Hello-Goodbye Sermon series - May 16, 2021

Jonah (various)When I’ve read this story a lot over the years. Normally I look from the perspective of Jonah. What was it like for him to be called to a people he classified as “enemy” and asked to condemn their sins and invite them to repentance. From his actions, we see, he wasn’t into it. He did NOT want to go to Nineveh. He definitely did not want to name their wickedness. And so he ran.

Jonah was very clear he didn’t want any part of the Nineveh business. He knew about the people of Nineveh and it seems he had given up on their potential for change. And, it seems from his call, that God had not. In fact, God was so convinced that even when Jonah ran, when he

jumped on a ship to get as far away as possible, God didn’t let go of the desire to have Jonah serve in this way.

Honestly, dealing with Jonah and the whale (or the giant fish depending on the translation you read) is a sermon all on its own. The impossibility of it means a lot of people just ditch this story altogether. I’m not inclined to ditch it. In truth, I would encourage all of you to take some time to read the whole story. It’s a short book in the Old Testament and has a lot of resonance with the resurrection of Jesus—3 days in the darkness leading to new beginnings and new perspective. It’s a story of redemption, not just for Nineveh, but for Jonah too.

For today, we’re focusing on the wide-angle perspective: Jonah was called to do something incredibly hard—naming the sins of an entire people and inviting them to change. He was a true prophet. He spoke truth to power. He challenged systems and institutions and cultures and invited change.

And this time as I read this story and kept looking at Jonah, God kept pushing me to look at the story differently. It kept feeling like this is us, right now, in this story. Except, most of us aren’t Jonah. As mostly white people in a mostly white church in a mostly white area of the country, it feels a whole lot like we’re Nineveh.

Now, hear this, the sins of Nineveh weren’t named. We might assume certain sins based on the term “wickedness” but the truth is, we don’t know. And the other truth is that the Bible is a living document inspired and propelled by the power of the Holy Spirit and we can find ourselves in the stories. And I can’t shake the idea that as people who live in a racist society with racist roots and clearly racist habits that maybe racism is our wicked sin.

I know it’s risky to enter into this dialogue in this way—me over here and you out there and none of us together to have the hard, yet compassionate, conversations. I know we are starting in different places on our understanding of racism and our roles in it. I believe you are good people. I believe I’m good people. I believe this message is for all of us. I don’t believe any of us try to be racist. And yet, I don’t think that makes us exempt from this problem. I’m not trying to point fingers and I most certainly see me as one of us—I am part of Nineveh too. Any word of conviction or challenge that I share is because I am continuing to grow in my awareness of just how entrenched the sins of racism are in our society.

And as someone who is not called to be a prophet, but instead a pastor, I really wrestle here. Calling people out is not my idea of a good time. I totally get why Jonah ran. We may have had different reasons, but I am pretty sure I would have caught the first ship out of town too. I struggle because, without trust and rapport, and conversation, a lot of these things are impossible to hear. And the Holy Spirit is not letting go of me here. So, I’m offering the perspective I’m gaining on this passage and pray the Spirit does the rest.

In seeing white people (yes, I know that’s a broad sweeping generalization and am uncomfortable with that by itself but it’s the starting place of this conversation) in seeing white people as Nineveh, I can’t help but also feel like there are a lot of Jonahs out there. People who have been called to speak up. To speak to white people, to me, to tell us about where we have been sinful and invite us to change. We are in a time when prophets like Jonah are calling out institutional racism when they are saying “tolerance is not enough” when they are demanding that we get more invested in what’s happening, that we make more sacrifices to truly change the systems. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lots of us have not taken too kindly to those challenges against power and privilege, calls for change in policing, institutional structures, and our everyday awareness.

I can imagine a lot of those Jonahs did not have any desire to go to “them” (to us) and call out wickedness. I can imagine they did everything in their power to get away. I can imagine that many of them had no hope that we would ever change. I can imagine a lot of folks believe that white folks have too much power and too much privilege to make real substantive change. I can imagine they look at our racist systems and racist ways, even our racist ignorance, and think “it’s hopeless” or “they won’t listen to me.” And…I can imagine God saying, “I haven’t given up on them. I believe they can and will repent. But they need a messenger. They need to hear from someone who will tell them the truth. They need to hear from someone who knows how to challenge the things they’ve always known.”

I believe God is always hopeful that we can do and be better. After all, that’s not just the baseline of this story, that’s the foundation of the whole Bible….a God who never gives up on the people—no matter what the sin, no matter how long it’s been, no matter how hopeless things seem, God does not give up. God does everything necessary to draw us into righteousness—into a path that chooses the things of God and only the things of God, over and over again.

Y’all I’m a white woman who came into conversations about race in college. And I was drawn in, in some of the best ways—ways that allowed me to safely challenge the things I thought I knew. I worked hard on my stuff—my assumptions, my norms, my stereotypes, my prejudices. And I thought I had done a really good job. I continued to do the things. I didn’t think it was a one and done. I kept engaging in conversations about racism and prejudice. And yet the conversations that I’ve been listening to in our country this last year have made me question how much I’d really done, or maybe how much more I have yet to do. I’m learning to engage all over again in new and amplified ways. And I know some of you have been at this for 20, 30, and even 50 years longer than I have.

So much has changed that sometimes we can feel like we shouldn’t have to keep at it. But the work isn’t done. The wickedness isn’t gone from our culture and our society, not from our community, and not even from our church.

It’s true that some of the most insidious offenses are not found among us, or right in our community. But it doesn’t have to be the most insidious to be part of the wickedness. If those who are harmed tell us there’s more work to be done, we who have privilege need to listen. That’s true with racism. That’s true with sexism. That’s true with homophobia. That’s true with ageism. That’s true with ableism. That’s true with sizeism. If those who are marginalized or excluded or diminished tell us they still feel oppressed, or judged, or mistreated, it’s our job to listen and to look for a path of redemption.

Some people may have given it upon us. Some people may be like Jonah and think “there’s no point”. But the good news is, God, says there is. There is hope. There is a point. There is a possibility. We can keep becoming the people God has called us to be. Our life of faith is not just about ethereal things, it’s about earthly things too. We are called to be better humans. Better Americans. Better Christians. And better white people. And we may not see ourselves like *those* white people, but if you’re a white person, like me, we still have to repent. We still have to choose if we will continue in paths of wickedness, or if we will choose God’s path of righteousness.

Sometimes God asks us to do really hard things. Sometimes it’s being a prophet and naming people’s sins. Sometimes it’s being the sinful person who dares to listen to a call to action. For any of us, it’s easy to take the good news and grace of the gospel and assume sunshine and roses for our life of faith. But if you’ve lived much, or been faithful for long, you know that simply isn’t how life or faith work.

People are sinful.
Systems are broken.
There is much to be done.

I believe God is speaking to us through Jonah. Jonah is here and sharing with us…through the many modern-day prophets. I pray we will listen.