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A Theory of Change

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

March 31, 2019
Jonah 3:1-10

A Reading from the Book of Jonah

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. ”So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish. ”When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


Before we connect back with Jonah, I want to circle back to a topic that would be more relevant a couple of weeks ago but I’m still chewing on it, not a theological or philosophical reflection but more of a petty gripe with the world which is that I kind of think that Daylight Savings Time is dumb. We’re a couple of weeks late for this opening but I’m still mad about it, that a couple of weeks ago we all lost an hour of sleep on Saturday night just sort of because — and most of you arrived entirely on time for church, we didn’t lose much in the execution, but still. The whole ritual of the thing feels both unnecessary and coerced. I did not choose to lose an hour of sleep on that particular Saturday night and I don’t quite understand why the choice was made for me. I don’t entirely understand why this is a thing that we have to do. I’m not actually opposed to the schedule of being in Daylight Savings. I like having the light later into the evening. But what I would really like is the opportunity to make that choice once and for all. It’s the back-and-forth that seems asinine.

What’s more, we know enough about our bodies to know that this thing we have all collectively determined to do is actually bad for us. The Monday following Daylight Savings sees noted increases in roadway accidents and workplace injuries — we’re just tired, and when we’re tired, we get dangerous. One scientific study actually chronicles an increased risk of cardiac incidents in the days immediately following time changes because of the disruption to our basic physiological rhythms. Which is all to say that if these biannual time changes bother you, too, it’s not just a matter of personal grumpiness. This is actually a legitimate question of public health. Moreover, public opinion polling shows as many as 74% of Americans are dissatisfied with Daylight Savings — which, let’s just take a moment to think about that, because you and I both know in 2019 that 74% of Americans can’t agree on just about anything. If you put a bunch of Trump and Hillary voters in a room in 2019 74% of them wouldn’t be able to agree on whether pancakes or good or whether puppies are cute. So 74% is a tidal wave. 74% is colossal. 74% of Americans would support federal legislation — which is what it would take — federal legislation to overturn the current back-and-forth system of Daylight Savings.

But you and I also know that when it comes to federal legislation, 74% still might not get you very far. Not a lot happens, right now, in the deadlock where federal legislation is supposed to come from. I think this is really why Daylight Savings Time gets me down. It would be easier if it were just my own personal soapbox. I could be perfectly happy as the lone voice in the wilderness, casting my aspersions against the ritual and nobody taking me seriously. If my opinion were unpopular, I could deal with it. The depressing part is that most of you, statistically, agree with me. Statistically, we have the majority share. And still I find it almost inconceivable that any of this might actually change. The real problem is that in 2019 a reasonable, popular idea can still bounce off of the deadlock of our political process with a clang and a thud. You and I both know that as soon as some innocent congressperson shows up with some bill to eliminate Daylight Savings Time that it gets rolled into the partisan gridlock never to be heard from again. The real problem is that in 2019 change itself is hard to come by.

I think Jonah would recognize my cynicism. Jonah the prophet has been sent to the great city of Nineveh to tell them to change their ways but in Nineveh change is hard to come by. There is a historic city of Nineveh, we know about it because it shows up as one of the home cities for the armies of Israel’s opposition in some the stories from the time around King David. But here in the Book of Jonah Nineveh isn’t really so much a historic city as it is a kind of symbol for the evils of all cities; it is all of the sins of the world rolled into one big metaphor — it could just as easily be Sodom, or it could just as easily be Babylon, these cities that Old Testament writers occasionally cast as the villains who don’t always come fully-formed. In Jonah’s case what we know about Nineveh is that it’s corrupt, and that it’s huge. “Exceedingly large, a three days’ walk across,” as the text says, Nineveh is corrupt, and huge, and Jonah’s little mission to save its soul is going to bounce off with a clang and a thud.

At least this is exactly what Jonah expects to happen. The mission to Nineveh is a fool’s mission — Mr. Smith going to Washington has nothing on Jonah for pure quixotic folly. Jonah knows the whole enterprise is doomed, one prophet can’t possibly compete with the huge systemic complex web of scum and villainy that throbs as the beating heartbeat of Nineveh seven days a week. That’s why he tried to duck the job in the first place, of course — you may remember Jonah running away from the gig and ending up in the belly of a whale and now God has sprung him from that fate only to send him into this fate which is in no small way worse than being slowly digested hundreds of feet underneath the ocean because one guy on a soapbox is hardly going to make a dent in Nineveh, where everything is broken and nothing changes and nothing gets through. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah makes for such a very strange prophet. He doesn’t even invite them to repent. He can’t even imagine a scenario in which his own prophecy might work.  He’s only there, reluctantly, because the whale didn’t work out. He doesn’t seem to believe any of it can change.

I have to say that I find this posture entirely too recognizable. It is the posture of believing so thoroughly that change is out of reach. I mean, I know my complaints about Daylight Savings Time are petty — it is hardly the most important thing out there — but the posture matters; if we can’t do the petty stuff, how can we ever do the big stuff? If our political systems can’t handle moving the clocks around, how could they possibly take on something as critical as stewarding the health of the planet or considering the legal and ethical impact of our border policies or navigating our traumatic legacy of racial oppression? Two weeks ago we all shook our heads in grief after yet another white supremacist walked into a house of worship — this time a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand — and opened fire — a tragedy that was doomed to be just another in the litany of terrorist acts of gun violence with which we have all become so familiar. But then, before the weekend was out, the New Zealand prime minster had announced sweeping reforms to the nation’s gun laws. Just like that. It was almost dumbfounding to see political leaders respond so quickly so something that needed such quick attention. And maybe those changes will help, and maybe it won’t, nobody yet knows for sure, but at least change was on the table.

There.

Not here. Not here in Nineveh.

Here in Nineveh, nothing ever changes.

Except when it does.

Jonah goes one day into his three-days’-journey across city, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” and then the unimaginable happens. Right in the heart of this vast city where nothing ever changes, all of a sudden, everything changes. “The people of Nineveh believed God,” the text says, “they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” Even the King gets in on the action — he gets out of his throne, he puts on sackcloth and ash, and he waits on God’s mercy. This is a stunning turn of events. I mean, can you imagine any of our modern-day prophets sending a particularly stunning tweet and then any of leaders responding with “You were right, I was wrong, I’m just going to sit here quietly and think about that for a while.” And then of course God does in fact show mercy, and spares the city; and the inevitable fate of Nineveh the great inevitable city just turns on a dime. Because of the power of God, to be sure. Because of their fear of God, of course. Because of the reputation of God, no doubt. And also because, despite everything, despite his skepticism, despite his cynicism, despite his profound disaffection with the whole thing, Nineveh turns because Jonah puts one foot in front of the other. Nineveh turns because Jonah steps out into the city anyway. And you don’t do that without some kernel of hope.

At first glance, hope might seem a strange virtue to lift out of our good friend Jonah. He does not seem to have the rosiest disposition. He does not suffer any visible form of chronic optimism. If hope is supposed to be some sort of relentless belief that things will eventually and somehow improve, then Jonah who runs away from all of it hardly seems to fit the bill. Not to mention that when it does improve Jonah gets angry at God for making him look the fool — we haven’t even gotten to that part, but rest assured that it doesn’t show a lot of character development on his part. Surely there are more fitting lessons to take from this disaffected prophet — or surely there are characters in scripture better-suited to teaching us something about what hope properly means. Except that Jonah does take those first steps. Despite all of it, he takes those first steps. He stands on that first soapbox. He does that one thing. He does the one thing that he could not possibly and credibly do if he did not somewhere underneath have the tiniest inclination that any of it could possibly somehow get better — if he did not somewhere underneath have that tiniest kindled flame burning with hope. Maybe it’s not quite enough hope to make him delightful at parties. Maybe it’s just enough hope to keep him in the fight, despite everything.

This Lent at UPC, we have been preaching through the forty-day stories in scripture — Noah on the arc, Moses on the mountaintop, Elijah in the wilderness, and offering touchstone words from each story to help guide your week and guide your Lenten journey, and this week I want to send you back into that journey with this word, hope. It is an odd word to hold in cynical times. It is an unfashionable word. It gets associated too quickly with a kind of blind optimism that doesn’t look the world squarely in the eye, like some sugary-sweet confection that we’d love to indulge but right now, we’re on a diet. And yet the hope of Jonah is something else. It is not naive. It is not foolhardy. It is, rather, determined. It is dogged. It puts one foot in front of the other. It believes in the possibility of change because it has to believe in the possibility of change because how else could we be? It believes in the possibility of change in part because it believes in the possibility of God. And so as I send you out with hope, it is not to go and find hope that has not been there before. It is not to turn your frown upside-down. It is rather to recognize the hope that persists and kindles inside each of us already. Relentlessly. Persistently. It is already there. It is already there because you are here and I am here and we are here together and God has called us together and as Jonah knows all too well where God calls us, there is always hope.

Even in Lent. Even here on the fourth Sunday of Lent, as the journey narrows, as Jerusalem beckons, as the great city gets closer and closer. Even here on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we have hope. In fact, the fourth Sunday of Lent has historically been a moment in this Christian journey when we allow ourselves to breathe from the long work of penitence and remind ourselves that all of this ends with an empty tomb and a risen savior. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, there is no path to the cross that does not also lead beyond the grave. And so of course, I send you back into this journey with hope — it is the hope born on Easter, and it shines even today, here in the midst of Lent. It is the hope born on Easter, and it shines everywhere. It is the hope born on Easter, and it shines through Nineveh, and it shines through Jerusalem, and it shines through Babylon, and it shines through Washington, and it shines through Christchurch, and it shines through Austin. It is the hope born on Easter, and it shines through corridors full of power, and it shines through streets full of rage, and it shines through hearts full of desperation. It is the hope born on Easter, but it lives especially in the dark. It lives particularly in the dark. It persists especially when daylight fades. No matter what the clock says.

Amen.