The Bible is not generally considered a humorous book — but funny images and amusing characters are found in its pages. Humor is a good antidote for the doom and gloom we too often feel these days. The story of Jonah reminds us that it's not all on us to make things better. It's time to lighten up — and we can! God is with us, inviting us to share in mending the world.
In August, we visit the story of Jonah, the one book of the Bible that is pure theological, comedic satire. As with most comedy, you may find yourself in the story in a way that will teach you — and might even make you laugh. Join us ... and get ready to smile!
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC,
August 7, 2022, the ninth Sunday after Pentecost. “Let There Be Joy!” series.
Text: Jonah 1:1-16
For some years now I’ve been ruminating on joy—what it is, how humans experience it—and my intuitive, spiritual sense is that joy doesn’t get its due.
It’s not that we don’t appreciate joy when it appears, it’s just that there’s so much of everything else clawing for our attention. Most folks I know would admit that the painful stuff in life provokes their inner spin cycles much more consistently than the graces and joys. I have been known to cogitate for days on the things that aren’t working well, on injustice in the world, on the failures in my life and work—all the while largely ignoring my accomplishments and the extraordinary beauty, power, grace and new life all around me. Perhaps you can relate.
But there is, of course, the current state of the planet and world and human family as a whole. It’s depressing. And those of us who believe in freedom, justice, and peace chant over and again that we cannot rest until those things are manifest on earth as they are in heaven. This can leave us feeling like we can’t release the heaviness, like we can’t give ourselves any breathing room from the pains of the world, like we can’t lighten up and enjoy the good things of our lives because not everyone can enjoy those same good things in their lives.
The first week of June 2020, just after George Floyd’s murder, I preached a sermon in which I said, “God is with us in the beautiful, complicated mix of human experience where we can hold many different realities, concerns, and ideas together at the same time! Human life doesn’t exist in either/or categories but is always both/and/and/and…” A member of Foundry reflected back to me that he and his partner had not decorated the outside of their home as they normally do to celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month because it didn’t seem appropriate. But after the sermon they realized that they could feel both pain and conviction about racist brutality AND joy and pride as they celebrated their own identities and the love they share. So they put up their Pride stuff alongside their Black Lives Matter signs.
Poet Jack Gilbert puts the point in clear relief, writing:
We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
Sometimes—oftentimes!—it is difficult to let happiness or joy have any space. It’s hard to let anything other than the injustice of the world get any of our attention. But part of our prophetic witness is to resist allowing the heaviness of life to starve us of one of the most beautiful gifts of God. Today and over the next several weeks we’re going to explore the story of Jonah that certainly is filled with all sorts of human realities, feelings, choices, consequences—it’s a “both/and, and, and” kind of story that provides us with plenty to think about. And along the way, we’ll watch carefully for where joy wants to get some attention.
Today, I’ll give us some background and set the scene.
The book of Jonah is comprised of only four chapters and is a rich wisdom parable, layered with symbol and satire. Jonah, like any good satire, is both entertaining and sharp in its critique. While the book is not chronicling an actual event, it may refer to the Jonah mentioned once elsewhere, in 2 Kings 14:23-27, as a prophet who supported the Northern Kingdom (Israel) in the 8th century B.C.E. Nineveh is a large city in Assyria, the nation that brutally conquered the Northern Kingdom during that same period.
In the book of Jonah, written a century or two later, in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E., the author was speaking to a Jewish people living toward the end of the Babylonian exile and newly returned to Israel. They were struggling to navigate how best to relate as a minority population among the nations of the surrounding lands. There were tensions and concerns about assimilation and about losing their cultural and religious identity. These religious, tribal, national tensions are certainly part of the backdrop for the story of Jonah. The tension is palpable from the beginning.
Our story opens with God calling Jonah to cry out against the wickedness of Nineveh. Jonah’s response to God? “Hard pass.” Jonah not only flees in the exact opposite direction from where God calls him to go, but determines he will take a boat to Tarshish, an ancient seaport probably on the western coast of Spain, the end of the then-known earth. He doesn’t just say no…//
Jonah boards a boat at Joppa—and then the hurling begins! Three times in chapter 1 the Hebrew root verb טוּל, tul, meaning to hurl or cast, is used. God is first, hurling a great wind upon the sea and stirring a mighty storm. When the sailors’ appeals to their gods fail, they hurl their cargo overboard. During all this hurling, Jonah found a spot to nap—perhaps feeling smug for having escaped God’s difficult call and happy to let others deal with the consequences. When asked to call upon his god to save them, Jonah doesn’t respond. The going understanding in those days was that bad things that happened were the result of someone making their god angry. So the sailors decide to determine who the guilty party is by casting lots, an ancient version of dice or drawing straws. And, of course, the lot fell on Jonah who answers all their questions and admits he’s on the run from YHWH, Creator of all things. When they asked what they should do, Jonah told them to hurl him overboard. They didn’t want to do it, but when their best efforts failed, hurl him they did.
An interesting thing to note about this opening to our story is that, even as Jonah was defying God, something rather remarkable happens. At the beginning, in verse 5, the sailors were fearing the storm and crying to their various gods. By the end of the story, they are crying out to and fearing YHWH. (1:14, 16) Even when he isn’t trying, Jonah brings about a conversion to and connection with God. Jonah doesn’t witness this, however, as he’s somewhere in the depths of the now calm sea; and what happens next is the story for next Sunday.
A couple of thoughts for us about this opening scene. First, the obvious: we cannot hide from or outrun God. Second, sometimes our avoidance of what we know we are called to do stirs up proverbial storms, can cause things to be worse than they would have been had we just taken a breath and trusted God to help us do the hard thing. Third, God can be up to something through our lives even when we are making a real mess of it. And finally, I know it’s difficult to receive a call from God to do a thing that you really, really don’t want to do. But what I’ve discovered in my own life and in relationship with others is that not running away, but turning toward the call—even if it’s with the smallest curiosity and openness—will bring you face to face with new life and surprising moments of joy even in the midst of difficult, complicated human moments.
The disciples of Jesus in our Gospel had all answered a call to follow and are now gathered in Jerusalem after the trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion. They’ve received the proclamation of Easter from Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women and have just received the testimony of those who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And then, Jesus appears among them. Jesus speaks peace; they are terrified and doubtful. Jesus is there in flesh and blood; and “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” Jesus says, “Have you anything here to eat?” I love this moment—in the midst of all their fear and doubt, I hear Jesus saying to his friends: Y’all. Why are you focusing on fear and doubt? Lighten up! New life, resurrection life, is possible. I am with you. Give in to the joy! And let’s eat!