The sermon I heard today raised questions that catapulted me into an uncomfortable place. There we sat in the pew arranged from the end in this way, Vashti, Larry, and then me. The Associate Pastor was preaching about the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet. If you have not read the story, you should. I’ll offer a brief summary.
God asks Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh to speak out against the peoples’ wickedness. Clearly acting in defiance to this request, Jonah catches a ship going in the extreme opposite direction, to Tarshish. Jonah boards the ship and goes below to catch some Zzz’s, a sure sign that his conscious is not keeping him up nights. A great storm ensues setting the mariners in a state of fear and trembling. They pray to their gods and throw cargo overboard in hopes that lightening the load will help them. Desiring that all hands be on deck in this effort to preserve their lives, the captain finds Jonah and asks him to pray to his God for succor. The storm continues unabated so the sailors cast lots to see who is the cause of the storm. This exercise reveals Jonah as the culprit. They question Jonah and he shares his story. He tells them to throw him overboard and save themselves. They ignore his request and try to steer the ship to shore with no luck. Then the sailors ask Jonah’s God to save them and forgive them for throwing him overboard. Immediately the storm abates. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish and stays there for three days and three nights. Jonah praises God during this time and the Lord orders the fish to throw him up on land. Sometime later, God asks Jonah to fulfill his original request, to preach damnation to Nineveh to befall them in 40 days. Jonah complies this time. The people immediately repent and turn from their wicked ways in drastic measure. God changes his mind and decides to spare the city. Jonah becomes very angry at this turn of events. He prays to God in that anger saying that God’s mercy, steadfast love, and desire to pardon was the reason he didn’t want to preach to those folks in the first place. In his mind, they didn’t deserve pardon and mercy.
During the sermon, the preacher attempted to help the congregation understand Jonah’s anger and his reasons for wanting these folks to face the wrath of God. She began to give us examples of times we might feel like Jonah, reluctant to preach to folks we just don’t like, our enemies. The first examples were humorous then they became progressively serious. She likened it to staunch sports fans having to address their bitter rivals or those who were picked on in school having to preach to their bullies. Next she told us to imagine having to preach to gang members who defaced our property. Lastly she asked us to imagine, as Americans, having to go to Iran and preach to all members of Al Qaeda and all those responsible for 9-11. She finished up by saying that God can call us to preach to those we don’t like and we have to be ready. We have to be like Jesus who hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors.
These parallels did not sit well with me at all. I must say, first, that I respect this woman and her ministry. I hold her to high esteem and do not question her intentions. We attend a majority white church (we are black) in a majority red (or Republican) suburb of Atlanta, GA. This is our church family, but the differences we share became more pronounced during this election. There wore more McCain/Palin bumper stickers than Obama/Biden ones on the cars in the parking lot. The same goes for the community at large. One pleasant surprise made me chuckle. Barack Obama won the presidency in the mock election at Vashti’s school. On the whole, our experiences have been uncomfortable as we navigated our space in our neighborhood and at church.
This Sunday, post election, we both wondered what the pulse of the church would be after Obama’s win. During this sermon as she made these parallels, my first question was, “Who gets to decide our enemies?” Usually, it is the people in power who decides this for us, whether that power be military or rhetorical. There are many die hard sports fans in our church so that example was appropriate, albeit, lighthearted. I’m sure everyone has been the target of a bully so score on that one too.
When did preaching to gang bangers become something a church saw as scary? Our church reaches out to the community in many ways, but this sort of “inner city” outreach is not one them, given our location in a relatively affluent suburb. I didn’t mention her analogy of prison ministry as preaching to supposed “enemies.” I guess I understand that point too since we don’t have a prison ministry. For me, these two hypothetical calls from God, to preach to gang bangers and prisoners, weren’t frightening enough for me. They didn’t point out a situation where I would feel justified in withholding God’s grace and mercy. In fact if anyone needed it, prisoners and gang bangers did. I could, however, understand how it would be to this congregation given the demographics. This understanding, though, put me in an uncomfortable place. I felt out of place and in the company of folks who didn’t share my values.
The point about preaching to Al Qaeda was the most piercing, given our historical and political context. The rhetoric of the Republicans in their kitchen sink strategy against Obama painted him a terrorist sympathizer, a scary person, an other, an enemy. There was little difference between Barack Obama and Al Qaeda in the stump speeches, robo calls, nefarious e-mails, and literature. I am sure many of these congregants received one or all of these. How did they hear this sermon, I wondered, as I sat there? Does this sermon help them move forward after this crushing defeat? Are they fearful about their future now that this “scary” guy is their leader?
The sermon was too sanitary for me. I wish she would have taken Jonah to task more for his deceptively, righteous anger. Many parallels could have been drawn between our senseless war in Iraq, waged under the guise of blotting out those enemies of America and Jonah’s anger against God for not blotting out the people of Nineveh. For the last eight years, the rhetoric has been about America rising from the ashes of the travesty of 9-11 to kill the evil doers. Added to this was the so called axis of evil, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. We were asked to sanction the war on terror against our enemies. Oh there were so many parallels, real ones, she could have drawn that would have spoken truth to power and laid bare our hubris of thinking God is on our side in lieu of praying that we are on his. In the last 8 years, our enemies have been identified and handed to us on a platter.
Could she have done this, though without suspending that power she holds? I don’t profess to know her political leanings but I would bet she is a conservative Republican. I don’t know for sure, though. I am still uncomfortable because I know that the contents of this post, could cause me to be painted as one of those enemies in need of repentance. I am proud to be an American, but this post might cause others to think I am unpatriotic.
I am encouraged because the testimony of God written in the Bible can speak for itself. At the end of the book, God reproves Jonah for his misplaced anger. The final verse of Jonah speaks volumes about God as God says to Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons, who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV)