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Sermon preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (16 August 2015) by the Reverend Rosemary Morton, Minor Canon and Succentor
The Reverend Rosemary Morton looks at the story of Jonah and the whale and says "perhaps we are more like Jonah than we like to admit."
The story of Jonah and the infamous whale, which we heard in our first lesson, is one familiar to many people, and a firm favourite for Sunday School plays and re-enactments. It is one of the shortest books of the Old Testament, and presents a fast paced story for the reader.
Jonah hears the word of the Lord, which comes to him and tells him to go to the city of Nineveh and cry out against it as he has seen the wickedness of the people and is displeased. But Jonah isn’t inclined to do this and instead flees in the opposite direction. If you knew anything about the people of Nineveh then you might have done the same in Jonah’s position.
The Assyrian people were among the most feared people anywhere in the world, their brutality and atrocities were widely known, and Nineveh was their capital city. Jonah recognises that the delivery of God’s message to the people of Nineveh will give them the opportunity to repent and be saved – which, in his opinion, they don’t deserve. They deserve, he feels, to perish because they had been so unmercifully violent and because Israel had suffered so much at their hands.
It wasn’t fair – but what Jonah failed to recognise was that there is a difference between fairness and justice. Jonah doesn’t believe that any act of contrition from the people of Nineveh can wipe the slate clean from a lifetime of evils. That God could, and would, forgive such incredible wickedness as Nineveh represented is testament to God’s compassion for all people and the forgiveness that is freely available to all who repent.
The current migrant crisis that fills the front pages of our newspapers at the moment is, in some ways, connected to the story of Jonah. This on-going situation has been presented afresh this week in the news, as it became known that the BBC programme ‘Songs of Praise’ is filming a segment of the programme in the church in the migrant camp in Calais. Headlines of outrage have graced the front pages of the newspapers; how dare the BBC waste license-payers money on these people?
We’ve been whipped up into a state of panic over migration, which no amount of reassurance that the number of refugees in the UK is in fact low and falling, and that we take by far the lowest quota of refugees in the European Union, will dissuade us from.
The rhetoric about migrants and asylum seekers has shifted, from compassion to fear. Recent newspaper articles have described the camp in Calais as a ‘lawless migrant ghetto’, a ‘sprawling tent-city’, as ‘notorious’, ‘dusty and disease-ridden’ and the people as ‘an army of migrants’ who will ‘stop at nothing to sneak illegally into Britain’.
The fact that people are arriving from nations suffering war, tyranny and devastating climate change doesn’t seem to jolt us into being able to treat our fellow human beings with compassion and dignity. Instead, we seem to believe that ‘we’ need protecting from ‘them’.
We are told on the one hand that migrants are a problem because they work too hard and take all our jobs. And on the other hand we are told they are too lazy to work, so they’re draining the benefits system. Both can’t be true – but both feed into the rhetoric of fear.
Jonah lets his personal feelings about the Assyrian people get in the way of his mission to the city of Nineveh that God wants him to undertake. There was a tendency amongst the people of Israel to regard their election as God’s people as solely conveying privilege on them, but this was a misunderstanding. God had chosen Israel to be his servant and had laid on them the obligation of speaking to the rest of the world about God’s love for them and the meaning of God’s salvation for them.
Jonah represents Israel running away from its task – that it should overcome its narrow nationalism and particularism by declaring God’s grace even to the people of Nineveh who seem so unworthy. No matter how much we may, like Jonah, desire to put God in a box to be manipulated according to our interpretations of justice and mercy, it is simply not possible.
God upsets the perceived order of divine providence by saving Israel’s enemies. Jonah, on the other hand, desires an orderly, unilateral application of the divine plan – that God’s mercy is only for Israel.
Perhaps we are more like Jonah than we like to admit. What are we afraid of? If we watch the BBC episode of Songs of Praise filmed in the makeshift church in Calais, despite what the papers tell us, what we might actually see is people who in lots of ways are just like us, people whose faith is integral to their way of life, real people whose lives have been destroyed by political decisions made in the west by the politicians that we elected, people who just don’t fit the stories and stereotypes that we have been told are true.
The truth is that God’s love and compassion and grace is freely available to all people and not just to those who we think deserve it. Just as Jonah had a responsibility to take God’s message to the people of Nineveh, perhaps we have a responsibility in this time to speak the truth about those most in need in our world.