I preached this sermon about Jonah at St. Lydia's. It's about call, and God's pesky habit of calling us to places that make us want to run like hell in the other direction.
Read the biblical passage.
I think there’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.
Jonah’s a prophet, but unlike all the other biblical prophets
who are remembered by their eloquent words,
calling the people of Israel to truth and repentance and justice
Jonah is remembered for running away.
It’s a little hard to tell why Jonah is sooooooo resistent to God’s command.
I mean, what’s so bad about going to Ninevah??
It doesn’t seem so bad…but for whatever reason, Jonah does not want to go!
Maybe Jonah is tired of being a prophet and telling people to repent all the time.
Maybe he wishes he could just do something normal, like run a shop or something.
Or be a sheep herder.
Or maybe he’s been to Ninevah before and didn’t much like the look of the place.
Or maybe he just doesn’t much like doing what people tell him to do.
Maybe he’s contrary.
Whatever, the reason,
God tells him to do one thing, and he takes off in the other direction entirely.
I think there’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.
I know there’s some Jonah in me.
I got my first hint of a call when I was 15 years old
sitting in church with my parents at the cathedral we attended in Seattle.
I was watching the priest preside at the Eucharist,
standing behind the altar in that great stone building,
arms outstretched as she chanted the prayers
and a thought hit me:
I want to do that.
It’s hard to describe, really.
It wasn’t a voice, but it didn’t feel like an ordinary thought, either.
It felt like it came from inside me and outside me at the same time.
It was like a bell being rung in my heart.
For a while, I thought maybe I wanted to be a priest,
but by the time I arrived in college I was sure I wanted to be a musician,
even though I kept taking religion classes.
And by the time I applied to Divinity School
I was sure I wasn’t going to be ordained
and by the time I was working in a big New York City church
I was sure it wasn’t because I was going to be anybody’s pastor.
And by the time I started gathering people around a table in a friend's apartment
for something that had already come to be called “St. Lydia’s,”
I was really just very, very confused.
Something was happening that I seemed to have very little control of.
I wasn’t running full tilt the other direction, like Jonah,
instead I was walking down the road to Nineveh,
insisting all the way that that’s not what I was doing.
“Looks like you’re going to Ninevah,”
someone might say, who passed me.
“Oh, no, no,” I’d answer, “I’m just walking on this road.
The road that leads to Ninevah.
But I’m not going Nineveh.”
I my experience,
God’s call resembles nothing certain, nothing known,
and certainly nothing comfortable.
When God’s call is in full effect in our lives,
it will draw out our most brilliant gifts,
and our most foundational weaknesses.
I take myself as an example of this.
For many years, I was a person who was at my most vulnerable when called on to speak in public.
I stuttered over words in speeches and in conversations too.
I stuck to the corners at parties,
preferring the company of close friends I knew.
I was, at times, cripplingly shy.
I had some pretty well developed coping mechanisms
designed to hide those features of my personality from the people around me,
but after many social interactions I would go over and over what was said
chastising myself for being so awkward.
Becoming a pastor has forced me to dismantle those coping mechanisms,
and work from my weakness.
It’s ironic, really,
because in many ways, St. Lydia’s, our Dinner Church,
is my worst nightmare:
a room full of people, many of whom are strangers,
having conversations around tables that may at some point be awkward.
And look at what God has called me to make:
my worst nightmare and, at the same time, my most beautiful dream.
I have not overcome the things that are hard for me
about being in the role of a pastor every day,
and I don’t expect that I ever will.
The beauty of a call is that it calls forward every piece of who you are:
the strong and the weak.
It asks everything of you.
I believe that everyone has a call to follow.
There might not be some kind of big reveal at the end:
some perfect career or vocation or answer
of WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE.
A call is a living thing:
a silent, beckoning presence in one’s life
that is always shifting and changing,
requiring attentiveness and care and response.
Calls show up in different ways for different people.
We often think about a “vocation” as a call lived out through a job -
like being called to be a teacher or a doctor or something.
Especially today I think about firefighters and medical workers
who lived their call out in the days following September 11th.
They were rescuers, healers, finders of truth,
cataloguers of the stories of those who died.
They bore the weight of the city in those days.
I’m sure there were days when, like Jonah,
they wanted to turn and go the other direction,
but they kept showing up.
For some people the call is lived out through a job that’s more than a job.
For others, it’s different.
I think of the story a friend told me of her mother,
who was the matriarch of the public housing unit where she lived.
She wove the community together
throwing baby showers for anyone having a baby
and making sure everyone was taken care of.
She knew everyone.
She was a healer too.
Her call was lived out in her community,
and nobody hired her or paid her to do it.
I’m sure she faced some stormy times living out her call,
like Jonah in the ship upon the sea.
I think of the call of the artist, or the writer,
who practices day after day, honing their skill and technique,
trying and failing and trying again.
Being an artist is terrifying.
They must learn to look deep into the void of their own hearts.
Uncover things they might not wish to uncover.
They must learn to sit in the belly of the fish, deep under water,
and know that, though this is far from comfortable,
it is necessary.
Facing the self is at the heart of the responding to call.
It’s at the heart of being a whole person, of living from our guts.
Here’s what I notice in Jonah’s story:
calls are particular.
“Go to Nineveh and give them this message,” God says.
We’re not called to be everywhere and save everyone.
We’re called to one place, for one job.
And for me there is a sense of relief that emerges from that realization.
You can’t show up at every social justice meeting that’s listed in the St. Lydia’s newsletter.
You can’t dedicate yourself to every cause.
But you can do one thing. One thing that God’s asking of you.
We see also that the call can be the last place we’d like to go.
If you’re anything like Jonah,
there’s something about it that makes you want to get up
and run like hell in the other direction.
There’s also something about it that won’t let you go.
Somethings that’s alluring and compelling and maybe even intoxicating.
Something that feels like home.
Something you can’t help responding to, despite your best intentions.
Calls are not the thing you wish you didn’t have to do, but do anyway.
They’re the thing you’re most afraid of doing, but most desire.*
They flood you with joy, and fill you with fear.
After three days and three nights in the belly of that fish,
safe but terrified, carried through the deep,
God makes the fish spew Jonah out on dry land
(the Hebrew word, actually, translates, “vomited")
and Jonah emerges.
It's not pretty.
He is cold and wet and smelling of fish,
and hungry and tired from his ordeal.
And, it seems, ready, or beat up enough,
to face the call that God has placed on him.
When he finally arrives in the great, sprawling city that is Nineveh,
he shouts out his proclamation:
And as if by magic the people respond, and repent.
Even the King sits in sackcloth and ashes, and orders a fast.
Jonah is a prophet in spite of himself.
If he was worried about his effectiveness in his role,
he didn’t have to.
God actually had it under control.
That’s something I’ve had to learn all these years trying to be your pastor.
It’s a lot less about me and my “gifts” then I’d sometimes like to believe.
Turns out sometimes all you have to do is just stop running so hard,
and let go.
Let grace take care of it.
There’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.
I don’t know what you’re running from,
or what you're headed toward,
what questions you’re facing about what God is calling you to do.
But I do know that each of you has a bell in your heart.
And every once in a while,
you hear it ring.
A word, a sentence, a thought that comes from you but also outside you.
Do something new, it’s saying.
Attend that event you keep thinking about.
This is what I really love.
See what it’s like.
Try it again.
It might be buried, way down deep,
because you’re tired, or hurting,
or too busy, or maybe terrified of what you might hear.
That’s fine. One thing at a time.
But it’s there.
And whether you run in the other direction for a while,
or sit up and listen,
God has a way of finding you.
And when God does,
it might not feel comfortable,
but it will be good.
A Question for reflection:
Where is your Nineveh (the place you're running from, even though God is calling you there), and where is your Tarshish (the place you tend to run away to, instead).
Spend some time writing on this question.
*I draw this wisdom from Rev. Donald Schell of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco.