Worship in Place | Jonah | January 17


The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859

Order of Worship



Call to Worship

Peace Candle 

VT 6 | Let’s walk together

Children’s Time 

Mission Moment | Piecemakers

Offering/Dedication Prayer  https://www.columbusmennonite.org/donateget-involved/donate

HWB 580 | My life flows on

Scripture | Jonah 1: A dramatic reading

Sermon | When the ship is breaking apart    Manuscript below

Silent Reflection

VT 442 | From the waters I will rise

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Pastoral Prayer 

Extinguishing the Peace Candle 



Christian Education | 11:00 am


Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service

Sermon: Joel Miller

Worship Leader: Kerry Strayer

Music coordination: Phil Yoder

Mission Moment: Judy Hartzler 

Children’s Time: Tim Stried

Peace Candle: TBA

Scripture Reading: Wyse Family

Zoom Host: Sarah Werner


Sermon: When the ship is breaking apart

“But Yahweh hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up”  Jonah 1:4

“Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate”   Leonard Cohen in his song “Democracy”


Early in the Christian movement, leaders began using the ship as a metaphor for the church.  The imagery goes back to Scripture.  The letter of 1 Peter makes a connection between the death and resurrection one experiences through the waters of baptism, and the ark of Noah and his family and the animals that brought them through the flood waters.    Before Genesis tells that story, it portrays the world as a watery chaos, similar to other Near Eastern creation myths.  “Now the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim, the god, swept over the face of the waters.”      

It was Clement of Alexandria, in the second century after Christ, who noted that a sea vessel was one of the appropriate Christian symbols to use for a signet ring.

The church father Tertullian, writing in the second and third century, spoke of the ship in which the disciples were tossed back and forth on the sea as a figure for the church.

This symbol later became more tangible in church architecture.  The traditional name for the main body of the church is the nave.  It means ship, and takes its name from the same Latin word we use for navy.  The nave, the ship, is where the laity sit.  It holds the people.  Looking up at the arching beams in some cathedrals is very much like looking down into the ribs of a ship.  This is by design.

The church, thinking goes, carries us safely through the watery chaos that is life in this world.

Before the church was the church, Plato had used the image of the ship as a symbol for the state.  Plato had issues with Athenian democracy because he felt it gave too much freedom to individuals who would use their power for selfish gains.  Or who simply didn’t know what was best for the common good, like a bunch of sailors who claim to know everything about sailing and navigation, paying no heed to the one who has been carefully trained to read the stars to chart the course for the ship.  The ship of state.

When Leonard Cohen sings “Democracry,” an achievement we claim to have realized, he takes the familiar ship image from Plato, and speaks of democracy as something still on its way in, not yet fully here:

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square…

From the wars against disorder
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on

The ship on which Jonah sails is not the mighty ship of state, although the book of Jonah was likely written around the same time Plato was writing Republic.  And it is not the ship of the church, although the story of Jesus in the boat with his disciples draws heavily from Jonah – including the detail of Jesus  being asleep in the boat amidst the storm.  

Jonah is on the ship because, famously, as the story says, he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord.”  This presence had come to Jonah as a most unwelcome and difficult call.  “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was the dominant empire that had brutally destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.  Jonah’s prophetic call is to venture into the heart of the society of those people responsible for the cruel and violent suffering of his own people, to point out the evil of their ways, and thus give them a chance to see the injustice they have done, and to repent.  For reasons we can likely understand, Jonah wants no part of this.

He wants no part of this so strongly, that he does indeed get up at once, but rather than go to Nineveh, he heads to the port at Joppa and sails for Tarshish, the exact opposite direction.  On this MLK weekend, we might ponder this as being something like Martin Luther King Jr getting the assignment to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and promptly catching the first plane out of Atlanta – for Alaska.

The book of Jonah is the parable of the prodigal prophet.  And the ship on which he sails is pointed away from the place toward which he has been called.  He is sailing.  He is sleeping quite soundly thank you very much. 

And then comes the storm. 

The sea has always been a treacherous place, both literally and metaphorically.  When you’re crossing the sea, you need a good, sound ship.  And sometimes even that isn’t enough.    

I saw a pretty remarkable poll on Thursday.  In an Axios/Ipsos poll of over 1000 Americans this past week, 79% of Americans believe America is falling apart.  Along party lines, 83% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats agreed or strongly agreed with that statement: “America is falling apart.” To which one can respond – Well, we finally found the one thing that overcomes our divisions.  Four out of five of us, regardless of party, agree that we’re falling apart.  Digging not much deeper, of course, reveals that people strongly disagree on what is the cause and the symptoms of this falling apart.

It does put the question to us: What do you do when you’re on a ship that’s sailing in the wrong direction?  Whether it be the church, or the state, or a personal journey?  What do you do when you’re on a ship that’s sailing in the wrong direction, surrounded by people who strongly disagree what the right direction is, some of them family and friends?  What do you do when you’re on a ship sailing in the wrong direction, surrounded by people who strongly disagree what the right direction is, and there’s a massive storm raging, threatening to break the ship apart? 

Do you pray to the gods of sea and sky and virus to put an end to the great storm?  Do you put your energy into bailing out the water, or patching the ship?  Do you breathe a sigh of relief that a new captain has been elected who will steer us, however slowly, toward calmer waters?  Do you and your people secure a life boat and trust that the church will keep us afloat even if the nation-state won’t?  Is there a way to do all of these at the same time?

Earlier this week when I was telling Abbie about preaching on Jonah and focusing on the ship and storm and bringing in the church and the country, I mentioned my quandary that I thought the metaphor kind of broke down a little bit since Jonah just jumps overboard and everything turn out to be OK.  To which she replied that I should just stick with what I had in mind and let everybody figure out on their own what it means.  To which my reply is Sweet, my favorite kind of sermon.  I get to illustrate the problem, and everyone else gets to figure out the solution.  So there you have it.  Bad storm.  Jonah jumps ship.  Discuss amongst yourselves. 

But I’m not sure I want to preach a sermon the Sunday before inauguration in which the most likely moral of the story is “move to Canada.”   

You are free, as always, to interpret the story in whatever way you would, but here’s my best suggestion for now for how we follow through with this part of the Jonah story in light of everything. 

What’s so shocking and memorable and even comical about  this opening of chapter of Jonah is that the ship, that powerful sturdy vessel built by human hands, turns out to not be the only way to survive a storm.  And the raging sea, that primordial nemesis deep in our collective psyche, representing chaos and threat and the unpredictable whims of nature, turns out to hold within it an unexpected source for sustaining life.

We don’t know what was running through Jonah’s head when he did.  But we do know that Jonah and everyone else are saved only when Jonah leaves the safety of this ship he had so counted on to carry him to freedom, and dives into the storm.    

Ever since our very ancient ancestors crawled out of the sea and started breathing oxygen out of the air we have had a complex relationship with the sea.  More recently, we have had a complex and downright adversarial relationship with nature itself.  The civilizations that have risen up have sought to subdue the natural world and have done an increasingly effective job.  The ship of state now sails through waters over which we think we have much control.  The ship of church has too often simply mirrored, or even been the motivator of these actions. 

The 21st century Jonah must come to terms with the possibility that salvation cannot lie merely in our own ability to build a bigger, better, more storm-proof ship.  Jonah, fully aware that the storm and his own actions are intertwined, has a saving encounter with the non-human world.  In the original story it’s a big fish that becomes a sanctuary for Jonah to breath and learn and pray and survive.  And Yes, it was probably intended to invoke a good belly laugh for the original audience.  It’s a ridiculous twist, and yet, the Lord seems to love the ridiculous to get humanity’s attention. 

In our time the big fish could be any other feature of creation, or creation itself, that becomes that sanctuary.  To teach us to breathe again.  To teach us the interconnectedness of life.  To teach us the cooperative language of trees and fungi, the expansive boundary-less lives of birds and moths.  The ridiculous possibility that the storm of our own making holds within it the possibility of peace.   

This doesn’t solve all our problems.  The ship still needs labor and leaders to get it where it needs to go – past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate. But the ship is part of a much larger eco-system.  One that calls to us to do strange and difficult things.  Like engage our enemies.  Like build relationships with non-human creatures.  Like get in the boat, or out of the boat, with Jesus, and see what kind of good trouble he gets us into next.