It was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Will you pray with me?
God, speak to me, speak through me, if necessary, in spite of me, always beyond me that in everything you may be glorified through your son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever, Amen.
Where were you in 1965? This may be a mute point for those of you who were born after the fact or were too young to remember, but still I pose the question to those of you who can think back that far, where were you fifty years ago? More specifically, where were you when Dr. King led the marches to Selma, Alabama? Where were you, when riot gear was dawned by white police officers and Governor George Wallace refused to protect the black working class who were simply trying to gain what was ultimately theirs in the right to vote? Where were you? If your answer is anything but Selma, Alabama alongside Dr. King, then this sermon is for you.
Today we hear words from Jonah, familiar words from Jonah. We hear of Jonah and the story of the big fish and then again in the third chapter as we go to Nineveh. Nineveh, this city, is the New York City of the ancient world, I mean it took 3 days to get across the city on foot, but also the Las Vegas of the ancient world. Not a lot of good is coming out of Nineveh, and Jonah is called to go, to prophesy, and to fight the wrongs of his time.
If you’re anything like me you’ve heard the story of Jonah and the big fish countless times, especially in your younger days. We normally associate this story with a children’s fairy tale complete with a whale. I love how one commentator put it though, “So the story of this old prophet is much more than a whale tale. Its message is meant for those mature enough to understand the ways of God, and to face the ways we try to lay claim to God and God’s gift of grace.”
So what does this mean for 21st century Christians? Unless you’re Moby Dick you aren’t going to be encountering a big fish any time soon. But I think this story, this tale of disobedience and ultimately obedience to the will and grace of God is something we can all learn from, especially if we are called to go to some place like Nineveh, or Alabama during the crux of the Civil Rights Movement.
Jonathan Daniels was a white Episcopal seminarian at the time of the Civil Rights Movement. He heeded the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma and march to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights and equal protection under the law. After a protest that led to imprisonment he was released and headed down to the local soda shop to get a cold beverage on a hot day. “But barring the front [of the store] was Tom L. Coleman, an unpaid special deputy who was holding a shotgun and had a pistol in a holster. He threatened the group that was with Jonathan and leveled his gun at seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales. Jonathan Daniels pushed her down and caught the full blast of the gun. He was killed instantly.” Daniels’ death shocked the nation, and forced white moderates to join the fight against racial inequality in the South.
I tell you all this because I want to ask you a question, a question that is at the heart of our faith as Christians. What if your calling is to go to Nineveh? What if God has called you to go to a place like Selma Alabama? What if God is calling you to go to a place like Ferguson Missouri, or West Africa, or Palestine? What if God has called you to the slums of Detroit, or the streets of Birmingham? What would your response be?
You see we Christians who sit in the pews every Sunday, feel like we could certainly go to a place like Selma during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. We look at history with rose-tinted glasses and say, “Of course I would have gone when Dr. King asked us to give ourselves.” But deep down, we’re more content to sit here where it’s comfortable, where the blistering heat doesn’t cause us to sweat, where the systemic racism and subjugation doesn’t cause us any discomfort.
It is often said that 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in our week. I feel like that points us back to Jonah. You see Jonah gets a bad rap for being the person who disobeyed God and ran the other way, but I feel like we might be those people as well. We might be Jonah, scared to go to Nineveh, scared to face the problems of this troubled globe simply because it doesn’t fit well into our schedules, simply because we might have to get our hands dirty. It was Marcus Borg a theologian who died just this week who said, “Christianity’s goal is not escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better.”
Dear people of God don’t end up in the belly of a whale. Don’t end up going to Nineveh out of spite. Go because God has called you to share the sacred story of Jesus Christ, a man who changed the course of human history. Go to the places that need our love and care the most not for some heavenly prize but because God has called us to love our world and care for it accordingly. Dr. King had powerful words when he said, “It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
When I was in high school I attended the Youth Theological Initiative on the campus of Emory University. We talked about public theology, much like Dr. King was talking about in that quote. We talked about having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I challenge you all to do that today. I challenge you to look at our world through the lens of wrestling with the issues of our time and finding a way to combat injustice, inequality, and evil in whatever form it presents itself.
Don’t claim to go to Selma or Nineveh without actually intending to go. You saw what happened to Jonah. God is in the business of holy pursuit. God will follow you and beg you to follow God through God’s abundant grace. There is an eternal hope in being connected and saying here I am Lord, use me.
A few weeks back I took our youth group to see the movie Selma. Michele, Grace, Molly, and I all rode down to Boone to see this incredible film chronicling the three marches from Selma to Montgomery. We rode back in relative silence after the movie, trying to process what we had just seen. That was until someone said, “I can’t believe people stood by and let that happen.”
Holy people of God, don’t be the people your grandchildren talk about wishing you would have done more. Don’t be the people who history chronicles as people who sat on the sidelines. Go to Nineveh, go and see what God can do with a city that is in ruins because of sin, despair, and hate. For ultimately the only response we can have to God is, “Here I am, Lord, use me.” Thanks be to God, amen.