Image Description: A person sits alone in the grass near some water.
This sermon was preached on behalf of First Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan and was focused upon the story told in Jonah 2. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
Early last week, before we began social distancing collectively, I had the occasion to meet two lovely people named John and Emil. They are both brothers of the Taize community. The Taize Community is an ecumenical Christian monastic community in the Burgundy region of France. More than 100 brothers live there from a variety of Christian traditions, and they represent 30 countries around the world.
They are known for a worship tradition that honors silence and repetitive singing as forms of prayer. They hold pilgrimages for people around the world and have a special calling to provide pilgrimage space for youth and young adults. Some years, they interface with tens of thousands of young people.
Have you ever attended a worship and prayer service with music from the Taize community? If so, you’ll know that the worshipping community is invited to sing simple, prayerful choruses repetitively and often with beautiful harmony. These choruses invite us to center ourselves in the presence of what is larger than ourselves — the presence of God and the presence of those who surround us as we sing together.
In many Taize-style worship services, there is also prolonged period of silence. Sometimes, this lasts as long as ten minutes. Have you ever sat in silence together in the midst of a community? If so, you know that we can become a bit restless. (“This is lasting a long time…” we might think.) But we can also enter a period when we feel a greater sense of meaning.
Silence is so rare in our world; it’s even more rare to practice it together as a group. Suddenly, we can feel connected to that which is larger — not only to what is ultimate beyond us, but also… to what is most foundational to us. Suddenly, we are connected internally with what matters most to us. We are also connected with our present circumstances: We ponder the gifts and callings that are a part of our lives as well as what is most difficult in our present life circumstances. In that silence, we are connected — and sometimes, confronted — with ourselves.
When I had this conversation last week, Brother Emil said something that I’ve continued to reflect upon. He said that people often describe Taize music and silence as heartfelt. They are “of the heart.” He added, “But ‘the heart’ is not always about feelings.” Continuing, he told us that the Jerusalem Bible, an English translation of the Bible, translates the Hebrew word for heart as “the real me.” Brother Emil said, “I love that.”
I love that too. Brother Emil said that he wants music and silence to bring people into connection with their real selves in the presence of God and in the presence of their neighbors. I found myself wondering… how many transformative ,internal experiences have taken place all over the world during the periods of silence in Taize-style worship services?
This month, the worshipping community of First Presbyterian Church of Dearborn is pondering the story of Jonah. In this story, we are also invited into that which is larger than ourselves. In this story, we are also invited into that which is most true to ourselves and within ourselves.
Jonah is definitely having this experience…
Last week, we explored the first chapter of the story. In that part of the story, Jonah receives a calling that he does not want to fulfill. God tells Jonah that he is to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the capital of the people that will eventually take the Israelite people captive. He is called to tell them to repent and change their ways.
And Jonah doesn’t want to do it. So he is on the run. He decides instead that he will flee to the city of Tarshish. When he puts this plan into place, everything goes wrong. He gets on a ship, and that ship is endangered when he, the crew, and the other passengers find themselves in a life-threatening storm. The crew determines that the storm has developed because Jonah is shirking his calling from God, so they throw him overboard into the sea. And Jonah prepares to die until… he is swallowed up into the belly of a large fish.
As I shared last week, I love how satirical this story is. It’s purposefully written to be dramatic and over the top. An outrageous, outlandish story somehow gets to the heart of universal aspects of the human experience. Have we not all been on the run at one time or another, and in a multitude of ways? Have we not also shirked our calling in a number of ways? Have we ever experienced the presence of God in situations we would never choose? Have we ever been moved in the heart? Toward the heart? Toward the real me?
Jonah is now experiencing all of these at once.
As I shared last week, Bob Marley has a song with these lyrics:
“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.”
Jonah can’t run away from himself or the God who refuses to give up on him.
Alone and silent (except perhaps for the gurgling of various fish organs) Jonah then prays in the belly of the large fish. Up to this point, in conflict with God, he has been resentful, afraid, and determined to be anywhere but Nineveh. Now, in communication with God, he gets to the heart of the matter. He gets to the truth of himself, the truth of the situation, and the truth of God’s steadfast love.
The real me.
The real God.
Jonah prays words of gratitude.
‘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.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, “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;
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
We might now expect that the heavens will part above the sea and some majestic, beautiful, sacred miracle might take place.
Perhaps it is a miracle, but it’s not like that. God speaks to the fish and it spews Jonah out. Jonah is now fish vomit. And guess what? The calling comes again. Immediately. Right at the beginning of the next chapter — chapter 3.
Jonah has emerged from silence. He knows who he is — the real me, the one who is troubled, yes, but also, the the one who is loved, yes — and he knows what he needs to do.
As we’ve all experienced…
There has been more silence this week.
Throughout our world, throughout our nation, throughout our local area, and throughout various rooms of our own houses, there has been more silence. We are practicing social distancing as best we can. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to do this, not only for our own health, but primarily and especially for those whose health and living situations are the most vulnerable. They are most susceptible to COVID-19.
There has been more clamor this week.
Throughout our world, throughout our nation, throughout our local area, and throughout the various rooms of our own houses, we have heard the panic. Perhaps we’ve heard it aloud on newscasts, or seen anxiety building on social media, or grappled with our own internal fears. I believe there is a difference between concern and worry. It’s not always easy to flip a switch and stop our worries, of course, or even our panic. We are especially going to need to take care of our mental health and the mental health of our neighbors. But concern is proactive with love toward ourselves and our neighbors. Worry zaps our energy and moves through our communities like a contagion. It even suppresses our immune systems. As we much as we can, and it’s not always easy, let’s privilege concern over worry.
There has been more love this week.
Throughout our world, throughout our nation, throughout our local area, and throughout the various rooms of our own houses, we have seen the ways that people practice love and care. In Washtenaw county where I live, there is a Facebook group for mutual aid. People are passing money to those who are losing income due to cancelations, and we are TP-ing each others houses! (Different meaning) We are passing along toilet paper to people who are low on it, and we are telling people where we’ve spotted it in stores.
Even in a time like this, love can abound.
So I wonder, even amidst the pain, changes, and uncertainties — especially amidst the pain, changes, and uncertainties — how can love abound? How can we quiet ourselves and connect with ourselves and our neighbors through this silence? What kind of inner transformation might you experience in the silence? How might we emerge differently from this silence?
The real me.
The real us.
The real God.
The real calling.
In the silence, in the clamor, in the love, God goes with us.
In the silence, in the clamor, in the love, we go with one another.
Even in a time of social distancing, we cannot truly be disconnected from one another. So call each other. Check in with each other. Share your resources with one another. TP each other’s houses! Love one another. Pray for one another.
And let the transformation happen.
My love goes with you in all of this.