Running…

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan and was focused upon the story told in Jonah 1:1-17. A video recording is above and a written manuscript is below. If you have any trouble viewing the embedded video in this post, you can also view it here.

The scripture is read in two places: 10:25-12:05 and 26:20-29:00.

The sermon takes place between 32:30-51:15.

On the run… Jonah is on the run. At least for now, he’s running continually. At least for now, he’s running with no end in sight. That being said, he may have his own end in sight. He ends up in danger in the midst of a terrible storm and then, worse — at least seemingly, for now — he ends up in the belly of a large fish.

Not great. How’s your morning run going, Jonah?

Running… I wonder, what did he think he was running toward.? I wonder, what he thought he might be running from? When we’re on the run — running from calling, running from responsibility, running from fear, running from possibility, running from vitality, an running from wholeness — these seem to be good questions. But honestly, sometimes we don’t even know. We don’t know what we’re running toward. We don’t know what we’re running from. We’re just running.

There are certainly times when we need to run from danger and what is harmful to us. And today, we express support for all people who feel this, know this, and need companions along the journey. We want to be here for you.

But sometimes, we also run from what is good for us, whole for us, grounding for us, and connecting for us. And we run from what is faithful for us. We sense a calling — perhaps just a glimmer, or perhaps something resounding obviously like a bullhorn — GO! — and we do not want to do it. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us uneasy. It calls us to stretch ourselves toward loving people we’d rather not love. It calls us to take on risk we’d rather not take.

On the run… Jonah is on the run.

Here’s something I love about the Book of Jonah: It’s so wildly satirical. It’s completely the top, and in some places, it’s wonderfully snarky. Biblical scholars believe all of this to be intentional. It’s a satirical story, dramatic and theatrical. And yet, it speaks right into a human experience that might be universal.

We have stories of running too.
We have stories of struggling too.
We have stories of inner conflict too.

As the Bob Marley song says,

“You’re running and you’re running,
and you’re running away,

You’re running and you’re running,
but you can’t run away from yourself.”

So in this story, Jonah ends up in the belly of a large fish, and he cannot run anymore. He can’t run from himself.

The story, of course, also aims to share that he can’t run away from God either. It’s not that God will force Jonah to do the calling that he’s currently shirking. But God won’t give up on Jonah either. We could look at this story and view God as capricious, endangering people through a storm out of anger or truly needing some kind of sacrifice to quell divine rage.

But really, I think this might be a story about God journeying with us when we want to do the opposite — run away from God in conflict and run away from the very neighbors that God is calling us to love. God keeps journeying with us in the most creative of ways, even in the belly of a large fish. Though the calling we’re receiving could difficult for us, it may also be for our benefit. It may also be for our growth and our wholeness.

As Dr. Michael Jinkins, one of my seminary professors used to say,

“There are some people for whom God must say, ‘The only way to save this one is to make a preacher out of them.’”

And there are lots of ways to be a preacher, by the way! So just because I’m the one up here wearing a robe and a stole, that doesn’t mean that couldn’t also be you.

Maybe our calling is saving us…  When we find ourselves in conflict with God, neighbors, and in our own internal world, that beckoning call to go, act, do, and love may also be a calling to turn around and live more fully, even if it stretches us, even if it invites risk.

God doesn’t give up on Jonah. God helps Jonah turn around, and God keeps beckoning and keeps summoning with that calling.

Interestingly enough, the calling is to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the prime city of the empire that will take the Israelites captive in the 8th century BCE. It is a calling for them to repent. In its most literal form, the word ‘repent’ means to turn around. Jonah has a calling to journey with Nineveh toward turning around.

Now in the belly of a giant fish, God journeys with Jonah and turns him around.

“There are some people for whom God must say, ‘The only way to save this one is to make a preacher out of them.’”

The calling is for Jonah’s benefit too.

When I think of a calling for my benefit, and along with it, a sense that I was in the presence of something much larger than myself. I have a moment that comes to mind. I think about a field in Marktoberdorf, Germany.

I think about how I marched to a field in a huff of anger and conflict, then departed with a sense of reassurance and wonder. I didn’t expect any of it, but it was exactly what I needed.

At age 23, I was on the verge of more than one major life transition. It was all a whirlwind of sorts. I was spending twenty days in Germany with the Cardinal Singers, the choir I had performed and traveled with for the last few years. With gratitude, we had been invited to participate in some prestigious competitions, most especially the Marktoberdorf Chamber Choir Competition.

And when I returned home to Indiana where I grew up… Whew. In ten days, I would then get married, and soon after that, I would move across the country to Austin, Texas. That would be the first time I had moved from home. I chose this… I’m the one who applied to seminary, and I loved choosing this seminary, but suddenly, on the Germany trip, I struggled mightily with the move. I knew I had to do this. No turning back. But I didn’t want to do it.

But what was I thinking?

I kind of panicked.

And I was also angry. I wasn’t ready to leave my friends, especially the people in this choir. We had created something incredible together over the last few years. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Do these kinds of friendships continue, or was I throwing that away?

I wasn’t ready to leave my church community. I had such a rich sense of belonging, and the people there had gotten me through so much. I didn’t know yet… What happens when people move across the country? Will I miss them too much? And will I miss out too much?

During a break in rehearsals, I departed for some time alone. I was infuriated about having to make these choices, potentially about losing so much. With deep frustration, I walked a pathway that was becoming increasingly familiar to me. It was a paved but often cracked, small road with gorgeous trees lining either side. Those trees with their vivid, green leaves lined the entire walkway until about a mile down the road, where everything opened up.

I had discovered this pathway about a week before and walked it many times since. The first time, I didn’t expect the opening, though each successive time was stunning in its own way. The shift was this: This road of trees suddenly opened to unexpected views. The Alps were in the distance on right, and a large, expansive field of wildflowers was on the left.

On this day, I think I was less interested in these, at least initially. I just wanted to be alone. So I walked and huffed. Then I turned left and stood in front of that field of wildflowers.

And I don’t know how to explain this, but something shifted, and I had an experience that felt very transcendent right there in the mundane moment of it all. And how to tell this story? Because in one sense, nothing happened, at least externally. There was no great miracle. Nothing fell from the sky. No supernatural action took place before my eyes.

But something happened internally. And it felt deeply spiritual. And I felt the presence of what I would call God, yet how do I name or describe what that means? Above all, I felt a sudden knowing. No voice fell from the sky, but if there would have been one, it would have said this:

There are people in Texas you have to meet, and without them, you will not fully be yourself.

Standing there, that is what I felt and quite suddenly, deeply knew. Something in me then rested in that knowledge, and the anger faded away. I trusted that it would be okay, even a gift to the ones I loved now, for me to become more fully who I was called to become. I knew that was calling me to Texas. I knew that was taking me to particular people in Texas.

And so I went.

When I lived in Texas, I thought of this experience many times. I even told the story a few times too. But I believe all of this resounded most strongly with me when I returned to Texas after the next move, which was to California.

At age 30, seven years after that experience in a field, I flew from Pasadena, California to Austin, Texas, returning for my ordination service. It would be held in a congregation where I did end up meeting an enormous amount of formative people in community.

One night before the service, I was alone in the upper loft of the house where we were staying with friends. I thought about all of this again. Then I wept with gratitude. It was overwhelming… I realized that the very next day, the church would be filled with people present to participate in ordaining me, and with the exception of two loves ones, to a person, the sanctuary would be filled with people I did not know until I made that move to Texas.

Having known them for years now, these were the kinds of people I could not imagine myself not-knowing. Every single person, and all the people collectively… It seemed that they were the fulfillment of that vision, the people I needed to know, the people with whom I would grow more deeply into myself… now with a myriad of names attached.

This was a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.

Whatever transcendence is… whomever that Beyond-Presence is… surely, this calls us toward a deep, rich love with names, stories, and commitments attached.

And sometimes, the calling is for our benefit.

Are you on the run?
Are you struggling?
Are you grappling with inner conflict — with God? with neighbors? with yourself?

God keeps journeying with you. God will keep that call resounding. What will it take to stop your running? What will it take to turn around and follow this calling into fullness? The belly of a giant fish? Something less dramatic (I hope)? This story? This community? This worship service? This sermon? Things that will happen later today?

Will it take a God who holds us fast?

I think it may take a God who holds us fast.

May it be.
Amen.

-Renee Roederer

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