Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Jonah 1, 4
The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.
Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”
Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”
He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”
Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.)
They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)
He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.
Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
I’m going to skip the next two chapters—suffice it to say, while Jonah is in time-out inside the fish, he prays to God for deliverance and promises obedience, but once he’s on dry land again, that obedience is pretty reluctant. Jonah delivers God’s message to the Ninevites, who take his words to heart and turn their collective lives around. Jonah, who was looking for some smiting, sulks about this, which is where we pick up in chapter 4.
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.
Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”
But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
One of the humans I am most proud to know is a professor of mine from seminary, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. Brilliant and funny and faithful and wise, Dr. Cannon is one of those larger-than-life people who seem like they’re doing exactly what God intended them to do. Dr. Cannon’s call to be a teacher and a scholar is impossible to doubt. Not with the way her eyes light up when one of her students finally makes a breakthrough.
It wasn’t simple for Dr. Cannon to follow that call, though. As an academically-minded young black woman in the 70s, she faced pushback every step of the way. But God and Dr. Cannon together are a force to be reckoned with, and in 1974 she became the first African-American woman to be ordained into the Presbyterian Church. Nine years later, she garnered another first, this time as the first African-American woman to earn her PhD from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Dr. Cannon returned to teach at Union Theological—she is an ethicist and a foundational scholar of womanist theology. Union Theological is a prestigious institution, and she was able to do as much research as teaching. The location allowed her to live near some of her family, and altogether she was pleased with how well God’s call on her life had turned out.
Pleased, that is, until she got another call—a phone call, this time, and not from God but from a member of the Board of Trustees at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA, asking her to apply for an opening in the ethics department there.
Dr. Cannon’s first instinct was a resounding no way.
It would not be a brilliant career move—Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia is a lot less prestigious than Union Theological Seminary in New York. It would mean shifting her workload from research to more classroom teaching. It would mean giving up the family and friends, her home, the life she’d built for herself in NYC.
Even more importantly, having grown up in segregated North Carolina, Dr. Cannon had no interest in crossing the Mason-Dixon line again. Especially not to go live in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. She was happy where she was.
But the board member was insistent, and she finally agreed to come down and interview, just to be able to give her no with a clear conscience.
She took the train down, counter-arguments and refusals rattling around in her head. But as she was stepping off the platform, she felt something poke her right between the shoulder blades. She looked around, but no one was there.
Later she’d say it was like when the old women in church would poke you in the back to wake you up and make you pay attention to the sermon. And she decided to do just that—wake up and pay attention to what God was doing.
Dr. Cannon realized that God was calling—and not just calling, but prodding—her towards something new. She balked. Are you serious, God? Richmond? But deep down she knew. This was God’s new call on her life. She could say no all she wanted, but in the end, God was gonna win.
And so Dr. Cannon packed up her life in New York and moved down to Richmond, Virginia, where she’s been a professor of Christian ethics ever since. Her first day of classes was September 11, 2001. Her influence on the last seventeen years’ worth of students is unmistakable—people come to the school just to study with her.
I don’t pretend to know all of why God called Dr. Cannon to Richmond, but I’ll hazard a guess that part of it was to put her in the classroom, so that we who want to be pastors could learn from her directly. God’s gift to us.
Dr. Cannon tells this story at the beginning of every course she teaches, which is why I know it well enough to share it with you. It’s a story about a call that takes a sharp left turn she wasn’t prepared for, and it’s also about learning to say yes when your first instinct is a great big no. It’s the kind of story prospective pastors need to hear.
It’s a story Jonah could have learned from too—or maybe it’s Dr. Cannon who learned from Jonah, turning her no into a yes a bit more quickly and graciously than he did, and thus deftly avoiding that time-out in the whale. Jonah, it must be admitted, is our grumpiest prophet. He’s like a teenager, or even a toddler, sulking and pouting and saying no over and over and over again. The Book of Jonah is almost like a little parody of the prophets—instead of saying Here I am, Lord, Jonah says here I go as he runs away as fast as his legs will take him. Most prophets spout oracles and poetry and fiery sermons and he can barely grumble out a sentence; most prophets lament that no one listens to them, and Jonah throws a hissy fit when the people of Ninevah do. He is The Very Worst Prophet, constantly angry at God for being who God is—gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and quick to forgive.
I suspect most of us have a little Jonah in us somewhere. A part of us that hears God’s call and goes nope nope nopity nope. A part of us that wants to run away from everything God wants us to do. Especially if that call is specific. And especially if it’s hard. And especially if it’s scary.
As much as I like to poke fun at Jonah, I can’t blame him for not wanting to go to Ninevah. We don’t know exactly what went down there, but throughout scripture Ninevah is used as shorthand for a place of evil, of danger. This wasn’t a cushy gig. God really was asking a lot of Jonah, and Jonah didn’t think he was up to the task. And so he rose up—and ran.
Problem is, you can’t run from God. We try. We try and try and try and try and at the end of the day, God is still right there with us. If Jonah had known that at the start—the way Dr. Cannon did—I don’t think he would have been half so afraid.
Sometimes God calls us to things we don’t want to do, places we don’t want to go, people we don’t want to love. Sometimes God calls us far out of our comfort zones, or to tasks way beyond our skill set. Yet God never calls to do any of these things alone. God is not the boss, delegating tasks to us and then heading out for a round of golf. God is our co-worker in all we do.
The story of Jonah is of a prophet who’s effective despite himself—and because of God. The people of Ninevah change their lives because God is working through Jonah, even when Jonah is putting as little effort in as possible. It’s God who’s really putting in the work here.
The same is true of us. We aren’t God’s minions; we’re God’s partners, and whatever we are called to, God works right alongside us to get it done, giving us courage, giving us peace, changing hearts and lives. We can either grump and sulk and drag our feet, or we can go along for the ride. I know which sounds more fun to me.
At the end of the day, I’m grateful for Jonah. Grateful to have an example in the Bible of someone who got it all wrong, and for whom God still made it right. Grateful to know that even if we freak out and run away, God won’t give up on us. Grateful to know that even if we skip out on our call the first time, God will still give us a second chance at it—and a third, and a fourth, as many chances as we need until we learn to say yes.
I remember something we used to say to the kids at the summer camp I worked for when they got in bad moods: you can choose to be grumpy and stubborn and refuse to participate. We won’t force you. But you can also choose to come back to the group, and we promise it’ll be a lot more fun for all of us when you do.
I have found the same thing to be true in life with God. I can be grumpy and stubborn and refuse to participate. But when I say yes—when I answer that call, even if it seems scary or unappealing or overwhelming at first—that’s when life gets interesting. Fun, even.
We can’t run from God. But if we run with God, we might just find we can fly.
To God be the glory. Amen.