Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
"Prayer from the Belly"
Scripture: Jonah Chapter 2
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Prayer from the Belly
12 August 2018
Jennifer Davis Sensenig
[Opening Slide] Big Trouble and Hope
I was recently reminded of a spiritual equation.
Hope = Trouble + Grace, when Grace >Trouble. [REPEAT w/slide.]
When is grace greater than trouble? All the time! Jonah was in big trouble. The kind of trouble from which he could not rescue himself–Hebrews were not known for being strong swimmers. When I get in trouble–when I say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, or neglect to do the good thing, I want to patch things up and make them right. I sometimes end up making it worse, but I try to deal with things myself. And that’s a fine impulse, we ought to try and make amends when we make trouble. This equation is for those times when the trouble may or may not be of one’s own making, but the rescue, the way out, the patching things up is impossible without God.
Some of us have been there. If you’re in recovery from an addiction to drugs or alcohol or credit cards or sex or food or porn or gambling or something else, then you know that these are not matters we can just correct or patch up with good intentions. We need God’s help and the community of God’s people when we’re addicted. And God’s grace is greater than trouble, so we have hope.
Some of us have been there. We’ve been in trouble that was not of our own making. We’ve been abused or discriminated against. We’ve suffered at the hands of systems and circumstances out of our control and we can’t individually pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We need God’s help and the community of God’s people to survive and thrive when we’ve been victimized. And God’s grace is greater than trouble, so we have hope.
Actually, all of us have been there. All of us are there. We can’t do what needs to be done on our own. We need God and the community of God’s people to help us in our times of trouble…and in our troubled times. We’re here today because the church–for all our faltering–is a community of hope. We believe that God’s grace, God’s salvation and rescue is greater than the trouble we’re in right now. Amen?
[Slide.] One surprising thing in this prayer is that Jonah is not asking for help. Jonah isn’t asking to be rescued. Jonah is claiming and proclaiming–from the belly of a fish–that God’s rescue and salvation is already underway. I went down…but you brought up my life from the Pit. Jonah was thrown into the sea and he was going to drown–but God rescued Jonah via a fish. And so in form, Jonah’s prayer is thanksgiving. Thanks be to God.
The Best of Jonah’s Prayer
I’m starting with the best spin on Jonah’s prayer. [SLIDE] But if you’re not satisfied, hang in because God word always speaks to us on multiple levels. Jonah’s prayer is a model for our prayers and our church. Jonah is vividly honest [CLICK] about trouble: flood, waves, weeds wrapped around his head, the Pit. Jonah tells it like it is, even though it’s bad. We ought to pray honestly. Our church community needs to be honest about the troubles we face individually and together. At its best, Jonah’s prayer is thanksgiving, [CLICK] even though his circumstances are still pretty difficult–he’s in the fish. I went to see Violet Horst last week at her home after she broke her femur in Roanoke and had surgery to insert a pin. The first thing she said was that she was full of gratitude. We belong to this spiritual tradition that teaches us to give thanks in all kinds of circumstances. It’s a profound spiritual practice, but kind of counter-intuitive. More naturally we complain when we’re swallowed by a fish, or break a leg, or we can’t kick our habit, or the existential crush of living in the 21st century amidst privilege and poverty is overwhelming, or other calamities strike us. But wisdom invites us to notice even the smallest gift, blessing, or sign of hope when we’re experiencing troubles. So putting the best spin on Jonah’s prayer, he is honest and grateful. Lord, let it be so among us. Oh! Thirdly, Jonah is confident in the character of God [CLICK]– confident that YHWH is the God who hears and delivers. Let’s believe that too. God cares for you and the trouble in your life right now. And God’s grace is greater than that trouble. And so we are people of hope and we are in this together as church.
Canonical Setting of Jonah
As some of you suspected, though, Jonah’s prayer reveals something more. I thought this week about some other stories in the Bible with boats and storms. There are a lot of them. [SLIDE.] Remember Noah and his family? They were in big trouble along with the rest of humanity–the earth was full of violence–but God rescued a remnant–of people and animals–with a divinely engineered tech innovation–the ark! Noah built a ship and was saved from the flood. [SLIDE] And God promised never to destroy the earth. Would that we human beings would make the same commitment? Jonah is kind of opposite Noah, right? God’s salvation for Jonah was not high tech. God saved Jonah naturally, with a fish. OK, it was a miracle. Large fish do not ordinarily swallow human beings and then after some days spit them out unharmed. This is usually the stuff of myths. [SLIDE] And there are many different cultures in the ancient world who tell some version of this story. Our Biblical big fish story is less about gods and the cycles of the sun swallowed up on the horizon at dusk and spit out the next morning at the other end of the earth. Our story is more about the God who loves enemies and is full compassion, care, grace and love–even when we just hate that.
[SLIDE.] In the New Testament there is also a story of Jesus in the boat with his disciples and while he’s asleep (just like Jonah) a storm overtakes the boat and everybody thinks that they are going to die. You remember. Jesus calms the wind and the waves and the boat is saved, and the people are saved. Jesus acts like the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. He asks his disciples: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
[Slide.] In yet another Bible story Paul is on the Mediterranean Sea and the storm is so severe that the boat is torn up, but all the sailors and soldiers on board are saved, along with Paul and a few Christians. Then islanders who have not heard of Israel’s God or the Messiah, Jesus, care for these shipwrecked people. They share hospitality emblematic of the very gospel Paul preaches. Will people of the world today–regardless of nationality or religion–do the same for those caught in the storms of natural and political disaster?
[SLIDE] In the Biblical storm stories we go to hell and back again. We are in big trouble and we die–or nearly die. In each one, we are rescued by love that we don’t quite understand, a grace that is greater than trouble. Grace as an ark and a promise, grace as a large fish, grace as hospitable strangers or grace as the word of Jesus Christ. The storm stories are stories of hope from the heart of God to God’s people. This part of Jonah’s story points to the hope of resurrection.
Jonah: The Story of a Rebellious Prophet who Hates God for Loving Enemies. I’m reading The Third Reconstruction by Rev. William Barber, the organizer of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays and the national Poor People’s Campaign. Rev. Barber’s personal call to preach the gospel and to organized, inclusive justice ministry as well as his experiences of physical suffering are knit together as a profound story of hope for our country. There are passages in Barber’s book so brimming with hope and fortitude that I underline them and ask God to give me as much. Barber says: “Jesus’s insistence that we love our enemies is more than an ethical ideal. In the struggle for human freedom, it is also a practical necessity. If love does not drive out the fears that so easily divide us, we will never gather together in coalitions strong enough to challenge those who benefit from injustice” (26).
The irony of Jonah’s prayer from the belly is that he does not confess his rebellion, he does not repent. Jonah says he’s driven away from God’s sight–but he ran away! Jonah says, ‘You, God, cast me into the deep,’ but that was the sailors’ last resort and at Jonah’s own suggestion! Jonah is vague about what kind of sacrifice he’s going to make, yet eager to get back to God’s holy temple in Israel.
Jonah and Jesus [Click.] Perhaps God wants us to laugh a bit at Jonah, and admit some of our own self-deception. [Click, click] Jonah in rebellion died, nearly died, in the sea. [Click] Then he was 3 days in the belly of a fish before being given [click] new life on the land. [Click, click] Jesus, in faithfulness, [click] died–truly died, on the cross. [Click] Jesus was 3 days in the tomb before being raised from the the dead. [Click] Both were chosen by God for a mission of love in the world.
[SLIDE] Brothers and sisters, Biblical faith, and certainly Christian faith, is not individualistic. It’s not just God and me. We actually need ordinary people with whom to live our faith. Sure, Jonah rebels, but when I am full of compassion I wonder whether Jonah had some internal obstacles to hearing and believing and heeding God’s call. Fleeing on a ship, Jonah tried to cut himself off from God and from people. Three times in the story, Jonah wants to die. Perhaps this prophet, called by God, was in a deep depression, expressing it through isolating himself from God and people, self-deception, cycles of anger and wanting to die rather than live.
[SLIDE]What if all of us have just been spewed out upon the dry land, as part of God restoring us to one another, even if we can’t fully embrace God’s call in our lives just yet? Jonah got coughed up among the Ninevites. They are not God’s chosen people. And they are certainly not Jonah’s chosen people. They are corrupt and prosperous. They are enemies of Israel and Jonah believes they can never change. But people can change. Circumstances can change. Even people suffering from deep depression find hope and new life. My friend who thought he would have to take his own life by the end of this year if his psychic pain and acute depression were not alleviated just found a new treatment at UVA that is making a real difference for him. Praise God! And the anniversary of a tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has brought more voices for peace and harmony to the public airways.
Some of us are living through times of trouble right now in our personal lives. All of us are living in troubled times in the world. It is tempting to isolate ourselves from God and God’s people. It is tempting to ignore call–because it’s always much bigger than we are and seemingly impossible–Love God and love your neighbor as yourself? Love your enemies?! But today we’re among the people of God, communing with the God who really is our help and our hope. Thanks be to God. Praise God. Alleluia.
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