Don’t Run Away From Tension
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, January 24, 2020, third Sunday after the Epiphany. “Tired Feet, Rested Souls” series.
Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Considering how much people love a good fish story, it is curious that in the whole of the three-year lectionary cycle, the book of Jonah is included on only two Sundays—and neither of those selections include the fish! Today’s passage is certainly a key moment in the story. But the short book—totaling just four chapters—is such a rich wisdom parable, layered with symbol, satire, and surprises it merits not only a full read, but also repeated, probing reflection. Likely written in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E., Jonah, like any good satire, is both entertaining and sharp in its critique. The Jewish people in this period—either toward the end of the Babylonian exile or newly returned—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. And the primary characters—the reluctant Hebrew prophet Jonah, the city of Nineveh, and God—all play their parts brilliantly. The tension is palpable from the beginning.
God calls Jonah to cry out against the wickedness of Nineveh. Jonah’s response was to flee in the opposite direction. Historical side note: Jonah is mentioned in one other place in scripture (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. The last place Jonah wanted to go was into the belly of the beast, Assyria.
But in trying to get away, Jonah lands in the belly of another beast, the great fish provided by God who provides a strange, comic shelter for him within the waters of chaos and danger. In that place, Jonah cries out to God. And after three days and nights, Jonah is returned to dry land, changed. He is now not only a prophet, but fish vomit.
This is where our text picks up. God calls Jonah again and this time, Jonah doesn’t run away. He walks about a third of the way into Nineveh and delivers his prophecy, the shortest sermon on record, just 5 words in Hebrew: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And immediately, in a magical realism kind of way, the people “believed God,” their fasting and putting on sackcloth were signs of their repentance. The king of Nineveh ups the ante, proclaiming that all people and animals will fast and be covered with sackcloth and turn from their evil ways and violence.
And looking upon this rather absurd scene of people and their cows and sheep covered in sackcloth and ashes, God’s mind changed and the calamity Jonah had announced did not happen.
One might think that Jonah would be pleased that his 5 word sermon had such a transformative effect on the people. What we didn’t hear today, however, is that Jonah’s reaction is rage and despair. He goes so far as to say he’d rather die than live with this outcome. Why might Jonah be displeased at God’s mercy upon the Assyrians? We know one reason—Jonah hates them. Jonah wants God to be gracious, merciful, slow to anger, steadfastly loving and ready to relent from punishment with him but not with them. (4:2) Jonah wanted to end the story with his message of judgment being the last word. Instead, the story ends with Jonah outside the city, pouting under a tree withered by a worm (the kind of image that lends itself to a Bernie Sanders meme).
We don’t know if the people of Nineveh’s repentance was sincere. We don’t know if Jonah withers up like the tree or has a change of mind or heart. A good story doesn’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends. It leaves us in the tension of the questions and, ultimately, of our own choices, our own reality. It holds the mirror up in such a way that we are confronted with our own stuff, the ways our image does not yet reflect the image of God.
In this moment we, like the first hearers of Jonah, are in a moment of religious, tribal, and national tension. This story is a prism that shines light in multiple ways upon our lives. I will highlight two.
First, like Jonah, we may struggle to go where God calls us. There will be many reasons for this, but a pretty consistent reason that folk run away is that God’s call requires discomfort, requires us to enter into or even to create tension. And I’m talking about God’s call on all of us through our Baptism. To participate in God’s mighty acts of salvation, to use our God-given freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, will mean that we’ll be led into situations that are deeply uncomfortable, emotionally fraught, and dangerous because that is what real love requires.
I am in regular conversation with a close colleague, a white man serving in East Texas in a town historically scarred with racist violence. He explains how folks in his area have figured out what it takes to “get along” and so they do what it takes not to rock the boat. My friend has been increasingly speaking out on issues of racial justice. One result of this is loss, not only of church members and money, but friends. As he prepared for one very public act of solidarity in town, he sent his family to grandma’s house out of fear of violence against them. His experience is just one of so many examples of why people—perhaps especially white people—might sympathize with the eight white pastors and religious leaders to whom Martin Luther King, Jr. responded in his “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.”
These eight white men were upset by the “boat rocking” of the direct actions in Birmingham. They suggested that the peaceful protests—protests akin to a prophet who walks into the city and proclaims God’s judgment against evil and violence (like Jonah or Jesus)—incited “hatred and violence.” They asked, “Why not negotiate instead?” To this MLK responded:
“You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
Too many persons who claim to follow Jesus are afraid of the word “tension,” unwilling to acknowledge tension as a divine change agent. People of any race, ethnicity, or culture can fall into this trap in various contexts—most folks recoil at the very thought of conflict and tension. But part of the lesson of our scripture with its backdrop of historical brutality against persons of other tribes and ethnicities; part of the call of God in our time as we grapple with the ongoing scourge of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country, is to recognize the ways that white churches, white leaders, white pastors have been and continue to be unwilling to speak and act as allies in the struggle for racial justice and equity for fear of tension and conflict. We have been perfectly willing to let hatred, violence, and tension affect the lives of our siblings of color. But when even a sniff of tension gets close to us, the pattern has been defensiveness and blame directed everywhere but where it truly belongs. Those white religious leaders in 1963 never once acknowledged that the “hatred and violence” they claimed as the outgrowth of peaceful protest were why the protests were necessary in the first place.
As King famously wrote (and I quote directly, using the common parlance of the day), “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
It is here that many receiving these words may be mentally scurrying about to locate themselves as far away from any of those people—the Klan or the “white moderate”—as possible. After all, everyone knows that we are bold and willing to take a stand for the sake of justice! I give thanks to God that the huge Black Lives Matter sign on Foundry’s lawn, and the signs in my yard, my preaching and advocacy for racial justice and equity, my choice to march or publicly stand in solidarity, Foundry’s investment in the Journey to Racial Justice, don’t cause me to lose half my congregation or threaten the financial sustainability of the church or put my family in physical danger of violence. But let’s not pretend that systemic racism doesn’t exist within our congregation or that there is not a word for us in King’s letter. Together, we continue to try (thanks be to God). We continue to directly address issues and create spaces where tension and conflict are bound to emerge among us. This will likely increase over the coming months as we begin to discern concrete tactics to implement change. My prayer is that we will not run away from the tension, but receive it as a sign that we’re really doing something, that we might just be moving toward a “positive peace” with justice.
I also want to say a brief word about “unity.” Unity is a good word and a lofty goal. I hope anyone who truly knows me would say that I deeply desire unity among the human family. But like the “negative peace” of which King wrote, there can be a “negative unity.” Unity without justice, without change, without any accountability is just a word. Wishing for it or trying to manufacture a “kum ba yah” moment will not cut it, no matter how deeply we long to just get to unity already. In our rush to regain some sense of normalcy, a reprieve from daily chaos and intentionally divisive rhetoric, I pray we with the privilege of choice to retreat or to stay engaged, will not be silent when there is a move to release the tension before the work for “positive unity” is done. I pray we will remember that blaming others for sowing division while not taking concrete responsibility for our own role in sustaining injustice and disunity is hypocrisy.
And this leads to the other thing I want to briefly highlight. The story of Jonah challenges us to confront our own hatred and our own tribal, political, ideological, religious, racial, regional prejudices. This is a tension as difficult as any to bear. Jonah didn’t want his enemies to receive the mercy that God extended to him time and again. Perhaps he wanted God all to himself or for only his people, his nation. Perhaps he thought God was only on his side. Can we—you and I—be honest enough to admit our own hatred and prejudice?
This tension is indeed difficult and painful; because it reveals just how far we are from fulfilling God’s call of radical love and mercy. That is the call upon every one of us, friend and foe alike. It is God’s radical love and mercy that has brought each of us through until this day—whether we perceive it or not. It’s the goal of our living, really, if we seek to be truly human. To love as God loves. To be merciful as God is merciful. This doesn’t mean we have to like everyone. It doesn’t mean we have to all agree on things. It absolutely doesn’t mean “anything goes.” But it will require us to honor one another enough as children of God to not kill each other, to pray for one another, to bear and even create tension in order to move toward the goal of positive peace and unity, and as King wrote, to “rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
When we even try, when we commit, when we repent, as those in Nineveh, we’re told that God knows…and is ready to relent from punishing. God is merciful.
God’s not going to let us go, no matter how much we try to run away… a storm, a fish, a call, a joke, a shade shrub, a protest, God will keep showing up, will keep working through the tensions so that we might finally… change. We can throw a tantrum about that. Or we can choose to say, “Thanks be to God.”