First Parish Congregational Church United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by Rev. Kelli Whitman, Prides Corner Church

August 4, 2019

Scripture: Jonah 1-2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.

The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.

14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”

15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.

16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Jonah’s story begins like many of the prophets—with call from God to go and deliver a message.  God calls on Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a powerful country that was regularly at war with the people of Israel.

Did your high school have a rival school?  That one team you always wanted to beat during the season?  At my high school it was the Cumberland Valley Eagles.  Now imagine God called you to go to that rival team’s homecoming pep rally and give a speech explaining why they were going to lose the game. Imagine how you might feel, stepping up to the microphone wearing your school spirit colors, looking up into a crowd of people wearing their school spirit colors. That’s kind of what God is asking Jonah to do in these opening verses.

How excited would you be to follow up with that request?

Probably not too excited. 

Perhaps that makes Jonah’s next move a bit easier to understand.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.

When Isaiah is called by God to be a prophet to the people, he responds, “Here I am.  Send me.”

When the angel tells Mary she is to become the mother of Jesus, Mary responds, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

When God calls Moses to free the people from Egypt, Moses protests at first, arguing that he’s a lousy public speaker, but eventually he follows God’s call.

When God calls Jonah, Jonah runs in the other direction.  God told him to go preach to the people over there (point towards Paul), and Jonah turns and runs that way (point the other way); away from God’s call, away from the city filled with his enemies, away from his fear.  Jonah runs away.

Or at least he tries to run away.

God’s call is not so easily thwarted.

The Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. The storm is God’s first attempt to get Jonah’s attention and call him back to his original assignment.  When Jonah realizes what is happening, he tells the crew to throw him over the side of the ship, perhaps figuring that drowning was one way out of going to Nineveh.

But God intervenes again, sending a fish to swallow Jonah and prevent him from drowning. Despite Jonah’s best efforts to get out of it, it seems God isn’t going to take no for an answer.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah.

Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

We gather for worship each week in part because we believe that God is still speaking to us and through us.  We want to be faithful followers of Jesus, to live out his command to follow him, to be bearers of his light to the world.

But what happens when God speaks a word that is hard to hear and even harder to share?  What happens when God is calling us to something that makes us want to turn and run in the other direction?  What happens when following Jesus means rowing into stormy and uncharted water?

Rev. Kaji Dousa is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ. “She has long ministered to and advocated for and with migrants and refugees, both within the United States and across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. In this ministry she has met with people from the so-called “migrant caravan,” prayed with them, provided pastoral support to the distressed, officiated at weddings and organized prayerful vigils that are sometimes critical of U.S. immigration law and policy.”[1]

In March of this year, she learned that this work caused her to be flagged on a Department of Homeland Security watch list called, “Operation Secure Line.” She has had her passport flagged, her travel restricted, and been subjected to long interrogations when she crosses the border.  Customs and Border Patrol Agents are collecting a file on her – a file with personal information about Kaji and her family.[2] 

Speaking about her commitment to ministry with migrant families, Rev. Dousa said, “The Bible says: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares,’ (Heb 13)… Many people ask me why I serve migrants, as if this were a burden. But for those of us in this work, we know the truth to be quite different. To offer hospitality to a migrant, a member of Christ’s kingdom, is actually the privilege of hosting an angel. The reverse is true, as well. To reject a migrant is to cast away God’s angels, which I am unwilling to do.”[3]

In July, Rev. Dousa filed a lawsuit against the federal government. She wants the government to stop impeding her right to offer humanitarian aid to people seeking a better life—care that is a central calling of her Christian faith.[4]

What happens when God speaks a word that is hard to hear and even harder to share?  What happens when God calls us to something that makes us want to turn and run in the other direction?  What happens when following Jesus means rowing into stormy and uncharted water?

When that challenging word of God comes to us, we face a choice—we can try to flee, try to run away and ignore the work that God has called us to.  If we choose to run, we may, like Jonah, find ourselves pursed by a God whose desire for justice is not easily ignored.  Or, we can choose to follow the disciples, to step out in faith and trust in Jesus’ promise to equip us for the difficult work of following him.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah.

Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

How will we answer when God calls?

Amen.


[1] “UCC pastor targeted for ministering to migrants sues the U.S. government.” By Connie Larkman published July 2, 2019

[2] https://www.ucc.org/news_commentary_ucc_minister_tracked_by_us_government_preaches_love_03102019

[3] July 2 article by Connie Larkman

[4] July 2 article by Connie Larkman

Sermon for August 4, 2019

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