Obedience and Preservation
Wednesday, March 15. 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
When we started this reluctant prophetic journey with Jonah a couple of weeks ago, Pastor Bonnie used the image of her son standing in the corner after getting in trouble, saying, “You can make me stand here, but you can’t make me like it” as a comparison to how Jonah responded to God’s call to go to Nineveh. In a lot of ways, little has changed. Despite the fact that Jonah took a death-defying, chaotic trip through the guts of a fish and was vomited back onto dry land, his attitude is still about as enthusiastic as a kid standing in the corner. When God calls him to go to Nineveh a second time, he is obedient, but God can’t make Jonah like it.
One of the things that might make us a little uncomfortable about Jonah is that he’s an anti-hero. As a prophet, he’s supposed to be enthusiastic about his call from God. He’s supposed to want people to do what is right and turn to God. He’s supposed to care that wrath is on Nineveh’s doorstep and do something about it with gusto. But he just doesn’t.
The other thing that might make us uncomfortable about Jonah is that despite the exaggerated events of the story, Jonah’s reluctance to be obedient to God and tell others about God’s mercy might reflect our all-too-real reluctance to talk about God in our own lives, especially with people we’re not sure we agree with, or want to be around. If we’re really honest, Jonah reflects the judgment we might fear lies just under the surface of our own hearts and minds. But recognizing that can be one important step toward confronting those underlying fears.
In the fall of 2016, I invited a communications professor from Augsburg to lead an exercise with my congregation on how to talk about politics with those with whom we disagree. Keep in mind this was just days before the presidential election between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Things were tense and the feelings about which ever candidate people opposed were in full exposure. In the exercise, the professor asked the group of about 100 people to pair up, and if possible, find someone who supported the candidate they did not support.
I’ll admit, as the pastor who invited this speaker, I was getting nervous by this time. A knot was forming in my stomach. “This can’t work”, I thought, “not in this supercharged environment. No one is going to do this!”
Then he said, “now I want you to make the case for supporting the candidate you oppose – if you support Trump, make the case for Clinton. If you support Clinton, make the case for Trump. If you support someone else, make the case for either of the other candidates.”
When he finished, you would have thought he had just sprung a pop quiz on a class of college students on a Monday morning. The groans were nearly deafening. I heard someone say, “You have got to be kidding! I can’t do that.” But they did.
And you know what? I have never seen people’s attitudes change so fast. Pretty soon the room was abuzz with chatter, nervous laughter, and new insight they wouldn’t have had without such a bold experiment. Weeks later, people were still talking about how that exercise helped them better understand people they never thought they could or wanted to understand. And it helped the congregation in the weeks and months to come remain connected to one another, despite the political divisions that remained. I couldn’t have expected such an outcome weeks earlier.
Jonah doesn’t expect that his word to the Ninevites is really going to do anything. In fact, he doesn’t seem to want it to do anything. He goes as God instructs, but only walks a day’s journey into a city said to take three days to cross. So, let’s just assume he showed up to the equivalent of a strip mall in the suburbs to make this announcement, rather than City Hall in downtown. And then with all the enthusiasm of a surly teenager, Jonah preaches the shortest, and perhaps worst sermon in the whole Bible. “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
And here is yet one more place in this tale that might make us scratch our heads and make us a little uncomfortable. Because it turns out that as much as this story bears Jonah’s name, it is really a story about the obedience of God and Nineveh to one another, that is the star of the show. The people hear Jonah’s terrible sermon, and they respond immediately and completely. They do what repentant people do and throw on sackcloth – an itchy material that would remind them of the discomfort of their sin – and they fast as an act of dependence on God to provide both mercy and sustenance moving forward.
We’re used to hearing that God’s mercy moves to the margins in the New Testament, because that is where Jesus tends to hang out. But, even in the Old Testament, outsiders and foreigners are the ones to really “get” God’s mercy. So, it shouldn’t surprise us when we look back at the history of the church, or imagine what is ahead, that God’s mercy will continue to extend to places and people we’d least expect would receive it.
Earlier this week, I was at a gathering of pastors meeting with Pastor Kate Reuer Welton, from the U of M Lutheran Campus Ministry. Each pastor at the table shared an enthusiasm and commitment to young adults in the church. At the U of M Campus Ministry amazing things are happening in students’ lives that we might not expect if we only listen to the general trends of faith participation among young people. Students are becoming servant leaders working for justice. They are developing a faith-centered framework for their lives. They are wrestling with really important questions about God and the challenges the world is facing and putting their faith into practice to find solutions.
As we responded to the presentation, one pastor openly questioned whether congregations are prepared to receive these gifted and faithful young people and make room for their big questions and bold imagination for the church to affect the world when they leave the college setting. His question was honest and made me wonder what we might do to have doors open wide to the possibilities, hopes, dreams, and faith of young adults in our midst, rather than just hope they’ll pick up our own hopes and dreams and carry them into the future.
I hope we’re a lot more like Nineveh than like Jonah in this regard. I hope we expect to be changed by our encounter with God and that others will be too. I yearn for all of us to follow God wherever God leads, that we will be obedient to the rhythms of grace, mercy, and love that have changed people’s lives for centuries. And I pray that we will strive to preserve the power of the gospel in a language those on the margins and those outside the church can hear as good news for them. It’s already happening. May it be so for us as well. Amen.