Jonah Sedaris (sermon 1/25/15)

The boy eats a zephyr

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.

         – Jonah 3:1-5, 10


The author David Sedaris once wrote a short essay about his family moving from small-town upstate New York to small-town North Carolina when he was a young boy. In the essay, he talks about a neighbor family who was just a little bit different from his family and the surrounding neighbors, because they didn’t have a television – not because they couldn’t afford one, but just because they didn’t “believe in it,” as the father would say. Sedaris says that he felt sorry for the family’s two children because of all the cultural literacy that they were being deprived of without the benefit of TV. And while he didn’t really do anything concrete to be their friend, he said he got some sense of fulfillment, or a sense of goodness or pleasure just out of thinking nicely about them in a kind of superior way, as though they were benefiting from some unspoken favor he was doing for them.

Apparently, their strangeness went beyond just the TV issue though. One year, Halloween fell on a Saturday and the family was out of town that weekend, but rather than miss trick-or-treating, the kids just dressed in their costumes and went door to door on the following Monday evening. Sedaris said that was just odd, and too much of a stretch for him to accept. Making things all the worse, of course, the family didn’t actually have any Halloween candy to give to them, so his mother made him go to his room and get some of his own Halloween candy just to solve the embarrassing situation. He wrote that he’d gotten a lot of chocolate bars, which he didn’t even really like – in fact, they made him sick – but he still knew that people considered chocolate bars to be the cream of the crop when it came to Halloween candy. So rather than allow them to be given to the neighbor kids, and in a sense, rewarding their weirdness, he started cramming all the chocolate bars into his mouth and eating them, just to spite the neighbors, to keep them from benefiting. He wrote that in that moment, he’d decided that from then on instead of getting pleasure from feeling kindly toward them, he’d get pleasure out of hating them.

At that young age, he’d veered into a great truth. We can get great personal pleasure out of hating someone else. The reality is that hatred is kind of like a narcotic, making us feel good in the moment but ultimately harming us – but that’s easy to disregard when it feels so good to wallow in the hatred at the moment.

The prophet Jonah understood this same truth. That’s why he reacted the way he did when God told him to go to Nineveh and to speak God’s word to the Assyrians living there. The Assyrians were the people who all the Israelites loved to hate. The Assyrians had overrun and wiped out two-thirds of their country; they were the Israelites’ sworn enemies, and Nineveh was their capital city. Everybody hated the Assyrians; you were supposed to hate the Assyrians; it was pretty much your patriotic duty to hate them.

So on the surface, Jonah should have been happy to give them God’s message of “Forty Days, and your city will be no more!” But we learn in the story that Jonah doesn’t want any part of it, which is why he tries to run away from God, to ignore God’s call to him. But like so many people who’d come before him, and so many who came afterward, Jonah learned that there really wasn’t any future in trying to run away from something God is calling you to.

In today’s passage, we heard that when Jonah relays this message to the despised Assyrians, unbelievably, miraculously, they actually repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And as a result, the story says, God changed his mind and didn’t destroy them.

And that was Jonah’s whole problem. In the verses immediately following what we read today, Jonah shakes his bony finger at God and says, “I knew you were going to do this! That’s why I didn’t want to do this in the first place! I knew that you were a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, and that you wouldn’t really wipe them out. You’re a flip-flopper! You’re all love and mercy and not enough justice! You’ll let them off without getting what they deserve, and I’ll end up looking like a fool!” And while he’s mad at God, he tells God to just kill him now, so he wouldn’t have to see these people he hates be shown God’s love and acceptance. Jonah wants to wallow in the mud of his comfortable and familiar hatred, cramming his face with chocolate bars that will make him sick just to keep the goodies from his enemies.

The Book of Jonah was originally written shortly after the Jews had returned home from their time of slavery and captivity in Babylon. As they were trying to rebuild their kingdom and their culture, there was a major push for religious, racial, and ethnic purity in their land. If you ever read the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you’ll read about the kinds of things that were going on then. It even went so far that if a man had married a non-Jewish woman, he would be forced to divorce her and have her deported to her own country.

The story of Jonah was written at this same time, as a rejection of that extremist kind of hatred and exclusion. It was meant to be a strong witness to the message that God loves even those we consider our worst enemies.

Is there a message in there for us? Of course there is, when, whether it’s in the realm of global politics or our own personal lives, so often we’re being taught to fear and hate the “other” – and the funny thing is, we never seem to run out of “others.” Have you ever noticed that? As soon as one “other” disappears, we find another other to hate. And oddly, just like with Jonah and young David Sedaris, we know that what we’re doing is really hurting ourselves – we *know* it! But we still don’t want to accept it, because hating those others makes us feel so good.

So much of the way we think and talk about the gospel deals with our salvation in the sense of getting into heaven; a kind of golden ticket to the ultimate chocolate factory of all eternity. But I think a more immediate part of the gospel is salvation in the sense of the healing of our own souls in the here and now, and in a way that’s every bit as real as if we’d been healed from blindness or some dreadful disease. It’s a healing of the heart, made possible for us when we really grasp Christ’s message of the healing power of love, forgiveness, and acceptance – even for those who have hurt us deeply. There’s an incredible lightening of our souls, the removal of an incredible burden sitting on our shoulders when we just let all those hatreds and hurts go. When we stop eating the chocolate bars, and we allow ourselves to accept that degree of love that God has for all of us that’s all but impossible for us to even comprehend.

Yes, we learn from Jonah that it’s really impossible to run away or hide from God, or to try to ignore a call from God when you hear it, even if you don’t like where you know it’s going to lead. But I think this other message, about learning just how loving and merciful God really is, and how willing to forgive even the worst of people, is even more important. So this week, let’s ask ourselves what judgmentalism, what bias, what hatred we’re holding onto that we could ask God to help us let go of. Let’s ask God to help us learn the lesson of getting pleasure from loving people, rather than from hating them.

Thanks be to God.