| Jonah 3
|Sun, January 23, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Reluctant Testimony.” That is what I said to Sue in the office as I scrambled to leave for Atlanta two weeks ago. “The sermon title on the 23rd will be ‘Reluctant Testimony”. You see, I had looked ahead at the lectionary readings for this
morning and seen that Jonah would make his lone appearance in the three year lectionary cycle. Besides, I was leaving to participate in a course about the history, theory and practice of women preachers in America and I hunched that they probably had some things in common with Jonah. He was called to testify but didn’t want to. Women have long been called to testify and haven’t been allowed to. “Reluctant Testimony” seemed like a nice ‘catch all’ title for
whatever would take over the intervening two weeks. I did not have the slightest inkling just how appropriate it would be.
Things looked very promising at first. On the plane flights to Toronto and then on to Atlanta I had time to try to catch up on some of my reading for the course. Lo and behold, to my surprise and delight I found an almost eery number of
references to none other than Jonah in the lives of the many untold stories of women who have preached on this continent over the past three and a half centuries. Over and over again these women would point to Jonah and say “It’s like that with me. I have been trying to avoid testifying … I know it’s not my place to preach. For one thing, I don’t have a theological education. But then neither did Jonah. Like him, I have been running from the call of God
that keeps coming to me so clearly. Now, no matter what becomes of it, I simply have to tell what I have seen and heard”.
Well, after the first week of class I had this sermon pretty much in the bag. In fact, I had actually written two-thirds of it out. It was going to be a sermon about Jonah … about the Jonah’s who are here in our midst … untrained, perhaps … maybe even now in the belly of the whale, determined that the voice of God is really not calling them to speak. It was a sermon that imagined opening up space within our life for more testimony about how the God we meet in
scripture is at work in our lives. It is the kind of thing that a number of you are now working on right now, in preparation for our Lenten Devotional Book. Derek tracked me down while I was in Atlanta to ask me for my
contribution, just as he asked thirty-nine of you for yours. Like you, I received from him a text in scripture and was asked to interpret it for our life together … in other words, to testify. It is this kind of shared conversation that bridges scripture and our lives that the study of these women preachers evoked in our class conversation. It reminded me of the words I hear from your lips when you offer yourselves as worship elders and, in speaking on our behalf to God, testify to your own understanding of the faith. The sermon was going to be all about making space for the Jonah’s in our midst to testify.
But then two things happened that made me through that nearly completed sermon in the trash. First, I remembered what you often tell me about testimony. You say to me that its one thing for me, a preacher, to talk about the faith here, in a church. It is quite another thing for you to testify to your faith with colleagues, co-workers, neighbours and even – maybe especially - family members. You tell me that testifying about what the God you seek to trust and to
serve is risky, threatening, scary. And it reminded me of the women that we were studying. Women whose testimony often resulted in their being silenced, banished, excommunicated, beaten. Telling the truth … telling their
truth … was risky business. It made me wonder just how risky a sermon that said “I’ll get out of the way so that you can be Jonah” really was. It stopped me short … and made me ask how this was risky testimony for me. Because testimony is always serious business. Telling the truth, so help me God, is a crucial matter. Bearing false witness is a serious crime … in court and in church.
And there was something else that caused me to through that sermon draft away. It was Nineveh. Nineveh. I couldn’t figure out where Nineveh is. Never mind if I’m Jonah or some of you are Jonah … who are the Ninevites who desperately need God’s Word? Now, sitting as I was in Atlanta, the home of CNN and Coca-Cola World, it was awfully tempting to imagine that Nineveh was centred there. That is, after all, precisely what Aimee Semple McPherson heard. Remember her? That powerful and controversial woman preacher and evangelist from Canada. Yes, from Canada, eh. Sure enough, Aimee said that her call from God was just like the one that Jonah received. And she didn’t hesitate to pinpoint Nineveh. She went right to the heart of the good old US of A and constructed the largest place of worship in the world at the time. On January 1, 1923 she opened the Angelus Temple in the heart of
downtown Los Angeles … Nineveh. But then, in Atlanta, a friend shares an Order of Service from a local Presbyterian Church and I am interested to see the list of missionaries that they are supporting and praying for: in Brazil, China,
Malaysia, Calgary … Calgary? I guess Nineveh is always somewhere else! Travel to Rudesheim, Germany and you can see what I mean. There, in the parish church, is a stained glass window that portrays Jonah looking at the skyline of the great city of Nineveh. It is, in fact, the skyline of the city of Mainz … just down the road. Yes, Nineveh is always somewhere else … and the Ninevites are always somebody else. Or so I thought.
One day in class we thought that we would have a little fun. The fourteen of us – twelve women and two men – had some pretty intense and challenging conversations. So, for a lark, we decided that the two men would read some lines
that were written in the 1920’s, by a minister describing the proper place of women in the church and the home. Imagine the most absurdly stereotypical images of women as the servants of their husbands … and then some. It was going to be a little bit of comic relief … until I began to read. You see, within a sentence or two I realized that this man had been perfectly serious when he equated a wife’s place with her husband as that of a prisoner with her jailer. All of
a sudden it wasn’t nearly so funny. Because this man was not the only man to ever say these things … and he wasn’t only saying them to his wife … he was saying them to my mother … and my wife … and my daughters. I suppose that I could have proudly thought: “Thank heavens I am not like this man”. But instead I thought: “It is because of this man … and men like him in generation after generation that I, in part, am able to have the position and the status and the authority that is granted to me.”
Later, as I sat at my desk, trying to determine the location of Nineveh, a voice said to me: “You are a citizen of
Nineveh. You are a Ninevite. Go home to Nineveh … and call your people to turn around, to change their minds and
hearts. Go and preach repentance.” It hit me like a bolt of lightening. I was exhilarated, stunned and scared all at the same time. And I said: “You’ve got to be kidding. Me, go to University Hill United Church … to a congregation of respectable, university educated, good, kind-hearted people … and preach repentance? That’s the kind of altar call that they deliver up every Sunday at all of those Apostolic True Bible Churches that line the back roads of Georgia. It’s not the kind of thing that will preach where I come from. Besides, how can I possibly be both Jonah and a Ninevite at one and the same time?”
And then I ran. I fled the voice and escaped into the bowels of the library. I dived into the commentaries on Jonah, hoping against hope to escape the call of the voice that would not let me alone. Turning the pages I heard the words of
an ancient rabbi who said that: “Jonah entered the mouth of the whale the same way that a person enters the synagogue on the Sabbath”. I couldn’t help but think of myself … getting off of the plane in Atlanta and walking into another gift of a two week long Sabbath … the gift that you give me when I leave you for my studies. It is a Sabbath for me. Time to study, to rest, to enjoy conversation with friends and colleagues, to worship and to pray. Yes. But also a time when I find myself struggling with God … and with what God is calling me to say and to be. Suddenly I
realized that I was in the belly of the whale … and that it wasn’t likely to spit me up onto dry land until I said ‘yes’ to God.
And, if that wasn’t enough, my worst suspicions were confirmed when I turned another page and read of an old baroque church in Poland … a church with a rather unique pulpit. You see, whenever a preacher steps into this pulpit
they step right into the open mouth of the whale … with the teeth above and below the head of the preacher … and the tale of the whale wrapped around the pillar behind. In this church Jonah does not just show up on the scene once in
every three years … he preaches repentance to the Ninevites every Sunday … Jesus proclaims the good news of repentance and the kingdom of God to the disciples in every sermon.
It was no use. The persistent voice would not be silent. Repentance it would be. “But”, I asked the voice, “help me know how this is not bad news. My people don’t need more bad news. They need good news.” And the voice said to me: “Is it good news that men must forever bear the shame and the pain of the evil and the violence that has been done in their name? Is that good news? Is it good news that your church finds itself inextricably caught up in your nation’s shameful history with my First Peoples in the land? Is that good news? Is it good news that to live in the Western World is to be trapped in a way of life that cannot satisfy its desires … and that takes bread out of the hands of the poor? Is that good news?”
“No”, I said, “that is the bad news … the bad news that never seems to go away. But what, then, is the good news?” And the voice said: “That it is not the end of the story … it is not the end of the story.” The end of the story … what is the end of the story? So I looked. I looked at the end of the story of Jonah. It is not hard to find in such a short book - all forty-eight verses in total. And there, in the last verse I found God asking an unanswered question: “And should I not be concerned with 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?” The story ends with an open question. Not unlike the open question posed by the king of Nineveh when he proclaims a fast and joins his people in
repentance: “Who knows?”, he said, “Who knows? God may relent and have a change of mind; God may turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” It all sounds so risky, so open-ended … as if the question of God’s mercy and compassion is still up in the air.
So I said to the voice: “But that’s it … we do know. We know the answer to the question. We live after Easter, not before. We stand under an empty cross. We have seen and heard the power and grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.” But the voice replied: “Remember the Pharisees who came seeking signs … proof … evidence … solid
certainties. Jesus could only point to one sign … the sign of Jonah (Matthew 16:4). Jonah was enough for the Ninevites, said Jesus. Jonah is enough for you.” And I realized that we, too, do not know for certain the answer to the open question of God’s mercy. Oh, yes, we have crosses and fonts and tables. But these are all signs … symbols … answers of faith … forged in the risky testimony of lives gambled on God’s surprising compassion. The Ninevites
risked it all on repentance … without knowing whether or not it was the way to life. So did the disciples that day at the shore … when they dropped everything to follow. They did not have anymore proof than we do. Like them we
hear the call to repent … to turn … and to follow … and must decide if we are prepared to make the break, to take the leap, to risk it all with the testimony of changed lives.
“But surely not this week”, I said to the voice. “Surely I cannot call for a fast … for repentance this week. Why not Ash Wednesday … then they’ll be expecting it. Or how about when we renew Baptismal Vows during Lent. We can
prepare everyone … and do it all in good time. Why we could even wait until Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – to join with Jews around the world in reading Jonah and following the faithful lead of the Ninevites by obeying God. Besides, back home they’ll think I’ve become some sort of an evangelist in the South.”
The voice said: “I know. You have. There is no time. It is almost too late. You cannot imagine the burdens of guilt and the memories of hurt being carried among my people. They are waiting … waiting to stop … and to turn away from the violence of their hands and of their mouths and of their minds.”
“But I don’t even know what I am asking of them. What does a fast look like for us? Do we stop eating … or do we stop craving? Do we stop drinking … or do we stop wanting? And what about the sackcloth … and the ashes? What does repentance look like now? Besides, how can I have an altar call when we don’t have an altar?” And the voice answered: “Trust me … and trust the people. Jonah did not tell the people what to do. He only warned them that the time had come. Those who are waiting to hear that it is not too late, that their story is not over will know … they will find the way to fast and to cry out and to have a change of heart.”
“Stand at the Table”, said the voice, “the Table of Mercy. Offer yourself as a witness … as one who intends your own change of heart and let them decide. They can figure it out, trust them.” “All one hundred and twenty of them?” I
asked. “Jonah preached one sermon … and one hundred and twenty-thousand turned as a result. Don’t you trust me? Don’t you believe my Word?”
You see, I didn’t have the slightest inkling of just how appropriate the sermon title would be. But I am telling you the truth. I am prepared to bet my life on this: that the way to life is to stop what we have been doing to one another … to
fast from our old ways … and to turn to the ways of God. The borders of God’s Kingdom, you see, are close at hand … just back there, over your shoulder … within sight of a turn in the direction of your life. And when you reach that
border … there is only one passport that you need to if you wish to cross … that you want in.