Hear the sentiment of Jonah when he observes God has not destroyed Nineveh as was promised. After a treacherous sea storm, an attempt at suicide, a bout with a sea monster, and a then a desperate three day journey (made on foot in day) to speak the word of God’s doom to a heathen nation. Nineveh has heed and is making acts of repentance but not to Jonah’s satisfaction. Jonah says:

Lord! Is not this what I said while was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: For I knew when it really came down to it you are not just. You are a soft-hearted God: you are a ‘gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.’ I can’t live like this, God. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Paraphrase of Jonah 4:2)

The story of Jonah is a narrative about man whose personal faith is at odds with what he knows to be true about his God. He believes in God but cannot accept or reconcile what he knows, deep in his heart, is the essential nature of his deity: that God is hopelessly compassionate. The story opens with Jonah resisting God’s call. This is not unusual in the Hebrew Bible. You will remember that Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets all protested and tried to run away form God’s call upon their lives. But the character Jonah is different because he is trying to run, not just from the call but from the very presence of his God.

The first readers of this short story would have easily recognized Nineveh as the legendary and violent military power Assyrian city-state. A people known for their ferocity and brutality when conquering other peoples. Indeed Assyria was the greatest enemy of Israel and Nineveh was it Capitol. Jonah could only imagine what the Ninevites would do to this lone prophet on a “fools errand” for a foreign God.

It is not just Nineveh which Jonah wishes to avoid, but Yahweh. The first readers of this story, also recognize and identify with Jonah’s theology: Yahweh, their God, is confined to the territory and community of Israel. God is where they, “The people of God” are. So if Jonah can just get away from the territory of Yahweh he won’t have to deal with this perilous calling and the whimsical chance of his mutable God.. Jonah’s God does not only give desperate missions but does not always carry through on the just consequence. Not only does this God change his mind but “repents”! Who ever heard of such a God? Nineveh is east of Israel, the ship to Tarshish is headed west away from Nineveh and God.

Now, as modern people of faith, standing on the threshold of the third millennium, this kind of thinking may sound odd, if not primitive. Yet how many of us feel religion is simply what we do in Church or in the company of church folk or the minister? How many have a different ethic or set of rules which are applied in the market place, board room, classroom, social club or in our private (or secret) lives.

It is amazing the many intelligent people who think that as long as their behavior is private there is nothing wrong with it. Or those who claim to be religious who believe, if I do good deeds, support important charitable cause, how I live my life otherwise is not at issue. God is territorial in many religious people’s lives and it effects our spiritual health and the good effect of faith upon the world. It is like if I eat my vegetables I can eat all the sugar and fat I wish.

There are people of faith who, like Jonah, resent any idea that God expects them to express their faith in any context other than church. Not just being a witness, but any sense that their faith should influence their political, economic and social opinions or actions.

Stephen Carter, the Yale constitutional scholar and Christian layman, suggest in his book, Culture of Disbelief, that the matter of separation of Church and State is as much matter of social comfort as it is a constitutional matter. He suggest that the quickest way to kill a conversation is not telling an politically incorrect joke or even sharing a political view, but mentioning your religious faith. Carter writes, “The message of contemporary culture seems to be that it is perfectly all right to believe that (religious) stuff…but you really ought to keep it to yourself” (p 25) “Taking religion seriously is something that only wild-eyed Zealots do.” (p 24)

I think that the real tragedy in religion in America is that sensible people of faith have abandon public religion to “wild-eyed Zealots.” People who respect us often have no idea faith plays an important role in our lives. And we really don’t want they to know. Its too costly, its too dangerous, too risky to our social comfort. God does not really belong in that context. We are uncomfortable with a God who asks us to risk expressing a word or an act of faith in such a hostile environment.

So Jonah heads for Tarshish: away from Nineveh, away from God.. But on the sea in the storm he again discovers the God whose nature Jonah can not reconcile his faith and whose presence he cannot escape. Jonah decides that death is the only way to escape his God and has himself thrown overboard in a desperate act of assisted suicide. But poor Jonah is saved from death’s escape, as he is swallowed by a divinely prepared sea monster. And so an out done Jonah is forced to acknowledge, from what he calls “the belly of Hell” that God is everywhere, there is no escape! The Prophet Jonah now knows the truth so eloquently proclaimed by the Psalmist, David:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or Whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10)

Finally Jonah “gives in.” That is to say he acquiesced to God; he submitted his behavior but not his heart. “OK. I can’t get away from you so I’ll do what you want but I won’t be want you want.” But this acquiescence is just that, for Jonah is still resisting God’s call. He will do God’s will but he will not accept it. The people of Nineveh are certainly not important to him and he still cannot understand why the are important to God. The great tragedy of this story which ends happily for Nineveh, is Jonah. For the story is more about God trying to convert the people of God than a pagan city. For the truth to which God is constantly trying to convert the people of faith in any age is that John 3:16 is true! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.” Yes, God loves the world, or as Jonah said, God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.”

There are those we refuse to believe God loves even those whose behavior seems to us unworthy of love – and that truth should in effect us in anyway. Our criminal justice industry is fast growing with little investment in reform or rehabilitation. In our society today capitol punishment is too often sustained over life in prison, even when there is evidence of contrition or significant reason to doubt guilt. Like Jonah so many find it hard to accept that God loves those we may most fear, despise or hate; that what God wishes most is their redemption, their reform more than vengeance. God is not opposed to justice, but God is opposed to vengeance. But like Jonah it is hard for us to truly believe this essential and central truth of our Christian Faith about the nature of our God: that our God favors mercy. Why? BECAUSE GOD LOVES SINNERS! Parents of wayward children (especially parents who espouse principles of “tough love”) know best the truth of the great Christian hymn: “O love that will not let me go.” This is the love that would not give up on Nineveh or Jonah.

Now, I am a Vietnam battle veteran and I know the pain and anger of losing war buddies, wasted in combat in the flower of their youth. Additionally, over the years my family has been victim to house burglaries and also a mugging. My wife and I have lost a cousin to a brutal murder. I can tell you that there were many moments when in my heart I wanted nothing but vengeance; the worst that could be visited upon the perpetrators. And there are still times when I feel that kind of anger. But at some point in the pilgrimage of my grief, my Christian faith has pushed me to face the fact of vengeance, often disguised as a cry for justice. I believe a nation or a person can not be justice if vengeance and retribution is its passion.

In your bulletin is written a prayer ascribed to George Washington. In that prayer he quote the great prophetic passage from Micah 6:8: “What does God require of us but to DO justice and LOVE mercy.” One is to be our duty, the other our passion. Our duty may be to determine and act with JUSTICE, but it must always be done in the hard tension with a passion for MERCY. If retribution alone satisfies our hearts it is probably about vengeance and not justice. Remember, No matter what we feel, vengeance belongs to no one but God. But then I suspect the problem here is what Jonah knew all too well: that God cannot be trusted to carry out vengeance when repentance and mercy are an option! It is to this character of faith that God wants to convert Jonah, you, me and all the people of God. And so God keeps calling us.

Where are the places we dread sharing the good news. Where are the Nineveh’s in our lives in our modern lives? Where are the places, if I should mentioned them, which you would terrified to even consider sharing your faith? Where are the places you think it a waste to share the word of God? I think of Chuck Colson of Watergate infamy, who found his Nineveh on the dangerous and brutal cellblocks of a Federal Prison. After a storm of political and public humiliation and the “belly of Hell” that is prison he found his Nineveh. Because of his willingness to believe God loves criminals tens of thousands of prisoners are blessed to know God’s steadfast love through his Prison Fellowship Ministries.

This summer we buried from this Cathedral Church a priest, Charles Gilchrist. Father Gilchrist was one of the most prominent and respected politicians in the Metropolitan Washington area (Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia). Many believed him to be in line for Governor of Maryland. But about ten years ago he heard the call of God and he found his Nineveh among the homeless of Chicago and Baltimore. Today we have the saintly memory of a dedicated Christian life. Also there are many desolate, derelict and “bothersome” people (the type we pass on the street each day) who know of God’s love for them through thriving social ministries. All because Charlie Gilchrist went to his Nineveh.

Jonathan Kozol, the Jewish sociologist and distinguished author, tells of his study of the Bronx (New York), its desperate poverty. In his book, Amazing Grace, and in a sermon preached from this pulpit, he told of a little Church making a big difference in the heart spirit of a Bronx community, St. Ann’s. It priest is woman with a patrician pedigree and Ivy League education. The Rev Martha Overall was a successful lawyer on Wall Street. But one day she heard the call of God to go to Nineveh and what a great difference she has made in the lives of children and families. St. Ann’s is a place of happiness, resource and hope, spiritually and socially. And Mother Overall has found a new joy.

The difference between the people I have noted and Jonah is not the effectiveness of their ministries. But much more important, is that unlike Jonah these persons came to believe that God actually and passionately loved those to whom they were sent; and they minister more out of love than coerced obedience. We will not all be called to go to the Bronx. Yet, the prophetic message in the story of Jonah applies to us all. Our Nineveh’s, what ever their location or context, are the places we most fear to share our faith. Where is that for you? Maybe the place that frightens you most is the office or work place, country club, athletic club or at school.

Yet, consider offering to a colleague who is in troubled or is facing with frustration a professionally challenging situation: “I know this is a difficult case, or project or meeting you have tomorrow. I’ve been there. I’ll be praying for you.” When someone is struggling with their marriage: ” I don’t know the answer, but I do believe God cares about you and your marriage and so do I.” Or friends with whom we share socially in so many different ways – have we ever invited them to Church? “Won’t you and your family go with us to church this Sunday and have lunch with us afterwards?” Where is there in our social, family, political or professional circles that prejudice, bigotry or hate is tolerated. Are there places in your life where biased social values or demeaning jokes about nationality, religion, race, gender or sexual orientation are tolerated; are there places where polite deference is given to the denigration of others? Will you speak the truth of God’s love. Will you call for a change which leads to justice and respect? That witnesses to the love God has for all?

Truth be told, to some of us these kind of witnesses are as frightening as going to Nineveh. Yet like Jonah we may be surprised by the hunger and receptivity some will have to a word of faith. God is not limited to the confines of our comfort or faith. God may already be working in persons lives and your word of faith may be the missing ingredient God needs to inspire hope and faith.

I deeply believe that when God converts our hearts, the people of faith, to accept that there is no place beyond Divine love and redemption this world will be a different place. But we must be willing to surrender ourselves. Surrender ourselves not simply to the task of mission but to God’s love for us and the world around us.

In our tradition Holy Communion is like our “altar call.” It is the way we recommit our selves to God’s call and claim upon our lives. I invite you to come today, join with me and others to receive the sacrament of God’s love manifested in Jesus Christ. Come and let our faith refreshed. Come and find new courage…and then go out, in peace, to find your Nineveh. Amen.