First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kelli Whitman, Prides Corner Church

August 11, 2019

Scripture: Jonah 3

We’ve reached the halfway point in Jonah’s story.  Remember, his story began back in chapter one when God called to Jonah, and told him to go to Nineveh and preach against their wicked ways.  Jonah tries to run away, boarding a boat bound in the wrong direction from Nineveh.  But when a great storm threatens to sink the boat, Jonah knows he can’t escape God.  He tells the crew to toss him overboard, and as he sinks into the sea, he’s swallowed by a giant fish.  While he’s stuck inside the fish, he offers a prayer of praise and lament until the fish expels him back onto dry land.  That’s where we rejoin the story this morning with chapter 3.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from [God’s] fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, God relented and did not bring on them the destruction that had been threatened.

       When my sister was younger, she had a habit of bending the rules of a game to fit her needs.  So sometimes she would roll the dice and if she didn’t get a number that suited her, she would pick them up again and say, “Hang on, I did that wrong.  I need a do-over.”

       When we catch up with Jonah in this morning’s passage, he also needs a do-over.  The first time he heard God’s instructions to go to Nineveh, he ran away.   Now after a stormy boat ride, and a time out inside a fish, he’s basically back where he started.  God calls to him again, and offers basically the same instructions—“Go to Nineveh and give them my message.”

       Jonah gets a second chance from God.  A prophetic do-over.

And Jonah embraces his second chance, sort of.  He does go to Nineveh, and he does deliver God’s message, though perhaps without the theatrics of Moses’ demonstrations before Pharaoh, or the poetic weight of Isaiah or Jeremiah. He travels part way into the city and halfheartedly delivers the shortest sermon ever recorded, “Soon Nineveh will be overthrown.”

       But Jonah’s not the only one who gets a second chance from God in this chapter—the people of Nineveh also get a do-over.  Remember when God first calls to Jonah—God says, “Preach against Nineveh because its wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah’s sermon, short as it is, is an invitation to change.  It’s a do-over for the people of Nineveh, a second chance to live in a way that honors God’s command to love God and neighbor.

       Unlike Jonah, the people of Nineveh embrace their second chance with great enthusiasm.  They declare a fast and dress in sackcloth, traditional signs of repentance.  They pray together.  Even the king joins in, calling on his people to turn away from their violent past and instead call on God’s mercy. So great is the change in the city that God takes notice. 

       Jonah and the people of Nineveh are given a second chance, a do-over.  In other words, God offers them the gift of God’s grace. Grace is one of those church words that we use a lot but don’t always stop to define—in part because it’s hard thing to define and an even harder idea to wrap our culturally shaped lives and brains and hearts around. 

       Here’s how Nadia Bolz-Weber explains grace in her book Pastrix: Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word … it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own [mess].

       Grace doesn’t ignore or excuse the brokenness of our lives and our world.  It doesn’t excuse the ways we hurt each other when we fail to treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  It doesn’t ignore that pain we cause when we act as though some lives matter more than others.  It doesn’t abandon us in our doubts and our worries.

       Grace is when God picks up the dice and says, “Hang on, that wasn’t right.  Why don’t you try again.”  It was grace that pursued Jonah when he tried to flee, sat with him in the dark depths of the fish, and pushed him to go when God called a second time.  It was grace that gave the people of Nineveh a glimpse of a life free from violence, and the opportunity to live that life. 

        Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word … it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own [mess].

       Rev. Kate Floyd, a young Methodist pastor, writes about her attempts to practice stillness in the midst of a hectic ministry schedule; a practice that goes well until the morning of her first burial service.  She writes:[1] I found myself on the move, literally.  Sitting in my Honda Civic, headlights and flashers blinking, as the cop had instructed me.  Following a hearse and leading a mourning family.  Cops on motorcycles dashing around our procession, halting traffic, clearing the way. I was on my way to my first burial.  Moving between the celebration of a life and the committal into the ground.

I was sheer panic.  Turns out my brief, random moments of stillness hadn’t turned me into the Dalai Lama.  Darn it.   I was being many things, but still was not one of them. 

Instead of being still, I was being frenetic: being tense, trying to hold back tears so I could be present for the family (besides, you can’t show up to give pastoral care looking like you need it yourself); being lonely—sitting in my empty car, all by myself, nobody with whom to share this experience;  being scared–to be the minister, about to perform a ceremony I haven’t witnessed, much less led.  Being sad—this was a loving, inquisitive woman, who became my friend at the end of her life.  And in the midst of this panic, realizing this will be the first of many times, over decades, I will be making this drive, behind a hearse.  Being doubtful: really, this is the life I chose? Spending beautiful fall afternoons at gravesides? Then, as if my emotional musical chairs weren’t enough, my stomach began to move.  I was too anxious all day to eat, and now my belly was starting to notice.  I managed five diet cokes, yes, but food I could not stomach.  Now my stomach was speaking to me.  Oh God, I thought, please don’t make loud rumbling noises as I bless the body.

I’d love to report that in the midst of my panic, I closed my eyes, recited a Psalm, and sank into calmness.  Became still.

No such luck.  And still, I managed.  I didn’t cry.  I greeted the family as we poured out of our cars, giving her son permission to cry, hugging the grandchildren, gathering people to sit near the grave.  I greeted in the name of a resurrecting God, read scripture, prayed, blessed.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth.  More hugging at the end, words of comfort, sharing memories and stories.  Somehow, I was able to be.  Be present for the family, be present to the scripture, be present for the one who died.

As soon as I got in my car and drove around the block, I fell apart.  My body releasing what I had been holding inside.  And then, the Psalm did come to me: “Be still, and know that I am God”.

In my car ride home, grace slapped me upside the head.  I’d like to say grace wrapped me in loving, gentle arms.  But really, this was more of a kick-in-the-pants.  A not so gentle reminder that I don’t do any of this alone…The amazing thing about grace, is that it doesn’t only show up in our stillness.  When we’re at our most monk-like, contemplative, model-Christian moments.  No, the amazing thing about grace, is that  even when we’re on the move–panicky, busy, feeling unworthy and lonely–God is still there, knowing us.  Knowing us and loving us, giving us strength and wisdom, humility and hugs. 

Grace is when God shows up in our lives and uses us as vehicles of blessing, warts and all.  Grace refuses to toss us aside because we’ve made a few mistakes.  Grace is a reminder that God is God, so we don’t have to be and we should give up trying to be.  Grace gives us the audacity to proclaim a God of love to a world that seems bent on violence and destruction.  May you embrace God’s gift of grace in the midst of your brokenness this week. Amen.

[1] “Grace at the Graveside” published August 14, 2008 for Fidelia’s Sisters

Sermon for August 11, 2019