Today I want you to hold two pictures in your mind—one of Jonah, and one of Simon, Andrew, James and John (who I’ll refer to as SAJJ). We are going to look at these two pictures and compare and contrast, play that game where you find the differences between them, toggle (that means go back and forth) between the prophet who when called ran as far away as he could go (and ended up in a whale’s belly for his trouble)—and the four fishermen, probably boyhood friends, who had settled down into a life they knew, fishing on the sea, until Jesus walked into their lives.
Yes, I know that I’m taking a preacher’s prerogative and using the WHOLE of the book of Jonah, (all four chapters of it)—but the story is so good, and so pertinent, and it inspired the sermon title, “You can run but you can’t hide.” And I think that is true for each of us, I think it is true for us as a church, and I think it is true for us as a country. We can run from what we know is right, we can run from the future that will surely come, we can run from the hard work (as President Biden put it as he stood before that reflecting pool on Tuesday night “To heal we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal.”). We can run, but we can’t hide. I feel like we are standing on a precipice, with the solid ground at our back, and the glorious, challenging unknown before us, and we have to make a choice—to stay safely on the ground, or to jump into the future, arms outstretched, ready to soar like the eagles, ready to trust in God’s call.
Because if you know the stories, of Jonah and SAJJ, when God calls, you can run but you can’t hide. When God calls, it isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth ride. When God calls, and you mess it up, God calls you again, and again, and again. Whether you flee at first, or drop your nets and follow, God is persistent, and insistent. Come, I want you. Come, I need you. Come, for together we must do something with our world.
And that’s the most obvious difference in our stories today. Jonah is solitary. One man, as many of the prophets are in our stories. Jonah on his own. Jonah on the lam. Jonah not telling the truth about his life and getting his compatriots into trouble. Whereas, SAJJ are a group. Two groups of two. Two groups of brothers—about as close as you can get, without being identical twins. Jesus calling Simon and Andrew, James and John. A community from a community.
It’s funny where ideas for sermons come from—the idea of Jesus calling a community from the very beginning came from the footnotes in our hymnal as I was looking for hymns based on our gospel for the people who only worship at home, and with words on a page. And it struck me, Jesus didn’t just call Simon, and then Andrew, and then James and then John. Jesus, in this version, calls Simon AND Andrew, and a little ways on James AND John. It is as if we are to make note that the call of God comes to us, not me, but us—us as a community.
And I saw community everywhere this week, even though we are still in this frustrating, scary, weird pandemic time. I saw community in the memorial service at the reflecting pool—the first time that we as a nation had acknowledged the loss of more than 400,000 (400,000!) lives, lives gone as of now, with more to come.
It touched our hearts, it brought tears to our eyes, because we had been solitary in our grief, and now there it was, a moment for us to grieve together.
I saw community in the Inauguration with its poofy ball gowns, and sleek Chanel pantssuit, and downhome jeans, with purple and periwinkle, and cranberry, and black, and beige, and zig-zag mittens.
I saw community in a young poet who proudly defined herself as a “skinny black girl” at the same lectern as the oldest white man to ever assume the Presidency.
I saw community in the Inaugural Service at Washington National Cathedral held on Thursday (so almost no one was watching) where it truly was an ecumenical blessing—Christians of all stripes: Catholic and Eastern and mainline Protestant and Evangelical; and then Jewish and Muslim, Indigenous, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and I’m sure a few others I didn’t catch—using their own words, their own ways, even their own sacred languages, to lift up prayers that we ALL have: prayers of healing, prayers of thankfulness, prayers of blessing and prayers of supplication, that our country be able to find a core, be able to care about one another, be able to crawl towards a perfect union, together.
Union. A funny word. It doesn’t mean sameness. It doesn’t mean indistinguishability. It means commonality. It means community. It means finding the things that you share—and standing on those. Take SAJJ for instance. I’m sure they had lots of disagreements. But they had a lot in common. They knew the beauty of the lake at sunrise. They knew the odds of getting back to shore if you got caught by a sudden storm. They knew that if you got a huge haul, your friends, your brothers, your fishing fraternity, would come to help.
That’s what I hear when Jesus calls the community on day one of his ministry. Yes, Jesus knows that they are different people, with different strengths and different weaknesses. But Jesus wants them to find their togetherness—even if it is in following the same one, listening to the same voice, wrangling what that call means, for all of us.
And while we are looking at these pictures, of Jonah and SAJJ, and seeing the differences, let’s also see the similarities. When Jonah hears God call, Jonah knows who is calling. When SAJJ are at their boats, it is a flesh and blood person, willing to show his face, and say his name, and pay the price. We do not follow a God who shows up anonymously on the internet, but one who from the very beginning claims “I am who I am.”
Here’s one more similarity (a more unsettling similarity). You see, those of us who are hearing God’s call, don’t always like the way God works in our world. Jonah runs away because he is afraid. He is afraid that he will speak to Nineveh and they will listen. He is afraid that the people of Nineveh (who he doesn’t like) will repent, will do what God asks and that God will forgive them. Do you hear that? Jonah runs because he doesn’t want to participate in God’s mercy to others. Jonah runs because he wants to hold onto his own (false) righteousness. Jonah runs because he doesn’t want to have to do what being in a relationship with God ALWAYS requires of us—to change, to grow, to forgive, to move on.
And if we remember where SAJJ will end up, if we remember towards the end of their story, they don’t want to hear about God’s plan either. They don’t want to have to rearrange their perspectives to include women, or tax collectors, or lepers, or Samaritans.
They don’t want to hear about things taking longer than expected. They don’t want to hear about Jesus’ death. They don’t want to hear about something strange called resurrection.
We can run but we can’t hide from the call of the One who created us in our mother’s womb, and who loved us before we drew breath, and who knows each and every one of our names, and who wills us to be something more than we could ever dream. And we can run but we can’t hide from the knowledge that there is more to do in our world, there is more to do in our community, there is more to do in our church, there is more to do in ourselves. We can run but we can’t hide from the undertow of God’s love for this planet, God’s love for all the inhabitants of this beautiful earth, God’s desire that we beat our swords into plowshares, that we repair the breach that has been torn in the fabric of so many lives, that we bring good news to those who so need it—to feed the hungry, to bring release to captives, to open the eyes of the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim God’s jubilee, a time when the world gets turned upside down and right side out, when debts are forgiven, and everyone starts anew.
I know why Jonah ran. Just as I know why SAJJ followed. They are both human nature. We get caught up in the vision. And we are skeptical, or tired, or stuck in our ways, or unwilling to do the hard work to let God’s message get to those we don’t like. And this is where I am so glad it is not all up to us. I am so glad that we don’t have to do it alone. We have each other—so that you lift me up when I’m down, and I’ll return the favor. And we have God, we have the one who breaths out the call in the first place, the one who lets us run even to the ends of the earth knowing we can’t outrun love, the one who picks us up, dusts us off, and pushes us out the door to try again.
I hear this word as a call to our little beloved community, UPC. It is a call to find ways to be a community even in this time of separation. Now some of us, who have the skill, or the means, or the will or all three, we have found community in these zoom gatherings (and our facebook links). But there are those among us who are not part of this—we are trying to reach out as a church—but let me charge you—if you know of someone that you have not seen, call them, write them, pray for them (by name).
I hear this word as a call to our little beloved community, UPC. We have the remarkable gift of being truly diverse—in age, in race, in gender, in so many ways. We have this time when we are all together (like castaways on a desert island). We have used this time to get to know one another better. We are planning to open up some more times for people to share their stories, and to talk about the future, what is possible, what we want, what God might be calling us to be. I invite you to participate, in whatever way you can. And if you have ideas about what else we might do, what else you might be willing to do, don’t be silent.
I hear this word as a call to our little beloved community, UPC. We can run but we can’t hide. We can’t hide from the hard work it takes to figure out how we love old hymns and new praise; how we have a hue of faces stepping into our pulpit on Sundays; how we create something that is US and no one else; what it is that we want to get to, and how to chart a path to get there. We can run, but we can’t hide: Hiding doesn’t work with God. As the Psalmist says, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Ps. 139:8-12)
I think Jonah and SAJJ can be helpful as we wade into the oncoming waters. We don’t have to be the same, we just need to find the bedrock on which we all stand. We don’t have to agree on everything, we just need to trust in the One who brought us to the dance. We don’t have to know how it’s going to work out, we just need to believe that if we follow the call, if we join with others who are following the call, if we point ourselves towards Jesus, that the Spirit will bind us together, and might even sweep us up in the whirlwind.
That is my prayer on this Sunday after Inauguration, this Sunday when we remember Jonah, we remember Simon and Andrew, James and John, we remember where we have been as streams of this church UPC, as we remember God's goodness in each of our lives. God of mercy, … hear our prayer.