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 | Jonah series
Call to Worship
VT 838 | La paz de la tierra (The Peace of the Earth Be With You) | Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers, directed by Benjamin Bergey
Mission Moment | Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADN)
Offering/Dedication Prayer https://www.columbusmennonite.org/donateget-involved/donate
VT 703 | Rain Down | Ken Nafziger and the Journey Musicians
Scripture | Jonah 4
Sermon | Ending with a quest(ion) manuscript below
VT 440 | Ask the Complicated Questions | Katie Graber, piano & vocal
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Extinguishing the Peace Candle
Cookie Sunday | 11:00 am
Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service
Sermon: Joel Miller
Worship Leader: Carolyn May
Music coordination: Katie Graber
Children’s Time: Martha Ruggles
Mission Moment: Tracey Lehman
Peace Candle: Chris and Tim McCarthy
Scripture Reading: Chris and Tim McCarthy
Zoom Host: Sarah Werner
Ending with a quest(ion) | Joel Miller
This morning we’re going to go for a little hike. No worries, you can do this from the comfort of your home, but you still might want to limber up the muscles of your imagination as we prepare. We can’t take a whole lot with us on this hike, just what we can carry. The usual water and some food will be fine. No need to wear snow boots or even dress in layers. It’s summer, and it’s hot. And since we’re imagining, let’s give ourselves the freedom to even leave our masks behind.
This hike is at the outskirts of a large city. We’re walking away from the outer suburbs. And as we begin, we’ll notice that the terrain has an incline. We’re going up. Get used to it. Getting to higher ground is actually the whole point of this hike. And just so we’re clear, this is not one of those pleasant nature hikes, where you appreciate the details of your surroundings, feel gratitude for the energy in your body, pause to soak in the beauty of the landscape.
The purpose of this hike is to get to the end, to the top of this hill, and you are not in any frame of mind for site seeing, or mindful breathing, or conversation, so even though we’ve imagined ourselves out of the pandemic, you’d still prefer it if others stayed at least six feet away, or further . This is stress hiking. And you’re fuming mad.
You’re so angry and out of touch with what’s going on around you that even if the most beautiful and rarest of birds, the most glorious of trees, the most unusual rock formation, were to appear before you, you’d likely not even notice.
And before you know it, you’ve reached your destination. You have no idea how long you’ve been hiking. Ten minutes? An hour? Maybe longer. No matter, this is the spot. The sun is beating down, and now that you think of it, you are rather thirsty. You make a little shelter, take a seat, take a swig of water, and finally focus your eyes on the one thing you can’t get out of your mind. The one big thing. It’s that city, and everyone in it. The whole city. And now you have the perfect view.
You have just hiked your way into the final scene of the story of Jonah, and you are now occupying the space that Jonah occupies in the fourth and final chapter of this book.
Truth be told, the story of Jonah works just fine without chapter 4. In fact, it might work better.
Let’s review: We first meet Jonah when he receives a call from Adonai, the Lord, to go and preach in Nineveh, a city full of injustice. The capital city of the people who committed unspeakable atrocities against his own people.
Jonah refuses this call. Instead he boards the first ship in the opposite direction. When the Lord sends a mighty storm on the sea, the only way to calm it is for Jonah to be thrown overboard, which he is, after which he is promptly swallowed by a large fish, saving his life. Jonah prays inside the fish, and survives for three days and three nights, after which he is spewed up onto land, giving him a second chance. Now Jonah does head to Nineveh, preaches a one sentence sermon about Nineveh’s imminent destruction, which causes the entire city – king, people, and animals, to change course and repent. Which causes the Lord to change course and relent from destroying the city.
Could be End of story.
Nineveh is saved. Jonah becomes the most effective prophet in the history of prophet-ing, returns to Israel to open a prophet-consulting firm, specializing in the power of one sentence sermons, earning extra speaking fees re-telling his misadventures on his way to Nineveh and ultimate success therein. And Adonai gets another city that has turned toward righteousness and justice.
That’s a pretty good story, with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. Chapters 1,2, and 3.
It turns out, there’s someone who despises this story. Who is so sickened by this story and filled with burning volcanic rage that he would prefer to die than have the plot play out this way. We know this because he says it three times. Three times he says he’d rather be dead. This person is, as you know, none other than our friend Jonah. His intense disapproval of the unfolding of these events, his protests with so-called Divine compassion, and Adonai’s responses to those protests including a little life lesson from a fast-growing, fast-dying plant, Jonah’s trekking to a high spot outside the city so he’ll have the best seat in the house if, maybe one of those repenting animals accidentally kicks over a lantern that sets the whole city ablaze. A guy can hope. All this is the subject of chapter four. It’s almost as if those other three chapters, what appear to be a complete story, are now just the prelude to the main event, setting the stage for this showdown between Jonah and his God.
It’s like the older son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The merciful father receives back the younger son with joyful outstretched arms, but the older son can’t bring himself to join the feast celebrating his wayward brother’s return, despite the father’s pleading.
It’s like the story of Job, except rather than Job’s protests of why terrible awful things happen to good people, Jonah protests why good things happen to terrible awful people.
It’s like the story in Genesis of Abraham bargaining with God over the city of Sodom, except rather than Abraham trying to talk God back from the brink of destroying the evil city: You wouldn’t wipe it out if 50 innocent people can be found in the city, would you? No? Well then how about 45? 40. 30. 20. How about 10 good people in a terrible city? Would you please, Lord, preserve the whole for the sake of the few innocent? Rather than Abraham’s haggling to de-escalate Divine wrath, Jonah would like to escalate it. Or at minimum escalate his own.
I’m thinking the preferred ending Jonah has in mind might look something like the closing scene of the movie Fight Club, where Edward Norton’s character and Marla Singer look out across the city as the plot he unknowingly led culminates in all the high rises owned by the rich who only get richer on the backs of everyone else, these bastions of capitalist excess, come crashing down to the soundtrack of the punk rock song “Where is my mind?”
But before we come to too firm a judgment against Jonah, before we discount him as petty or a failed prophet, before we crown him the patron non-saint of revenge fantasy, let us sit with him a while. We didn’t take this hike for nothing, after all. Let us sit with Jonah on this perch overlooking the city of oppressors, abusers, bullies, and their enablers.
Can you see what Jonah sees? Can you feel what Jonah feels?
Let us sit with Jonah in his anger. His rage. His trauma at the memory of his people being mowed down by this empire. Let’s sit with Jonah in his despair of how easily people get away with murder. How hollow is their request for forgiveness when it’s not accompanied with a commitment to repair the harm they have caused. God provided a plant to give shade to Jonah, but the plant has withered, and the sun is beating down on Jonah’s head, and his blood is boiling.
I don’t think this is too far a stretch for our imaginations. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last four years it’s that outrage might be one of those under-appreciated fruits of the Spirit. Being upset at that which is upsetting, being outraged by that which is outrageous – this is healthy human behavior. And if we think about it, for some, we might be considered the citizens of that harmful city that keeps on saying we’re sorry and prospering at other’s expense, without doing a whole lot to change our behavior.
The beautiful thing about the story of Jonah – the surprising thing – is that it ends unresolved. It ends, actually, with a question. A question from the Lord to Jonah. After observing Jonah’s deep feelings for the plant that has just withered, this is how the NRSV translates the Lord’s and the book’s final words: “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?"
This past week I attended a virtual conference in which one of the presenters pointed out that a question is a mini-quest. Each question that lodges itself in our hearts, our minds, is an invitation to a quest. Now that someone has said that it seems kind of obvious that those words are related, but I’d never thought of it that way before.
Throughout the story of Jonah, the Lord gives Jonah a calling, a big fish, a second chance, and a shade plant. The Lord’s final gift to Jonah is a quest.
Like all quests, Jonah has the ability to accept or reject the invitation. One option is to stay on that perch. It’s an important place to be for a while, to sit with one’s anger, but eventually Jonah’s going to run out of water and food. Being outraged at the outrageous can be healthy. It’s also exhausting. To stay up there forever would be to die in his rage.
Another option would be, when he is ready, when the time is right, to get up, and find his way down from that place. On the way down, to perhaps notice one thing that opens his attention to awe and curiosity. Then to attend to his needs. Some good food. Some rest. To attend to his inner life. To see if the young fruit of outrage can ripen into constructive action. To see if his moral combat with God might soften to at least a truce.
Jesus was once asked by the crowds for a sign. His response was that no sign shall be given it, except the sign of Jonah. This has traditionally been interpreted to refer to those three days and three nights in the fish and the tomb, the movement from death to resurrection. But I think we can expand the sign of Jonah to refer to anyone who is on a quest to live with their own anger and despair in a healthy way. This is a most challenging quest. But just being on the quest is itself a sign of the Christ presence among us.