But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 8th 2013.  At the time, it looked like a military strike by the United States on Syria was imminent; that’s no longer the case, though Iran is now the object of our saber-rattling instead.  The first service used a pre-sermon reading while the second used a multigenerational drama to tell the story.  Both are included here, but you can jump down to the sermon.)

Reading: “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Harper was born in 1825, the only child of free African-American parents living in Baltimore.  During her long life, both before and after the Civil War, she applied her skills as a writer and a public speaker in political activism for the abolition of slavery, for civil rights and women’s rights, and for other social causes.  She died nine years before women gained the right to vote, and her funeral was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where she had been a member.

Harper wrote “Songs for the People” at the very end of her life as “the culmination of [her] literary goals as well as her self-conception as a writer, speaker and activist”.

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of [all]
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.

I would sing for the poor and agèd,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of [all] grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

~ ~ ~

Drama: “Jonah” (based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Book of Jonah)

Scene One: In Jonah’s Home

Jonah is sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper, the Joppa Daily Press.  A prominent headline says, “Wickedness on the Rise in Nineveh?”

Narrator:  Now the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah son of Amittai.

God:  Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Jonah:  Do I have to?  It won’t do any good, you know.

God, a little taken aback:  Wait; what?  Why do you say that?

Jonah:  Er…  Well, look.  You are a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

God, flattered:  Well, that’s kind of you to say so.  Ahem!  In any case, [speaking more commandingly] you will go at once to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness!

Jonah:  But I don’t want to go to Nineveh!

God:  Tough luck, sunshine.  That’s an order.  Now go!

Narrator:  But Jonah decided instead to flee to Tarshish, hoping that there he would be safe from the presence of God.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid his fare and went on board.

Scene Two: In the Hold of the Ship

Jonah is asleep in a chair to one side of the platform.  The mariners, including the captain and the sailors, are huddled fearfully in the middle.

Narrator:  Now God hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm arose that it threatened the ship.  The mariners were afraid, and each cried to his own god as they threw their cargo into the sea, to lighten the ship.  Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and was fast asleep.

Captain:  Okay, what’s next?  What else can we throw overboard?

Sailor #1:  Captain, look!  There’s that passenger we took on in Joppa.  How is he managing to sleep through this storm?

Captain, waking Jonah:  What are you doing?  Get up, call on your god!  Perhaps your god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.

Sailor#2:  Captain, we’re out of cargo, and out of ideas.  I think we should cast lots.  Then we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.

The captain produces a handful of sticks.  Everybody takes one and then holds it up for the others to see.  Jonah’s is shorter than the rest.

Captain:  Tell us why this calamity has come upon us.  What is your occupation?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  And of what people are you?

Jonah:  I am a Hebrew.  I worship the Lord who is God of Heaven and Earth, who made the sea and the dry land.

Narrator:  And the mariners grew even more afraid.

Sailor #3:  Oh, that doesn’t sound good.  What is it that you have done?

Jonah, sighing in resignation:  I am fleeing from the presence of God.  [Looks sheepish.]  Didn’t I mention that as I was getting on board?

Captain:  No, you didn’t!  And look, the sea is growing more and more tempestuous!  What should we do to appease your god, that the sea may quiet down for us?

Jonah:  Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.

Sailor #4:  Captain, we’ve tried rowing as hard as we can to bring the ship back to land, but the sea is too stormy against us.

Sailor #5:  We don’t want to perish on account of this man’s life, but we don’t want to be guilty of spilling innocent blood either!

Narrator:  But they knew that God had brought the storm on Jonah’s account, so they picked him up and threw him into the sea.  [The mariners push Jonah off the stage.]  And the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the mariners feared God even more, and they offered praise and made vows.  And God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in its belly for three days and three nights.

Scene Three: In the Belly of the Great Fish

Narrator:  Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the great fish.

Jonah:  I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.  You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.  Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”  The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.  I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.  As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.  Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.  But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Narrator:  And the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah a second time.

God:  Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

Jonah:  Okay, if you let me out of this great fish I will, sure.

God, skeptically:  No running away this time?

Jonah:  Nope.  I’ll go.  I could do with a hot meal, too, if you want to throw that in.

God:  Don’t push your luck.

Narrator:  Then God spoke to the great fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Scene Four: In Nineveh

Jonah is off stage.  The people of Nineveh are going about their business on the platform, while the queen of Nineveh sits on a chair to one side.

Narrator:  So Jonah went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord his God.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, requiring three days to walk across it.  Jonah went into the city, going a day’s walk.  And he cried out,

Jonah, stepping onto the platform:  Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

Narrator:  And the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s words.  They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the queen of Nineveh, she rose from her throne, covered herself with sackcloth, and had a proclamation made in Nineveh.

Queen of Nineveh:  By the decree of the queen and her nobles:  No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who knows?  God may relent and reconsider; God may turn from this fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

Narrator:  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God reconsidered the calamity that was to befall Nineveh.  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah:  O Lord my God!  Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord my God, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry?

Narrator:  But Jonah did not answer.  Instead, he went out of the city and sat down to the east of it, making a booth for himself there where he could watch the city.

Scene Five: In Jonah’s Booth

Jonah sits on a chair in the middle of the platform.

Narrator:  Jonah sat, waiting to see what would become of the city.  Meanwhile God appointed a bush, and made it grow up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.  And as the Sun rose, God prepared a sultry wind from the East, and the Sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.

Jonah:  It is better for me to die than to live.  For I can’t help but feel, O Lord my God, that you’re just messing with me.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah:  Yes, angry enough to die.

God:  You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

~ ~ ~

Sermon: “But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!”

One of the traditions of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is that the Book of Jonah is read at the afternoon prayer service.  It’s one of the shortest books in the Hebrew Bible, but it tells a great story that many people have heard — or, at least, they’ve heard part of it.

I remember, as a young child in Sunday school, hearing the story of Jonah and the Great Fish.  It’s certainly a tale that captures the imagination, particularly the part about being swallowed by a large sea creature as a key stage of character development, something that’s been used in stories from Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.  In the case of Jonah, this half of the story appears at first sight to be simply about refusing, but ultimately accepting, responsibility.

Jonah hears God tell him to go and be a prophet, but he doesn’t want to do that.  Rather than heading east, inland, to Nineveh where he’s been told to go, he tries to head west, across the Mediterranean, to what is now Spain.  That’s not part of the divine plan, of course, so God hurls a storm at the ship to stop Jonah from getting away.  After arguing about what’s going on, Jonah finally admits to being to blame for the storm, and the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard.  The storm ends, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, where he is kept for three days and three nights while he thinks about what he’s done.

The reluctant prophet is a fairly common theme in the Bible, of course.  Being a prophet isn’t supposed to be a happy, healthy occupation.  When you go up against wealthy and powerful people who aren’t treating their fellow beings very well, telling them to mend their ways can get you into a lot of trouble.  As for Jonah himself, he seems to be a good person, taking ownership of his decision to run away, holding himself accountable for the storm, offering himself up to the sea in order to save the mariners, and eventually agreeing to accept the responsibility that had been given to him.  But that isn’t the end of the story.

For all that the first half of the story seems to be a fairly straightforward tale of someone running away from great responsibility, that’s hardly what the second half of the story is about.  And it’s certainly not a typical story of wicked people refusing to listen to one of God’s own prophets.  So let’s think about what the person who wrote the story, and wrote it something like two-and-a-half thousand years ago, might have been trying to say through the whole book, not just the first half of it.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, when he’s barely gone any distance across it and has only said what in Hebrew is just five words, he has the most amazing success of any prophet at any time in history ever.  The people of Nineveh change their ways instantly.  They refuse to eat or drink, they put on sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes, and even the animals fast and repent and go into mourning, too!  But is Jonah happy with his amazing success?  No, he is not.

In fact he’s not just unhappy with it, he gets so angry about it that he can’t see the point in living any more.  He thinks that God is taking it way too easy on the people of Nineveh.  If it were up to Jonah, in fact, he’d give them what they surely deserved for their wicked ways, rather than letting them off so easily.  God asks Jonah if he’s really justified in being so angry, but rather than answering, Jonah leaves the city, finds a place to sit and watch and then, well, he sulks.

So now it’s God’s turn to teach Jonah a lesson.  First, a bush grows up, in just one day, right next to where Jonah is sitting and sulking, and it gives him some shade from the Sun.  Well, he likes that.  It’s hot out there, after all.  But then a worm eats away at the roots and just as quickly the bush dies.  Now Jonah is getting hot and sunburned and thirsty and faint.  Angry about the bush, Jonah again says it’d be better for him to die.

Finally God tries to put it all into perspective for him.  If Jonah was concerned with a mere bush, which he didn’t plant and he didn’t help to grow but he received its benefits anyway, why shouldn’t God be concerned about a whole city full of people and animals?  The people of Nineveh didn’t know good from bad — they even thought it would be a good idea to dress the animals in sackcloth, after all — but at least they were trying.

So maybe the story isn’t really about Nineveh.  Other Hebrew prophets certainly denounced the city’s wickedness and described its inevitable demise, something that did happen when the Assyrian Empire disintegrated.  Since that empire had previously destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, there was definitely no love lost there.  Rather, having Jonah go to hated Nineveh just makes all the more incredible the amazing success of one lone Hebrew in convincing them to change their ways so easily.

And moreover, given Jonah’s evident personality flaws when everyone else in the story — from the ship’s captain and the mariners, to the people and king and even the animals of Nineveh — ends up being saved from perishing, a number of rabbis and other religious commentators have identified the Book of Jonah as a form of satire, poking fun at someone who was a lousy prophet in spite of his success.  I mean, never mind that he saved more than a hundred and twenty thousand souls: Jonah ends up arguing with God about a plant.

So maybe the entire story is actually about getting Jonah to be a better person.  Perhaps the fact that he had such unbelievable success — not to mention being swallowed whole by a never-before-or-since known giant fish — means that it was actually a nightmare-ish dream that Jonah had, and maybe it helped him to realize that he shouldn’t be quite so self-righteous or judgmental toward others.

As Unitarian Universalists, of course, we are called to make courageous choices that lead to greater justice.  That’s because Unitarian Universalism is a prophetic faith, in that we are called to speak truth to power, to try to make the world a better place in everything we say and do.  But we have to be careful not to end up like Jonah, sitting in the Sun and sulking because our own self-righteous need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s a lot in our world, in our nation, in our state and in our town that needs our help to get right, but we are called to offer that help from a place of love, and to do so with compassion and kindness.

Now in about ninety minutes’ time, this is where our staging of the Book of Jonah — the drama that takes the place of this sermon in this morning’s second service — will come to an end.  That’s appropriate for a multigenerational service, telling a story that starts with a well-known tale before telling the rest of it that isn’t so well known, and then thinking about what it means and what lessons it has for us today, some two-and-a-half thousand years after it was written.  But as I prepared for these services this week, I realized that it wasn’t going to be enough for this sermon.  I realized that I couldn’t just leave it bundled up so neatly with a shiny bow on top. Real life isn’t like that.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in the last decade of a life filled with ceaseless struggling for freedom and justice, declared that

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

I’d love to be able to create or even play music that could do that.  Since I can’t, I appreciate it even more when people like B— and C— share their gifts of music with us.  But I also try to bring about some of the same effects using spoken words, even though they’ll always be, as far as I’m concerned, a poor substitute for “music, pure and strong”.  So I strive for sermons that are like Harper’s “songs for the people”, calling us to embrace a “more abundant life”, helping “hearts [to] relax their tension”, raising “anthems of love and duty”, and leading us into a vision of the future that “girdle[s] the world with peace.”  But I’ve realized that I can’t do that this morning unless I respond to something that is going on right now, something that is causing a number of people within this community considerable heartache and anguish, and that’s the possibility of a US attack on Syria.

Now I know you don’t come to church to get a debate about current affairs.  If that’s what you wanted on a Sunday morning, you’d stay home and watch television rather than come to services.  Or maybe you do that before you came here or after being here, but you’re not here for more of the same.  But I don’t want to talk about the politics of such foreign policy.  That’s not why I’m here either.  I’m here to be your minister, and the e-mails I’ve received and the posts I’ve seen on Facebook tell me that some sort of pastoral response to this situation is required.

So here’s my response.  I don’t want us — by which I mean both the United States as a nation and also all of us as individuals — to be like Jonah.  And I don’t mean the nice Jonah who ran away from what he thought was his responsibility, the brave Jonah who becomes a sort of role model to Sunday school children because, well, it can be hard to do the right thing sometimes.  No, that’s not why Jonah ran away.  He didn’t run away because he was afraid of trying.  He ran away because he wanted so badly to see Nineveh destroyed that he didn’t want to be any part of offering it any possibility of being saved.  Reading it in English it’s not clear, but the Book of Jonah actually uses the same Hebrew word to describe both the wickedness of Nineveh and the angry sulking of Jonah himself.

Now, Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, released on Friday a statement “urg[ing] the Obama administration to explore and then exhaust all peaceful diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the ongoing violence in Syria.”  Also on Friday, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee released a statement “call[ing] on the president and Congress to ensure that any American actions taken are designed to protect the rights and lives of the Syrian civilians above all other considerations and to conform with international humanitarian law.”  And Jim Wallis, one of the few outspoken liberal evangelical Christians, whose opinions and work with the Sojourners Community I respect even though I usually need to translated his theology into my own, notes that what is happening in Syria “is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response.  Doing nothing is not an option.  But [… our] first commitment must be to the most vulnerable and those in most jeopardy.  […]  The other task for people of faith and moral conscience is to work to reduce the conflict.

For myself, I have a hard time believing that the missile strikes that are being proposed will do much good, either in helping the Syrian people being currently brutalized by the Assad regime or in contributing to the long-term security of the United States.  My understanding is that there are still options available through the United Nations — including some ways to make Russia take responsibility for its actions in supporting Assad — and for that matter the United States could choose to join — or re-join, actually — the International Criminal Court.

Now I realize that not everyone who is part of or connected to the Fellowship sees the situation the same way.  Perhaps not all of you listening to me now agree with me either.  That’s okay.  I didn’t get up here this morning thinking that I could say a few words and — lo! — everyone’s hearts and minds would be magically changed.  It’s okay for us to disagree, and I preached about how to do just that a few weeks ago, after all.

What’s not okay — in this, or in any other matter of dispute — is for us to cast one another as Nineveh, to refuse to stay connected to one another for fear that we might actually help someone redeem themselves.  We wouldn’t want to end up like Jonah, sitting all alone and sulking because our need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s so much in our world, in our nation, in our relationships with one another that we can get right, but only if we locate ourselves in a place of love, reaching out to one another with compassion and kindness.

So may it be.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] September 8th: “But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!” […]

  2. Gede Prama said

    I truly enjoy your blog and hope many more stop in to read. Again Congratulations. Gede Prama :-)

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