This week, illumination has come from a few different angles… and if all goes well, they will converge at something resembling a sermon!
The first angle, is from the spiritual practice we have been following all month: the Examen. The first three steps of the Examen are all pretty agreeable: Asking God for light, Giving thanks, and Reviewing the Day. Step four, which we take today, requires some heavier lifting: “Face your shortcomings – face up to what is wrong, in my life and in me.”
For the second angle, we turn to the Jewish calendar of religious festivals and see that the past couple of weeks have been a particularly holy time in Judaism. Two weeks ago, it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; and last week it was Yom Kippur, the festival of atonement. Prior to Yom Kippur, the faithful are called to seek reconciliation with those they may have wronged and then to approach God for forgiveness.
The third angle is that today, the first Sunday in October, is World Communion Sunday. While this may not be quite as big an event for Churches that have Eucharist every Sunday, it is the time when us Churches that have communion 12 or 8 or 4 times per year join with those who celebrate the Eucharist every week, and do so around the world. This day reminds me of my connection with people of faith in many lands.
The fourth angle, is that September and early October, comprise the Season of Creation: a time when we commit ourselves to all the earth and all living beings, as entities that are linked through God’s creative and loving energy. Whatever else we delve into today, also needs to be checked against our impact on this planet.
So all of those angles together, I hope, will shed some light on our reading for today, the story of Jonah. This isn’t one of the lectionary readings for today but it is one of the readings in the observance of Yom Kippur, a reading that speaks of our human propensity to argue with God, and God’s huge capacity to forgive and reconcile.
Even folks who have no religious leanings whatsoever have likely heard of Jonah. You know, the guy who got swallowed by a whale. But for many of us, that’s as far as the word association goes: Jonah – whale. The broader sweep of this wonderful, allegorical story, though, pushes us to follow through the steps of how Jonah got to that place, and what happened next.
God called Jonah to leave home and go east to the city of Nineveh, to declare God’s unhappiness with the way things were going there. Jonah, however, with no desire to do so, hopped on the first westbound ship. It was from that act of shunning God’s call, that Jonah ended up in a storm, and was thrown overboard to lessen the burden on the ship, and then “rescued” – or “rescued-ish” at least – by being gulped down by a huge fish (as per the Hebrew, which makes no mention of a whale). After 72 hours with not much to do but think about the error of his ways, Jonah gets barfed up on a beach and agrees to go to Nineveh.
We could cut the story right there, and have a great fable about repentance – being corrected, turned around, and doing God’s will. But that’s not all that happened. Jonah went to Nineveh, with the unhappy message that God was sick and tired of their behaviour and they were done for, and much to his surprise and indignance, the leaders of the city agreed, and they changed their ways… joining Jonah in this wave of repentance… and then God, seeing Nineveh’s earnest change in heart, also pulls back, no longer motivated to punish them. Now, I have more than a few questions about the way punishment functions in this story, as that’s not my experience of God – but if we enter into the story as presented, we see in Jonah, in the people and leaders of Nineveh, even in God, the transformative power of pulling back, changing one’s mind, turning away from negative or destructive patterns of behaviour. Rather than entrenching myself in “plan A”, my initial and most entrenched plan, this story urges me to take a step back, and attempt to get God’s perspective on things.
In this season of creation, seeking a “God’s-eye view” of nature has appeared to some degree pretty much every Sunday, but much of what I’ve been talking about so far has been at the micro level – the things I can do to lessen my personal, local carbon footprint, caring for the mountains and trees and waters of the Bow Valley, advocating for the living beings within my direct sphere of influence. But on this day when we recall our global connections, not just local, our breadth of field has to be broader than that.
Human activity has damaged this beloved planet we live on. Whether specifically related to climate change, or our cavalier attitude toward water, the earth is being traumatized by human behaviour. If we recognize this at all, we will have recognized that the first to pay the price, are the smallest and most vulnerable creatures and at a human level, one report after another speak of how the poorest of the poor are also paying a huge price. Even a report produced by the World Bank clearly lays out the increased burden of climate problems carried by those living in vulnerable-to-the-elements, high-hazard areas with inadequate shelter, the impact of weather disasters on those with few resources trapped by high consumer prices, the perilous position of those with no nest egg to fall back in case of calamity or unemployment, and the extra price paid by women living in poverty. In the way we handle our money and our willingness to advocate for global needs rather than just local ones, we engage the world’s economic disparity as both a practical and a spiritual issue. Knowing that God’s concern is for all living beings, not a select few, how can we explain staying narrow in our approach to the issues of the day?
We pause for a moment, then, and catch our breath, and ask: what about the good news, Rev? Is there any?
Yes; and for a first source of hope, we go back to the Examen and the observance of Yom Kippur. In these spiritual practices, we examine and name the difficult, broken places in life, and do so in a structured, spiritual way. We identify the places where repentance is needed, we seek to make amends with our neighbours and lay it all before God: not in order to strand us in shame, but to mobilize our resources in seek of a better day for all the earth. We open ourselves to the urgings of the Spirit, small ways and big ways we can live the change we hope for the world.
We also look once more to our core story this day, the story of Jonah. What a great illustration of God’s persistence at leading us away from our worst to our best. Humans, it seems, have a well-honed ability to look at the thing that we know needs doing, and do the opposite, perhaps even resenting when things turn out the gracious way God wants rather than the more judgmental version I would prefer, but God doesn’t just leave us there. That pestering voice of the conscience, those instances of reversal in our lives or the lives of others, those events and movements where the human spirit finds inspiration and hope, that long arc of history that bends toward justice, are all ways that God is present to us if we open ourselves. Jonah’s story didn’t have to be story of rejecting God’s calling, it could just as easily have been a story of partnership with God…and that choice of partnership rather than resistance can also be my story, and your story, and our story. If I truly believe that God’s creative light is infused in everything I see, then my task is to believe that enough to seek God’s highest good for all people and all creatures and all biomes of this planet.
As we prepare to share the sacred meal of communion, in many different locations, we picture ourselves at a table with no boundaries. In the communion prayer, we recall the ways that God repeatedly calls us back to a broad, engaged, loving concern for the difficult lives lived by so many. In the broken bread, we recall the brokenness of our world and the broken bodies of those who carry the heaviest burdens. In the wine poured out, we recall what it means to allow ourselves to be poured out, given over to Christ’s agenda of love, as huge and challenging as it may seem. We pause to assess where we have just been… where we want to be… how we imagine our next steps being walked in companionship with Christ’s embodied love and hope and justice.
On this day of self-awareness, and hard evaluation and, at places, turning around, we recommit ourselves to God’s ways of renewal. This we pray, in the name and presence of Christ, Amen.
Chabad.org, “Yom Kippur Guide.” https://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/750115/jewish/Printable-Yom-Kippur-Guide-2020.htm
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2017/wp152_2017.pdf
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.