Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2011|| Proper 20A|| Jonah 3:10 -4:11
The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade
I would like to talk with you about righteousness. It is a good word that has been allowed to wander off into misunderstanding. We usually only hear it when the word ‘self’ is precedes it and we know that self-righteous is not a good thing. But the word all by itself literally means “right use of.” It means doing the right thing. In our context it means doing what God wants done. I want to talk about righteousness in light of the story of Jonah, the end of which we heard in the first lesson for today. Jonah’s story is about more than a whale. It is really about righteousness, about doing or not doing what God wants done. Most importantly Jonah’s story is our story, yours and mine. Come with me for a trip with Jonah and a look at how righteousness figures into his life and ours.
The story begins when Jonah, a regular sort of person doing regular sorts of things, is called by God to go to Ninevah and get them to repent of their evil ways. That is our first stop on our journey with Jonah. He was called by God, he knew that God wanted him to go to Ninevah. How did he know? We are uncomfortable around people who begin sentences with “God wants…” We say no one can know what God wants done. Last week we observed the tenth anniversary of an incredibly bad example of people doing what they thought God wanted them to do. It all makes us into righteousness agnostics, assuming that no one ever knows what God wants done. There are murky areas to be sure but we are kidding ourselves. We all know some things that God wants done.
You know that God wants someone to say something to your friend about her drinking. You know that God wants broken relationships healed and wants someone like you to take the first step. You know that God wants someone at the office to speak up about harassment, or fairness or ethical practices or appallingly tasteless jokes. Don’t you think that God who loves you very much wants you to exercise more ? Or that God wants us to live within your means? Don’t we know that God expects tithing? God wants you to call the doctor, call your mother, spend time with your family. We may not know what God wants done about globalization or stem cell research but we all know some things that God wants done. And those things are our Ninevahs. They are the tasks God expects of us, they are what righteousness means in our lives.
Like Jonah we find those tasks more than a little daunting. That is why we have not done anything about them before now. The Bible tells us that Jonah responded to the call to go to Ninevah by heading for Tarshish. You need to know that Ninevah was in what we call Iraq, near the northern city of Mosul.
Tarshish is in Spain. You don’t need the GPS on your Smartphone to see what Jonah is doing. If Ninevah is what we know we should be doing, Tarshish is what we do instead.
Tarshish goes by many names. A popular one is “I can’t find the time,” as if we left it in a drawer somewhere. Another is, “It is none of my business.” Tarshish is the paper on your desk that is on top of the one you really need to take care of. It is the reasoning that “I can’t call now because they will be asleep or fixing dinner or busy or back to sleep again.” Tarshish is the doily we place over the elephant in the room. It is the laundry, the television, the computer, a really good book or any other domestic hiding place. Tarshish is where the conversation goes instead of toward the hard thing that needs to be discussed. Tarshish is what families do instead of talking, businesses do instead of planning, churches do instead of thinking, nations do instead of deciding. It is what we do instead of righteousness. Congress spends most of the year in Tarshish. I imagine your vestry has been there too. We know Ninevah and we know Tarshish.
In Jonah’s story his trip to Tarshish was interrupted by a great storm which was itself interrupted by a great fish (the Bible does not actually mention a whale). Jonah in the belly of the fish is the least realistic part of the biblical story. I love the line from Porgy and Bess, “Dat man made his home in that fishes abdomen…It ain’t necessarily so!” But to understand this piece we should not wonder what is going on inside the fish but rather what is going on inside of Jonah. Oddly this unreal event is about reality.
When addicts tell their story there is almost always a point called rock bottom, the realization the road you are on does not go where you want to be. That is what the fish is to Jonah, the realization that his trip to Tarshish is not working. It was a nice party but you have no idea how you got home. You get a note from the bank or the principal, the boss, the utility company or the one you thought might be the one. The fish is a door slamming, a silence thickening. It is finding that the lump is still there, seeing that the less than honest report requires your signature. The fish is your child’s grades dropping for no apparent reason, your mother falls again, your Dad’s car has another unexplained dent. The fish is when Standard and Poor downgrades you and 14 trillion dollars begins to look like real money. The fish is the realization that you cannot win a war if you have no idea what winning would look like. That unreal fish represents reality. The reality of Ninevah and the impossibility of Tarshish. Jonah’s story is our story.
In the Bible story a chastened Jonah went to Ninevah and preached repentance. To his amazement they repented and to his disappointment God forgave them. There are two points where this ending touches our lives, one obvious the other less so.
The obvious one is that Jonah, who had been forgiven by God for running away and given a second chance, resented the second chance given to the Ninevites. The tendency is to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions, to rely on God’s grace when we head for Tarshish but resent God’s forbearance of others. Congress has an 82% disapproval rate for doing exactly what the polls say we want them to do which is reflect our anger and refuse to compromise. We resent illegal immigrants forgetting that the first batch came ashore not far from here at Plymouth Rock. It is hard to be objective about ourselves and easy to be judgmental of others. Jonah illustrates that all too obvious human trait.
The less obvious point is this: Jonah finally got around to doing the righteous thing, doing what God wanted done. When it was over he did not like the result and became quite sulky. He missed the subtle point that righteousness is command based not result based. We do what God wants us to do because we know God wants us to do it not because of any result we expect. Planning is result based. We do something because we expect a certain result. It is a fine thing to do. But righteousness is different. It is something we do in spite of the result. We say something about the drinking because it is right to do so not because people will thank us for it. We speak up at work, increase our giving, take Dad’s keys away, cut spending or start conversations because it is right to do so not because it is fun or profitable. We confront our Ninevah wherever and whatever it may be because of the imperative we have not because of the result we might get.
That is how righteousness works. We know something God wants done, that is Ninevah. We try to avoid it,that is Tarshish. But we cannot dodge it forever,that is the fish. So we do what is right no matter the result,that is righteousness. That was Jonah’s story. My guess is that it is ours as well.