Word of the Week

God Calls You to "Those" People: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

When I was in seminary, a peer of mine, who later became a dear friend, realized one important truth the first day of Old Testament class. Brad did not know the basic stories of the Bible. He knew little to nothing about Abraham, Moses, the 12 tribes of Israel, King Saul, David and the like.  Brad was so lost in Bible class that on first pop quiz our professor gave us on the Torah-- otherwise known as the first five books the Hebrew scriptures, he got an F.

You may wonder what a guy like this was doing in seminary. We all wondered too. But then later learned that Brad's upbringing came in a open and accepting denomination like our flavor of Baptists. And, growing up in his home church, Brad said, youth group taught him how to plan service projects and how the gospel of Jesus was all about loving people, but never really learned much about the Bible.

As you can imagine, Brad desperately wanted to bring his grade average out of the failing zone. Brad informed our study group that he'd recently purchased, "Bible for Dummies." And, our group protested his use of such a book for a seminary student. We'd be glad to help, especially the lifelong Bible drill Baptists, my friend and I who probably knew more random facts than we really needed to.  

So, operation Bible 101 for Brad began. As a group we gave Brad extra reading assignments every week and sometimes even make up our own quizzes to give him to track his progress. We also found another great teaching tool for our Bible novice-- and this was the series of children's DVDs called the Veggie Tales.

I don't know if you've ever viewed a Veggie Tale movie before but the premise is simple: to make the great stories of the Bible accessible to children through slight modification of the setting. Instead of the characters being played by human characters, the animated actors are all vegetables led by Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber.

So, Brad began to watch Veggie Tale episodes faithfully as they corresponded with the lessons. One problem arose though when he watched the Jonah movie, which features our lectionary reading for today. However, Brad walked away with the understanding that Jonah, played by a disobedient asparagus,  hated the Ninevehites because they constantly hit one another in the face with fish.  Additionally, Brad also asked us why the members of the ship sailing to Tarshish instead of Nineveh (when Jonah was running away) played the card game of "go fish" to figure out whose live was not right with God and had to get off the ship.

We had to remind our eager and sometimes gullible friend to always actually READ the text.(Because such details in the movies were added simply to keep the young viewers entertained).  

And though such details in the Veggie Tale version of Jonah's tale seem laughable, if we stick closely to the entire book of Jonah, they might as well be included. The entire narrative reads like one of Aesop's fables. We find very few details of Jonah's life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere. Furthermore, as the story progresses, we are given no details about how in the world it would be possible for him to survive for three days in the mouth of a fish and miraculously be dumped on dry ground when his "punishment" is over to have a second chance at delivering the message.

While Jonah is often referred to as "Jonah and the whale" as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God's plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. A story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God's love for those we consider to be "those" people.

It is good to first consider the who and what of Nineveh and why God's message to go preach there was completely out of the question for Jonah.

 Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a city with a strong military base, the seat of all things powerful in the ancient world. If you were a small nation, you feared any contact with Assyria.

Furthermore,  Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end  all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years! Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights.  Previous prophets were clear about God's judgment on this land which repeatedly mistreated God's beloved people.

But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians. Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.

In Jonah chapter 1, the Lord gets right to the point saying to Jonah in verse two: "Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!"

So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy! And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn't even get to say something nice . . .

It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: "God wants you to repent for you've done really bad things." (Not exactly the words that usher in hospitality from Assyria, wouldn't you agree?).

One commentator defines the situation presented to Jonah as the original mission impossible.  And goes on to write about why this was such a hard thing for Jonah to do saying, "Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed through as a way station to somewhere else, kind like 1-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for such an act of international diplomacy. He would get less respect than Ambassador of Palau would get in [here in] Washington D.C. (You get extra credit [for listening to this sermon] if you actually know where Palau is!)." [i]

So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid. Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him. Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world. Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God-- a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.

We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don't we? We could see ourselves in Jonah's shoes will all of the evidence of filing a complaint against God with just cause to do so.  We'd run away too, wouldn't we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?

But what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it-- what happens if it doesn't go away? What happens if we are called to be with "those" people and God just won't let us forget? What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?

Around this time last January, Kevin and I sat on a bus heading from West Jerusalem into East Jerusalem in the area of the country known as the "West Bank." We traveled alongside an American Imam, an American evangelical pastor, a Palestinian guide, an Israelite guide and an Jewish Rabbi-- from the United States too, but who had spent extensive time living and studying in and about Israel. 

Though every day of this 10 day Interfaith adventure held new challenges, it was the sixth day of our journey which stretched each of our understandings of Jewish/ Muslim relations within this compact geographic region the most.

Rob, the Rabbi, with us, while having spent time on numerous trips all throughout the region, even some journeys into the West Bank, had never been to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. This sight sat in the Palestinian "capital" city of Ramallah. As we walked around the plaza area and viewed the memorial, our group was asked to take a picture beside the mosque on the property with couple of the guards. I was watching my friend Rob become increasingly more and more uncomfortable.

Years and years of politics, persecution and distasteful words shared between the people of Israel and those of the Palestinian territories  and in particular by Arafat brought great caution to his presence here. It wasn't about this one man: it was about thousands of years of history.

Rob didn't want to be in the group picture with the rest of us. And, in retrospect, I understood why and respected my new friend's authenticity.

He later wrote on the group blog: "Yet somehow I must confess: as a Jew I am scared, not just of the possibility of what can happen to a Jew in Ramallah, but for what can happen inside this Jew in Ramallah. I feel a chill down my back. And I’m ready to board the bus as quickly as time will allow." Rob knew, you see, cost of either the hatred or the love-- whichever path he chose-- in this place. If this change of love sipped into him for this place, his faith he lived out in a community of other Jews like himself might have to shift. If he hated in this place, his heart might grow hard in the great cost of bitterness.

As we continued our journey in the West Bank, our schedule allowed a trip to the University of Berzit. I was still learning about all of the history, but to Rob, this stop was a place that continued to challenge him. I could see it all over his face.  "Jews just don't come to Berzit, we learned," from one of our guides. "We are told that it is a breeding ground for terrorism education." 

But Rob and our Israelite guide bravely, along with the rest of us, began our tour at the university regardless. And to all our surprise we found Muslim and Christian students eager to meet us and share experiences. Who knows what a terrorist looks like at school, but these kids looked as normal as they could be. Two of the girls we chatted with briefly on the steps of a lecture hall told us that "they'd never met a Jew before." To which Rob chimed in quickly and said, "Now you have." Rob was moved to reconsider again what he'd always thought about Berzit and the people of the West Bank.

Rabbi Rob, along with the rest of our group that day, received God's challenge to us there. Even if we think we know "those" people and centuries upon centuries of ill has been done-- God remains steadfast in love for all the nations. All people.  All people we like. All the people we don't. And because this is true, God calls us to lay down the walls of "us" and "them" which inhibit us from relationship.

Rabbi Rob went on to write about his transformative experience that day saying, "I am humbled as I admit: I am praying for peace for Israel and all nations of the world. . . . Still I pray: may the maker of peace in the heavens cause peace to descend on us, on all Israel and all who dwell on the earth, Amen."[ii]

And, like the Rabbi if we are going to take our call seriously to see all people of all nations of the world, then we too are going to find ourselves in positions as unique as being a Jewish Rabbi at the tomb of Arafat.

Consider this: our public policy and our leadership in policy as a nation, has a long way to go in support of all of our neighbors of the world. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to use OUR voice?

We, as socially conscious people of faith, have a great calling to see those hated neighbors among us, just as God sees them, in the eyes of love and to just the power of our voice to bring our nation's leaders accountable to peace making  . . .

To ask our President to think carefully about the new global policy inanities he makes and to consider all people in the nation of Israel.

To ask our Virginia governor and legislators to consider who our social service and social laws are leaving out-- and ask them to include all of God's children in key decisions when it comes to issues of marriage, healthcare, and opportunities for employment.

To ask the leadership in Fairfax County about our tax structure and why there is not more being done in one of the wealthiest counties in America, to deal with the systemic problems of homelessness and poverty.  And this is only the tip of what could be asked of us.

But, even more personal than this-- I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who "those" people are in your life. You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you'd explode. Whoever is on your list of "those people" I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God's family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .  

It's a hard edge to sit with this morning. It's a hard, hard edge that may make you and I question everything we thought we knew about what is true about justice, war, and foreign policy, but the way of relationship, the way of community building IS the way of our God.

Today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed.


[i] Todd Weir. "Jonah and Mark 1:14-20 (Epiphany 3B) Give Jonah a Break" http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2006/01/jonah_3_mark_11.html#more

 [ii] Robert Nosanchuk http://crdcgmu.wordpress.com/projects/peace-and-understanding-between-jews-christians-and-muslims-where-does-humanity-lie/ipji-blog/rabbi-robert-nosanchuk/