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
STS 39 | Will you come and follow me | Quinn Blosser, violin; Tom Blosser, piano and vocal
Offering/Dedication Prayer https://www.columbusmennonite.org/donateget-involved/donate
Simple Gifts | Tom Blosser, piano
Scripture | Jonah 3
Sermon | Sincerely Yours (text below)
VT 636 | Spirit, Open My Heart | Martin family, vocals; Tom Blosser, piano; Quinn Blosser, violin
HWB 471 | Eat this bread | Phil and Julie Hart, Fred and Marlene Suter, vocals
Extinguishing the Peace Candle
Christian Education | 11:00 am
*We practice an open Communion table and all who hunger for God are welcome to participate.
Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service
Sermon: Mark Rupp
Worship Leader: Kelsey Ryan-Simkins
Music coordination: Tom Blosser
Children’s Time: Joel Call, Phil Yoder
Peace Candle: Alyssa Graber, Austin McCabe Juhnke, and Marlow Juhnke
Scripture Reading: Ruth Leonard and Lily Miller
Zoom Host: Brent Miller
Doing a series on the book of Jonah means that my brain has been especially attuned these last few weeks to paying attention to ways that the natural world can have surprising lessons to teach us. Sometimes these lessons simply require us to learn to pay attention a little more closely to the world around us and invite the wisdom of Creation to slowly reveal itself to us, and other times these lessons show up and demand attention by knocking us on our rears or even swallowing us whole. Often it’s a little of both.
Even though the whale--or large fish as is probably more accurate--barely shows up in the story of Jonah, the chapter where Jonah spends three days and nights in its belly acts as a sort of pivoting point for the story. Many of us have probably heard this story enough times that we might tune out. But try for a moment to imagine hearing it for the first time. Until that point in the narrative, maybe you are thinking this is a pretty mundane story. Prophets hear God’s voice all the time. So what? Another storm? Not surprised. A giant fish that not only swallows the prophet but he survives in his stomach for three days? Now we’re listening.
Or at least now maybe we’re listening in a new way because we’ve realized this story is the kind that invites us deeper, the kind that is less about imagining how someone survives in the belly of a fish and more about helping us find ourselves there as well.
So with the parable of Jonah and the big fish floating around the back of my mind, my interest was piqued a few weeks ago when someone in our Poetry Unwind group chose a poem by Seamus Heany that was called “St. Kevin and the Blackbird.” Another religious figure interacting with an animal? Tell me more.
When I first saw the title, I was skeptical that a blackbird could have the same surprising effect as a whale, yet as our conversation around the poem unfolded, it felt like the lessons the blackbird offered to St. Kevin and, by extension, to us, were just as profound.
I won’t read the whole poem here, but I will link to it so that you can read it if you would like.
The poem is split into two sections. In the first, Heany describes a scene with St. Kevin in his monastic cell, a room so tiny and narrow that when he kneels to pray with his hands outstretched in supplication, one hand goes out the window. It is in this position that a blackbird lands in his upraised palm and settles in to nest. In the space of a single line break, St. Kevin can feel the warm eggs and the small breast of the bird in his palm that has become the impromptu nest. With this surprising turn of events, Heany tells us that St. Kevin, “finding himself linked / into the network of eternal life, / Is moved to pity”. The first section of the poem ends with St. Kevin holding himself in that position until the baby birds have grown enough to fly away.
Like the arrival of the whale, the blackbird shows up in a way that instantly makes you realize this is a story about something more true than shoulder strength or avian incubation.
The second section of the poem begins with a shift and an invitation to reflection. It starts, “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, / Imagine being Kevin. Which is he? / Self-forgetful or in agony all the time…”
It is this question that, at least to my reading, Heany leaves unanswered by the end of the poem. Which is Kevin, self-forgetful or in agony?
When love makes surprising demands of us, which are we, self-forgetful in our saintly acts of service to the world, or are we in agony, dragging our feet the whole time and rueing our connections to the network of life? Is it ok to be a little bit of both, or do we risk our sainthood if we admit that we’d often rather run the other direction or shoo the world away when it lands in our hands?
Heany’s poem invites us into these unanswered questions as an invitation to explore the concept of sincerity. This is the same theme and similar questions that emerge in the 3rd Chapter of Jonah. It is a little hard to separate out the various chapters of the book of Jonah without overlapping too much, and that feels especially true with this chapter because it is here that the story reaches the height of its absurdity. If you thought living in the belly of a whale for three days was absurd, wait until you hear about how well Jonah’s half-hearted attempts at prophesying to the Ninevites goes over.
Chapter 3 begins in almost the same way that Chapter 1 did, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah,” but now with a bit of narrative side-eye it adds “a second time.” The message Jonah is to deliver also remains mostly the same except for one small difference. In the first chapter, God tells Jonah to cry out “over” Nineveh whereas now the preposition has been changed in Chapter 3 such that Jonah is to cry out “to” Nineveh. The change is minor and may not amount to much, but it also could imply that Jonah is now being directed to an even closer proximity to the Ninevites that he so despises.
But surely that shouldn’t be a problem because we’ve just been through chapter 2 and listened to Jonah’s prayers in the belly of the fish and seen how his heart was moved.
Which is he, self-forgetful or in agony all the time?
We don’t get much of Jonah’s perspective in this chapter. That will have to wait until next week. But there are a couple details that betray how Jonah is feeling about his assignment, even after his supposed change of heart. The first is the strangely specific detail about the size of the city. The author makes sure we know that Nineveh was three days’ walk across. This is a big city, but I can only imagine that specific detail is included to serve as a contrast to the follow up line stating that Jonah only went 1 day’s walk into the city to deliver his message. It almost feels like Jonah was only willing to go in as far as he could easily get back out.
Not only does Jonah seem to severely limit his contact with the city, the oracle that he delivers amounts in Hebrew to a whopping five words. My bible includes an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, but it almost feels like he jets in, finds the first busy street corner he can, and mutters God’s message before high tailing it back out of town.
That’s probably reading too much into the text, but if nothing else we can at least be in awe that a 5-word sermon could cause an entire city to change its ways.
Whether we are willing to grant that Jonah is being sincere or not in his willingness to follow God’s commands, the bigger mystery is perhaps the question of whether the response from the Ninevites is sincere or not.
As I mentioned earlier, even though the big fish episode happens in Chapter 2, to me Chapter 3 is the height of the absurdity of this story. A town known for its evil and violent ways suddenly makes a complete one-eighty when a stranger shows up and says 5 words. A town so big that it takes three days to walk across has a message spread like wildfire through its streets such that so many people are fasting and wearing sackcloth that this news eventually reaches the king. It’s a message that is so powerful and a change that is so all-encompassing that it doesn’t trickle down from the halls of power as these sorts of things usually would but surges up from the common people all the way to a king who not only joins in but insists that even the animals among them must participate in these acts of repentance. Even the animals.
There is nothing in the text to make us obviously question the sincerity of these acts of repentance. Indeed, the final verse of Chapter 3 tells us that God sees them and accepts them, so perhaps that ought to be good enough for us. Yet, I don’t know about you, but a change this drastic that comes on so quickly certainly gives me pause. What’s more, the question the king poses leads me to believe that while he may sincerely not want to have God’s anger rain down upon them, it says nothing about what happens when the sackcloths are put away and the ashes are wiped clean.
The “Who knows?” attitude of the king feels strangely similar to the kind of faith many of us may have grown up with where belief was treated as a kind of fire insurance or cosmic Get Out Of Jail Free card. One has to wonder whether the “Who knows?” from the king is followed by an unspoken “Can’t hurt.”
So which are the Ninevites, self-forgetting or in agony all the time?
The book of Jonah as a whole wrestles with the question of God’s mercy versus God’s justice and comes to its most direct climax in Chapter 4. But for this week and this chapter, the question that echoes the loudest from this part of the story is, “What does it mean to be sincere in following God’s call on our lives?” Whether that call shows up as a summons to speak God’s justice or as a conviction about the need to repent, how can we be sincere in heeding that call?
There is a kind of folk etymology that has emerged around the origins of the word “sincere,” and even though there does not appear to be evidence to support its claim, I still find it really beautiful. The thought is that the word sincere derives from the Latin words “sine” and “cera” meaning “without wax.” The explanation for this is that sculptors in Rome would sometimes use wax to cover up the imperfections and flaws in their work. Thus, to claim to be “sincere” meant that you were not hiding anything, that things were as they appeared.
I think of this every time I find myself using the word “sincerely” at the bottom of a message and wonder whether I have waxed poetic to cover up the truth of my words.
I prefer this origin of sincere even if it may not be true, because the more accepted etymology holds that it comes from a Latin word meaning clean or pure. Too often this is what we convince ourselves is necessary to be sincere, whether we are demanding it from others or beating ourselves up trying to live up to a standard that feels always just out of reach.
What if we accepted that sincerely following the call of God would look like both self forgetting and agony? What if we trusted that we didn’t need to feel purely or anything close to saintly in order to take those first steps? What if instead of treating faith as fire insurance, we were courageous enough to move toward the fire, confident that the only thing that it can melt away is the wax behind which we hide our truest selves?
The book of Jonah offers no easy answers to any questions, including the question of sincerity of repentance. A seemingly insincere Jonah still manages to be wildly successful, and an entire city’s over-the-top expressions of sincerity are left untested. I won’t spoil too much of Chapter 4, but I will say that it begins with Jonah outside the city waiting and watching to see what will happen. Jonah gets a bit of a bad rap for coming across as stubborn and unforgiving, but I think we have to give him credit. The Ninevites were known for their evil and violence against Jonah’s people.
Perhaps it is impossible to tell whether our enemies are sincere or not when they begin to make acts of repentance, but that doesn’t mean we have to allow them back into our lives. Perhaps it's ok to wait and watch and to sit for a while outside the boundary of those who have done us wrong. Perhaps it is ok if following God’s call feels like agony for a while as we work our way toward self forgetting.
Toward the end of Heany’s poem, after exploring the open question of agony and self forgetting, he describes St. Kevin in this way:
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
The longer we stand near love’s deep river, the more we begin to see not just ourselves but ourselves mirrored back in all others who pass our way. But this vision of our place in the network of eternal life doesn’t always come so easily. So with sore arms and aching knees, with hearts still heavy with anger and with all the cracks and imperfections of our facades on full display we learn to utter prayers our body’s make entirely.
Later in the service we will be taking communion. It is a time when we remember that when we are broken and when we are poured out, we participate in that Divine mystery that makes us one, both alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river. So when we come to that table, let us come not because we are clean or pure, not because we have to or because we fear what will happen if we don’t. Let us come offering ourselves just as we are, sincerely yours.