The story of Jonah and the whale or big fish is one of those stories many people know, even if they know very little about the Bible. In fact, a collection of 3rd century marble sculptures of this story may be the earliest known graven images or statues in Christianity. Such images took a long time to emerge and are notable because Judaism prohibited “graven images.” Their appearance is a sign of Christianity coming into its own when these statues began to appear in the early Christian community. The first statue shows Jonah being swallowed by the big fish; in the second Jonah is spewed out onto a road that heads in the right direction – to the ancient city of Nineveh. The third shows Jonah receiving the word of God a second time, and the call to go to Nineveh.
This reminds me of a fun little camp song from childhood about Jonah . . . “God will not compel you to go against your will. God will just make you willing to go”.
The people in Jesus’ day also knew the Jonah story. When they asked Jesus about signs of the end of the world, Jesus says their only sign will be “the sign of Jonah”.
So what is “the sign of Jonah?”
First, many considered the story of Jonah and the whale to symbolize our brother Jesus’ coming to us, suffering many things in human form, his death, being laid in the tomb for 3 days and his resurrection.
But I think there is more. As I thought about the story of Jonah, God has the closing words in the Old Testament Book of Jonah – words that rang in my mind the entire time we were in New Orleans . . . The God of the universe asks Jonah who is angry that Nineveh and its inhabitants have been spared, “Should I not be concerned?”
Let us recall the story of Jonah that leads up to this question concerning the ancient city of Nineveh.
God sent the prophet Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that their city is about to be destroyed because of their wickedness. But for some reason, Jonah does not like this assignment and he catches a boat headed in the opposite direction.
But God sends a powerful storm to slow Jonah down. Jonah confesses to his shipmates that his running away from God is the most likely cause of this storm and begs his shipmates to throw him overboard.
They comply without hesitation.
But God does not let Jonah get off that easily.
A big fish comes and swallows Jonah who remains in the belly of the fish for 3 days before it throws Jonah up on the shore – conveniently on the road to Nineveh.
This morning’s text comes after Jonah has preached to Nineveh, —the people, the animals, the king and everyone hears the message and turn from their wickedness. In this morning’s text we see Jonah struggling with the fact that God is NOT going to destroy Nineveh because of their turn around.
The Mission team just returned last night from work in New Orleans. This August will mark 7 years since Katrina struck New Orleans. And as hard as it is to believe, there are still people trying to make it back home . . . Still trying to restore, their families, friends, homes and businesses . . . torn asunder by Hurricane Katrina—a natural disaster, that many (including me) believe was intensified by the impact of global warming.
Some conservative evangelicals said they believed God sent this hurricane to New Orleans as punishment for America’s sin and it being a sort of “sin city” of great wickedness, and that Katrina is just the beginning of such trials. Some who see evidence of global warming also see patterns of extreme weather, the result of global warming that we fuel with our wastefulness and poor stewardship of the earth’s resources.
But as we worked on the homes of real people who suffered from this great storm, as we listened to their stories and saw evidence of the people’s struggle all around us, I saw something else; at times it was hard to fight back the tears. Rather than the Jonah-like condemnation of folk like Robertson or environmentalists, it seemed I could hear God asking the same question God asked Jonah – a God who is always more eager to restore than to condemn . . . Should I not be concerned?”
I believe the sign of Jonah is the lack of compassion – the lack of empathy for the struggles of others, or for plants and animals that Jonah demonstrated.
As we listened to stories from the people of New Orleans, I heard the authentically powerful stories of real family values from people like Ronald Lewis who has been separated from his children and grand-children since Katrina’s destruction, forcing them to flee to Houston, and 7 years later, still unable to return due to a lack of adequate and affordable housing. Ronald, an expert on the Mardi Gras Indian tradition within the African American community in New Orleans and has published books about these groups and their second line dancing at Mardi Gras. And though he has received accolades from the president, he wants nothing more than to restore the home next door to his own so that his family can return and be re-united in New Orleans in the way that so many families there live have lived close to each other for generations.
I hear God asking, “Should I not be concerned?”
We worked on the home of the Willey’s. Mr. Willey, now 80-something, hired contractors who began the work but who were unscrupulous, vanishing with more than $53,000 from this elderly couple . . . Their family also lives together in a big house in need of restoration. The lovely Mr. & Mrs. Willey’s eyes filled with tears as we worked there and I hear the Almighty God asking, “Should I not be concerned?”
We saw the places of devastation, where the high water line was still visible on many homes up to the second story, evidence of water levels that forced so many to evacuate. We heard from UCC member Debra Joseph who came by to talk with our group about the nigh impossible challenges of evacuating her mother in a hospital bed, how they were taken to the superdome, how the healthcare workers left her and others needing medical care alone in order to save themselves and care for their families; she told us about hunting down a sick brother in Houston so they could all be together and take care of one another.
I hear God asking, “Should I not be concerned?”
One morning we met with other workers coming from other places in the country, including Massachusetts at a Southern Baptist Church where their pastor Chad, who though he had different theological values than our own, was clearly focused on the work of restoration of the people’s homes as well as the community’s spiritual well-being. He spoke of the ways the religious groups now work together despite theological differences, for the first time.
Chad and others described what it was like there after the storm. All the trees covered with grey sludge – everything seeming dead. No birds. No insects. No animals of any sort – all of them killed or having flown away.
But without exception, everyone we spoke with said that as bad as things were and continue to be, that they are better off than they were before Katrina.
Issues around racism
People who for generations had no path to the American dream of getting a house and increasing wealth to provide for their families
Education is improving and more integrated
Healthcare is more available
Churches are more willing to work together
Friends, there is devastation greater than hurricane. There are forces as powerful as Katrina with us right now among the poor, those unable to receive adequate education, housing, a decent meal and so much more all across our nation.
And I hear God asking, “Should I not be concerned?”
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. On them has the light shined and though they still have much further to go even 7 years later, because of their hard work and changed outlook, New Orleans seeing New Orleans is a place where life and hope lives.
If you are reading this sermon and are concerned . . . and want to reduce your energy use with us or help fund the building of another house in New Orleans, email [email protected].
Old South Church, there is a little more hope in New Orleans today because you heard God asking, “Should I not be concerned?” You sent an Old South Mission team to rebuild . . . And being concerned, like our God, you sent . . .
Sam Ou and Suzanne Bacon; Caitlin Lowell and Dan Leist were both concerned enough to plan for the team and to work.
(Those named all came forward as their names were called.)
Being concerned, like our God, you sent . . .
Brian Fluharty and Linh Aven, Bob Childers and Richard Spada.
You sent Jackie Geilfuss and Jessica Jackson; Katie Gerrish and Ron Buford.
You sent Liz Olsen and Chris Mahoney; and the dynamic father and son duo, Scott and Pierce Mcinturff.
Two of our team who were forced to remain home but worked tirelessly nonetheless – even from a distance and were just as concerned, George Delianides and Marilyn Jackson Adams, both of them, wind beneath our wings.
And so I ask you Old South Church, God is still asking. . . “Should I not be concerned?”
There are loads of volunteers through organizations like AmeriCorps and others – we even worked alongside men and women from the Navy one day. But until everyone that wants to return home can do so . . . Should we not be concerned?
With every head bowed and eyes closed, I invite you to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to the church this morning as God asks you and me, “Should I not be concerned?”
Are you concerned?
Are you concerned about the environment enough to join a group at Old South to reduce our energy waste between Mother’s Day and Christmas? If you hear God speaking to you, asking you to try, will you find one of the Mission Trippers in the fellowship Hall and sign their sheet?
Are you concerned about families still trying to make it home to New Orleans even 7 years later? It costs about $38,000 to restore or rebuild a home with the volunteer labor available? If so, will you sign the Mission Tripper’s sheets during Coffee hour?
May it be so, Amen.