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Homily: Jonah, Jonah, Jonah!

Homily preached at Noonday Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral on February 21, 2018.hear
Lent Ember Day Wednesday; Year B; Jonah 3:1-10; Psalm 51:11-18; Luke 11:29-32

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am glad we hear from Jonah today. But let me fill in the parts you didn’t hear -- when God said, ‘go to Nineveh,’ Jonah ran the other way. Only after God makes the seas stormy, Jonah is cast overboard, and swallowed by a great fish, Jonah calls out for God’s mercy, and finally goes to Nineveh as commanded. Then later, he throws a hissy fit when God forgives Nineveh. He is angry God doesn’t punish the city, so he storms off in a huff. Later, when a bush giving him shade withers, he ramps up his tirade. God asks if he has any right to be angry, and Jonah, in classic infantile style, whines, “Yes! Angry enough to die!” I imagine him stamping his foot, pouting, and furrowing his brow.

Jonah is easy to poke fun at because his behavior is so childish and self-centered. We laugh at his adult-sized temper tantrum because we all know adults are too old for that sort of behavior. (Pause ~ Look around) But that is what is tricky about Jonah too. For deep down, in places we do not like to talk about, we also know Jonah’s experience all too well. If we’re honest, we could confess that we too have thrown an epic hissy fit or two in our adult lives. We’ve all had our Jonah moments. If you’re like me, you pray “Boy, that sounds all too familiar. I hope no one sees my hissy fits!”

In the end, Jonah does what he is told – witnesses to the people of Nineveh, as God requests. Yet in the drama of Jonah’s story, we often overlook one central aspect here. Jonah is not the hero of this story; No, Nineveh is. Nineveh, for all its sinfulness and shame, has no problem admitting they are wrong. When Jonah proclaims the city will be overthrown if they do not repent and change their ways, the people immediately believe God. They declare a fast, and everyone – elders, adults and children – put on sackcloth. Even the king of Nineveh immediately rises from his throne, puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes. The royal decree is for all in the city – humans and animals – to fast, be covered in sackcloth, and cry out their repentance to God. The king declares, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

The city of Nineveh is quite unlike most modern recipients of judgment. In Nineveh, no one holds a press conference to defend their motives and actions. No one holds a counter-protest to the judgment. There are no tweets distracting the masses. No one even argues with Jonah or asks, “Really?” Nineveh is told a cold, hard, ugly truth that exposes their deep sinfulness and grievances, and instead of getting defensive, Nineveh drops all pretenses. The people stop, amend their ways, taking the judgment with sobriety and honesty, and they change. They repent and turn to their God. And while we might give Jonah the credit, the real heroes in this story are the Ninevites.

So, when Jesus speaks of repentance in Luke’s gospel today, and when the Church talks about repentance in the season of Lent, this is the kind of repentance we mean. Jesus shares that he is to the people of Israel as Jonah was to the people of Nineveh. He is their sign that repentance is needed. The people of God are to use Nineveh as their guide for what true repentance looks like.

I think that Jesus’ instruction and Nineveh’s example come at an opportune time for us. We have managed to work ourselves into a time of finger pointing and name calling. Our division is found on the political scene, between different faiths, varied cultures, across this nation, and even in our families. We have presumed that we are Jonahs, God’s prophets, and everyone else is like Nineveh, the sinners. The reality, though, is much scarier. We are not Jonahs – we are the sinful Ninevites. Jesus is the Jonah of our time, calling us into repentance and renewal. We can follow the model Nineveh set for us, dropping everything to evaluate our sinfulness and changing our behavior immediately. We can sit in sackcloth and work to deeply understand the role we play in sinful behaviors. We can invite our neighbors to sit with us as we both work toward repentance. That is what Lent is all about.

So how do we repent? How do we take this time of Lent as a time for intentional, dramatic, meaningful change in our lives? The psalm appointed for today gives us a few clues. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me … Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.”

First, we ask God for help. We ask God for help, because we know our God will enable us to do the work God has given us to do. The psalm also tells us to bring others into our journey, “I shall teach your ways to the wicked, and sinners shall return to you.” We not only bring our broken, sinful, hurtful selves to God, we witness our work to others, using our own vulnerability and humility as an entry to shared journey.

And then we sing. “Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation. Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” We use our mouths to praise our God – a God who can change course, who can see the repentance of God’s people and take away the horror of judgment.

Today many brace to again defend their 2nd Amendment right as gun owners, while countless others speak out against the devastation an AR-15, a military weapon of war, and other automatic and semi-automatic guns can cause so quickly when in the wrong hands at the wrong time in the wrong place for the most evil of reasons. And so now, younger modern-day Jonahs are rising around this nation saying, ‘Enough! No more!’ They are stepping up and speaking out, even lying down in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as our new prophets, crying, ‘America is the new Nineveh and we are your Jonahs!’ They are crying out against the tide of words, thoughts and prayers only, following the repeated loss of life for too long with no action or change or, dare we call it, repentance. When will love of God, God’s creation and one another supersede our national love for firearms? Not soon enough, I’m afraid. We’re all already too late for far too many. How many more must perish? God help us.

But I am grateful that we are here today. We come before God across denominational differences and we sit together in worship. We hear the witness of Nineveh, and then we start the work of emulating that acceptance. We hear Jonah and Jesus’ word of judgment, letting God create in us clean hearts and renewing right spirits within us. Then, we turn to our neighbor, and work on creating a community of repentance, working to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. Finally, we will turn to those not here today – those who may be without a church home or loving community, and we share our witness. We share our witness of how we have been a people of sin, and how we hope to change our ways. And we ask if they might help us on that journey – not taking the judgment of Jonah out into the world but bringing the repentance of Nineveh out into the world.

Hearing our neighbors, working together for meaningful change, maybe finding a path to some sensible gun reforms in this country, creating a nation that is humble enough to know that God may relent and not let us perish. God will renew a right spirit within us, giving us the joy of God’s saving help again, and will sustain us all with God’s bountiful Spirit. Thanks be to God!