Sunday, January 22, 2012

Out of the Fish's Mouth:
An Interview with Jonah

[Preached January 22, 2012]

I’m a little flustered just now.  I feel like I owe you an apology.  I had hoped to have a guest speaker here this morning.  I thought I had arranged it - I HAD arranged it - to have an authority on our Old Testament reading speak to you.  We were supposed to meet up prior to the service, but we mis-communicated (my fault), he arrived late last night, by the time I got here, he was saying something about his being nervous so close to the water.  Had to go, he said.  Before he left, I did ask him if he'd be willing to sit down and answer a few questions for us, by way of an interview, which it turns out he was happy to do.  With his permission and yours, I'd like to share with you some highlights from that interview with him this morning.  My earlier conversation with Jonah:

JM:  Grateful to have this time with you, Jonah -- thanks for coming in this morning.

Jonah:  You bet, glad to be here.

JM:  Jonah, in our opening collect this morning, we will ask God to help us "answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ..."  Your call is perhaps one of the best-known in Scripture.  I'm wondering if you could talk for a moment about your own general sense and understanding of calling.

Jonah:  Hehe.  Sure.  As you know, Jonathan, I got off to a rough start; I've grown a little bit in my understanding of God's call through the years.  Most people who know my own call will remember the big fish and the ship and later the scrub brush and the worm.  I'm not proud of it, but hey, it's my story.  But what my story taught me about God's calling is this: calling is about God's heart.  And God's heart is so much bigger than your heart and my heart.  And hearts like your heart and my heart grow more like God's heart when we're faithful to God's calling.

JM:  Say more about calling as something that reveals God's heart.

Jonah:  The thing that stinks about calling is that you don't have to believe in the thing that you're called to.  God can make it work, even when you're going through the motions.  Because calling is mostly about the one who calls (God).  Here's what I mean: I didn't believe that the people in Nineveh were worth saving.  You're talking about scum bags.  Irreverent, apathetic, pathetic.  You're talking about people who killed members of my family.  And look, it's easy to laugh some thousands of years later at the fool who thumbed his nose at God and spent a weekend in a fish, but I contend that we all have our Ninevehs.  Hate is a strong word, perhaps; but I thought my world would be better off without them.  That's what I mean when I say we all have our Ninevehs. 

JM:  So you had given up on them?

Jonah:  Sure.  Good riddance. 

JM:  And God's desire to save the people in Nineveh showed that God was a loving God?

Jonah:  Not really.  You could make the case that it would have been really loving to let folks reap what they sow.  To protect the ones who try to do good.  No, I wouldn't say God's compassion for the Ninevites proved God was loving; but it DID prove what God means by love.

JM:  Which is what? 

Jonah:  Sacrificial forgiveness.  Forgiveness that costs you.  And not just you, but costs God, too.  That's what the cross is about, I think.

JM:  And this is what you mean by learning that God has a heart bigger than our own?

Jonah:  Yeah.  I think now I would put it this way - I got this from one of your books, by the way - "The wrong idea has taken root in the world: And the (wrong) idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives."  So God's heart is bigger because it has room for more of us than maybe my heart does.

JM:  I see what you’re saying.  What you're saying reminds me of the famous quote from the writer Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Would you say that that's about right?

Jonah:  (laughing) Yeah, that's about right.  I like that.  I would just want to make sure that the focus doesn't stay on the smallness of my heart, but eventually lands on the greatness of God's heart.

JM:  I like THAT.  When we started, you mentioned the fish (of course), the ship, the bush and worm.  Tell us more about your own particular call.  Maybe something that you feel tends to get left out by the casual reader.

Jonah:  Mmm.  I noticed your reading today that starts off: "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time."  Then I go, say something to Nineveh, everybody's sorry, God spares 'em all.  Great story.  I look really good if that's the whole story, but of course I get to live with those words "a second time."  A second time, because I pretty well flubbed the first one up.  Going to Tarshish.  Some people don't realize that Tarshish is not just not-Nineveh - it’s the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.  I wasn't going to Tarshish so much as going away from God’s call.  I guess if there's something that sometimes gets lost in the story it's this: Tarshish ain't a bad place to go to.  Nothing wrong with being a tourist in Tarshish.  Nothing at all UNLESS the Word of the Lord has come to your face and spoken in your ears and told you to go in the opposite direction.  That's trouble.  It's a trouble on the inside. 

JM:  I think I follow, but say more about that.

Jonah:  No one else could tell me I was doing wrong (until the storm came) because the only thing that made Tarshish a bad thing for me was the voice that said, "GO TO NINEVEH!"  And if you don't remember that God calls and talks to folks - that God calls and talks to people - you might walk away from the story thinking that some places are bad places and others are good; you might tell other people where they should go; or wonder what makes a good place good or bad place bad and not ask the people, "what are you hearing?  What is God saying?"

JM:  You're talking about prayer now.

Jonah:  You betcha.  But I'm talking especially about living prayer.  Prayer that leads to action.  Prayer that says, "Lord, I see you working; what can I do?  How can I be a part of what you're doing?"

JM:  Changing directions slightly.  Jesus is calling disciples in this morning's gospel: his famous words about making the disciples into "fishers of people."  Does that line ever strike you as, well, ironic?  A little close to home?

Jonah:  Do you mean do I think he's rubbing it in my face all these years later?  One big fish story?  Do I think he might be "baiting" me.  (laughing)  Yeah, I do.  It ain't lost on me.  And it's okay by me.  I mean, we all have our stories.  And this one is mine. 

JM:  If you had been there when he called them, what would you have wanted to say to the disciples?

Jonah:  Put on your swim trunks!  (laughing)  No, I mean, they did all right, the disciples did.  Y'all turned out all right, too.  And they'd be proud of that.  I guess I would tell them that God calls you to fish for others because God loves the others.  BUT God calls you to fish for others because God loves you, too.  When God calls you - when God gives you a calling - it's not because you're just a tool in the tool box of God, that he's got a job to do and no one else will do it and you just happen to not have other plans.  God gives you a call because there is something about that call that uniquely stands to bless you - something he wants to show YOU.  He KNOWS anyone could do it - God knows the disciples aren't the cream of the crop - (laughing) but he wants them, because there's something about himself that he wants to give them, show them, uniquely.  So much so that sometimes he’ll give the ones he calls another chance, you know, when they miss the boat - so to speak.

JM:  Like yourself?

Jonah:  Like me.  To answer you question about what I’d say to the disciples, I'd remind them that his calling them isn't different from his loving them.  Hey Pete, hey John - he loves you!!  (laughing)

JM:  So true.  I'm thinking of Peter and Cornelius in the Book of Acts and the mutual conversion that happens there.

Jonah:  Sure, but don't forget Moses - his intimate moments on the mountain with God, the slow conversions, what he learns in the wilderness, and Abraham, a stranger in a strange land made daily more faithful, closer to God, Paul is a no-brainer.  I mean, it's just how God works.  It drives me crazy when people talk about God's call like it’s a list of responsibilities - duties to divvy up.  Are you crazy?  This is the moment he wants to say "I love you" uniquely to you through his calling. 

JM:  This, it would be fair to say, is a decidedly post-Nineveh reflection for you.  (laughing)

Jonah:  Yeah, that's a fair point.  You don't have to see it at the time to live it.  And maybe it's only after we live it that we realize the gift God wanted to give us along the way.

JM:  Give us a practical implication of what you're talking about.

Jonah:  I'll give you two.  When it comes to calling, just do it.  Pray in a way that says, "Lord, I see you working; what can I do?  How can I be a part of what you're doing?"

Two: don't make it more complicated than it is.  If God calls you to Nineveh and you'd rather go to Tarshish - if God calls you to Ghana, and you'd rather go to Gregory, or if God calls you to Gregory and you'd rather go to Ghana - don't make up some generalized nonsense about which one is the right place.  (You know, like: we'll get to helping over there when we get our house in order here.)  The only question that really matters is: "Has God called you or not?"  Lord, I see you working.  What can I do?  How can I be a part of what you're doing?  When he answers these questions, don't over-think it.  Listen (that's your prayer); obey (that's your action); trust God to surprise you and show you his love.  He calls you to serve them because he loves them - but also because he loves you.  Move with the Spirit, and he'll guide you.

JM:  Jonah, no offense, but you're a much better preacher now than you were at Nineveh.

Jonah: (smiling) What can I say?  My hearts a little bigger now.  Praise God, my hearts a little bigger.

JM:  Jonah, thank you so much for the time.

Jonah:  My pleasure.  Happy fishing.

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