Epiphany 3, Year B      

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 4

Two weeks ago, I bought these amazing triple chocolate cupcakes at Trader Joes…for the kids. You know, because I don’t eat stuff like that. I mean, I might have a little bite every now and then but, rarely, will I eat a whole cupcake. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love good food and I really enjoy eating, nor am I better, healthier, or more disciplined then anyone else, I’m just not a compulsive eater. I’ve read about people who are and I have some understanding of why, but my wiring tends to run the opposite direction. Until now. 

There was just something about the events of January 6th that pushed me over an edge I didn’t even know was there. I went to the pantry and saw the cupcakes and thought, I’ll just have a little bite of one before I get back to work. 

But when I did, when I bit into the soft cake, the thick, rich icing, and even got a little taste of the extra dark center, I swear to God, some signal went off in my brain that said – in all caps – DO THAT AGAIN! 

And I realized, I was so upset in that moment that all I wanted to do was stand there and eat – not just the whole cupcake – but every last cupcake in the package. I felt compelled to lose myself in a haze of sugar rather than deal with all the fear and outrage that was coursing through my system; drown out all the cortisol with dopamine. 

I put the cupcakes down and had an epiphany. Wow, all this time, I thought I understood why food can be such a struggle for people, but I really had no idea. I don’t wrestle with addiction or compulsion in general, but thanks to all the stress of these “unprecedented times,” I’m beginning to understand people who do a lot better now. Even more importantly, however, what I feel for any of you who struggle to stay healthy, sober, or solvent, is even more compassion than I had before and a deep respect.

Likewise, I don’t think I ever really understood Jonah, the reluctant prophet, before now. He was always too outsize a character for me, so petulant and stingy. More a caricature, really, than a person. Jonah was so angry at his enemies that he told God he’d rather die than see them change their ways and be reconciled to God. 

Now, I’m not saying I’m great at forgiveness and reconciliation, because I’m not. But if there were a Kinsey like forgiveness scale between say Jonah and Nelson Mandela, I’m pretty sure I’d fall at least somewhere in the middle. Which is to say that when it comes to reconciliation, I may have work to do, but Jonah was the worst. 

And yet nowadays, I confess that his desire to run the opposite direction from the people he thought were beyond redemption, is starting to make a lot more sense to me now. 

And friends, I’m using a lot of “I” statements in this sermon so far, but I know I’m not alone. We just celebrated a beautiful inauguration full of genuine and heartfelt calls for unity but I know a lot of us are questioning how much unity is possible after 4 years so full of pain, division, lies, and loss?  

Like Jonah not wanting to go to Nineveh, many of us simply don’t want to deal with people on the other side of the political divide anymore.

And I’m not just talking about our enemies – the white supremacists, right wing militias, self-serving politicians, lying pundits, and anti-vax-Q-anon conspiracy theorists – who seem determined to plunge our country ever deeper into chaos, violence and misinformation, if not outright civil war. 

I’m talking about family members and neighbors – the people we live alongside, work with, and care about – who are more apt to believe, vote for, and align with the wing nuts, then with us. 

I’m talking about the people we love who have been taken in by the lies and infected by their prolonged exposure to so much cynicism, racism, sexism, conspiracy, and xenophobia. 

People we have tried to talk to, reason with, and pray for, but who we fear, now, will never change. Fellow Christians, for goodness sake, fellow Christians we are angry with and disappointed in, because their choices, even now, continue to “trigger, traumatize and endanger those at the margins, the very ones Jesus” loved the most (Kelly Ryan “How Do We Reconcile With Those People” in Faith and Leadership https://faithandleadership.com/kelly-ryan-how-do-we-reconcile-those-people fbclid=IwAR2nLngKez4_OysRVS8cR3y2lMU6xsKQ_XeLeskEp6OYQ_vBUuKNf6wFyi0.) 

Like Jonah, most of us would rather be swallowed by a giant fish than attempt even one more conversation with these folks, not just because it is so painful, but because it feels so pointless. 

“We are at the threshold of our collective tolerance for interpersonal conflict and nearing a point of no return,” says pastor John Pavlowitz:

There’s only so many times you can attempt to contest someone’s fantastical conspiracy theory with facts they refuse to acknowledge,
only so many terse and extended text exchanges you can endure,
only so many family meals (or) talking point tirades …

Eventually, the exhaustion (gives) way to … silence…unfriending …ghosting …

In the days ahead, it will not be the screaming…that will show us how fractured we are, (says John) it will be the strange quiet.”

Rather than a civil war, he predicts a coming relational cold war marked by 

empty chairs…blocked …accounts…separate holidays and (long periods of) non-communication….yes, the violence and bloodshed we witnessed recently may surface from time to time, but that will not be the fatal blow to our nation. (The fatal blow, he says) will come, not with fists and guns and voices raised against our own, it will come with a protracted silence that may be far more deadly. (A permanent social distancing practiced not) to keep us physically healthy, … but emotionally well. It will be, (says John) a quiet, wordless act of war for our souls” (https://johnpavlovitz.com/2021/01/14/america-isnt-facing-a-violent-civil-war-but-a-relational-cold-war/).

I can’t tell you how true that sounds, how sad that makes me, and how tired. I can’t quite explain how I can feel so relieved by the change in our administration and yet still feel so weary. 

But I can tell you this. I can tell you that there’s this really weird detail in the story of Jonah that the lectionary skipped over – maybe even weirder than the fish – that is deeply relevant to this moment. When Jonah hops on a ship going the exact opposite direction from Nineveh, he goes down into the hold and promptly falls asleep. A great storm comes up, the sort of storm that would wake the dead, and Jonah is so exhausted that he sleeps right through it all. 

So exhausted…because you know what? Hate is exhausting. Unresolved conflict is exhausting. Not dealing with each other is exhausting. Because it doesn’t make our problems with each other go away. Lies left unchallenged only fester. Wrongs not held to account, only spread. Relationships devoid of honest and open communication wither, but they don’t ever seem to fully die, and the disconnect haunts us. It wears on us and it drags us down, down, down….down into the deep.

I understand the urge to ghost, to not deal, to protect our already broken hearts and run in the opposite direction, especially now. I mean, why bother when it feels like things are finally going to get better with or without them. Friends, I understand Jonah now, more than I ever did. 

But I think we need to stay open to the fact that God may still be calling us toward the people we least want to deal with and the places we least want to go, not just for their sakes, or the sake of our country, but for our own. 

I just don’t know how to get there any more, so I am thankful for guides who are better people than me and Jonah. I am thankful for people like Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy.” Bryan knows a little something about dealing with the sort of people everyone else has given up on. He is the founder of the Equal Justice initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. Bryan knows what it means to go those places no one else wants to go, and that journey has filled him with deep wisdom and compassion for all of us. 

One of Bryan’s best known sayings is that, “each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He says this in reference to his clients on death row, but in a recent interview with Krista Tippett, he said that he actually believes this about everyone.  

I think if someone tells a lie, they’re not just a liar; (he says) that if someone takes something, they’re not just a thief. If you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. But it’s also true, a nation that committed genocide against Indigenous people, a nation that enslaved Black people for two and a half centuries, a nation that tolerated mob lynchings for nearly a century, a nation that created apartheid and segregation laws throughout most of the twentieth century, can also be more than that racist history suggests.

“None of us is defined by the worst thing…” echoes Krista. 

And Bryan responds: 

Exactly.  And that’s the reason why we ought to find the courage to acknowledge the wrongfulness of those things so that we can then embrace what’s right, what’s corrective, what’s redemptive, what’s restorative. And I do want that for everyone.

I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world, the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored (you know – maybe those who have just lost an election)  — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity. … and when you do that, they will teach you something about what you need to learn about human dignity, but also what you can do to be a change agent.

They will show you (says Krista).

They will absolutely show you (says Bryan)

Proximity (muses Krista). And (Bryan, she continues) another of your pieces of counsel is: Be willing to do …uncomfortable things, … we are so segregated in so many ways in this society, so thrust together with people who are like us, that I feel like getting proximate in this culture may often mean getting uncomfortable …

(Yes, says Bryan) I think it’s important that we stay hopeful (he says)…I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice; that if we allow ourselves to become hopeless, we become part of the problem. …We’ve been dealing with injustice in so many places for so long. And if you try to dissect why it’s still here, it’s because people haven’t had enough hope and confidence to believe that we can do something better. I think hope is our superpower. Hope is the thing that gets you to stand up, when others say, “Sit down.” It’s the thing that gets you to speak, when others say, “Be quiet” (https://onbeing.org/programs/bryan-stevenson-love-is-the-motive/). 

Hope. 

I think that’s what so many of us are missing right now. We’ve just been shut down too many times, discounted, or disrespected. It’s a terrible thing to watch people you love be swallowed up by the Big Lie. 

Like Jonah, who couldn’t imagine his enemies repenting, it is hard to believe that people on the other side will ever see the truth, repent of all the damage done, and truly change. And though I’m not so angry that I’d rather die than see them repent, I admit that I am angry.  

I am angry that I couldn’t fully celebrate the election or the inauguration, especially of Kamala Harris. I am angry about what happened on January 6. I am angry that my joy has been clouded by the fear of violence, that the volume of lies over four years has drowned out the love and relationships so many of us hold dear. And I could go on and on… I am angry, angry enough to want to see, “those people” and anyone who sympathizes with them, get what they deserve. 

But God, at least the God we see in Jonah, is never just angry. God is also always concerned. God doesn’t just want Jonah to call out the wrong, God wants even the people of Nineveh to get it right. God is concerned for Jonah and concerned for them too. God’s love and forgiveness, is for all people, one all sides, all the time, no matter what. And sometimes I hate that. But it’s true. 

And so I am trying to take a page out of Bryan’s book and remember that if “each of us is more than worst thing we’ve ever done,” then each of us is also more than the worst person we ever voted for, more than the worst lie we ever believed, more than the worst cause we ever supported. 

I am trying to remember that God loves all of us enough to not give up on any of us. Not you. Not me. Not them. I am reminded that though our desire for justice may divide us, we all stand together in need of mercy. 

And the good news for us all is that God is merciful. The good news is that if God could use even Jonah, then God can certainly use you and me. 

You know the irony of Jonah’s story, is that he was the worst prophet to ever get such good results. Jonah is the only prophet who was 100% successful. When he finally arrived in Nineveh, under extreme duress, he gave the shortest, most lackluster, least helpful sermon ever: “Forty Days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That was it. And yet, somehow, that was enough…enough to lead everyone from the King on down to repent of their evil and violent ways. 

The only thing Jonah had going for him, as far as I can tell, was proximity. He was close enough to be heard at a moment when their hearts were open enough to believe, and I pray we can stay close enough too. 

We will never understand or hear each other if we give up on being with each other. 

And yes, I know that will be hard. There will be days when you will need to walk away. Maybe even book passage in the opposite direction for an unspecified amount of time. I won’t judge, because thanks to these unprecedented times, I totally get it. 

But I also have to believe that sometimes our words and our witness have more of an effect than we realize. That even if we’re terrible at this, even if our hearts aren’t quite where they need to be, even if we lack the grace for them that God has given us, that God can still use us for the good. The good of this country, the good of us all. May it be so. Amen