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Long Day’s Journey
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
January 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
A Reading from the Old Testament:
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 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.
This story isn’t really about Nineveh, but we have to start there. So just for reference, if I were to walk home from church today, to my house over in Mueller, Google Maps says it would take a little over an hour. Admittedly, we live fairly close: to Pflugerville, we’re talking five hours or so; all the way out to Georgetown, about nine hours by foot. And then if you wanted to walk from Georgetown clear south to, let’s say, Dripping Springs, that’s a sixteen hour walk, which is now probably more than any of us would do in one day but stick with me. From here at the church, if you wanted to walk to the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio, that’s about twenty-six hours of walking, two days if you were desperate, three if you were just doing it for kicks. Or, I still think like a kid from the northeast; my hometown of Princeton was founded, more or less, as the overnight rest stop for the two-day journey between colonial New York and center city Philadelphia. All of which is to say that if Nineveh was, as the text says, “an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across,” it was a bigger city, three thousand years ago, than the New York to Philadelphia metropolitan area circa 2018. Give or take.
Suffice to say that the archeologists aren’t lining up to agree with me. Excavations of Nineveh in the nineteenth century unearthed ruins that were about 8 miles in perimeter, which might not get us to the other side of UT campus and certainly wouldn’t take three days to traverse. So what, exactly, is Jonah’s problem, that it’s supposed to take him so long to get from one side of town to the other? Perhaps he’s just dedicated: perhaps it’s going to take three days because Jonah is so committed to the task that God sets for him, of going to the great city and telling them about God’s judgment, perhaps Jonah wants to knock on every door and walk down every alleyway and preach to anyone who would listen and look, this is slow work. But of course that doesn’t sound like the Jonah we’ve gotten to know by this point in the story. By this point in the story of Jonah, he has already spent considerable energy running away from what God wanted him to do: he doesn’t want to go to Nineveh; he tries anything to get out of going to Nineveh; he ends up thrown off a pirate ship in the middle of an ocean and hanging out in the belly of a whale just because he really doesn’t want to go to Nineveh and now you’re telling me he’s going to get there and take his time?
Even when he gets to town, he doesn’t seem fully committed. The text says that he began to go into the city, he goes one days’ walk, crying “40 days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” which is apparently what God told him to say but honestly, if you hold that up to some of the great Biblical doomsaying prophets, it’s pretty weak. It’s got none of the poetry of Isaiah, none of the brutality of Jeremiah, none of the biting critique of Amos. It’s pretty bland. It’s pretty tepid. There’s an old Jewish Midrash on this text that says that Jonah just kind of tiptoes into the gates of Nineveh and whispers this line one time into the ether: “40 days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” like a prophet with the worst possible case of stage fright. And then, almost offensively, it works. In one day. “The people of Nineveh believed God.” Which is a better result than Isaiah or Jeremiah ever had and they worked on this thing for years — I mean, not one day, not three days, years, in the city of Jerusalem, which is substantially smaller than Nineveh, and they got nowhere, so if were they, I would not be happy with this result. Nineveh, the great city, the great Satanic city, turns from its evil ways, like, just like that, because one prophet who didn’t want to be there in the first place did, like, the bare minimum, like just kinda waves at them for a second, and God spares them. The end.
How to make sense of this quick turnaround? At first glance it seems like Jonah is the most effective prophet of all time, I mean, the whole city turns to God and breakfast is barely over. But that interpretation doesn’t hold together with the Jonah that we meet in the rest of this story — even after our reading from today, in which Jonah gets righteously angry at God for sparing the city and thus making Jonah look inaccurate. Surely a better prophet would have a sense of nuance. So perhaps the case is that Nineveh just wasn’t that bad in the first place — a city just poised for rebirth. But again, there’s no evidence anywhere that Nineveh is anything of the sort. Every Biblical reference to it is as nothing but just that vast foreign city where nothing good ever happens, this godless place, this evil place. Unlike Jerusalem, there’s no catalog of Nineveh’s sins; we don’t know what they’re doing wrong; we just know it’s this big unconquerable thing, this big impossible thing. Nineveh is a fool’s errand, three days’ walk to get from one side to the other and that’s a lot of work for one prophet, that’s a lot of evil for one prophet, especially one as ill-prepared as Jonah seems to be: “Thy sea, O God, so great, My boat so small,” the old poem goes.
But he takes one step. He whispers one line. He goes one day’s journey. And the whole thing changes. Not because of who Jonah was, but in every way despite who Jonah was. And not because of what Nineveh was, but in every way despite what Nineveh was. This whole thing changes because of who God is. Because of what God can do. Jonah whispers “Nineveh shall be overthrown,” and the text says the people believed God. Three days’ journey, done before breakfast, I mean, the other side of the city has converted before the sound waves from Jonah’s whisper even make it across town. Which means this story is really about the power of God. The power of God that Jonah unleashes. The power of God to sweep across the city and open its heart and open its soul. The power of God that brings justice and healing and mercy and reconciliation. Jonah is a story about this prophet who doesn’t want to be a prophet, but right here in the middle it shows its hand, because all you have to do, Jonah, I mean, it’s not so much, Jonah, I mean, it looks like three days’ walk, but it’s one step, it’s one word, it’s whisper God’s name one time in this godforsaken place, and then like some cosmic megaphone dangling invisibly in front of his lips, the power of God shows up and shakes the city to its core. The whole thing changes. Just take one step.
In the records I have found, in his lifetime, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at least two sermons on the book of Jonah, both of which survive as outlines. One is about inclusivity and the open boundaries of God’s love — the scandal that God would have love even for the Ninevites. The other is about the ways in which we all like Jonah run away from God and from the call God has on us. Of course, I wish recordings survived of either sermon, but it has seemed to me as I have reflected on this text that the lasting Martin Luther King, Jr. Jonah sermon is not one he preached with his words, but rather one he preached with his feet. Because of course this story isn’t just about what happens when we run away. It’s about what happens when we show up. And King believed in showing up. To a Nineveh named Selma. To a Nineveh named Montgomery. To a Nineveh named the sinful scarred broken history of American white supremacy and slavery. If ever there were a long journey to be had. Three days, three decades, three centuries in the making, and more. If ever there were a thing so vast in its evil that no prophet would dare even attempt the crossing. If ever there was a fool’s errand. But King showed up, and the power of God with him. King showed up because he knew the power of God would be with him. He took one step, on a journey that still has many miles left to go.
Even now I am in awe of the work left to be done. Half a century after King’s death, and the dream of American racial harmony still seems impossibly for away. Half a century after the Civil Rights Act and still 75 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students attend schools that are functionally segregated or intensely segregated, and in fact in the twenty-five years between 1984 and 2009, the wealth gap between white and black American families nearly tripled. Half a century after the Voting Rights Act, and still minority voters in this country drive further to stand in longer lines for dubious access to polling places such that the intent of equal participation in the democratic process has been largely and successfully undermined. Half a century after King stood on the mountaintop, Klansmen are marching through Charlottesville and the rhetoric of racial hatred and nativist exclusion and old-fashioned venomous bigotry comes even from those to whom we give custody of our most sacred institutions. The Promised Land feels too far away. Further, too many evenings, than it was when we woke up that morning. This sin runs deep, and it runs long, and three days’ journey doesn’t even begin to describe it.
But still. We take one step. Yes, the work of racial progress in America is impossibly huge, but this sermon isn’t about what’s wrong with Nineveh. It’s about the power of God. It’s about the power of God that shows up, when we show up, when we get out of the whale, when we take to the city, when we take one step. Last Wednesday, the session of this church approved a resolution reaffirming, in light of our current racial politics, the language of the Belhar Confession, written by Christians working in opposition to South African Apartheid and adopted several years ago as part of our denomination’s confessional statements. And as session looked at this language and considered how to proceed, the question came up: I mean, so what? What does it matter for a session to make a statement using language already baked into our own confessional documents? By definition, we’re not really saying anything new. Moreover, what does it matter for a session to make a statement regardless? It’s entirely possible that we’re not saying it to anybody whose heart could be changed or would be changed because of something they read in a church newsletter. It feels wholly insufficient, foolishly insufficient to the work properly at hand, and yet: we take one step. We take one step, we whisper something into the heart of the city. And by taking one step we believe that the power of God works in ways beyond comprehension.
This spring at UPC, we will have the opportunity to take a few more steps together. Starting on the first Sunday of Lent, the UPC Social Witness and Christian Formation Committees are hosting a series of Sunday School-hour conversations and workshops about racial justice in America, running through Lent and well into Eastertide. Some of these will be about the big picture, the legacies of institutional racism and injustice and all of the imperfections in our shared national fabric. Some will be considerably more personal, about how we see one another and how we relate to one another, even as we stand in this time and place so marked by sin. I am not here this morning to brief you on all the folks who are coming or all the programmatic opportunities; this, too, will be in your newsletter soon enough. I am simply here to say: we are going to take a step. I hope you will come and take a step. It may not feel like much. It surely will not feel like enough. It surely is not enough. And yet, we are a people who believe in a God far more powerful than we can describe or imagine. We gather here in a place that gives testament to a God far more powerful than we can describe or imagine. And so we take a step. And we give God plenty of room to work.
In the German city of Rudesheim, there is a mural of the Jonah story. In the foreground, Jonah lies against the bush that grows in chapter four, after our reading from today, and Jonah seems to be reflecting on his work. In the middle-ground, we see the ocean, with a whale cresting over the water, a reminder of where he’s come from and the depths to which he has sunk. And then in the background, we see the city. But to anyone passing by, it is, strikingly, not the city of Nineveh. No, the skyline is something much more familiar; it is, instead, the skyline of Rudesheim itself, the familiar icons, the familiar steeples, the old medieval architecture with its signature obvious enough to anyone who might wander past. Of course, it could just as easily have been Austin: the clock tower, the capital, the growing field of skyscrapers dotting the downtown skyline. Any of us would recognize ourselves on sight. And so the implication is clear. The story was never really about Nineveh. It was never about anything so far away, so remote, or so vast. It is as it has always been, a story about taking one step. One step into the city outside your door. One step into the work that feels impossible beyond belief. One step into a journey whose ending is far beyond the horizon. The sea so great. Our boat so small. But the power of God is beyond measure. And so we march on, together.