was once asked for a sign, a miracle to prove who he was, to display his power and he said to the crowd gathered that the only sign he had to offer was Jonah. No miraculous healings, no water into wine, just the story of a man who ran the other way and spent three days in the belly of a fish. We are dazzled by miracles, by the infomercials that promise the world but Jesus says the only sign you need is a reluctant prophet who went to the depths for three days only to be spewed up and met again by the call of the divine, never giving up on this reluctant prophet.

The only sign you need is Jonah. Father Richard Rohr insists that it is the belly of the whale moments that Jesus was referring to, that we must learn to go to the depths, to sit in the places where there is no light, to make room for our doubts and our questions and our uncertainties. The questions that arise from that place, the questions that surface from the depths are far more helpful to our spiritual journey than the answers we offer on the surface. On a journey of faith we are much better served by the questions than the answers.

Our life experience can most certainly bring us to the depths, to the belly of the whale. But you don’t have to have a sore back or a bleak diagnosis for spiritual transformation. This is what spiritual practices are for. Practicing silence, contemplation, mediation and so much more, practicing sitting in the silence trains us to listen for that holy calling; teaches us to feel the nuance of the divine a bit more quickly, a bit more deeply.

When God tried to speak to me this week I decided to stay home from work, not because I had any intention of resting and healing but because I didn’t want anyone to see me walking with a limp. It’s like the pictures we post on social media, and the perfect mothers whose lives I read about on blogs, there is a high need in this world to appear as though you have it all together. A faith tradition that says it’s actually in the practice of being vulnerable and open, it’s being present to the broken bits and fragments that we meet our God…that is as radical today as it was 2800 years ago.

It’s a pattern, a road towards enlightenment that Father Richard Rohr suggests is “mirrored in other traditions as well. Native religions speak of winter and summer; mystical authors speak of darkness and light; Eastern religions speak of yin and yang or the Tao. Christians call it the paschal mystery, but we are all pointing to the same necessity of both decent and ascent, and usually in that order.” It is from practicing being in the depths that we find our way to Nineveh, to the last place on earth we would choose to go and to precisely the place we must go to become the kin-dom of God.

God comes to Jonah a second time, and even after going to the depths Jonah still doesn’t seem convinced. But he heads off to Nineveh and this is where we get to the shortest and worst sermon ever. I don’t know if he just wasn’t a good public speaker, if he just needed some Toastmasters or if he simply couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this divine plan but when he finally arrives all he has to say is: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Eight words, five if you’re speaking in Hebrew, and not an ounce of hope or poetic nuance.  Yet those five words are enough for the whole city to change its ways and for the king to declare “Who knows God may change his mind.”

I wonder if it’s not so much God changing God’s mind but what happens when we finally open to the divine persuasion for love and inclusion that marks the shift for the Ninevites and us. When we have spent time in the belly of the big fish, descended into our physical or spiritual rock bottom and been spewed up, no fight left, is it perhaps through all of the cracked bits of the broken veneer we like to present to the world that the Holy seeps in and works with us to create new possibilities beyond what we can dream on our own?

Who knows? It is the question we come to when the old way of seeing things or doing things no longer works, when we can finally see the new thing God is calling us toward and don’t yet know how to proceed.

Who knows?  It is the place we stand where the divine is calling to us to embrace a different worldview. It always means letting go of how we thought things were, loosening our grip on a worldview that no longer fits. On the horizon of who knows is a terrifying place to stand. It’s terrifying because we tend to find comfort in the familiar; embracing real change is terribly difficult work.

No wonder it’s the worst sermon ever, a faith tradition that leads us to who knows what, who would ever choose such a path. And yet we need who knows people more than ever today, we need people who have not only spent days in the deep and frightening belly of the whale but we need people who don’t shy away from who knows, people who say, I don’t know the way forward but I do know that the old way isn’t working. We need people who have done enough spiritual practice and work to be able to proclaim boldly that no one’s home should be called a hole of any kind, unless of course you are a Hobbit.

We are being told from all directions that we live in desperate times, that humanity it beyond hope. This is precisely the world that Jesus comes to again and again, saying learn to sit in the belly of a whale, get spit up, dry yourself off and head off to Nineveh. Who knows maybe even the worst sermon ever is good enough to send you on your way to the places you and callings you never thought possible. Who knows… Amen