Sermon delivered by the Rev. John H. Thomas at the 27th General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Grand Rapids, Mich., June 28, 2009.
Jonah 1.1-17, Acts 8.26-49, Revelation 22.1-5
Our texts today center around two bodies of water; we might even think of them as two baptisms if you will. One is a violent sea, churning and threatening, reaching out toward a reluctant prophet with its implicit choice: Redeem a reviled people or drown. There's a happy choice! Another is a quiet pool, welcoming a seeker into joy. One threatens to consume; the other offers the gentle ripples of grace. One is home to a fantastic kind of living aquatic tomb that hints at another three day burial, each leading toward the demands of justice, the rite of repentance, and the rule of righteousness. The other is a place of quiet companionship where the Spirit plays, snatching us up toward lives of rejoicing. Dumped in the sea, dipped in the pool. Immersed!
Jonah is remarkable among the prophets for his resistance to the word of the Lord. Others demur and some complain, even bitterly. But none of the others actually run in the opposite direction. Yet here is Jonah dashing down to Joppa toward the ferry slip where the last car is being loaded on the daily run to Tarshish. Imagine Jonah at the stern railing, thinking he's watching God receding beyond the roiling wake of the ferry's propellers. “Phew, made it.”
If Jonah is remarkable among the prophets for his resistance to the word of the Lord, he is also remarkable for being a prophet motivated more by his fear of success than his fear of failure. We can understand, perhaps even relate to Jeremiah: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Or Isaiah: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Or Elijah: “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Inadequate, insufficient, incapable - we know all the excuses and we have used them! But lack of courage is not Jonah's problem. In a bit we'll see him bravely telling the sailors in the midst of the tempest, “I'm the problem. Go ahead. Save yourselves. Dump me into the sea.” Presumably Jonah has been on other challenging, even daunting missions for God in the past. We wouldn't imagine God would look to a green recruit for a mission to Nineveh of all places. But Jonah wants nothing of this particular project.
Jonah, you see, is afraid of success. This information comes at the end of the story but, of course, we know how it all ends, and read it back through the text. Nineveh relents, repents, and is saved. And you will hear no rejoicing from Jonah: “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” “I knew it! Damn you God for not damning Nineveh off the face of the earth.” Jonah wants nothing of Nineveh's redemption and now, here he is, complicit with the Lord in the very thing he resisted, namely, Nineveh's “born again” experience.
We get some insight into Jonah's reluctance by reading the prophet Nahum's vivid rhetoric about hated Nineveh of the Assyrian threat.
Ah, City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty, no end of plunder!
The crack of the whip and rumble of wheel,
galloping horses and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end ... (Nahum 3.1-3)
You get the point. Nineveh, part of the ancient axis of evil. Babylon. Baghdad. Damascus. Tehran. Some things don't seem to change in Israel's corporate psyche. Not a popular place for Jonah's crowd. And maybe something from the past tells Jonah that God is not a reliable punisher, that wandering around the huge city repeating again and again, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” might just lead to a change of heart, a fast, sackcloth and ashes. Better to launch our rockets against the caves of Tora Bora or the mountains of the Afghan Pakistani border than run the risk of an off chance that Osama or the Taliban might become objects of grace rather than wrath.
A more charitable view of Jonah may be possible and, in fact, may humanize him for us. Could it be possible that he is simply wary of holy crusades, whether destructive or redemptive in character? Viewed from our side of history, we know that the ancient city of Nineveh is the modern city of Mosul in Iraq, redeemed from Saddam Hussein and now one of the most violent places in Iraq, its ancient Christian population destroyed and deported. Imperial projects, even under the alluring names of democratization or even God, have a way of going awry. Perhaps Johan knew something about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, imperial or divine. Let's give Jonah some credit here.
And then there's faith, apparent in his hymn of praise from inside the belly of the fish. Even in the midst of the peril on the ship, he is prepared to offer a witness to his faith: “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Let's not turn Jonah into a caricature. The author, Aldous Huxley, provides a vivid and delightful view of this Jonah inside the belly of the fish. Enjoy this for a moment!
A cream of phosphorescent light
Floats on the wash that to and fro
Slides round his feet - enough to show
Many a pendulous stalactite
Of naked mucus, whorls and wreaths
And huge festoons of mottled tripes,
With smaller palpitating pipes
Through which some yeasty liquor seethes.
Seated upon the convex mound
Of one vast kidney, Jonah prays
And sings his canticles and hymns,
Making the hollow vault resound
God's goodness and mysterious ways,
Till the great fish spouts music as he swims.
Well, that may be more information than you need or perhaps even want! But it does paint a more complex portrait of our reluctant prophet. Faithful, yet parochial in his willingness to allow God freedom for grace. Faithful, yet narrow and rigid in his parsing of the categories of justice and righteousness, good and evil, friend and enemy. Faithful, yet reluctant. Not unlike most of us, I suppose. There's nothing quite so annoying as the redemption of our enemy. And so he is dumped in the sea - immersed - for the lesson of his life.
Can we learn, too? We're prepared, most of us, to denounce the sinister greed of predatory lenders, and the arrogance of corporate leaders who put personal gain before the well being of their employees or their stockholders. It's easy enough, and it's important, to name a system in which the CEO of Reynolds Tobacco is compensated nearly $9 million annually, an amount the farm workers who pick the tobacco would need to work 1,250 years to achieve. But are we prepared to examine the predatory consumption in which we are complicit? The pension fund growth we want to maximize? The privileged health care most of us in this room - not all - but most enjoy? Like Jonah, we might succeed. And then where would our privilege be? It's easy to challenge the divers of inefficient SUV's, the profligate producers of greenhouse gases, the mining practices that destroy rivers, and the deforestation that destroys habitats. And it's important that we do. But are we prepared to usher in a world that changes our lifestyles dramatically? Like Jonah, we might succeed. And then where would our privilege be? It's easy enough to name the insanity of a wall across our southern border, and we should do that, as well as challenge the inhumane detention and deportation policies of our current anti-immigrant culture. But are we prepared to address the racism implicit in all of this, and in which you and I are also complicit? Like Jonah, we might succeed. And then where would our privilege be? It's no wonder we are, if not reluctant prophets, at least selective ones, booking passage when necessary on the Tarshish Express?
Jonah's immersion is violent, an encounter with a wild and dangerous God whose reach is persistent and whose demanding call toward grace is relentlessly judging of our small spirits seeking to domesticate and control the divine to suit our own prejudices and to serve our own privilege. The Ethiopian's encounter is more intimate, more tender, his immersion into a quiet pool accompanied by Philip the paradigmatic evangelist. “Immerse yourself,” they say to one another. No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here.
“Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” As in the case of Nineveh/Mosul, contemporary realities jar our biblical reflection. The ancient names resound in today's conflicts. They remind us that embattled and embargoed Gaza has an ancient pedigree, a history that lifts it beyond today's headlines of confrontations with word of a past life of normal commerce and domestic habitation that might in fact be hopeful for us.
On this road from Jerusalem to Gaza Philip meets an Ethiopian, an important court official to the queen. Not a Jew, we might describe the Ethiopian today as one of those people who is “spiritual but not religious.” The Temple in Jerusalem is perhaps for him a kind of pilgrimage destination, his reading of the ancient Hebrew texts a form of spiritual seeking by a religious outsider yearning for a spiritual place to call home. He puzzles over them like many today, scanning the websites of emergent communities searching for ways to address rootless and aimless lives, grounding them in meaning mediated by ancient practices and traditions. An outsider, he doesn't want so much to become an insider as to find a God for whom inside and outside make no difference. Could any ancient be more of our contemporary today?
It is not merely the religious seeker who encounters us on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Nearly sixty years ago the great Asian theologian D. T. Niles once said, “It seems to be true today, in a more tragic sense than perhaps it was true in the past, that men and women are not merely prodigal from their Father's home but have actually forgotten the Father's address. Some seem to have forgotten even that they have a Father.” Increasingly we live in a culture where even the memory of a divine Parent is lost, and where the spiritually homeless have grown so accustomed to a thin and flimsy shelter that they have forgotten what it might mean to have a real spiritual home. Are we prepared to enter these chariots with a word for the orphaned and direction toward a home for the homeless?
Then there is the fact that Ethiopian is a eunuch, an intriguing detail for us today where sexual minorities continue to experience harsh abuse from those who claim the very Scriptures the Ethiopian is reading yet who recoil from sexual differences of any sort, and often on the basis of the Scriptures themselves. Did the Ethiopian read beyond the noted text in Isaiah to a later set of verses? “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off,” (Isaiah 56.4-5). Not a Jew, but a foreigner. Not a family man, but a eunuch. Yet it is to one such as this that the Spirit sends Philip.
Philip seems to have specialized in evangelizing the foreign and the exotic. Earlier in Acts he is in Samaria where, among the converts, is a magician named Simon who previously had been much taken with his own powers. How would the greeters in your church react if a professional sorcerer showed up wearing a visitor's name tag? Now Philip is confronted by the Ethiopian Eunuch. What is remarkable, though, in this story, is not so much the “who” of his evangelism, but the “how.” Here we experience an intimate form of accompaniment. He goes to the Ethiopian's chariot; he sits beside him; he studies with him; he talks with him about Jesus in response to the Ethiopian's questions; and, when the time comes for baptism, he immerses himself in the pool with the Ethiopian. In this text we are invited to a kind of immersion that neither ignores nor coerces, but invites, accompaniment that is a mutual sharing in the Gospel. And what's the result? Philip is snatched away by the Spirit, perhaps to another field, perhaps to give the Ethiopian freedom in his new faith. The Ethiopian presumably goes back to work at Candace's court. But this is what is different: He goes on his way rejoicing. God is still speaking!
Yet, for some reason, this kind of immersion scares us. At an international gathering last November a group of us were talking with a pastor from Zambia. The discussion turned to baptism, and its forms. “Do you baptize people in church? Or in the river?” “Oh, we use the river,” replied the pastor. Then he added in a very matter of fact way, “But you do have to be careful when the crocodiles are around.” Why is it that so many of us in the United Church of Christ approach evangelism, the sharing of the Gospel, the accompaniment of today's Ethiopians, as if there are crocodiles around? Why do we act as if telling someone about Jesus will result in our losing a finger or a limb or worse? I can't tell you how many times total strangers have asked me about the comma pin in my lapel. What a marvelous opportunity to talk about the Still Speaking God. And not once has that encounter entered badly. And if my friends haven't all gone on their way rejoicing, they invariably have a smile, a word of affirmation, and in one case, “Honey, you've been a blessing to me!” Really, there are no crocodiles in this baptismal pool. Immerse yourself!
Dumped in the ocean. Dipped in the pool. Immerse yourself, United Church of Christ! To reluctant prophets and timid evangelists, the stories of Jonah and Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch offer a profound challenge. Can we trust that beneath the roiling seas of our flight from God there are great and benevolent fish to swallow us up into sanctuary and spit us out on our way toward faithfulness? Can we trust that beneath the calm surface of the baptismal pools beckoning evangelist and seeker alike there are no crocodiles to consume us? Can we trust the water? Curiously, at the end of the story - the whole story that is - there is no dry land, only more water. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life; bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” John, the Seer, imagines a city drenched by a river, nurturing life, and watering trees that will be for the healing of the nations. Immerse yourself. Dumped. Dipped. Drenched. We can't really get around it.
As a native New Englander I've spent a lot of time watching people enter the bracing waters of the Atlantic Ocean from the moderate beaches of Long Island Sound to the Gulf Stream tempered waters of lower Cape Cod, to the numbing cold of Maine. Swimmers tend to fall into two categories. There are the toe dippers who take it gradually, slowly immersing themselves step by step with long pauses particularly when the water level reaches the waist line. Many of these swimmers never make it all the way in. Too much occasion for second thoughts. Too many opportunities to turn back. Too much time to feel, or at least imagine, tiny creatures nibbling at your toes. Too much time to feel, and to fear, the cold. A lot of the United Church of Christ is like this. We go to the beach, but only get in half way.
Then there are those who dash in at full throttle, providing themselves no opportunity to turn back, a headlong plunge leaving no time for second thoughts. A long time ago John Updike wrote about this: “Consider. We enter the sea with a shock; our skin and blood shout in protest. But, that instant, that leap, what do we find? Ecstacy and buoyancy. Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and we are saved,” (Lifeguard, 1961). Here's an invitation for reluctant prophets and timid evangelists.
After the sea, after the pool, comes a river bearing us home on the buoyancy of grace. A few years ago I spent an evening with my mother listening to some old Victorian hymns on her CD player. At one point she remembered the Sunday School parades that were an ecumenical staple of the Brooklyn of her early childhood nearly ninety years ago. Thousands of children paraded through the city of churches. She must have been very young, but she remembered the hymn. Can you hear it? “Soon we'll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease; soon our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace. Yes, we'll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.” Immerse yourself.