First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
August 20, 2017
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Jonah 3:1-5, 10-4:11
3:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So 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. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 10When 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.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, 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 many animals?”
A week ago Friday night, I rode my horse out across a dormant wheat field and up and down some gentle hills adjacent to that field. As I crested a hill and turned to the east, the moon broke across the horizon and greeted the Montana sky. It was a beautiful sight to behold as I sat in the stillness of the evening. I was drawn into the calmness as the moon greeted the landscape with a message of quite rest. As it rose into the deepening blue sky, I was blanketed with a sense of peace and comfort. I breathed deeply as I sat in the saddle. The essence of this beautiful evening seeped into my soul and I longed to let it carry me into the night for a time of gentle rest. In contrast, the sun was setting behind me, into the smoke filled sky with a display that accentuated the destructive forces at play in the parched forests to the west.
I should have recognized the juxtaposition of the evening sky as the moon crossed the horizon This moon had been witness to much that evening as it made it’s way across the land. It had already crested the horizon across the fiery scene at Charlottesville, Virginia. It had already been witness to the crowds gathering with tiki torches, Nazi flags, KKK emblems, guns, knives, sticks, baseball bats, antifa slogans, clergy marching arm in arm, fear, hatred, and prayers for peace.
The moon that I watched emerge out of that peaceful horizon had already been witness to a power that has been lying dormant for decades and has been awakened by the evil reemergence of the evil of prejudice, bigotry, and white supremacy.
But, that moon also shone down upon a church—a sanctuary, where clergy and laypeople from many different faith expressions, had gathered in worship and prayer…. in response to the hatred that was descending upon their city.
Inside that church, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries was being interviewed on live television when she was quickly rushed away. “They are coming to the church,” she was told. The angry mob was coming to the church. The essence of hatred and fear was surrounding a church. Sit with that for a moment.
During an interview that took place later in the week, Rev. Blackmon reflected on what it was like to be an African American woman inside a church surrounded by people bearing torches and shouting hatred to those inside. She reflected that she had seen Ku Klux Klan rallies before. She had seen churches intentionally burned before. Yet, church was where she had gone to draw her strength for that weekend. There was another source of strength in Charlottesville that night and it was centered in the church. Sit with that for a while.
Yes, there were two sources of strength in Charlottesville that night. One of them was filled with the essence of the Holy Spirit. One of them was filled with the essence of something else. We are called to breathe deeply of one of them… the one that empowered the people within the church to gather in prayer and worship in the face of unbridled evil and hatred—not as a way to hide from hatred and prejudice, but as a way to draw from the strength of the Holy Spirit of God.
But sometimes that Holy Spirit is hard to recognize. Where do we see it? How do we know it? As Christians, we confess that the essence of God, the Holy Spirit, is most fully known to us through Jesus.
When we turn to Jesus to draw upon the essence, what do we see? We see one who reaches out to those who are rejected by those in power. We see one who condemns violence and bigotry. We see one who reaches out to those who are shut out. We see one who reveals lasting power as that which gives of itself for the sake of others… all others, not just those of a certain race or creed, gender, age or ability. All others. We see one who enters into relationship with those the culture and politics rejects or dismisses. We see one who enters into relationship with the powerful and speaks the hard truth to that power. We see one who opens his arms in forgiveness, not easy forgiveness, but forgiveness that is revealed in its fullness as hard-hearts are broken open and evil ways are left lifeless on the way.
This is hard work, this business of following Jesus. But there’s a spirit that comes with it, a spirit of strength, of hope, of love.
Throughout this week, I’ve loved the peace of evening and morning rides across open landscape. They have become my own bush under which to hide from the vitriol of the world in which we live. They have been the place for me to decompress. As I look back over the week and some of my interactions with people, I realize I could have used a bit more decompression. I have a few apologies to make because, like our brother Jonah, I let the angst of the situation get the best of me. And it took the Holy Spirit working through a wise colleague to finish what my saddle Sabbaths had started.
There really is no escaping the fullness and the paradox of both the calmness and the chaos of this world. We need those sanctuary moments.
For it is in those sanctuary moments, under whatever bush we find rest and solace that the still-speaking, still-small voice of God can come to us and give us strength, show us the picture of what creation is meant to be. It is in the sanctuary moments of coming together as a people of faith, whether it be in a sanctuary in Great Falls or one in Charlottesville, that the Holy Spirit can and does seep into us and nurture us with the very essence of God. An essence that is longing to, not only surround us but to fill the world with justice and peace from sunrise to sunset of each and every day.
Thanks be to God.