Inclusivity Saves the Day!

Inspired by Jonah

I love storms, big rolling thunderstorms with lightning and all. I sure miss those. Don’t get me wrong, I love California, it’s where my deepest roots are, but after living in Pennsylvania for 18 years, I have roots there as well that will probably never die. And one of the things I miss about Pennsylvania is those huge storms that we’d get there. My girls and I would sit on the porch and watch them until the lightning got so close that even we’d get scared! I don’t know why we love storms so much. Maybe it’s the power of a storm, the controlled chaos of a storm, or maybe it’s the providence of a storm, bringing rain to the earth and thereby life to the earth. Whatever it is, when I hear the word storm, it immediately has a positive connotation to it. It brings the warm fuzzies to my heart right away, especially now after a long dry California summer.

Of course, there are many kinds of storms, aren’t there! Some of the not so positive variety. First, there are the literal storms that bring destruction and death: hurricanes, tornados, monsoons, hail, heavy rain, wind, lightning, blizzards. All of which can bring floods, fire, and like I said, destruction and death. And then there are other kinds of storms. Storms of the less literal kind. Storms in your life that can bring chaos, fear, panic, sadness, loss, as well as destruction and death too. These storms can be just as overwhelming as the literal kind, I’d say even more so. And right now, many of us are feeling like we have multiple storms coming from multiple directions! The pandemic storm is coming at us from the east. The election storm is coming at us from the west. The economic crisis is coming at us from the north. And those are just the storms coming if you’re lucky! But if you’re from a disenfranchised group there’s a whole host of other storms that some have to deal with. If you’re from the LGBTQ+ community, you have a homophobic storm coming at ya. If you’re a person of color, you have a racist storm coming at ya. If you’re a woman, you have a sexist storm coming at ya! So many storms for us to navigate through! It’s easy to see how we can relate to the sailors from our story for today as we cry out, “What the hell, God? What do we gotta do to get out of these storms!”

So, with all that unpleasantness in mind, let’s jump into this story of Jonah. Probably one of the most widely known parables of the Hebrew scriptures, even the non-religious know of the story of the man that got swallowed by a big fish and survived, or whale, depending on how you first heard it. Before we jump in though, let’s catch ourselves up real quick like. Last week we read the story of the beginning of the prophet Elijah’s ministry in the northern kingdom of Israel. And with this story of Jonah, not only are we still in the northern kingdom, but we are now fully entrenched in the time of the prophets, and will remain here through Advent until we get to our Gospel readings for the year which will be from Luke. The prophets play all kinds of roles as God’s people stumble their way through their faith journey with God. Their prophets will challenge them, judge them, warn them, as well as encourage them, and give them hope that not even they understood fully. To be a prophet in that day is not as different as our ministry is today as we’d think, but that’s for another sermon.

The thing to keep in mind about the story of Jonah is that the story is not really about Jonah, it’s about God. This tiny little four-chapter book is really a commentary on who God is, especially in light of the fact that God’s people were realizing that they didn’t really like who they had become. A journey we’ve all taken, right! So, the book starts out with God asking Jonah to go to Nineveh and basically warn them that God’s judgment was coming due to their bad behavior. Now, right off the bat, the original readers of this story knew that something was off, something was different, if not altogether wrong. Because, you see, Nineveh is not in Israel, it’s not even in the southern kingdom of Judah. Nineveh is in Assyria! In fact, it’s the capital city of one of Israel’s vilest enemies! If this was a Star Wars story they would be the Empire! If this was a Star Trek story they would be the Borg! If this was a Lord of the Rings story they would be Mordor! Wo, I am a nerd, but you get my meaning, right? The Assyrians were the ones who first conquered Israel and began their long captivity! So, why in the world would God send Jonah to warn these vile Assyrians about anything? We don’t find that out until the end so let’s keep moving.

So, what does Jonah do? The exact opposite of what God just said of course! Jonah tries to escape God’s reach by booking passage on a ship going in the opposite direction as Nineveh. Why? Again, the author doesn’t reveal that until the end, so we just gotta keep moving. A storm to end all storms hits the ship, and the sailors, desperate to save their lives, throw Jonah overboard, which by the way, was Jonah’s idea, which speaks to just how disconnected Jonah was. I’m not sure if he was suicidal, if he wanted to be a martyr and sacrifice himself for these strangers, or if he was suffering from depression, who knows. Any way you slice it, Jonah seems to be in a very bad place. Disconnected from life itself. Which makes sense because he’s trying to disconnect himself from God. Not only is he in the midst of the worst storm of his life, and I’m not talking about the literal storm here, but he’s trying to go through that alone. A recipe for disaster that any one of us could have told him. Poor Jonah. My heart goes out to him but we can’t stop there because there’s something even bigger at work here than Jonah.

The sailors throw him overboard and instead of God just letting Jonah die for his disobedience, God saves him. A big fish swallows him and keeps him in the tender care of her belly until God tells her to vomit him out onto the beach. Jonah probably thinks this whole debacle is over with and that now he can just go back home and resume whatever it is an unemployed prophet does because anything is better than that Nineveh plan of God’s was! Unfortunately for Jonah, while the seawater is still dripping from his beard, God says, “Actually, I still need you to go to Nineveh and do what I asked you to do.” I can just see him roll his eyes like a rebellious teenager who thought he got the best of mom but didn’t! So, off Jonah goes to Nineveh, realizing that trying to get out of this is futile, and does what God originally asked him to do, warn the Assyrians of God’s impending judgment. Their response? They make a complete 180 and commit themselves to ending their evil ways! God’s response? God seems pleased with their change of heart, changes God’s mind, and God takes that finger off the doom button!

This is when we finally figure out what all this is about! The final chapter opens by stating how furious Jonah is with God and this whole Nineveh business! At first, he doesn’t believe it and goes outside the city with a bucket of popcorn for a nice view of their destruction! But it never comes! Jonah’s furious! Why? Because those evil Assyrians had it coming to them! If anyone deserved God’s judgment, it was them! This was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place! Because he knew how compassionate, forgiving, and loving God could be! And he didn’t want to risk the possibility that God would forgive those vile people of Nineveh! God sets him straight with an analogy of a shade tree but basically tells him, “I’m God, and as God, I can do whatever I want to do, can forgive whoever I want to forgive, can pity whoever I want to pity! Period!” And that’s just what God did.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear any more from Jonah. We don’t get to find out if he has a change of heart and agrees with God’s love and forgiveness. My guess? He doesn’t. Similar to the parable of the Rich Young Ruler that Jesus taught, I’m imagining that he walked away, head down, in utter disbelief. Because, remember, this story is not about Jonah, it’s about something bigger. Jonah represented who God’s people had become, a narrow-minded, exclusive, judgmental, xenophobic, people who had lost touch with whose they were and what their purpose was. And so, this story in particular comes as a huge slap in the face to all that they had become, a people who thought that God’s love was exclusively theirs, and that exclusivity becomes their downfall.

Now, here’s where it gets real interesting! The outsiders in this tale, are just the opposite! The sailors and the Assyrian people of Nineveh, are the most inclusive people you’d ever meet! Think about it, on that ship, those sailors didn’t care that Jonah came from a different land or had a different God. They were completely open to the possibility that Jonah’s God could get them out of their predicament, even though their own gods could not. They even prayed to Jonah’s God! And their inclusiveness is what saved them. Likewise, the people of Nineveh could have thrown Jonah and his weird God out on the streets, or worse, they could have strung him up by his neck outside the city walls. After all, they were the villainous Assyrians, right? But that’s not what they do. In fact, they turn out to be even more inclusive than those sailors! Jonah preaches to them about his own God and the destruction that could befall them due to their bad behavior, and they listen! More than that, they obey! And just like those sailors, their inclusiveness is what saves them. Had they been unwilling to even listen to an outsider and his God, the story would have turned out quite different.

Again, my heart goes out to Jonah, especially because I was once like him. I didn’t understand how God could love certain people. I didn’t understand how God could look past certain behaviors. I didn’t understand how God could love people that couldn’t love. I just didn’t understand God. I eventually got there but not without a fight and a whole lot of kicking and screaming. But the story of Jonah doesn’t point to us, just like it doesn’t point to Jonah, it points us to a God whose love is farther reaching than we could imagine, or sometimes even want; it points to a God whose forgiveness is so powerful, it can make the most faithful person jealous; it points to a God whose inclusivity can boggle the mind; it points to a God that we are called to share with others, whether we want to or not. Why? Because there are many people caught in many storms out there. And like Jonah, even when those storms come to us, our call remains the same, maybe even more so because we know what it’s like to be caught in a storm, and thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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