Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year A), 2017.
It is typical to preach on the appointed Gospel Lesson of the day, and if possible to touch base as well with the other appointed lessons; and as you know, I typically like to frame my preaching in the context of the prayer of the Collect of the Day. Today, however, I will devote nearly all of my sermon to our Old Testament lesson and more broadly to what the Book of Jonah can teach us. I said the word “nearly” because I did want to make a couple of points about our Gospel lesson because it pertains to our Mission to Tazewell County. Notice that it is God who recruits workers into the vineyard, not the other workers. They go about their work as God would have them do in the vineyard, and while they are doing so, it is God who is finding more workers. This should be a great relief to us. It is God who gives the increase, who sends more labors into the harvest, who recruits workers for the vineyard—not us, at least directly. When God decides that He needs more laborers, more workers, our all-powerful Lord Jesus will call people to that work, to join us. This should relieve all Christians of anxiety they might feel as they look around and see fewer people in the pews.
Now, to the main part of my homily. The Book of Jonah is one of the handful of biblical books whose story enters into the consciousness of Christians from a very young age. Let us be honest—the image of being swallowed by a whale, living for three days in its belly, and then being vomited out upon the dry land is something most of us learned about when we were children. It has the right mix of familiarity and strangeness, and contemporary psychologists would probably point out something along the lines of the whale, which of course is not a whale in the text but a great fish, awakens our latent desire to return to womb for its security, protection, and intimacy. Or something like that. We seek that because we so often are anxious about earthly things. It is a normal human reaction.
Because the story of Jonah, or what of it is told, enters the awareness of children, it often tends to stay there as the children grow to adults. Now, of course, Our loving Lord Jesus did teach us that unless we turn and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So we are to be, as He taught elsewhere, innocent as doves. Yet we are also to be wise as serpents. It is a bit of a paradox, to be sure—yet it amounts to having an increasingly mature relationship to Jesus and knowledge of the Faith that never loses sight of pure wonder and awe at the majesty of Our Lord, which is what is meant by the gift of the Holy Spirit called “Fear.” And so returning to this little childhood story about a petulant man who, because he would not do what God said, jumped off a boat, lived in a fish, and then found himself on dry land, all with a happy ending, and returning with a mature sense of the Christian faith, what do we find in this Book of Jonah?
What we find is a dramatic rendering of a fact that impinges upon each and every one of us, no matter our age. And the fact is this: God calls us into existence not as an accident but with a purpose for existence. To the question, “Why was I born, Lord?” Jesus Christ always has an answer, and He will reveal it to us when we are able to bear it. God called Jonah and gave him a vocation to be used according to the gifts also given by God to Jonah. It was a vocation not very different from that of Saint John the Baptist—to cry against the wickedness toward God.
And what was Jonah’s response? It was our response—to flee. Jonah ran away, and tried to escape the calling given him. He even fled to a boat. It could have been the boat, or Ark, of Salvation, for on it were sailors themselves seeking God. For Jonah, however, this was not amnesia. He never forgot what God called him to do. He knew it was God that caused the mighty tempest. He knew it, and he did nothing. He was aware of the divine presence, but ignored it.
Our Collect talks about things that are passing away, and we often hear that in the context of the changing of the seasons, but the real target of these words is our sense of self when we realize that God is acting in our life. In the journey of the Christian life into maturity, what passes away is the sense of self that is narrow and individualized, and that is what was passing away from Jonah, and why he resisted. In the Christian understanding, this is what it means to die—to die to being self-centered, and to live in Christ, to live in His deep, faithful, and loyal love that is stronger than death.
The passage we hear today from the Book of Jonah is the last chapter. It all comes to a head. Jonah has been wildly successful, and yet God sees that there remains a lingering self-centeredness in Jonah. He is still thinking it is all about him—his emotions, his sense of self-control. He is entitled, and if things do not go the way he wants them to, he gets angry. So much so that he begs God to take his life, without realizing that God already has. God already has taken his life, and made Jonah an instrument of His Mission, fulfilling His purpose for making Jonah. And what is God’s concluding lesson to Jonah? It is in these words: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
God drills directly to the recesses of Jonah’s heart, and uses his professed love for the plant to convict him of a love that is narrow and compartmentalized. Yes, love the plant, God is saying, and should not my other creatures be loved as well, that they may know my presence is with them, like I am present to you?
Brothers and sisters, Ninevah is all around us in Tazewell County. And as we continue to learn how to love the residents of Tazewell County as God would have us love them, practicing obedience to Him, which means listening through prayer, let us not flee from our calling, as Jonah fled from his, but embrace with strength and courage God’s answer to our question, “Lord, why were we born?” That indeed we might continue to be given back to the world as agents of the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord as He lives and moves and has His being in all His people, in all His creatures, both great and small. Amen.