Old Jonah…I’m not saying he was stuck in his ways…but old Jonah was stuck in his ways…his old biases…his old understandings of how God functioned in the world.
There he was, minding his own business, when he felt the familiar stirring. He felt God leading him to preach to people who needed to hear of God’s love for them, usually, it was to people of his own faith who had, as we used to say back home, back-slidden.
But this time, God called Jonah to preach to Ninevites–foreigners. God wanted to redeem the Ninevites, who, in Jonah’s mind, were “less than.” God called Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to go. So, he didn’t.
You remember the story. Two ships departing–one to Nineveh, one to anywhere else. Jonah took the one headed anywhere else. Not far from shore a storm blew in. A bad one. The crew prayed to their gods to save them. They cast lots. The lot fell on Jonah. He confessed his sin. The crew hesitated throwing Jonah overboard, but in the end he told them to do it. As soon as he slipped into the sea, the storm subsided.
Then, you remember, Jonah got swallowed by a big fish. After three days of sloshing around the entrails of the fish, Jonah repented, at which point, the fish spit him out.
Great story of redemption, isn’t it? Jonah resisted the new thing God was calling him to do, he got swallowed by a fish, he repented, got regurgitated, then redeemed. Yay!
This time, Jonah catches the ship to Nineveh. He walks through the city preaching repentance to the Ninevites. And guess what? The Ninevites repent! And we’re talking full- bore repentance–sackcloth, ashes…the whole 9 yards. God accepts the Ninetives’ repentance and relents, “by not inflicting on them the disaster that threatened them.”
So…Jonah repents and gets redeemed. The Ninevites repent and get redeemed. Two happy stories of redemption. Hurray!
But, the story continues. “But Jonah,” we’re told, “grew indignant and fell into a rage.” In his grumpiness, he tells God, “See? When I was back in my home country, this is exactly what I said would happen. That’s why I fled: I know you’re a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting from violence. Now, Yahweh, please take my life! I’d rather be dead than keep on living!”
I’m not saying Jonah was stuck in his ways…but Jonah was stuck in his ways. Maybe entombed in his ways. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew that if he did, God would–as God is wont to do–show up in that God-forsaken place. Old Jonah didn’t want to see God in a place he’d never thought of God being before. Jonah only wanted to see God where he’d always seen God…In people who looked like him and prayed like him and worshiped like him…he only wanted to see God where he’d always seen God–in his home country, where he was comfortable. And felt safe. Jonah did NOT want to find God in Nineveh.
I wonder if God is calling us to Nineveh…a place we’ve never been before…a place we’ve never thought about God being before…a place, quite frankly, in which we’ve never WANTED to look for God. I wonder if we’ve felt God calling us to a new place, but in our desire to stay in our “home country”–where we feel comfortable and safe–we’ve headed in the opposite direction.
I wonder if we–both First Congregational AND the church universal–are at this moment, sloshing around the entrails in the belly of the whale.
When I was ordained near the turn of the century, I was alarmed to hear some religious leaders say the church (big C) was dying. The church had been in decline for decades. That decline was quickening. As someone just starting out as a pastor, I worried…both about the church and about my job prospects. Once I got over my worry, I got hopeful. In many ways the church has gotten so comfortable as an institution, so, like Jonah, set–maybe even entombed–in its ways, the church’s relevance is fading. I agree with What Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote at the time: “Christianity must change or die.”
Enter the pandemic. The message of the pandemic has been this: “Church, you must change your ways–you’ve got to rethink worship, fellowship, pastoral care, justice work, benevolence work…you’ve got to rethink everything. If you don’t, you–LITERALLY–will die.”
In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, religious editor Phyllis Tickle suggested that every 500 years the Church (big C) undergoes a major shift. 500 years after Jesus, it was the changes brought by Gregory the Great. 500 years after that, it was the Great Schism in the church between East and West. 500 years after that–which was 500 years ago–it was the Great Reformation, when Protestantism was born.
As we’ve tried to reinvent how we do church this year, I’m starting to think Phyllis Tickle was right. I do think the church (big c) and individual churches are in a period of profound transition. We’re changing now because we have to change; we have no choice. If we at FCUCC hadn’t made changes in response to the pandemic, if we had said in March, “We’ll just pause and wait until we can get back to church;” if we hadn’t learned how to youtube and Zoom; if we hadn’t been intentional about staying in touch with each other and getting creative about how to do it… If we hadn’t been intentional and creative about this year, I’m not sure we’d even still be here now. The fact that we are here and–in my estimation–thriving, is a tribute to our community’s willingness to rethink nearly every aspect of how we do church.
We’ve done good work as a community adapting to the pandemic. I have the sense, though, that even as vaccines are getting in people’s arms, even as we’re imagining returning to the way things used to be…well, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to go back to the way things used to be. Even when we are back to worshiping in our sanctuary, it will be different. We will have had months–perhaps years–of different kinds of worship experiences. We will have people who have joined our community who’ve never stepped foot in our church building.
The Great Reformation was fueled by the invention of the printing press. Before the printing press, illiteracy was the norm. People had to depend on their religious leaders to interpret Scripture for them. Once reading materials–especially the Bible–could be mass produced, people could read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves. It was revolutionary.
As we’ve moved so many of our ways of doing church to online platforms in the last year, I’m beginning to wonder if the internet is serving a similar role to the printing press. Our understanding of community has exploded this year. Pam and Penny regularly tune in to Wednesday prayer from Ecuador. Some people find us online, watch our services a few weeks, then start showing up at Community Hour or Sunday School. I’m curious to see just how many of our ministries will continue Zooming after the pandemic has subsided. Maybe we’ll like to continue coming to prayer in our PJs…who knows?
Even in times of great upheaval and transition, some things stay the same. “One fact remains that does not change,” right? God’s love does not change. The importance of followers of Jesus meeting together and supporting each other does not change. Worshiping together–even if worship looks very different–does not change. Sharing our resources with those in need does not change. The need to engage in the important work of justice has not changed.
The message of the Gospel–that everyone is loved by God and deserves to have the things they need to live–has not changed one iota. The work to which we are called, the work of acting the world into wellbeing–has not changed. The need to go deeper into our own spirits, even as we do what we can to heal the world–that hasn’t changed.
What is changing is the means by which we live out the Gospel, the tools we use. I’m starting to wonder if the internet is our Nineveh. So much technology! Can God live there among the electrons? Can people really find a faith that is meaningful on Zoom and Youtube? Can we experience true incarnation without actually being physically present to each other? Can we have experiences of worship without communal singing?
Our home country–worshiping and meeting together in person–is so much more comfortable and feels so much safer. That’s where we’ve always found God in the past. Truth be told, we’re resistant to finding God in places we’ve assumed to be God-forsaken.
But what if God can show up in God-forsaken places? And what if God is calling us to new places, unfamiliar places, scary places, uncomfortable places and is–as God did for Jonah– assuring us that God will be in that place, loving us, helping us to find a way forward? What if the church (big C) isn’t dying, but coming back to life? What if we at FCUCC are coming back to life?
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul told them that, “the world as we know it is passing away.” Exactly. The world as we know it is passing away. A new world is coming. The question for us today is this: Once the fish spits us out, what will we do? Will we take the ship to Nineveh? Will we go to uncomfortable places for the sake of the Gospel? Will we overcome our resistance to finding God in God-forsaken places? Will we welcome the new world and help usher it in? The world as we know it is passing away. How will we respond to the new world that’s emerging?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021