From Many Paths, Embracing our Differences, Finding Our Story Together
An Open and Affirming Congregation
"After Sunday worship I feel refreshed and ready to start a new week. Worship calms me and makes me want to be a more giving and forgiving person."
"I am here to share my soul, body, and mind with our bigger family who shares our worship to God and the entire universe. This is my worship experience at church."
Worship at FCC Essex follows a traditional liturgy, but God still speaks to the world today from these ancient words and rituals as if they were new. Music and spirit and art and words and silence center us and inform us. Our style of worship brings comfort, soothes the spirit, challenges the mind, strengthens our love of each other, and empowers us for doing good in the world.
Other special services of worship are celebrated throughout the year during Advent (Christmas) and Lent, as well as ecumenical events with other churches in Essex and within the UCC.
January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Reflection on Jonah 3:1-5, 10
by Cheryl Lindsay
What if true, immediate, and communal repentance was possible?
The prophet Jonah is an interesting biblical character. Among all the prophets, his story is unique, and for this reason, the book bearing his name is his story. The action, growth, and development within the narrative center on him and his relationship with God. Jonah, like the other prophets, receives a call from God to deliver a message to a people. That message is to turn to God and away from the godlessness of their society. It is a familiar prophetic message that could apply throughout history and to countless communities. But, Jonah has to deliver it to those who have oppressed him.
He doesn’t want to do it. That reluctance to take up the mantle of the prophet does not make this story distinctive. His determination and zeal in resisting his assignment does. Jonah says no to God and the call of God on his life.
Most authorized ministers that I know, when sharing their call story, will recount how at some point in the journey, they ran from the call to vocational ministry. Sometimes, the reluctance stems from a feeling of inadequacy to the perceived demands of the call. For others, it may come from a desire to live a life that they planned rather than to surrender to God’s plans and vision. For Jonah, it appears that the reluctance was rooted in resentment toward the recipients of the message. He did not want them to turn from their wicked ways and therefore receive the grace of God.
Jonah, whose story is rich with grace-filled moments for himself, objects to God’s grace extended to his oppressors. As Douglas Stuart notes, “Throughout the book, Jonah displays a readiness to receive mercy and blessing himself and a stubborn reluctance to see his enemies, the Assyrians, receive the same.” If the book of Job is an allegory that attempts to address why good people suffer, then the book of Jonah demonstrates what it looks like to love your enemies.
Jesus, in relaying the Greatest Commandment, does not provide any outs. There aren’t clauses that allow us to exclude certain people from the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. He did not qualify that we are to love our good neighbor. It’s easy to love the neighbor who keeps up their property, greets you with a smile as you pass in the hallway or the driveway, and drops off the occasional gift. But what about that other neighbor–you know the one–who you dread to see and try to avoid?
In a world that, despite the physical isolation of pandemic, is closer than it has ever been, our neighborhood has expanded globally. Through social media, we can connect with people throughout the world. That ability provides a choice to either expand our worldview with a diversity of lived experiences and perspectives or to curate even more siloed communities.
Jonah was called to get a message through in “that great city,” Nineveh. We can imagine it as a cosmopolitan locale with diverse communities, wealth and prosperity alongside poverty and deprivation, beautiful architecture in some quarters and abandoned buildings in others, compassionate leadership in conflict with craven ambition. It’s easier to isolate in large cities than in small towns or rural communities, but there are more ways to separate than physically. Sometimes, we withdraw from a community by withholding our full selves. We don’t speak up even when our values are challenged by what seems to be the prevailing view. Peer pressure, after all, does not disappear when you graduate from middle school or even college.
Jonah was called to speak up, and so are we. Fear of being ostracized didn’t silence him; however, contempt for hearers of his message made him resistant to sharing the good news. In this week’s text, we encounter the second directive to prophesy. This time, Jonah responds to the call just as God declared. He shouts to all within hearing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Given his history and disposition toward them, we might imagine Jonah declaring this with a measure of glee as he walks through the city with a message of impending gloom and destruction for his oppressors.
Last October, I went to vote early at the Board of Elections located in downtown Cleveland. While standing outside in the physically distanced line that wrapped around the block, I could hear someone on a loudspeaker. As I got closer, I could see and hear a group of people, closely assembled together with no mask, who were proclaiming eternal damnation to the very diverse group of people patiently waiting for their opportunity to exercise their civic right. Much of what they said angered me greatly, and I was tempted to get out of line and initiate a conversation. The reality of pandemic and their maskless state along with the possibility of losing my place after about forty minutes in line convinced me not to do that. (Part of me regrets that decision.) But when I picture Jonah traveling through Nineveh, I can hear the zeal and delight in the voice of the man with the megaphone. Even at the time, I remember thinking, if I honestly believed that all these people in front of me were going to hell, would I sound so happy about it? Sure, there was anger in his voice, but it wasn’t the weariness of preaching good news to a hard-hearted people or the grief of the lamenting prophet. It was the delighted anger of delivering bad news to one’s perceived enemy.
I imagine Jonah sounded like that. The lectionary text doesn’t include Jonah’s reaction, but I think it’s important. Whenever I think of Jonah, I reflect on what it would be like if the people heard the preached message and decided to do more than take it seriously and urgently. I imagine what it would be like if, after hearing a message challenging us to do or to be differently, the gathered community would arise enmasse and decide to do that very thing right then. That is the beauty of the altar call; it provides an immediate opportunity to respond to the proclamation of the word. That’s why having communion or even receiving the offering after the message can seem to flow just right. Too often, because we have developed this pedagogical approach to preaching, we treat the message as a lecture to be consumed rather than as an invitation that merits a response.
This passage from Jonah focuses on the response. While Jonah is the central character of his book, the story isn’t all about him. The people of Nineveh deserve attention, and their response is instructive and inspiring. Stuart also notes, “The Ninevites needed only that initial word, so ready were they to turn from their evil practices. Jonah’s words reached eager ears right away.” The people were hungry, perhaps starving, for this message. Perhaps they knew what they were doing was wrong. They recognized that they were on the wrong path but did not know another one to take. This idea of their readiness indicates that on some level, the people of Nineveh were waiting for God to speak.
God called Jonah to be the messenger to Nineveh. What if God is calling us to be the messenger to our Nineveh? Have we been forced out of our sanctuaries, or are we being pushed out to speak a word to the world around us…especially to that neighbor who is so hard to love in times like these?
Jonah was not called to preach to the choir. He was called to speak to the people who were on the other side of his life experience. He was called to offer another chance to the people that benefited from his past hurt and harm. That’s a hard thing to do, and we can understand the humanity of his reluctance. Yet, we are called to do the hard thing, to speak the hard truth, and to live the hard way.
In response to the political turmoil in the United States, many leaders have called for healing, but unfortunately, in their version of healing, it means moving on as if recent events have not happened. It’s been a call to forget more than a call for real healing. Real healing requires a proper and correct diagnosis of the problem as well as recognition that a problem exists, and in this case persists. Real healing means treating the wounds, binding up brokenness, and eradicating the infection. Real healing takes time and energy and is hard work.
For healing to take place, what–and who–has been broken, must be made whole. Repentance is a prerequisite, because oppressors are broken people. Hurt people hurt people, including themselves and others. For healing to take place, the hard work of repair in the lives of the powerful and oppressive must begin. That includes accountability but it also includes grace. I am fond of saying, including as a reminder to myself, that we all want grace for ourselves but want judgment for those who harm us. That is Jonah’s testimony to us. Loving our enemies is hard. Resentment flows more freely. Jonah was “forced to carry out his mission and to struggle with God’s compassion for Jonah’s oppressors.” So are we.
Our silos can become comfortable places that we desire to dwell in with the same fervor that we want to return to our sanctuaries. We get to be with people we know and who don’t challenge us too much. We can feel good about our marginal attempts to engage in justice from afar with prayer or a book study. And while those are appropriate responses, should we be satisfied with them as ends or consider them as the beginning, equipping steps of our participation in the Kin-dom coming on earth as it is in heaven?
There are people who join movements because they are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. They get caught up and indoctrinated in its tenets, values, and community. It’s hard to extract them from its grip because it fed them when they were hungry. It filled the dry spaces. It visited them in their loneliness when the church abandoned them. It gave them a path to follow and a way to be that they understood and could claim with religious fervor.
And those movements were able to stake a claim in the lives of countless people while much of the church decided to take the Jonah approach and disengage from the oppressive world around us. We became expert architects in building silos with little room for hungry seekers. Oh, we had our soup kitchen and food pantries to meet physical needs, but somehow the church of Jesus Christ began to believe that feeding spiritual hunger was imposing too much rather than one beggar telling another where to find the bread of heaven. In our correction to harmful evangelistic practices, many of us stopped telling the good news to anyone who had not already heard and received it for themselves.
Nineveh was hungry for the message as evidenced by their immediate embrace of it and response to it. God would not give up on them and would not allow Jonah to do so. The text tells us that the Holy One’s mind was changed about the calamity that would befall them, but God was consistent in concern and compassion for the people. By choosing to keep sending Jonah, God also demonstrates consistent concern and compassion for the reluctant and resentful prophet. God doesn’t give up on Jonah either. While “the ironic contrast between [their] reactions to impending doom should not be overlooked,” (Matthew J. M. Coomber) God’s consistent grace should not be ignored either.
The call to follow God’s direction, purpose, and plan requires more than we sometimes feel equipped to give or more than we want to expend. It’s costly, but the Kin-dom needs it from us. Nineveh was called to repentance. They answered that call, and God saw it and changed their future.
Nineveh is all around us… hungry, desperate, and in need of a message calling for recognition, repentance, and repair. God hasn’t given up on us either. We can do this hard work. God has called us to it. Go to Nineveh.
First Congregational Church in Essex
United Church of Christ
6 Methodist Hill
Essex, Connecticut 06426