Jonah 3: 1 10; Mark 1: 14 20;
Why can't church be fun? By fun I do not mean frivolous or silly. But why do churches have a well deserved reputation for taking the fun out of just about everything? Take, for example, the great fish story in Jonah. What has the church done with it? Most of the time, we have either argued about the size of fish or ignored it. Leave it to the church to turn a great play into a lecture on ichthyology. The result is that the church is not only a dull place to be far too much of the time, but we also miss out on the really great moments in books like Jonah.
Jonah is a story about changing opportunities. It is a drama that tries to shake us out of our slumber and wake us up. It is so bold in scope that not only does it try to change us, it even dares to change God. Maybe that is one reason why there is no record of John Calvin's youth group in Geneva performing the book of Jonah for a fund raiser. Are Presbyterians even allowed to talk about the possibility of God's changing mind? It not only sounds like fun, it sounds dangerous and heretical. This tiny two page book of Jonah portrays a boldly inclusive theology. It is a masterpiece not only for its audacity, but because it also reflects our unwillingness to follow God's call and our frequent attempts to tell God how to act.
Let's start with this business about the call. You may remember that last Sunday we read three different responses to God's call. There was Samuel and the stumbling around in the night response to God, there was Philip and the eager beaver response and there was Nathaniel and the "I need to check this out more closely" response. But in the end all three of these fellows get active pretty quickly. Maybe Jonah is more representative of many of us. When God calls Jonah to Nineveh, Jonah responds by running in the other direction. Jonah decides to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. He hops on board a ship headed in the opposite direction. Now that kind of response is one that I understand.
Five years ago I was busy trying to create an academic career for myself. I was teaching, finishing a second dissertation, and reading papers at meetings, The last thing I wanted to consider was parish ministry. God, I said, if you could find me a fun church, then maybe I would be willing to talk with you about this. But don't forget, I'm Presbyterian! We are the ones with so much decency and order that we usually don't have time for fun. Late one evening, I answered the phone and the stated clerk of Cascades Presbytery asked me to serve as the moderator of the Session in Clatskanie. Well, it certainly did not sound like fun, but I figured that maybe one evening a month would keep God happy and allow me to spend the rest of my time on exciting ideas like the relationship of the early to the later Wittgmsteinian writings. So off I went to Clatskanie and you know what I had a good time. And before I knew it, I decided that it was more fun than I had imagined.
That is exactly why I regret that we ignore Jonah—for it is true to my life and I will bet it is often true to yours. We know and we feel God calling us in one direction and we try to hide or run away. But hear this good news: God gives us second chances. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time." Thank goodness. I need second times and third times. God did not give up on Jonah and God will not give up on us.
Jonah finally heads out to Nineveh and proclaims the word of God. The people of Nineveh are so glad to hear someone from a church or synagogue say something significant that they immediately decide to change their ways. The Icing leads the way. The people begin a time of fasting and repentance. What happened? Listen to this: "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind." Immediately, most of us want to join with Jonah and declare that God is not allowed to do that. Who gave God the right to change opinions? Maybe, this book of Jonah is here to remind us that not only does God give us second and third chances, but that wecan be part of a divine adventure. We can help change God's mind.
So as I see it, God is sitting around patiently waiting for us to get involved. When is Immanuel Presbyterian Church going to take the lead in this Presbytery and call the church away from a standard of judgment and bigotry to one of acceptance and grace? When are we going to repent of our pride and stubborn independence? When are we going to stand up in this city for justice and fairness? We have shied away from God's call, Hear the word of the Lord: God is calling us again to get up and get involved. Will you go with me to Nineveh? Now I am only willing to go if we can have fun along the way. Can we talk openly and passionately about our beliefs and convictions? Can we stop for something to eat and have a drink together? Can we make this a place where everyone is welcome to come regardless of their background? If we do all this, I don't know what will happen and I am not even sure if God does either. But who knows, if we work hard enough and have enough fun, we will discover God changing our minds and maybe we will change God's mind too. To God be the glory. Amen.