I might begin by offering a couple of words about the title of my sermon, “Call Me Jonah.” Honestly, this title was the very first thing that popped into my mind a couple of months ago when I selected sermon titles for the months of August and September. I chuckled at the title, thinking it a clever variation on the first line of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick, which begins “Call me Ishmael.” Call me Ishmael. Call me, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is not the chosen son, but the son who is turned away, ostracized, sent to wander in the desert. Call me the one who is forced to become an outsider.
Then I was thinking about this sermon title and it occurred to me that I didn’t think I had come up with this sermon title all on my own. So I racked my brain and then I remembered that “Call me Jonah” is actually the first line of Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic novel Cat’s Cradle. “Call me Jonah,” Vonnegut writes, “not because I have been unlucky for others but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.” My interpretation of Jonah is a bit different. To me, the story is not mainly about fate or destiny. True enough, there are lots of things that happen to Jonah in the story that are out of his control, but I don’t think this is the most interesting thing about the story.
I don’t want to assume that everyone here is familiar with the story of Jonah in the Bible, so allow me to begin by retelling it. Jonah is one of the books in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. We believe that it was written around four hundred BC. Jonah is one of the twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a short book, only four chapters long and about two pages in length.
A prophet, in the Jewish tradition, is a person who has been specially selected to serve as God’s messenger. You might think that this would be a great honor, but the messages that prophets carry are challenging and hard to hear. The messages challenge the wealthy and the powerful, the kings and the priests who don’t like being told that they are wrong and that they will have to change. Prophets are routinely ignored, ridiculed, and marginalized. Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” You know that old saying about shooting the messenger? It is a saying that is well applied to prophets.
The story of Jonah goes like this: While Jonah was in the town of Joppa, God told him to travel to the city of Nineveh to give the people there a message. So Jonah goes down to the port and jumps on a boat sailing for Tarshish, the exact opposite direction that he had been sent. God is not pleased by Jonah’s disobedience and sends a storm that engulfs the boat. The sailors get the sense that this storm may have a supernatural origin so they begin offering prayers to different deities, but the storm is relentless. Finally, one of the sailors gets the idea that the passenger they took on in Joppa might be able to shed some light on their situation. They find Jonah below deck, fast asleep and completely oblivious. The sailors confront Jonah and he comes clean. The god he worships is very powerful and getting on the boat to Tarshish was an act of direct defiance. “My bad,” says Jonah. And, then Jonah feels very badly about putting the lives of the sailors at risk so he has the sailors throw him overboard. The storm immediately subsides and a giant fish comes up from the deep and swallows Jonah.
The second chapter consists of Jonah offering a prayer while he spends three days and three nights in the fish’s belly. The second chapter ends with Jonah being spit up on land. In the third chapter Jonah walks the length of the city of Nineveh, a large city with more than one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants, telling the citizens of the city that they are wicked and that God plans to destroy the city. Something very unusual happens. The people in the city listen to Jonah. Word of the prophet’s message reaches the king, and the king decides that the message is sensible so he declares a period of repentance and fasting. Even the animals of the city join in and perform acts of repentance. God sees this and decides to spare the city.
The fourth chapter is the most unusual. In the fourth chapter we find Jonah pouting and sulking. Jonah feels disappointed that God had decided to spare the city. Jonah travels to the outskirts of Nineveh and sits in the desert and sulks. God causes a vine to grow up and give Jonah shade and Jonah becomes happier, but then God sends a worm that eats the vine and Jonah returns to scowling. The book of Jonah ends with God speaking to Jonah and telling him, essentially, to open his eyes and to grow up.
There’s a reason that I chose the book of Jonah to speak about this morning. Right now, in late September, is the time of the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the tradition when observing Yom Kippur to read the book of Jonah in its entirety. So, I figured that Jonah might be an interesting story to consider in our worship service together.
When I first learned that the book of Jonah is the text for the high holy day of Yom Kippur I was surprised. I knew that Yom Kippur was serious and solemn but Jonah always struck me as a little cartoonish, for which I blame Disney’s Pinocchio. I also felt that Jonah’s sulking and moping seems a little bit over the top, but this morning we’re going to treat the story a bit more seriously.
Earlier members of the Worship Team shared with us a reading written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Vanessa Rush Southern. The story dealt with a poor Australian shepherd, Lady, that had lived its entire life divorced from her true essence and her most powerful instincts. This dog had missed her calling. And then, later in life, while being sent by her family out to the farm, she had this moment when she became what was she was always meant to become. Vanessa Southern uses the word calling, an inner urge, a powerful command. A fancier word for calling is vocation, which comes from the same Latin root as the word voice or vocal. Literally a calling.
When we speak about our vocation, we usually speak about our job, our profession, our career. It is our human tendency, and especially our Western tendency to equate who we are with what we do. We might say that Jonah had a real calling as a prophet. I mean a real calling, the voice of the Lord coming to him and telling him to go to Nineveh. And, he actually seemed to do really well at it. He is extraordinarily successful. The entire city repents and the people change their ways. Jonah presents an interesting challenge to the career counselor. He’s clearly got a lot of talent, but not a lot of drive and he seems pretty miserable doing the job.
I think the story of Jonah is less about Jonah’s calling as a prophet and more about his calling as a human being and our calling as human beings. The story of Jonah is the story of an estranged person who is called back into connection. He first becomes estranged when he chooses to run away from the duty and responsibility he is given. Next, he is estranged from his ship’s companions whom he deceives. After these initial estrangements he is pulled back by way of the belly of a large fish. However, by the fourth chapter we find that he is estranged from his sense of mercy and love, estranged from his sense of gratitude, estranged from his own sense of life’s purpose. He sulks and stews in the desert on the outskirts of town and curses his own life. He is estranged from life itself.
Earlier in the service we experienced the moving “Litany of Atonement,” written by a Unitarian Universalist minister but capturing beautifully the purpose of Yom Kippur. “For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference, for each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible, for each time we have struck out in anger without just cause, for each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others, for the selfishness which sets us apart and alone, for falling short of the admonitions of the spirit, for losing sight of our unity, for those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness, we forgive ourselves and each other; and we begin again in love.”
The litany is all about distance, separation. It is about how we strike out at others and push others away. It is all about estrangement. The spiritual practice of atonement is about overcoming estrangement by moving back towards connection. And it is incredibly hard work. This work of dragging ourselves back to connection is incredibly hard work. But it is a calling both deeply human and absolutely divine.
As a minister, one of the things I see is people who move back and forth along this continuum of connection and disconnection, closeness and estrangement. This happens in different facets of life: families, friendships, church involvement, and even in one’s connection with what is holy and sacred. There are times when that estrangement seems impossible to overcome, when you’re being pushed away and the outcome is out of your control. But more often, most of the time in fact, the separation is really just an illusion. Like Jonah’s tantrum in the desert, the pouting and sulking, excuse making and the setting of unreasonable conditions, the illusion of our separateness and the source of our estrangement comes from within ourselves.
Maturity demands that we forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love. Maturity demands that we not run away from our connections. Maturity demands that we not set impossible conditions on each other, or unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Maturity is found not in how artfully we push others away, but in how we are able to lean into others and to accept that which calls us back, pulls us back. May you feel called back and called into your truest self.