January 31, 2021
Prayers From the Belly of the Whale
From somewhere between panic and despair, Jonah prays to God from the belly of a mythical mammal. From a mindset of distress, he laments “out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” When you read the word Sheol, in the Hebrew scriptures, think of it as the deep place to where bodies go, never to leave. It is not a shadow life. It is not a hell—not a place of punishment. Sheol is the location of death. Jonah begins his prayer—his psalm— in verse 2 , “I called to the Lord out of my distress and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”
This is the second sermon in a series of four that Pastor Jon and I are presenting on the Book of Jonah. One chapter a week for four weeks. This Sunday also coincides with our 29th Annual Congregational Meeting, and it has been my practice to preach a state of the church sermon on this day. This is why I chose the sermon title “Prayers from the Belly of a Whale.” Jonah thrown overboard and swallowed by a beast is a more than apropos meme for our year together as a church community.
2020 was the most challenging year in the life of our congregation. September 11, 2001, and the days after, were a terrible shock and a dreadful period of time, but in the past year we were besieged by a reckoning with racial injustice in our country, we were overwhelmed by a deadly virus, and the foundations of our democracy and the institutions of our republic were seriously damaged by a four-year assault, which reached its pinnacle at the January 6, Capitol building attack. The Book of Jonah is in the literary genre known as comedy. Our last year has been a tragedy. We should not allow ourselves to be desensitized. It’s been rough.
Jonah was commissioned by God to go to Ninevah, the capital city of an enemy state, to preach to them. Jonah hated Ninevites and got on a ship going the other way, as if he could run away from God. SATIRE. After a while, a giant storm, sent by God, was tossing the ship like a toy boat while Jonah was sound asleep down below in the hold. Really? Humor. The captain of the ship and the sailors had all prayed to their Gods to no avail, and they figured Jonah and his God were the cause of the unnatural storm, and they confronted him. Ridiculous! But also, a nod to the power of the one God. Jonah confessed that he was running away from God, and he told the sailors to throw him in the sea, highly improbable and really, quite hysterical.
The children of ancient Israel were rolling on the floor laughing when their elders told them this parable, and I am sure that in many cases it was embellished. Telling a holy story is a craft. If we can laugh at Jonah, we can find healing.
Jonah was written after the exile, when the people of Israel were forced to live in Babylon after a crushing invasion, and they had no temple, no central place for their faith, no place to conduct their rituals. The exile was a time of trauma, disorientation and soul searching. The faith of Israel could have been extinguished by this forced migration, this imprisonment in a foreign land, instead, it turned out to be a time of re-evaluation, theological innovation, and regeneration. To live in Babylon was to live in Sheol, and yet books of the Bible, songs, psalms, and poems were written and collected from oral tradition. Scripture was woven together and edited. It was this near-death experience that gave vitality to the Jewish faith. Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the whale was the prayer of the people of Israel, the people of the exile. “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple? The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me.”
The mention of flood waters in scripture almost always give testimony to personal and corporate anxiety, fear, fatigue, depression, and grief. Pastor Jon and I, and the staff, and Session, and the Board of Deacons are acutely aware of the many stresses that have been placed on the individuals, the households and the families that make up our extended community. The story of this last year is that you as a congregation and a community have worked mightily to take care of each other. Not every contact has been completed, but we sure have tried; not every conversation has been as healing as maybe it needed to be, not every program has been perfect, but, you know, like they say at the beginning of the plane ride—make sure you have your own oxygen mask on before you assist others. Because if you pass out, you can’t help anybody else.
In extraordinarily heavy times like this, prayer is your oxygen mask. “Prayer – I don’t have the energy to pray,” some will admit. “I’m at my wit’s end.” And that is why we read the prayers in scripture, like the psalm in Jonah chapter 2. God what is up? You have cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas. Verse 3: “and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and billows passed over me.” If your prayer life rots right now, try to read a psalm a day. Don’t waste your time trying to conjure up what Presbyterian elder and author Anne Lammot calls good china prayers, use other people’s prayers.
We can’t figure out exactly how many people are in church praying every Sunday, but every piece of data seems to point to the fact that worship attendance, this year, was up by at least twenty percent. I know that, like the Israelites in exile, we can’t look at the temple—well actually theirs was destroyed, ours is still standing—we (most of us) can only look at the sanctuary on screen and that, on most Sunday’s, this is a far less satisfying experience than gathering together. On the other hand, thanks to your generosity and an awesome worship ministry, music team and tech team, we have put together this year a livestream ministry that is here to stay. And in the future, even when worship is in the sanctuary (and yes that will happen), when you are sick or running late, or the little ones just aren’t having the greatest morning, even when it snows, you will always be able to attend worship by YouTube and Facebook or Zoom if we need to.
Generosity is a spiritual discipline and a gift of the Holy Spirit, and I am grateful to you for your support of our mission and ministry. I haven’t done tireless research, but I’m 99% sure that this was best the year of giving that Ark and Dove has ever had. Now don’t fall backwards please, but just know, that we exceeded expectations in offerings, and we flew off the charts in designated special mission giving and in-kind giving like food for hungry families. Check out schedule M in the annual report. M for mission.
One of the early miracles of the pandemic was that the county was calling Ark and Dove and asking us for sewn masks for at risk communities, and every time I sent out a request for more masks, to some dedicated members and friends, we got all the masks the county, and some public and subsidized housing complexes, asked for. It was like loaves and fishes.
You know you are little bit nutty; you know you are some crazy, faithful people, and you have some bold leaders: when your Session decides that instead of hunkering down and lying low and waiting out the triple pandemics, you call together a Long Range Planning team. You hire a consultant. You take a wide swath survey, and you lay down the path for ministry for the next three to five years. We are going to talk about the Long Range Plan for a few minutes tonight.
You know you are a faithful lot: when, like Pastor Jon and I both said in our Arkive letters, you decide to take on new ministries in the midst of national turmoil, and you commit to drawing God’s circles of love ever larger by becoming both a Matthew 25 Church and a More Light congregation. You are unyielding in your commitment to racial justice and social equity. You that are white, keep doing the work you need to be doing, deep internal spiritual work, and you have been saying aloud in banners and peaceful protests what needs to be said—that Black lives matter. It’s not that blue and white lives don’t matter—it is that people of color have been terrorized for 400 years on this continent, and we will not stand for it anymore; come learn with us. And you are now publicly stating what you have quietly whispered for twenty-five years, that you are open hearted and open minded, that LGBTQ+ people are not just family, but part of our family, and we will affirm them as children of God and support them in their journeys.
One of the deepest sorrows of the past year has been to watch many of our children and youth struggle with the devastating isolation there is, in these COVID times. We have seen the tears in the eyes of the parents. We have heard the anguish in their voices. We have retooled ministry as best we can in Logos, Youth Group, and Godly play. I am deeply appreciative for each one you who has led these innovations. As Jonah says in verse 7, “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” I am deeply appreciative for each one of you who has offered a listening ear to a child or a youth or a parent or a fellow member. A key path to healing, from the trauma we are witnessing, is to give people the time and place they need to tell their story. Whenever you listen, you become a conduit of God’s grace, and you hasten the day when spiritual and mental health will be improved, and hearts will be made whole. Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward says, “The falling becomes the standing. The stumbling becomes the finding. The dying becomes the rising. The raft becomes the shore. …. We discover our real life, which is always a much deeper river, hidden beneath the [challenges.]”
Thank you, Ark and Dove, for Zoom meetings and gatherings. Thank you for book groups, teas, craft groups and Code Names. Thank you to Deacons and Stephen ministers. Thank you for a virtual new members’ class and for prepping for virtual communion. Thank you for The Lobby and feeding the hungry. You could be the church limping and listless, but instead you are the church dreaming and doing. Robert J. Wicks says in his book Bounce, “The ability to learn from, and not be crushed by the challenges and stresses of life” is called resilience. That is the state of our congregation: battered but resilient.
Eventually the whale will release us; I think maybe we can see it on the horizon. Though the horizon sometimes seems to sneak further away. The whale will spew us out, onto the shoreline, different people than before we were swallowed up. When you have been tossed around on the seas, and you get to land, sometimes you find it a little odd and a little hard to walk like normal, then you find your footing. The more we tend to each other in these next few months, the more we hold each other up, the more we lend the open heart and listening ear, the more we remember that, after the cross, Jesus was utterly separated from God for three days before his resurrection, the more we will find that God has worked through us, the easier it will be to stand.
Funny thing about this prayer of Jonah, even while he was in the belly of the whale, he declared that God had already heard his voice. Even before he was spewed out by the fish, he told God “yet you brought up my life from the pit.” He prayed like it had already happened. I heard someone on PBS one time say that, “Resilience is the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe.” Jesus has a prayer for us in the Gospel of John, a prayer for catastrophes and adversities. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives [so] do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” Each instance that we bind ourselves together in ministry, we, by our work, are offering this prayer. Do not be afraid of Sheol, for on the third day he rose.