Scripture reference: Book of Jonah, ch. 1-4
Jonah was fragile.
Some of you know this term, and of the concept of fragility. The picture, of course is that of a fragile plate or vase, that you don’t want to hand over to that toddler in your life, because it could easily break. When applied to a person, the concept is tongue and cheek. While the person is not really in any danger, they think they are. They perceive themselves as victims, even when the evidence suggests otherwise. They cry and complain that they are an oppressed victim and wounded martyrs, when the truth is quite the opposite.
Jonah was fragile.
He felt like he was absolutely oppressed and attacked by God, because God asked him to go and preach to the Ninevites. At some level, you can kind of understand why. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and if you remember, it was the Assyrian Empire that destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So, these were the worst of the bad guys in Jonah’s world. It would be one thing if Jonah felt oppressed and attacked by the Ninevites themselves. But that is not what happens. Jonah’s anger and perceived victim status comes because God wants him to share a story of grace to his mortal enemies. They were racially different. They were culturally different. They were religiously different than Jonah and his people. When God told him to leave the comfort of his surroundings and his home and go to the home of his mortal enemy, Jonah was afraid, resentful, and fragile. Not afraid as in “what if these people do something to hurt me?” but literally afraid that he might be used to help them. His fear was that his moral superiority was threatened. Not that he would actually lose anything, but that he might be asked to do something hard. That he might be asked to welcome someone, someone who he had already made up his mind was outside of the realm of God’s love.
Jonah was fragile.
Today, we ask what does it mean to welcome…at First Baptist? As Christians? In 2020? And beyond? And let me suggest that like Jonah, our failure to welcome today is so very often attached to the same idea of fragility. We have no concept of what it means for God to welcome someone who we have decided is outside of the realm of God’s love. While we don’t use that language, and might even say that “of course, God loves everyone!” But we put limits and conditions on that love for others, while we want unlimited and unconditional love for ourselves. And we are terrified that the door will be opened wider than we want it to be. Again, in the case of fragility is that it’s not as if we are literally afraid for our lives because of the “other.” People of color, or women, or the poor, or LGBTQ persons, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Trump supporters or Pelosi’s army or whomever. But we are terrified that God might allow them into “our heaven.” And that is the definition of fragility. We are so fragile, so terrified that we might have to share God’s blessings, that we will move heaven and earth to escape that possibility.
We will book passage on every boat that we can, crying “God, take me away from that reality. Tell me that those people aren’t coming with me. Tell me that I don’t have to share the blessings of heaven with anyone that I haven’t put on the guest list. Put me on that boat, where I can run off and hide with my Facebook friends that look like me and agree with me. Put me on that boat, where I can distract myself from the people sleeping on the street corners and the children sleeping in the back seats of cars. Put me on that boat to Tarshish, where we can talk in deeply intellectual and spiritual terms about the innocuous and unchallenging Bible that we have tamed and domesticated to fit our own culture. Put me on that boat, dear Lord, and grant me passage out of this hard and complex reality where I have to have hard conversations and uncomfortable moments with people who disagree me. Where I have to share the blessings of heaven. Put me on that boat, where I can fall asleep like Jonah did, and fade away to dreamland, where the peace of the Lord settles in and I can dream of Ninevites burning in the Hell that they deserve.”
But God will not let us slumber. God will not let us sleep. With a crash of thunder and a splash of waves over the side of the boat, the terrified and the hurting that surround us beckon. No, they scream in our ears to wake up and hear their cries. They are hurting and they are dying, and they need us to wake up and do something. They need us to share their pain. They need us to realize that we are part of the problem, and it is time to get our butts out of bed and do something about it. They scream out for answers. From the detention centers on the borders. From the streets of desperate violence. From small towns where the aquifer is drying up and the subsidies cannot come quickly enough. From tribal lands where drugs and alcohol seem the only escape for another generation that has been ignored and abused. “Get up, Get up, Get up,” they cry. “For we are dying, and whether or not you know it, you are dying, too.”
We wake with a start, and that’s when we know that we have slept too long. You know that feeling, when you should have been up, doing that other thing, but you wanted to hit snooze…once, twice, a dozen times. You know that feeling, when you have enjoyed that nap or that night’s sleep too long, and you can tell by the face of the person standing there trying to wake you up…that it is past time to get out of bed. Jonah was there, and he knew as soon as he woke up and heard the wind howling what he had to do: he knew that he had to leave the ship. He knew it was his fault that these people were suffering. He was chosen for such a time as this, and it meant something that on the surface felt a little heroic, but deep down he knew it was what he was supposed to do all along.
Jonah got out of the way.
In the same way, we who are sleeping in our trance of fragility know deep down that we are not really the victims here. Just like Jonah, you can kind of understand the victim mentality. The world looks different than it did when we were kids. And we grieve that in a lot of ways. But deep down, we have to know that a lot of us had it REALLY good when we were kids, and not everybody else did. And just because we have to share the sandbox now doesn’t mean that we are victims. And so, while it feels like a sacrifice and heroic act, we do what we were supposed to do in the first place: we get out of the way. We stop taking more than our share. We step aside so that others will be safe and cared for. We don’t insist on our rights and our liberty, when that insistence causes damage to the community. We wear a mask. We swallow our pride when we get passed over for a person of color for that job. We give up our insistence on unfettered access to guns, so that we can enact common sense rules and procedures to keep everyone safe. We allow others to speak words of protest, even if we don’t like the words they say. And “allow” isn’t the right word…we encourage, we ask, we advocate for those whose voices have been silenced to be able to speak. We make every effort to find and hear those voices. We get out of the way. Over the edge of the ship. Into the water, we go.
The reluctant prophet becomes the immediate answer to the prayers of everyone on that boat. As soon as those jaws of the giant fish snapped shut, the winds stopped and the peace ensued. If only one act of getting out of the way would have so much impact. If only, when we stop following our agenda, and our tradition, and our fragility, God would have space to bring peace and healing and hope to a host of those who are hurting. Oh, wait. It may not always be as immediate and obvious as it was with Jonah, but when we get out of God’s way, amazing things can happen.
When we get out of God’s way, then we can sit. Sit in the silence. Sit in the quiet. It doesn’t feel good in the quiet. It feels shameful. It feels cramped. It smells like the inside of a fish. But there is grace and there is gratitude in the silence. Once we get out of the way, there is space to breathe. To thank God like Jonah did. To listen. To hope. To pray. To confess. In the silence, we have new opportunity to let God work on the world out there, and let God work on the world in here. Now, Jonah did not become a new person inside of the belly of that fish. If you read the rest of the book, you know that Jonah still doesn’t quite get it. He doesn’t become a new man overnight. It just doesn’t work that way. He only begins to realize in part how he is part of the problem, and how he might become part of the solution. There are still old resentments in there. Still old racist attitudes. Still old yearnings that he and his people alone would receive the love of God. He didn’t leave that all behind him. That would take time, if it ever happened completely. Like Jonah, we too are asked to sit in the silence. To ask who we would leave out of the family of God….who are our Ninevites. Like Jonah, there is hope. Hope that if we get out of the way just enough…if we pray and confess, earnestly and expectantly…if we sit in that silence long enough, God can still use the prophets of this land.
It came in a rush. There was silence. There was darkness. There were fish guts. And then it was over. Cold water. Waves turning him over and over. A handful of sand, then enough to get a foothold, and enough to crash on the beach and lie until the dawn’s rays pierced through the dark.
As he lay there on that beach, Jonah faced a decision. One, he could try again to run away. Surely, wherever he was, Tarshish wasn’t that far of a walk. He could have chosen to be completely unaffected by this whole experience, and go back to life like normal. Two, he could have just laid there. Didn’t even bother to get up. Why try when standing up meant work and disappointment and disagreement and open doors that he wasn’t sure he was ready to open? He could have done either of those things. But he chose what was behind Door #3.
Jonah stood up.
He took his fish-slime-covered, imperfect, still ambiguous heart and mind and body and he marched into Nineveh and he told them about God’s love. There was a part of him that still wasn’t ready. But there was a part of him that was. And God took that second part and made hay. God took that part that was ready and turned the hearts and minds of an entire vast metropolis toward healing. God took that part that was ready and brought about national confession and national lament and national healing. God took that part that was ready and his prophetic voice—which may have been more of a prophetic whisper, maybe even a cynical prophetic “humph”—and God turned Jonah into a life-changing, king-converting, city-transforming preacher for that time and place. God took his little fragile self and turned him into the most effective missionary in the entire Old Testament, and the very thing that the Ninevites needed.
First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas, it is time for us to stand up. This is what it means to be church. This is what it means to welcome, radically, the Ninevites of our world. We don’t even have to have our hearts in the right place 100% percent of the time for God to do something with us. We don’t even have to know what to say, as much as be willing and listen for the leading of the Spirit. We don’t even have to have all the right answers. We just have to stand up:
- Stand up for those who are hurting, as we sign up to help in digital Family Promise this week, or bring by donations for the DARE center.
- Stand up for those who are lonely, as we check up on the people who live across the street that might be feeling a little vulnerable these days.
- Stand up for those that the world calls unlovable. Because if God can shower grace all over our mortal enemies, perhaps it isn’t up to us to be a bouncer at the door.
First Baptist, it is time to get our fish-slime-covered imperfection and get to work. It is time to shake off the shame and guilt and grief and anger and fragility, and march our butts into Nineveh. It is time to radically welcome those who are fundamentally different than us, even if we feel just a little fragile and afraid and anxious about it.
It is time to preach with our words and our lives that “God has room for you, too.” And it is time to believe it about ourselves. For only when we realize that we are not fragile, that we are fierce and powerful prophets of God, will we know we have a word of welcome to share with the world.