The Worst Alternate Ending Ever

The story of Jonah

Sermon by Ken Sehested

      Along with the weekly columns for my online journal, I’m also slowly adding other material I’ve written in the past. Back in February I decided to add four columns I wrote for the Asheville Citizen-Times a dozen years ago: one just prior to my last trip to Iraq and three written while I was in Baghdad. I left on that three-week trip in early February 2003, shepherding the last group of volunteers with Christian Peacemaker Teams to enter the country prior to the US “shock and awe” invasion.

      One of the most unusual stories from that trip started with dinner one evening at the hotel where I stayed. I sat down to eat with Charles, another team member, who had been in Baghdad several weeks. As we finished, he casually asked me, “Would you like to go bowling tonight?”

      Bowling? In Baghdad?! On the verge of a massive invasion?!? (“Bowling in Baghdad” sounds like a Jon Stewart Daily Show skit.)

      My new friend Charles, a professional photojournalist, had gotten to know the neighborhood where we were staying, on the banks of the Tigris River as it runs through Baghdad. He had discovered, just a few blocks away, a small two-lane bowling alley, and he’d been there several times. I said “sure!” and off we went.

      Thankfully one of the lanes was empty, so we were able to start immediately. Midway through our first game I noticed that the three Iraqis in the lane next to us were quite good. One in particular. He kept rolling strike after strike. After our second game, I nudged Charles and said, “Did you see how good this guy is?” Charles said, sure, I met Akmed here before. He’s a former Iraqi national bowling champion.” I was floored. I had no idea Iraq had bowling championships.

      I whispered to Charles, “Do you think Akmed would be willing to give me his autograph.” “I think he would,” Charles said, who walked over and said something to one of the other Iraqis who spoke English, who then relayed my request to Akmed, who then smiled brightly at me. I began looking around for a piece of paper for his signature as he walked over to a desk near the door, opened a drawer, pulled out something which seemed to have a string attached. And he was writing on it as he made his way back to me, where he then handed me this medallion. Turns out it was one of his bowling medals. Nothing fancy—he probably had a bunch of them. But he signed his name on the back, and he gave it to me.

      I thought of this story, and the story of Jonah, our text for today, after reading that in 2014 the Jihadist group known as ISIS had blown up the Tomb of Jonah in the city of Mosul, the largest city of northern Iraq.

      Mosul, the modern name of the ancient city of Nineveh, the very place to which the prophet Jonah was sent by God. Mosul, where until recently Chaldean Catholics had worshiped continuously for nearly two millennia. (Tradition has it that Thomas and Thaddeus, two of Jesus’ apostles, traveled to this region and started a new congregation in the first century C.E.)

      The story of Jonah is among the most recognizable in all of Scripture. It’s that whale that made him famous—though the text only says Jonah was swallowed by a “large fish.”

      The Book of Jonah is among the shortest in the Bible, a total of four chapters, two pages in the edition I use. It’s also one of the funniest books in the Bible; but the humor is so understated that it doesn’t come through—a modern production of the story would surely have a laugh track played at several points in the story.

      Since most people generally only know the first chapter, let me do a quick preview of the whole narrative.

      The book begins abruptly—in fact, every change of scene is abrupt and provides minimal detail. Without explanation, it begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’” The story’s original hearers would have boo-ed and hiss-ed at the speaking of the city’s name. Nineveh! Capital of the hated Assyrian empire which destroyed Israel, wiping its people from the pages of history.

      By the way, the Hebrew phrase translated as “the word of the Lord” is devar Ha-Shem, which literally means “The Name.” The Name came to Jonah.

      Jonah’s response was nothing like that of Peter, Andrew, James and John—Jesus’s disciples—who when called immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus as instructed. Jonah, on the other hand, immediately booked passage on a freighter headed for Tarshish, in the opposite direction.

      By verse four of the first chapter we learn that The Name stirred up a great storm which threatened to sink the boat Jonah was on. The sailors “each cried to his god”—this was a pious group—and began tossing cargo overboard to lighten the load. They also decided to interrogate this Hebrew passenger who, the story says, was still asleep in the hold. Over the course of several verses of conversation, the sailors come to know that Jonah worships The Name, and that Jonah is somehow at the center of this storm. Jonah admits he’s the guilty one and invites the crew to toss him overboard to save their necks.

      Against all odds, Jonah didn’t drown, but was swallowed by a large fish, which, in utter brevity, the text says was actually arranged by The Name. (This is one of several places in the story which should have the sounds of a laugh track.) That’s the last of chapter one.

      The entirety of chapter two is a prayer by Jonah, who’s managed to find an air pocket in that fish’s gullet. “I called to The Name out of my distress, and The Name answered me. . . . The waters closed over me . . . weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Then the frame changes from second person to first: “Yet you,” Jonah says, addressing God directly, “you brought up my life from the Pit.” The chapter closes—without explanation or commentary: “Then The Name spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

      Chapter three begins simply repeating the original marching orders from The Name: Go to Nineveh. No threats. No warning. No cajoling. Just the mandate. This time Jonah obeys and sets out, covered in fish vomit, for the great and wicked city.

      Somewhere on the way to Nineveh The Name reveals the message Jonah is to deliver. And it’s the shortest sermon in history, a total of five words in the original Hebrew: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  Jonah declared to the residents. Again, no details. No explanation. No recitation of the charges. No long-winded harangue. No where to hide.

         With no transition other than a period at the end of Jonah’s threat, the text reports that Nineveh’s king repented and demanded all citizens to do the same. Again, there should be a laugh track after verse 8, when not only humans but all the animals (cue the laugh track) of the city are to be dressed in sackcloth and covered with ashes, the traditional ancient Middle Eastern ritual of penitence. The wording of this act of contrition is especially interesting. The text says “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (v. 8).

         Evil, a “spiritual” reality, and violence, a “material” phenomenon, are always and everywhere intertwined and self-reflecting. As we might say, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Each is indicative of the other. This is whey learning to live nonviolently is so central to our common life.

         Meanwhile, Jonah left the city, found a little shade, and sat down to watch the fireworks, waiting for The Name to unleash “shock and awe.” But, as chapter three ends, the text simply says “When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways,” God repented. Withdrew the threat. Called off the invasion.

         And Jonah’s reaction? Hallelujah! Thanks be to God!! A miracle has happened!!!

         No. Jonah was mad as hell. Threw a hissy-fit. Storms into God’s face yelling, “This is why I took off for Tarshish in the first place. I knew you are [quote] ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.*’” Jonah is angry because God has gotten soft on crime.

         [*This is actually a quote from Exodus 34:6, a refrain about God’s character which prophets and psalmists would return to over and over again.]

         This episode, chapter four, gets played out in a little drama where Jonah is depicted as little more than a petulant child. God causes a bush to grow to shade Jonah in his discomfort. But the very next morning God appointed a worm to eat the bush. That’s when Jonah’s pouting begins. God asks,

         “So, you’re angry about the bush-gone-bad?” (Cue the laugh track.)

         “Yes!” Jonah shrieks. (More laughter in the audience.)

         Then comes the punch line: “So, Jonah, let me get this straight: You’re angry about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. . . . Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, home to more than 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left?” Then—for further comic effect—“and also many animals?”

         It’s not fair! Jonah keeps repeating, bottom lip curled and poking out. It’s just not fair!! How many times I’ve caught myself repeating Jonah’s complaint when I didn’t get something I deserved—or when my enemies didn’t get something they deserved.

         One final story.

         Most mornings I end my breakfast routine reading the “Non Sequitur” cartoon in the morning paper. I don’t know anything about Wiley Miller, the cartoonist who creates the zany characters of his cartoon strip. But I’m quite sure he grew up in Sunday school, because more than a few of his cartoon strips assume some minimal knowledge of biblical stories.

         My all-time favorite appeared late last year. It’s a single-frame cartoon, with a spindly man in top hat and tails dancing and singing on the back of a whale headed toward the sun’s horizon. The caption’s brevity beats that of Jonah’s five-word sermon. Wiley’s is: “Worst alternate ending ever.”

         Any guesses as to what this means?

         I’m pretty sure Wiley has read the story of Jonah. And what’s behind the punch line “Worst alternate ending ever. . . .”? In this alternate version of the story, Jonah didn’t have to spend three days in the belly of that fish. Most spiritual formation happens in the depth of some stormy sea, somewhere down near the “roots of the mountains.” In this version of the story, Jonah didn’t even get wet, much less cry out from his very life.

         What’s more, in this alternate ending Nineveh disappears altogether from the story. There is no confrontation with wickedness and violence. Jonah doesn’t have to face his arrogance and pride—he didn’t have to encounter that One known simply as The Name, whose ways do not conform to human calculations and management, the One who refuses to be anybody’s good luck charm, to be any nation’s mascot. God may indeed bless American . . . or Papua New Guinea, for that matter, but not for the reasons we think appropriate.

         The worst alternate ending ever is a sarcastic take so much of what passes for “spirituality” these days, both the “new age” variety as well as the other, traditional versions. In this version, spiritual formation is reduced to positive thinking and happy-clappy sentiment. The challenge of Nineveh disappears altogether. You can ignore the fishy tale, the fleshly discomfort, the mandate to a kind of holy madness whose passion entails the welfare of enemies.

         You can choose to never go bowling in Baghdad. To never risk arrest at a Federal Energy Resources Commission meeting. To remain silent in the face of educational and health industries driven by profit motives. You can choose to fume against your neighbor rather than speak to them over conflicts of interest. Shun a friend, or a family member, or someone you know right here in this Circle, rather than risk a tempestuous conversation to clear the air. The risk of faith comes in all sizes; mostly in ordinary and routine occasions, occasionally in uncommon episodes. You can ignore the risk of being wronged, of being dismissed, of being emotionally or physically injured, maybe even the risk of death itself. These risks are all cut from the same cloth.

         The choices come in endless varieties, and we almost never get to pick which sets of choices we most want. All we can do is get ready.

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Benediction: Non sequitur is Latin for “it does not follow.” A non sequitur is a conclusion that does not follow from its premises. It comes, seemingly, from out of nowhere. The work of the Spirit almost always comes from out of nowhere, from a place beyond our predictions, market forecasts, national security strategies and political tailwinds. What we do here in worship is help each other prepare for and spot the Spirit’s movement in the world and provoke each other to enlist in the The Name’s mobilization. So go and live what you have learned.

Postscript: After this service a friend suggested that maybe this Wiley cartoon’s reference was from Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. The more I think about it, the more I think he’s right. (Don’t you hate it when a thoughtful listener undermines the central metaphor of your sermon!)

Circle of Mercy, 3 May 2015

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