READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
SERMON “God Changed His Mind”
Since the insurrection on the Capitol, I have been trying to make sense of Q-anon and its currently broken-hearted adherents. I admit that I dismissed it at first months ago, finding it confounding that so many people would believe in a conspiracy theory that involved aliens and global cabals of cannibalistic celebrities and politicians who drink the blood of children; who believe that JFK Jr. is still alive, who decode the numerology in every image and message that crosses their social media feeds.
But nothing human is foreign to me. A stranger is a piece of me I do not yet know.
So, I have been listening to podcasts and reading commentaries and listening to people I know who believe all or part of Q-anon. I suggest you do, too. Q-anon provides so many what my religion provides me: something transcendent to believe in, meaning, and belonging. It is powerful and dangerous, like all religions have the potential to be. This is especially true for those who got carried away with it. Check in on your friends and family who are suffering now because the Q prophesies didn’t come true. Many are enduring a crisis of meaning. They have lost jobs and businesses and friends and family. These folks need love, not shame. Empathy, not shame. Accountability for those who committed violent crime in Q’s name, yes…but not shame.
We worship a savior who FORGIVES and reconciles us to God. Shame is the tool of the oppressor, and it always has been. It is not a tool of social justice. And though it has long been used as such, shame is not a tool of real Christianity.
The Truth, capital T, is the only real tool of Christianity, and that is found in the Gospel; the GOOD news. God’s wasteful, extravagant love is showered over all of humankind. The Truth is not found on Fox News or CNN. It is found in the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
One thing we have been constantly reminded of during these past few years is that most people don’t really want the truth. They just want constant reassurance that what they already believe is the truth.
People say that America is a Christian nation. That’s not what I see at all. Left and Right are the actual religions people follow and what passes for the “news” one consumes are the new sacred texts. In fact, there was a study that came out recently from Pew research that suggested people pick their churches based on their political ideology, and not their religious beliefs.
Politics is an increasingly orthodox religion. We conform to the narcissistic governing whims of one man, or we are deemed a “Republican in Name Only.” We adhere without divergence to the current established doctrine of the Left or we are “canceled.”
The reason I was baptized a Christian as an adult is that I no longer want to be part of a religion one can be so easily cast out of. I believe in grace, not purity. Love, not doctrine. Truth, not lies.
When we stray from the Truth, we are ALWAYS invited back into the family of God. Not by means of cheap grace, but through an accountability process that includes repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation to Love.
And that grace is available to all, whether we like it or not. Judging other people worthy or unworthy of it is far above our paygrade.
Jonah learned that the hard way.
It is hard to fully understand the text we read from the Hebrew Bible’s book of Jonah today unless we understand the story of prophet Jonah himself.
First we need to know that Nineveh will become the capital of the Assyrian Empire 17 years after this text was written. The book of Jonah does not describe exactly what Nineveh has done to be perceived as wicked before God. We are supposed to already know that Nineveh is somehow, as Cory Driver says, “representing the wicked, bloodthirsty power of empire that would bring a particularly savage and cruel end to the kingdom of Israel…. “
Which is, in fact, Jonah’s own kingdom. Jonah is the reluctant Israelite who was called to warn his enemies in Nineveh of God’s impending wrath, that would destroy the whole city. Cory Driver says “In other words, Jonah is an Israelite nationalist prophet whose career is based upon prophesying national greatness for an unrepentant country.” Jonah has a God-given duty to warn a city full of the sinful, bloodthirsty people he hates that they would be “destroyed in forty more days.”
He takes no glee in this admonishment. Not because Jonah takes pity on the city of Nineveh, but because he suspects God will. He already knows that God is a “God of grace, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.” He knew that if Nineveh humbly repented, God might forgive them and reconcile them to Love. Jonah doesn’t want God to forgive the Ninevites. He wants them destroyed.
Jonah deemed his enemies unworthy of God’s grace so he could justify violence and destruction against them.
Psychologist David Smith, in his book “Less than Human,” says that “dehumanization starts with creating an “enemy image.” Our default mode as social creatures is caretaking of other human beings. In order to justify hate and harm, we have to create a less than human category for our enemies.
As we begin to see each other as subhuman, it becomes harder and harder to listen to those we perceive to be outside of our species. Dehumanization starts with words and images. When we hear people being compared to animals, or infestations, or savages, or illegals from s-hole countries, or pigs, or Cheetos, it is easy to feel no empathy for them at all. Brene Brown says, “There is a line. It is etched from dignity. That line is dehumanization. It comes from the left and the right. When we engage in that rhetoric, we degrade our own humanity.” If we cast people out of humanity altogether, we are able to justify all manner of violence against them.
In fact, violence is seen as righteous. Once we see people as subhuman enemies, or morally dangerous, the conflict between two sides has been framed as a fight between good and evil. The goals become zero sum…we must secure our own victory or claim defeat. The only way to win the good vs. evil game is to punish and destroy the opponent. We can no longer communicate, or practice empathy with one another.
Jonah was unable to empathize or communicate with those he saw as evil. He flees his duty to warn the Ninevites of their impending doom, trying to escape God on a boat to Tarshish. He rushes down to Joppa and takes passage in a ship that will carry him in the opposite direction from the city.
But it turns out there’s no running from God. There is a gigantic storm so big the people on the boat know that it can only be the result of God’s divine rage. Jonah confesses to his shipmates that it is his presence on the ship that is causing the storm. At his request, he is thrown overboard. The storm subsides, and Jonah ends up in the belly of a big fish. He is in that smelly dark place for three days and nights before he is vomited out on dry land.
After he emerges from the belly of the fish is where we meet up with him in today’s reading. God comes to him a second time and tells him again to “arise and go to Nineveh.” Properly terrified by God’s punishment, Jonah finally prophesies against the city. He warns the people of Nineveh that they will perish in forty days.
Just as Jonah fears, this warning causes the King, all the inhabitants and even the animals to wear sackcloth and ashes—a unified sign of repentance and acknowledgment of their sin. They turned from their evil ways, the text says.
The people of Nineveh are held accountable for their destruction, and they respond by repenting of their violence; their nationalism; their oppression; their supremacy—by demonstrating a change of heart before God.
So God changes his mind, the text says…and forgives.
The rest of the story comes later on in the book. Jonah does not forgive. In fact, he becomes angry, and sits outside the city waiting for its destruction. A plant springs up overnight to shield him from the heat, but a worm destroys it, increasing Jonah’s bitterness. Jonah pleads with God to just kill him and get it over with. “I am angry enough to die,” he says.
God speaks: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity 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?”
God forgives, “because we humans know not what we do.” And God saves the city of Nineveh from the calamity God intended to inflict upon it. We are never beyond repair; or outside of God’s care and mercy. We may have dehumanized one another, but to God our name is still “Beloved.” It is never too late to turn back.
Jonah, dismayed, is left wrestling with the question, “why do good things happen to bad people?” Perhaps Jonah needed a heart change just as much as the oppressive regime of the Assyrian empire.
Our scripture ends not with fake news, but with Good News. God’s grace and steadfast love are available to all if we are ready to repent of the sinful ways of division and destruction.
We are all children of the same loving God. Democrats and Republicans, MAGAs and antifas, black, brown, white, rich, poor, gay, bi, straight, male, female and gender non-conforming, documented, undocumented, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Christian, atheist, North American, South American, Asian, Australian, European, African, Middle Eastern, sinner, saint. If you are angry enough at your enemies to die, you may have been listening to false prophets instead of the still, small voice of God.
Judging others worthy or unworthy of grace is far above our paygrade. Even a warring nation will be sent messages from God as a warning shot before it is destroyed. Even societies built on violence are able to change God’s mind and heart if they respond with repentance when they are held accountable for their sins. Our work is re-humanization…before it is too late for us, too.
In the words of 22 year old Youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman:
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know,
to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we'll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we're to live up to our own time,
then victory won't lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we've made,
that is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it's the past we step into
and how we repair it…..
….. But one thing is certain,
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children's birthright.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org