Sunday, November 6, 2016 Communion

Pastor Anna V. Copeland
Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors[a] said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “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?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “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.” 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

17 [b] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his 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 change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.

Prayer before the sermon

O God, our God, grant us an undivided heart to love and serve you today, with all our heart, mind, strength and soul. Open our eyes to see you and serve you in the ordinary events of this day. May Love radiate through us. Amen

To you, Oh Lord, we surrender our life. We pray to be Your servant, or at least to want to want to be your servant. We pray to be aligned with your will, and if we are not aligned to your will, to seek to know your will and to have the courage to do it.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be an acceptable offering to you this day, for you are our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen


                                    No Time to Underestimate

         Have you ever noticed just how many people in the Bible try to get out of doing what God wants them to do? God promised Abraham, the great Father of faith that he would have children as numerous as the stars. God asked Abraham to trust him, “Wait for it, wait for it,” God said. But Abraham grew tired of waiting and conspired with his wife to have a child with his wife’s servant. You can imagine how well that story turned out.       

         Then there was Moses who argued with God at the burning bush, “Don’t send me God, send my brother Aaron to talk to Pharaoh. I’ve got a speech impediment. Aaron is better at this sort of thing than I am.”

   There were lots of others, and now here’s Jonah. God’s people living in the great, ancient city of Nineveh had lost their way. They turned on one another. They became cruel, and mean-spirited and selfish. They stopped caring for one another. They forgot about God.

         God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and ask them to repent of their self-centered and narcissistic ways. Jonah nods politely and catches the first boat bound for anywhere, as long as it was in the opposite direction. Jonah hated Nineveh. He whined, “I don’t want to go to Nineveh.” 

   Asking Jonah to go to work in Nineveh must have been like asking a New Yorker to move to Cleveland. The United Church of Christ did just that when they relocated their national offices from Manhattan to Ohio. As you can imagine, a number of people decided this would be a really good time to retire early. New Yorkers don’t want to go to Cleveland, or anywhere west of the Hudson River if they can help it.

   Responding to God’s call can make us uncomfortable. We don’t always feel prepared, equipped or worthy. We want God to send someone else. But God’s mercy can overcome our resistance.

Whatever the reason for our reluctance—be it lack of time, skill, sleep, or an unwillingness to change, God does not expect us to serve out of our own inherent abilities. God does not always call the capable; God makes the capable the called. God doesn’t give us a task and then expect us to figure out how to do it on our own. Rather, God provides everything we need to serve through God’s Spirit.

God works through and in spite of our reluctance and our weaknesses to fulfill God’s calling on our lives when we’re open to it. My colleague Tony Robinson published a daily devotion this week that invites us to consider our way of life. In speaking of the prophets, he observes how often they struggle against God. Nothing works out. Frustration mounts. Disaster happens. He observes that when the prophets finally stop resisting God and return to face God, then things begin to work out.

God’s fierce mercy overcame Jonah’s resistance. God sent Jonah to Nineveh to give the corrupt and unfaithful people one more chance to come to themselves, and to return to God. After running from God, nearly dying when thrown overboard from his escape ship, and being swallowed up by a great fish, Jonah was spit out on the shores of Nineveh. He had awhile in the dark belly of the whale to consider whether or not he had his priorities right. When Jonah quit struggling against God, the life work for which Jonah was made could finally begin.

Jonah walked through the streets of Nineveh calling out to them to stop the insanity their lives had become. They knew things had gotten out of hand. They knew they had gone too far. They had become aggressive and abusive as a people, and it no longer served them well. A movement grew in the city as people heard Jonah’s unflinching call to repent. They did. Then God then gave Nineveh a second chance.

The story of Jonah ends with the transformation of a great city, so large that it took three days to walk across it. We read today: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.”

Our nation feels like Nineveh to us right now, doesn’t it? We’re discouraged, dismayed, and afraid at how far we’ve come. We can’t really believe the level of violence in our streets, or abusive rhetoric that has become the norm. We want things to be different but we feel helpless to change it.

Through faith, we hear a word of God’s fierce mercy this morning. If God saved Nineveh then, God can restore our path today. Who will lead us in such a time as this? Like each of the God stories we’ve discussed these past weeks, prepare to be surprised by the answer. In God’s upside-down kingdom, there’s often a catch. It’s not what you think.

 Church Consultant Susan Beaumont observes that we resist God by feigning reluctance and humility that doesn't serve us, or God well. She describes leading a retreat for a group of denominational executive leaders, opening the event with an invitation to share their stories of call and vocation.

      She was struck by the number of stories that were presented under the genre of “reluctant leadership”. As she listened she became aware of how often she heard some version of this story. “I didn’t really want this job, but apparently God wanted me to do it, because the job just kept coming after me.”

      She said, “As I was discerning my OWN call into ministry I remember my family pastor telling me, “If you can do anything else in life and be content with it, do the other thing. Ministry is only something that you go into, if you can’t NOT do it.”  He was cautioning me that ministry is hard work, and often unrewarding; something that you only do if God pursues you relentlessly, like the Hound of Heaven. That’s how you know if you are really called.

      Since that night of storytelling with the executive leaders, she began to think more and more about this particular kind of storyline. She hears it a lot in her work, and she tried to figure out why so many church leaders and people of faith were drawn towards telling their stories from the humble, reluctant leader perspective. She became suspicious.

     Certainly we have the biblical examples of reluctant leaders we can reference. Moses resisted his calling several times before God simply told him to get over it. Most of the disciples were humble fisherman before being called out to become ministers. Still we have to wonder.

There are other strong biblical leadership stories to draw from. What about Nehemiah, a leader with a strong dream and no visible system of support for getting it done. Nehemiah had to undertake incredible initiatives to claim the vision that God had given him, to get people to come on board with his plan. He was not a reluctant leader. He was a strong leader with a heart, mind and passion for his work. Or Esther, a Jewish woman who bravely stood before a king asking for the lives of her people to be spared as they faced certain death. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul was passionate and persistent both before and after God’s call on his life. God chose him because God knew what Paul would be willing to do. Only extraordinary courage and conviction could change the world.

Here’s the bottom line. If we are humble, reluctant leaders then the primary means by which people will measure our ministry is through our faithfulness. They will admire the fact that we gave up an easier path, or our free time in retirement, or an evening we could have been at home with our family in our determination to be faithful to God’s call in our life. Others won’t really expect much from us, other than our faithfulness.

On the other hand, if we tell our story through the lens of the gifted and called, passionate leaders with a vision for something more for the Church and God’s world and the determination to pursue that call, then we had better be prepared to deliver something substantive. It’s a lot safer to be reluctant and humble in our leadership narratives, than it is to be bold, and passionate, expectant that God will do great things through us for our time.

         The stories we tell about ourselves profoundly shape how we fulfill God’s will for our lives. Maybe its time to listen to God’s new story for us. In this Nineveh season, it seems as if God needs a few brave Jonah’s, men and women with the courage to sacrifice our reluctance and our comfort to fulfill God’s purposes. God can’t use Jonah when he’s running away, hiding in the depths of a boat or in the belly of the whale. God uses Jonah when he finally leans into what God needs him to do with passion and commitment.

         We’ve been examining God’s vision for our church now for several weeks through the Dream Team covenant groups, praying for our church and God’s future through it. One thing is becoming clear. God is doing a new thing and looking for committed people to do it.

         God needs women and men of absolute faith and conviction who are willing to go the distance regardless of the consequences.  Consider the story of Hiroo Onoda, the “holdout soldier.” Hiroo Onoda, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army, was assigned a secret mission by his commanding officer. He was sent to the remote Philippine island of Lubang in 194 at the height of World War II.

         During the war, most of Onoda’s men were captured, killed, or died at there own hand, but Onoda stayed faithful to his commander. He did not emerge from the jungle until 1974, almost 30 years after the war had ended. Many attempted to find him. Others sent messages that Japan had been defeated. Believing it was a trick by the enemy, the young lieutenant would not surrender. He was faithful to his direct orders: “Under no circumstances are you to give yourself up voluntarily.” He was told to carry out his duties until his commanding officer returned. Others in his command had surrendered to U.S. and Filipino forces or died. But Onoda remained steadfast, living off the land and evading capture for three decades. “Struggle to the end” was his motto. Onoda committed each day to do his sacred duty, saying in a solemn oath, “I will give my all.”

      In 1974 when Onoda was coaxed out of the jungle by a young Japanese adventurer and told the war had ended, he declared that he needed proof. His loyalty was so unprecedented that the Japanese military located the retired commander and sent him to the island to officially relieve Onoda of his duties. When they came face to face, Onoda saluted his commanding officer, removed his backpack, unloaded his rifle and laid it on the ground. His war was now over.” (Franklin Graham)

Sometimes God calls us to go somewhere we hadn’t thought we wanted to go, or to do something we hadn’t imagined we could, or to start something we hadn’t wanted to do, for much longer than we thought possible. We aren’t finished with God’s plans until God tells us we’re done. Until God announces: “Well, done, good and faithful servant, keep your bag packed by the door and your traveling shoes ready.” Never give up.

         God needs the Jonah we see at the end of this Bible story, not the selfish coward at the beginning. God needs passionate, clear headed, brave people of faith to lead our church, our community and our nation in such a time as this. Will it be you? Will it be me? Never underestimate what God will do.